Courtney Angela Brkic: The Stone Fields

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Courtney Angela Brkic is the author of Stillness: and Other Stories, a collection of short fiction about the recent wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and of The Stone Fields, a memoir that intertwines her own family’s Second World War history with the bloodshed of the 1990s. Her work has additionally appeared in Zoetrope, The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, Harpers & Queen, the Utne Reader, TriQuarterly Review, The Alaska Review, and National Geographic, among others. Her translations of Expressionist poet A. B. Simic have appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation and she has contributed work to the anthologies Stumbling and Raging: More Politically Inspired Fiction and A Thinking Fan’s Guide to the 2006 World Cup.

Brkic is a native of Washington, DC. She studied Anthropology at the College of William and Mary and worked as a field archeologist in the eastern United States before receiving a Fulbright scholarship in 1995 to research women in Croatia’s war-affected population. She stayed in the region for several more years, working as a translator and for the United States Agency for International Development. In July of 1996, she volunteered as a forensic archeologist for Physicians for Human Rights in eastern Bosnia, then worked for the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague the following year. In 2001, she received an MFA in Fiction from New York University, where she studied under the auspices of a New York Times Fellowship. 

Stillness: and Other Stories was named a 2003 “Best Book” by the Chicago Tribune and a “Notable Book” by the New York Times. It was also selected for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Series. The Stone Fields was shortlisted for a “Freedom of Expression Award” by the Index on Censorship. Brkic has additionally been the recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She has taught creative writing at New York University, the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, and Kenyon College, where she held the Richard L. Thomas Chair in Creative Writing in 2006. Currently, she teaches in the MFA program at George Mason University and lives in New York City with her husband, Phil. She is at work on a novel, The Sun in Another Sky.

The massacre at Srebrenica in 1995, during which more than seven thousand people were killed, remains the most brutal act of genocide in Europe since World War II. In The Stone Fields, Courtney Angela Brkic, the acclaimed author of Stillness, recounts how she joined a forensic team working in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina. She excavated the bodies of people killed in the massacre, assisted pathologists with autopsies, and arranged personal effects for photographing. In those items—the hand-knit socks, mended shirts, and half-destroyed photographs—she found more than proof of indiscriminate murder, however. Where some saw only nameless victims, she discerned men with individual histories, as well as the families who were waiting for them. 

Brkic has woven together her lyrical elegy to the region's recent dead with her Croatian family's story. She tells of her grandmother's childhood in a Herzegovinian village surrounded by harsh limestone hills, her early widowhood and subsequent move to Sarajevo, and her imprisonment during World War II for hiding her Jewish lover. The saga culminates years later when Brkic's father escapes from Communist Yugoslavia. 

Stillness: and Other Stories

The war in the Balkans provides the striking backdrop for these emotionally resonant, morally challenging, and uplifting short stories. Brkic’s collection gives voice to people caught in situations beyond their control, as man, woman, and child struggle to survive and understand what it means to live beyond those you love. A man trapped in a cellar; a sniper overlooking a city street; a young woman whose father is convicted of war crimes. Each character challenges the reader’s notions of conflict by living lives of surprising self-awareness, deceit, and courage. 

Published in 2003 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux (US) and Granta (UK)


The Stone Fields

The Stone Fields
explores how the devastating consequences of war linger for generations; the book asks what it really takes to prevent the violent loss of life, and what we are willing to risk in the process. 

Published in 2004 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux (US) and Granta (UK) 

The Sun in Another Sky

Jadranka Babic’s disappearance from her cousin’s New York City household does not immediately panic her older sister, Magdalena. A free-spirited artist who had been working for their American relations as an au pair, Jadranka has always been prone to mysterious absences. And unlike Magdalena, she has never seen a future on Rosmarina, the isolated and rocky Croatian island where their family has lived for generations. But when Jadranka fails to contact her as she has always previously done, Magdalena fears that this disappearance is different. Leaving behind the familiar blue sea and pine forests of her Adriatic home – and the dying grandfather who has raised them from childhood – Magdalena sets off to New York to find her sister.

Once in America, Magdalena suspects that their cousin is hiding something. A successful gallery owner, Katarina and her family had left Rosmarina during her childhood for political reasons. And while a 1981 visit to the island had briefly reunited the cousins, it ended in disaster when Katarina – envious of Jadranka’s artistic talent – revealed that Magdalena and Jadranka do not share the same father. Although nearly twenty-five years have passed since that devastating interchange, Magdalena suspects Katarina of continued treachery. 

