I read an excellent book last week: The First Rule of Swimming by Courtney Angela Brkic.
The novel tells the story of a postwar Croatian family scarred by war, the terrors of Yugoslav Communism, and the familial rending of emigration. I loved it for its haunted characters, for the way its vacillating narrative flattens the space between past and present, for its sense of place on Rosmarina, an imaginary island so visceral that it becomes its own character, and for its study of an intergenerational community that, like the island itself, glistens and sustains, even as it oppresses.
I can thank a friend and her book club that I read this novel at all. By coincidence, I’d seen it weeks before in the bookstore where I didn’t pick it up because the jacket whispered “romance novel” in an unfortunate misrepresentation of the richness inside.
I have never been a member of a book club. In fact, I remember ridiculing such clubs as a graduate student. While I’m embarrassed to admit that now, I’m not surprised I fell into academe’s elitism as a young student eager to prove my intellectual worth. Eventually, those feelings dissipated and the teacher emerged. As a teacher, especially of learning disabled readers, I value any group that encourages people to gather in pursuit of their literary interests.
But does that make a neighborhood book club a good home for an ex-literature scholar like myself?
So far, I haven’t thought so. If I were making my living through literature – as a writer, a critic or a professor – and I interacted regularly with a professional literary community, then perhaps it would be fun to also read literature more casually with a group of friends, family members, or neighbors. But as an ex-academic, the prospect of a neighborhood club as my only outlet for discussing literary interests has always sounded demoralizing.
Consequently, I’ve drifted for years somewhere between communities of casual and professional readers–alienated from one group by training and the other by lack of affiliation.
It’s not all so terrible as it sounds. As I’ve discussed in how I lost and found my love of literature and independent scholar? not so much, until this year, time and energy for significant amounts of literary or scholarly reading have eluded me anyway.
For this one day, however, I sat in as a guest in the unfamiliar territory of a book club because my friend had invited our writing group to come and meet the author. It was a privilege to speak with the lovely Brkic and hear about the heritage and family that inspired her novel. I also enjoyed the group’s discussion of characters Magdalena and Jadranka, two sisters working through very different relationships to their Croatian community both at home and abroad.
Afterward, I found myself thinking about exile and community, and I couldn’t help but let my thoughts wander to my own exile as a literature Ph.D., made more keen by my participation in the group that night. In the loosest sense, post-acs make up a diaspora of our own: scholars scattered to the wind, isolated from each other and alienated from our academic roots in the university.
That’s a little dramatic I suppose, and hardly the wrenching struggle that Brkic describes, but still it’s an interesting way of thinking about post-acs because it suggests we should connect with one another to preserve and cultivate our common interests.
In the spirit of fostering that kind of community, I’d love to hear comments from others who have read The First Rule of Swimming (and I encourage you to read it!) or other works, fictional or not, about postwar Croatia and its diaspora. I for one intend to read the author’s memoir, The Stone Fields as a follow-up to a novel that peaked my interest about a culture and history I know so little about.