Unlike most people at Northwestern, Igor Štiks did not come here to try to make a name for himself. He wanted the opposite. And he got it.
“I lead a pretty anonymous life in Evanston,” said Štiks (pronounce Shtiks) with a smile.
You might know Štiks as a teaching assistant for Global History I. But the 29-year-old Bosnian is also a refugee, an avid traveler and an award-winning novelist.
Štiks was born in Sarajevo, and when the Bosnian war broke out in 1992, Štiks and his family fled to Zagreb, Croatia. As a college student there, he found his first passion: literature.
He started off as an editor and literary critic in national and international magazines. In 2000, he published his first novel, A Castle in Romagna, which won the prize for best first novel in Croatia. The novel relates two intertwined love stories, one during the Italian Renaissance and the other under Tito’s communist regime.
Although focused on the past, A Castle in Romagna strongly echoes the Bosnian war.
“[The war] dominates my work from the very beginning. In my first novel I do not talk directly about it. I didn’t feel ready, but the absence is quite ‘parlant‘ (revealing),” Štiks said.
His second book, Elijah’s Chair, was published in Croatia in late July and won an award for the best fiction book of the year in Croatia. That book tackles the issues of the Bosnian war directly.
“I was only fourteen years old, but that period was extremely important for me,” Štiks said. “I believe it put a mark on every one of us: The people who stayed in Sarajevo, or those who became refugees like myself.”
But Štiks does not limit himself to literature. To study political science and complete a Ph.D. in citizenship issues, Štiks took off for Paris in 2001.
Štiks’ time there helped him grow up, he said. He learned to speak French and met many new people. As a younger writer he had always been fascinated by Paris, and it didn’t disappoint him.
“This reality was much more ‘impressionnant’ (impressive) than I could have ever thought. ” Štiks said. “I believe that I reached a level of intellectual and life maturity there.”
Thanks to an exchange program between the French political institute Sciences Po and NU, Štiks moved to Chicago a year ago. He started as an NU teaching assistant this year.
Combining academic research with fiction writing is not always easy, he said.
“Sometimes it’s very schizophrenic to be in this position,” he said. “I can only hope that these two activities won’t become harmful to each other.”
And there’s a big difference between higher education here and in France, Štiks said.
“It’s a very interesting experience for me, as someone coming from a European university,” he said. “There’s a different type of relationship between students and professors, and I actually like it — except that the grading takes so much time.”
Though he has written extensively about his home, Štiks’ experience with big cities such as Paris and Chicago may have lessened his attachment to Bosnia.
Though his parents have returned to Sarajevo and he goes to visit them every year, Štiks is much more cautious about whether he will return to his hometown at some point. “It’s an open possibility,” he said, but “the question of return gets more complex as you live in more cities.”