Back in high school, Robert Isenberg was the only kid in homeroom following the war raging inside the former Yugoslavia. As he writes in The Archipelago: A Balkan Passage, his new book from Pittsburgh-based Autumn House press, combat was a world away -- yet it felt close at hand. One of Isenberg's classmates, it turned out, was a Bosnian refugee. Years later Isenberg, now a playwright and City Paper theater critic, decided to visit her. Along the way, he wrote a travelogue that showed "the aftermath of full-blown disaster," and the hope of renewal.
"We are all destined for extinction; even our memories will die," Isenberg writes. "But meanwhile, I must see that roofs can be rebuilt."
Americans know nothing about what's happening in the Balkans. What do you think is the most important thing we should know?
The Balkans really want to join the global community. The war is over for them. But what does peace look like? It looks complicated. They want to get out of their rut, and they're not sure how.
And the ethnic conflict, I think, is so misconstrued. These people are living right next to each other -- and the music, the language, the cuisine are all so similar. Those three things are a huge part of culture.
Every conflict, I think, boils down to economics, or power. It's never religion or ethnicity, really -- that's just a way to organize people on one side or the other. But it's easier for us to say, "Oh, it's been that way for 1,500 years, and that's why everyone is going apeshit," rather than look at economic factors.
How optimistic are you about the long-term prospects there?
I'm so bipolar. There are moments where I'm like, "We're all gonna get nuked one way or the other." But I'm consistently astounded at how kind people are -- and how much most people just want to go to work, have families, and get drunk on weekends.
Do you have future travels planned?
My hope is to keep going to countries that have had fairly recent trauma, and then re-expose them to the American public. I'm hoping to go to Laos. It's the linchpin of Southeast Asia, and it has the distinction of being the most bombed country in the world [due to spillover from the Vietnam War] even though it was neutral. Once we had a much darker investment in it -- but nobody today even knows where it is.