Q&A with Dženana Vucic

A photograph of Dženana is superimposed on top of an ombre grey background. She is standing against a haphazard brick wall and looking into the camera. Dženana is wearing wire-framed glasses and a loose shirt in earthy tones and abstract graphics. She is smiling serenely with creased eyes. On the right side is The Suburban Review #20 cover. Above the photograph is ‘Dženana Vucic’ spelled out in bold brown lettering. In the same font but aligned vertically and just off-centre is The Suburban Review’s website URL.

Dženana Vucic is a Bosnian-Australian writer, editor and 2020 Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow. Her essays, poetry and stories have been published in Cordite, Overland, Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Going Down Swinging, Australian Poetry Journal, the Australian Multilingual Writing Project, Rabbit, and others. She tweets at @dzenanabanana.

Our Layout Editor, Mikayla, speaks to Dženana about ‘Ordinary Objects’, published in #20: Handbag.

‘Ordinary Objects’ is a rich and intimate exploration of a body’s response to trauma. In the piece you mention how this could have been another essay, so what drove or influenced you to write this particular essay?

Two things play on my mind a lot. Actually, I’m not sure if they’re two intertwined things or two perspectives on the same thing, but let’s call them two things for the moment anyway. The first is a conversation I had a few years ago with a (white, cis, heterosexual male) poet that I briefly dated. He told me that I was lucky to be a refugee/kind-of Muslim because all the ‘cool’ lit journals would be more likely to publish me. I laughed it off at the time, probably with some dumb joke about making lemonade out of genocide or something. But two and a half years later, those words are still with me. I am always wondering if that’s why my work is accepted or published, always second-guessing where my value as a writer lies. The second is the fact that emerging writers are often expected to perform their trauma for publication. This applies particularly to BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ and disabled writers, but also to cis women and especially in terms of sexual violence. 

When I first started thinking about this essay, my instinct was to write about my headphones and my listening habits because I have a relatively complicated relationship to them and because I was about to go on a two-week hike and wouldn’t be able to take them with me and it was Stressing Me Out. I couldn’t think about anything else. I stopped listening to music except as background noise to writing probably five years ago, when I discovered podcasts. And then I began listening to them almost exclusively, and, compulsively. I get anxious if I can’t. Proper panic attack anxious. What I’m doing with this is forcing myself to always be actively thinking about something so that I don’t have room to think about the Bad Things. 

And you can see the problem with that vis-a-vis the two-but-maybe-one thoughts that are on my mind. I don’t want being a refugee, or coming from a violent home, or sexual assault or any of the bad shit that’s happened to me, to be the reason why I’m published, nor do I want to perform those parts of myself for an audience. Which is why, for the most part, I’ve tended not to write too much about my dark shit (except in poetry, where, apparently, the Bosnian War is inescapable). 

At the same time though, it’s disingenuous to pretend that stuff isn’t there and isn’t a part of me. I’ve recently started writing more explicitly about my trauma, but I have to ease myself into it. Framing my anxiety and my bodily response to trauma in relation to anaphylaxis was a way to do that, to shift the focus slightly but still be able to talk about it. It was safer, I guess. But I think just as honest. Because I am allergic to wasps and I did shit on the side of the road with my biological father and partner studiously looking away. That’s an experience of bodily trauma I had, and a prism through which I can explore other embodied reactions to trauma. Plus, it’s a funny story. 

In times like these, a lot of us have turned to coping devices to help ease stress and anxiety. What are three podcasts you would recommend to our readers who may cope similarly, and what about these podcasts make them so great?

Just three??? Okay. If I must. 

