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Amra Sabic-El-Rayess: “Be your authentic self ”

My greatest hope is that anyone who reads this book forgets about me as a Muslim girl and starts to recognize themselves or those around them in my story. Readers will find many points of intersection between my story and stories of racism and hate today in America. The Cat I Never Named humanizes those […]

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My greatest hope is that anyone who reads this book forgets about me as a Muslim girl and starts to recognize themselves or those around them in my story. Readers will find many points of intersection between my story and stories of racism and hate today in America. The Cat I Never Named humanizes those who are marginalized, hated, and excluded, and allows one to see that they are us and we are them. Based on reactions I have received so far, those whom have read it cannot stop thinking about the story and feel it is a moving emotional journey that inspires. Many finished it in one reading. There are some stark and powerful parallels between there and then, and here and now, but it is also a story about different kinds of love one can experience even in the midst of a tragedy.


As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amra Sabic-El-Rayess.

Amra Sabic-El-Rayess is a Bosnian genocide survivor, Columbia University professor, and author of a critically acclaimed memoir The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival (Bloomsbury, Sep 15, 2020). Kirkus Reviews calls it “Unforgettable” (starred review) and Foreword Reviews describes her work as “Gripping and achingly humane — The Cat I Never Named captures what it means to face an ideological tide bent on your personal eradication…” (starred review). School Library Collection highly recommends it as “an excellent discussion starter” (starred review). The Cat I Never Named has been selected as the Junior Library Guild Gold Standard for 2020.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

I was always drawn to the question of how societies fall apart and what we can do reverse that course. This curiosity is primarily driven by my own story of surviving the Bosnian genocide or the genocide against Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) in 1990s. I lived for nearly 4 years under the military siege by the Serb army (Serbs from Serbia and Serbs from Bosnia and Herzegovina) in my city of Bihac. Serbia wanted to territorially expand and create ethnically cleansed Greater Serbia, so the Serb army’s primary goal was to isolate and execute us hoping the world wouldn’t find out about the genocide. We were starved. My house was bombed, family members and friends killed and some raped — all simply because we were Bosniaks. My life, as I once knew it, was destroyed.

Surviving the genocide against Bosniaks was one of my life’s greatest challenges, but through it all, I found unique ways to build the kind of resilience and strength that comes through in my book, The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival. This past is what has inspired my lifelong mission to counter hatred not only by sharing my story of survival and determination, but also by doing research and teaching around the world in my role as a scholar and professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

In The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival I share how some of my Serb teachers discriminated against me because I was a Muslim girl yet an exceptional student. But, discrimination, Islamophobia and racism are not isolated to any one group of people, any one nation, or any one person. We all are capable of bias, hate and othering — all of which we see as on the rise here in the US. But, hating and othering is a choice as is a choice when we decide how to respond to hate or bias once we are subjected to it.

I will share a brief story that is particularly poignant given these times we live in. After completing my doctorate at Columbia University, one of the first graduate level courses I designed and taught was the quantitative research course that was heavily reliant on the theory of probability and statistics. Wanting to ensure all goes smoothly during my first lecture, I went to my assigned classroom at least 15 minutes early. As I stood there, waiting for my students to trickle in, a few students popped in, and quickly left looking like they walked into the wrong room. The fall semester was only starting, and I didn’t think anything of it until I recognized a pattern — quite a few students looked like they were confused with who was standing at the front of the classroom. Before I started the lecture, I walked out after one of the students looking for his classroom asking what course he was looking for. He said: “It looks like I walked into the wrong class, sorry. I am looking for my stats class, but can’t seem to find it!” I asked what led him to believe that he was in the wrong classroom. Puzzled by my curiosity, he asked: “Are you a TA?…Or a student?” I told him I was a professor for the stats course he was looking for, and I would love for him to join us.

As a 6 ft tall then red head (now blonde) who does not fit any mold including a stereotype of what a statistics professor or a Muslim woman should look like, I wasn’t surprised that several students had their own preconceived notions of who would be at the front of the classroom. The key is how we handle these encounters, and my choice is always to turn them into teaching moments where we together deconstruct any and all stereotypes and where we inspire each other to become better and kinder people.

This kind of effort is also reflected in my latest project, The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival. Readers may come to it with their own preconceived notions of what a life of a Muslim girl surviving genocide may be like, but this book challenges stereotypes and evokes powerful reactions. Many who have already read the book have reached out saying: “I knew nothing about Bosnia, and I thought I would read the first few pages to see what the book is like, but now it’s 2 am and I cannot put it down!” The purpose of my work — as a scholar, as an author, as a professor, and as a teacher — is to raise awareness about exclusion, but also to connect and empower through powerful stories.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

An obvious challenge for me as the first generation immigrant was that I learned English primarily on my own in the midst of a genocide in Bosnia. At that time, my schooling was nearly nonexistent and most of my learning was self-initiated. Many can relate to that experience given the disruption to our education system we all have experienced as teachers, students, or parents because of the COVID19 pandemic.

A teen at the time, I realized that I had no power to stop the genocide, but I knew I could control what was internal to me. I countered hate by bettering myself through learning. At one point, I decided I would learn English by memorizing every word in an old English dictionary I found in our attic.

By the time I made it to the US on a scholarship, I was courageous enough to sign up for a course on the history of Western civilization during my first semester in college. We were assigned Leviathan by Hobbes, and I remember quickly realizing that the only way I could truly understand the book was to first translate it into Bosnian for understanding and then struggle with how to express my understanding of it in English. Anyone who has read Leviathan can imagine what kind of Herculean task it was to attempt to translate it into Bosnian at the time when my knowledge of English was limited. But, I worked non-stop until I did it. By the end of the semester, my history professor was trying to persuade me to major in history.

