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Haunting stories of violence, faith and disconnection

Concordia professor and Booker finalist Josip Novakovich explores difficult themes in his new collection, which hits shelves January 10.
January 9, 2017

Short story writer, novelist and essayist Josip Novakovich was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013. Now, the English professor in Concordia's Faculty of Arts and Science is back with Heritage of Smoke, a collection of short stories published by Dzanc Books.

Heritage of Smoke by Josip Novakovich

“These often haunting stories of violence, faith, and disconnection make for a memorable voyage into a number of unsettled minds,” says Kirkus Reviews.

The following is an excerpt from A Wanderer.

Neda, a blue-eyed fourteen-year-old with a swinging black ponytail, was walking down Brothers Wolf Street in Vinkovci and posting black-and-white photocopies of a long-haired Persian cat. There was no need for many colors as the cat was white and would be so in a color photo as well. The cat evinced a pensive, perhaps angry and mistrustful expression, so that if a passerby read the text—A three-year-old female cat, lost. If you find Mimi, call . . .—he might think that she had deliberately run away. And that is what a middle-aged man said, startling Neda, in English. “Are you sure Mimi hasn’t simply run away?” She stared at the man’s thick, curly beard, his long salt-and-pepper hair, and the crow’s-feet around his hazel eyes.

“Pretty cat,” he said.

“I ran out of tacks.”

“No problem!” The stranger stuck the paper to the red bark of the fir tree by its resin. The tree could have been a good Christmas tree in its youth but was now shaggy, its branches drying out, and it bore scars of shrapnel from the war that took place a quarter century ago. The scars kept bleeding resin and failed to heal.

“Are you a refugee?” she asked him. “I’ve read a lot about refugees but I haven’t seen one yet. You look Syrian.”

“You could say that.”

“Why aren’t you in a group?”

“Maybe like your cat I left a group.”

“How did you get here?”

“Across the Danube and through the cornfields.”

“But there were warnings that the fields could be mined.”

“Of course, just to scare people away. How would you grow corn in a minefield?”

“Where are you from?”

The man rolled his eyes. His eyes were large and clear. “Wait a minute,” he said, “I see her!”

And just then, the white cat meowed on top of the weeping fir tree. “See, she’s not lost, she’s treed! She doesn’t know how to get down, and maybe she doesn’t want to.”

Now the stranger climbed the tree swiftly. Some of the thinner branches cracked as he stepped on them but he didn’t lose his grip. Neda feared that high up the tree would crack. The stranger gripped the cat by the scruff of its neck and climbed down. He didn’t look where his feet went, but they seemed to have an intelligence of their own. Even the little stubs of branches supported him, despite his weight. When the man landed on the grass, Mimi hissed, as though not recognizing Neda.

She grasped the cat and cried for joy, kissing its ears.

“Thank you so much,” she said to the stranger.

“Oh, nothing to thank me for.”

“Are you thirsty?” she asked, noticing his chapped lips.

“I can’t deny that.”

“Well, come home with me and I will give you a glass of water.”

Find out about more about Josip Novakovich’s writing process by watching his in-depth discussion with fellow Booker Prize nominee, Peter Carey


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