The question of Jadranka’s true paternity becomes central to her disappearance as Magdalena combs both Katarina’s Upper West Side brownstone and the grittier immigrant communities of Queens in her search. In Croatian neighborhoods, she shows her sister’s picture to grocers and gangsters alike, but nobody has heard of her sister. Along the way, she reconnects with her old lover, Damir, who had left Rosmarina in order to pursue a career in journalism, a defection which Magdalena has never entirely forgiven. 

Paralleling the sisters’ story is that of Marin Moric, their uncle. A former political prisoner, Marin had escaped Croatia before Jadranka’s birth. He has had no contact with home in years, believing incorrectly that his parents are dead. But when a mysterious young woman appears in his restaurant looking for work, he must confront the circumstances of his own departure from the island. 

Magdalena’s quest will take her from New York City to the wreckage of a burned house in New Jersey, forcing her to revisit the darkest chapter of the childhood that she and Jadranka share: a physically abusive stepfather and a mother who had been unwilling – or unable – to protect them. As Magdalena decides that her future lies on the island, she learns that she must accept Jadranka’s right to decide her own fate, regardless of the consequences. 

The Sun in Another Sky explores the legacy of political persecution in a place where beauty is fused inextricably with hardship, where nonconformity – especially by women – is stifled by cultural taboo, and where the lure of leaving is countered by the summons of family and home. Set both in Croatia and in New York, The Sun in Another Sky shows how the power of the past defines the lives of those who would remake themselves in a new world.



Book Excerpt: The Stone Fields


I placed a hand on his forehead, careful not to wake him, and let my fingers rest on the vein that pulsed in evening's thin light. Beneath the warm skin were the plates of his cranium, the sutures where entire continents met in his childhood and fused over the ocean of his mind. The gentle, breakable bones of his face were like china, or the hollow bones of birds. They were as fragile as calcified breath.

The flow of his blood was like water singing through rock, and in my concentration, I was only vaguely aware of figures standing on all sides of the bed. Lifting my head, I found myself looking through their bodies as through the fluid of memory; I turned them into glass and buried my face in him once again. Whether this angered or saddened them, I could not tell.
Wind from the open window made the curtains dance and crept over my naked legs.

Stjepan's vertebrae reminded me of dinosaur exhibits at a museum. There was something salamander-like about them. They started out small and graceful, and metamorphosed into the sturdiness of the lumbar region, where they were the trunk of a stout oak.

"Ribs are the tines of a cage," I recited under my breath, "and the sternum the thing that joins them. The sternum is variable: it can bow inward or out." It can have holes down its middle, tiny pinpricks, or be as smooth as the inside of a solid piece of bark. I brushed my eyelids against him, wondering what shape his had taken.

I examined his hand, which rested on my hip. Undone, it is a jigsaw puzzle, and reassembling it takes concentration and patience. I had been told that you get better with time. The skin on Stjepan's hip was taut and smooth. Although the pelvis is called the "innominate" because there is no other shape in nature that it resembles, the construction had seemed elephantine to me. Here you can discern a man from a woman definitively.

He stirred in his sleep. Soon—sooner than I would have liked—he would return to the base, and I would go back to my Zagreb apartment. I moved my right leg, which had become entangled in his. They had been like that in the ground, all arms and legs, and I shivered. I had not wanted to let that picture intrude while he held me, but it was inevitable, as was every memory of bones.

Stjepan sighed and stretched toward me in his sleep, burrowing his face into my neck. I continued to avoid the faces around the bed, realizing that his ghosts were vying with mine for position.

Months had passed since my return from Bosnia, but at times they dwindled down to moments, and now I looked at Stjepan, wondering if his ghosts looked the same to him. They started to bend their heads over us, as if attempting resuscitation, and I closed my eyes. I found that I could not bring myself to look at them from one day to the next.

A sudden change in breathing told me that he had awakened, and a moment later he wrapped legs and arms around me in a bear hug. He opened his eyes and looked at me solemnly, his breath making a few strands of my hair shiver as the curtains had done. My heart beat faster, and I smiled.

I wondered whether I would recognize him by his bones.