I share these stories because we often forget that prelude to any success is inevitably some type of struggle, but anything is possible when one persists.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I am admittedly both a perfectionist and a nerd, so I really wanted to quickly gain the mastery of English language because I loved writing in my native Bosnian. But, it wasn’t easy. Stylistically and structurally, in Bosnian, length, ambiguity and complexity tend to be valued while clarity and precision are appreciated in English. Early on, I would think in Bosnian and write in English, and once — many years ago — I remember getting my graded paper back as an undergraduate student with a comment from my professor that she appreciated being introduced to some Bosnian, but that the next time I should stick to English only! I checked my paper and found several thoughts perfectly expressed in Bosnian that fit really well into the overall paper except for being written in the wrong language.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I am super excited about my next two book proposals. One will be a moving and uplifting sequel to The Cat I Never Named tackling my life as a Muslim and first generation immigrant in the United States. It will address questions like: How do you move on after surviving genocide? How do you heal your body, your heart, your family? How do you make up for years of lost education, shattered lives, lost friendships, and death?

I am also working on a book proposal that will be an eye opener on the role of education in radicalization, a problem that is both widespread and growing here in the US and abroad. Both projects reflect my primary mission to counter hatred and educate broader populations on the kinds of challenges individuals, but also America and the world are facing.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

There are stories that will make readers cry and others that will make them laugh, but all will fall in love with the stories relating to one of the main characters in my book: Maci, a calico kitty. I met Maci at the onset of the war, when she came to my city with the refugees who were escaping persecution. I will never know, but I believe that her family was killed and she ended up following the surviving refugees into Bihac. Readers can find an excerpt of how Maci and I meet here as well as watch me read from the book’s first chapter here.

After that initial meeting, Maci decided that we would be her new family. The war was about to start and we could barely feed ourselves, but Maci didn’t care. She adopted herself into our family. And I am grateful she did because if she didn’t, I wouldn’t be here today. On the very first day of the Serb army’s bombing in 1992, my younger brother Dino and I would have been blown up along with 4 of our friends if it were not for Maci. Dino and I lived because of Maci. She saved us.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

My greatest hope is that anyone who reads this book forgets about me as a Muslim girl and starts to recognize themselves or those around them in my story. Readers will find many points of intersection between my story and stories of racism and hate today in America. The Cat I Never Named humanizes those who are marginalized, hated, and excluded, and allows one to see that they are us and we are them. Based on reactions I have received so far, those whom have read it cannot stop thinking about the story and feel it is a moving emotional journey that inspires. Many finished it in one reading. There are some stark and powerful parallels between there and then, and here and now, but it is also a story about different kinds of love one can experience even in the midst of a tragedy.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Be your authentic self — When I initially met with various publishers who were interested in The Cat I Never Named, I realized that they were most affected by hearing my most authentic stories. Other stories are already taken, so be yourself and share your story without reservation.
  2. Don’t be apologetic for being different — we often focus on gaining a sense of acceptance and belonging, but I have learned that I feel best about myself when I am simply me — and that is what is ultimately most valuable about you in any story you tell or conversation that you join.
  3. Better yourself — During the war, I wrote poetry to express my emotional pain. I read all math and physics textbooks I could find. I taught myself English and worked on immunizing children…etc. I didn’t know if any of that would have an effect long term aside from giving me a sense of purpose in the moment when my world was falling apart, but now I realize that all I did in the past has helped me rebuild my life and become who I am today.
  4. Ask for feedback from those who will be honest with you — Be open to the ideas and advice from various allies, colleagues, and friends. But, look for the feedback from those who will be honest with you. And kids and teens always are! I received incredibly valuable feedback from my younger daughter, Dinah, who read and reviewed each and every chapter in the book.
  5. Never give up — Everyone says failure is good for you though we all know how much it hurts if and when it happens. But, don’t let it discourage you. If I gave up every time I was disappointed with what I faced in life, I would have never gotten to where I am today and I certainly would not have written The Cat I Never Named. So, when you fail, don’t despair. Instead, move on.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

Success is always uniquely shaped by several factors, and in my case, perseverance, hard work, discipline, optimism and adaptability all played a role along the way. My entire career demonstrates that if I didn’t persevere and remain optimistic, disciplined, and adaptable when life presented challenges — from surviving the genocide to learning English late in life — my life would have been very different from what it is today.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

I grew up in former Yugoslavia, where diverse ideas and voices were not represented so now I am deliberate about my reading choices. Growing up, I never once read a story or solved a word problem in math with a Muslim child in it as a main character. Yet, who gets to tell their stories and whose stories we read is important because they shape our attitudes towards others. Representation is one of the reasons why I wrote The Cat I Never Named. So, I read books that represent novel perspectives from a broad range of authors and genres. At the moment, I am reading Islam without Extremes by Mustafa Akyol and Charles King’s Gods of the Upper Air.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to end racism, I would love to end hatred, I would love to end Islamophobia and all forms of exclusion that are based on some social construct or label attached to specific groups with the intent to other and dehumanize them. I would simple End Othering because we all are one.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I am only a recent social media user. I recognized its importance at the onset of this pandemic. So, they can now find me on Twitter @amrasabicPHD, on Instagram @amrasabicelrayess and Facebook @amrasabicelrayess.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!

Thank you!

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