  • You’re Wrong About – My friend Hassan recommended this podcast to me, specifically the mini-series on Jessica Simpson, and I’ve been obsessed ever since. The basic premise is that every week the hosts, Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall, revisit a person or event that the popular imagination has gotten wrong—think Princess Di, Yoko Ono ‘breaking up’ The Beatles, Shaken Baby Syndrome, etc—and attempt to explain what ‘really happened’. It’s this weird blend of nostalgic and eye-opening, wherein you revisit people and events that you were too young to understand at the time (or those you’ve imbibed a particularly skewed view of in your youth and haven’t questioned since) and get a fuller picture on what happened. The mini-series episodes on Jessica Simpson and Princess Di were so incredibly sad and infuriating (John Mayer and Prince Charles are undisputed assholes) but also oddly vindicating? Like, at the end of it, despite all the shit, at least they’re seeing some kind of redress. The podcast doesn’t get everything right and there’s a definite lean towards white women’s stories, but in general, it’s well-researched and the hosts are really engaging.
  • Vs – Vs is easily the best poetry podcast around. It’s so much fun to listen to, so irreverent and funny and joyful. I feel like poetry podcasts tend to sound a bit stale, or over-intellectualised, but Vs hits just the right balance between fun and smart. It’s hosted by two of my favourite poets, Franny Choi and Danez Smith, and every week they interview some other brilliant poet about their work, and they end up having these wonderfully meandering and digressive conversations, full of laughter and sex jokes, but also really interesting insights into the writing process, trauma, queerness, politics, etc, etc. They open and close with a poem by the interviewed poet and towards the end play two absolutely ridiculous games that I’m sure are just included in order to make the podcast’s name a bit more relevant to the format but are pretty amusing in any case. Even if you’re not into poetry (sacrilege!), it’s a really good time.
  • 99% Invisible – I think this is one of those podcasts that’s perennially on the ‘top ten podcasts to listen to’ lists but it absolutely deserves to be there, if for no other reason than because Roman Mars has the most soothing voice in podcast history. Other than that, though, it’s also just really interesting. I don’t know anything about design, so I feel like I’m learning something new every episode, and about such a wide range of topics that broadly fit under the rubric ‘design’—everything from Fraktur to cement to Ggeocities to Oñate’s foot to mannequins to pools to … you get the idea. 

Your work has been published by numerous publications, Meanjin and Kill Your Darlings to name a few. What advice would you give emerging writers when it comes to submitting and keeping inspiration alive?

It feels strange to be asked this question because so much of me feels that being published in places like Meanjin and Kill Your Darlings was a total fluke. Like, maybe they just didn’t have much material that month and picked a not-too-shit essay from the slush pile for the sake of publishing *something*, y’know? It’s only really been in the last year and a bit that I’ve started being published in more well-known literary journals and being shortlisted for things and it feels totally unreal. Like I’m a fraud and at some point, everyone will notice, and I’ll never be published again. 

But my textbook case of imposter syndrome aside, I think the only meaningful advice I have to offer is: don’t give up. Keep applying, keep submitting, keep writing. I’ve been rejected so many times, it makes my head spin to think about it (I can’t say exactly how many because unlike some masochists out there, I don’t keep a record of my rejections. That shit gets deleted off my submittable almost as soon as it lands). I can say though, that I applied for the Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship three times before I got it. I’ve applied for the Kat Muskat probably three or four times and will definitely apply again this year (my last chance before I age out!). I’ve applied for Running Dog’s Micro-Residency four times and will keep applying until I get it or until they politely ask me to stop. 

I’m definitely no more talented than any other emerging writer, and probably much less talented than a great many of them and I think a lot of my success over this last year is by virtue of the fact that I submitted to everything I could, applied for everything I could, and kept trying whenever I was rejected.

The thing is, every time I apply for something, I get a little bit better at applying for it—I’m learning how to write pitches, how to explain my ideas, how to sell my work. And I’m also refining those ideas and that work. Being rejected can be a gift in that way, as cliché as that sounds. It’s an opportunity to re-evaluate what you’re doing, and I think it’s really important (though also really hard) to see it that way. The same goes with submitting to journals. Absolutely do not give up. If a piece is rejected, take it as an opportunity to keep working on it: read it over, find the areas that need improvement, redraft/rewrite, and send it somewhere else. Keep submitting. That’s the important thing. Rejection isn’t necessarily an indictment of your writing, your skill or your ideas. It’s just the shitty downside of limited arts funding and a relatively small pool of publishing opportunities. So yeah. Persevere!