I first met Matea Šimić in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 2012. That fall I launched the Sarajevo Writers’ Workshop, a group of poets and prose writers working in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian and English. Matea and I ran into each other a few weeks before the workshop started. It was a warm evening, and I was late meeting a group of friends at Vječna Vatra, the Eternal Flame, near the city center. Several people had urged me to connect with Matea, a writer then in her twenties from Croatia, and suddenly, there she was, waiting for me, along with the others—and I was late.
We’ve been friends ever since.
In the beginning, our workshop met at Buybook bookstore and café; after our meetings, we would walk across the street to our favorite watering hole, Galerija B. Smoje, and sit for hours. We gave our first public reading at Smoje, too, and I have a distinct memory of Matea performing—in her resonant voice—one of her English poems in that narrow, smoke-filled room.
Matea later relocated to Barcelona, Spain, and in 2014 she founded
NEMA. (We’ve always known her to be an instigator, one of her favorite adages being, “Strike while the iron is hot.”) Recently, she and I decided to do a Q & A by phone about her vision for the journal. I made the call from Boston. Although I’ve listened to Matea speak on the subject before, this time I heard something new.
She told me, “When I was studying comparative literature at university, I read about writers that had their own circles, papers, magazines, places where they published their work and manifestoes. I wanted to create a similar thing, but this was just a teenage dream. I forgot it.”
I hadn’t realized Matea’s aim was, not only to start a journal, but also to create a kind of community or band. I told her I understood. I missed Sarajevo. Our workshop. Our smoke-filled Smoje.
After she left the Balkans, Matea said, she realized she had to launch
NEMA in part for herself—to make herself “feel better.”
“I noticed we don’t have enough—not enough, not many—of these platforms where people in our language can participate and publish….I don’t live there anymore. I wanted to start something through the Internet … so it would be easier to connect people, for example, in Mostar [Bosnia and Herzegovina] and Zadar [Croatia].”
She said she hoped to establish a literary hub, like those she’d read about while studying, but for her region and for her time.
At the moment, she explained, she sees
NEMA primarily as a platform for new voices “with nothing in common except the one or two things we do have in common which is that we’re writing things that aren’t being written. Authentic voices loosely connected because they are new and different.”
NEMA’s fifth issue, Matea decided to expand the journal’s reach, opening a small “English chapter.”
“I started writing in English myself. All my friends there [in Sarajevo] still write in English, and for those who don’t, we have a great translator [Asymptote editor-at-large Mirza Purić]….So people who don’t speak our language can read the work. But there are also people writing in English who are new voices I’d like people back home to be able to read. I don’t want
NEMA to be closed—hermetically sealed. I want … people to see what our peers are doing in Britain or in South Africa.”
NEMA will become a global band. (Not an unsuitable metaphor, actually, as Matea is a notorious music lover, song requester, and lyric memorizer.)
I asked her if she knew where she wanted to take the journal, now entering its second year. She told me she is discovering
NEMA issue by issue. “I want it to grow on its own. I have new ideas and others contribute, so whatever direction it ends up taking, I’m fine with it.”
Photo: Stacy Mattingly