Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris

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Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris

By Priscilla Morris

Priscilla Morris, author of Women’s Prize Shortlisted Black Butterflies, on the real-life inspiration behind her debut novel.

I was 19 when my mother’s home country of Yugoslavia started to implode in the early 1990s. Although she left when she was 19, a few years later marrying my English father and settling down in London, we visited my grandparents in Sarajevo every summer when I was little. I loved Sarajevo. I loved Bosnia. I loved Yugoslavia. The mountains, the sun, the forests, the watermelons chilling in fast-flowing rivers, the children’s train in Sarajevo Zoo, the aunts and uncles smiling through a haze of cigarette smoke, the spit-roast lamb, my grandmother’s syrupy baklava. From a very young age, these summertime adventures, which involved several days of exciting car and ferry travel across Europe, provided memories that sustained me throughout the grey winter months back in England. They made me feel I had a warm, colourful, larger-than-life interior. They gave me an edge of difference of which I was proud.

The war blindsided me as it blindsided almost everyone. Suddenly, people who had been friends and neighbours were killing each other. Suddenly, the BBC news was full of snipers on rooftops shooting at men, women and children as they crossed the streets below. Bosnian Serb nationalists, rejecting the newly recognised independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina, blockaded the multi-ethnic city and started shelling. Phone lines were cut. The electricity was cut. The water was cut. Relief food had to be flown in every ten days by a UN peacekeeping force.

This was Sarajevo where my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins lived. They were a mix of nationalities as was common in Sarajevo at the time. In their case, Bosnian Serb, Bosniak and, less usually, Slovene.

After ten months of worsening conditions, when the temperature in the unheated city had fallen to minus twenty and thousands had been killed, my father took matters into his own hands. He bought a flak jacket, flew to Croatia, hitched a lift into Bosnia, and entered the besieged city with a journalist pass. After three weeks, he finally succeeded in securing a way out for his parents-in-law and brought them to safety in London.

My grandparents were the first of many refugee relatives to pass through our South London home. Gaunt, chain-smoking, jumping each time a door slammed, they stayed anything from a few nights to several months. The war was something that felt incomprehensible to me: full of hatred, anger, pain, sadness and blame. Why were such atrocities happening in my mother’s country? How could this be taking place in Europe at the end of the twentieth century?

Sadly, my grandfather never recovered and died a few years later. But it was at his funeral at the Serbian Orthodox church in Notting Hill that I met my great-uncle Dobri, a landscape painter from Sarajevo. He was wearing a multi-coloured checked shirt and a daffodil in his lapel. His remarkable story gave me hope, and, much later, a way into attempting to understand and process the war.

Dobrivoje Beljkašić, or Dobri for short, was 68 when the siege began. He had a magnificent studio above the National Library in the old Town Hall in Sarajevo. In August 1992, the iconic building was targeted with incendiary shells and rapidly went up in flames. Over 1.5 million books and 300 of Dobri’s paintings were destroyed in the catastrophic fire, which became a symbol of Sarajevo under siege. Sarajevans called the ashes that darkened the skies for days ‘black butterflies’.

Devastated, Dobri thought he would never paint again. He, his wife and mother-in-law left Sarajevo on a Red Cross convoy a few months later. Unfortunately, his mother-in-law died on the long journey to England, where their daughter and son-in-law lived. After a period of recovery, Dobri reconnected with nature and began to see the world anew. He painted the Wiltshire countryside and several of the Yugoslav landscapes that had burnt down in the fire. He went on to paint for the next two decades of his life, becoming the oldest member of a prestigious Bristol arts club.

His story was the catalyst for Black Butterflies. I heard in it a tale of art triumphing over the tragedy of war by enabling him to integrate into a new country at an old age. The image of books and art on fire, the thought of the beautiful Ottoman bridges and mountains that he painted and repainted, grasped me powerfully. I had to write it. I tried to write it in several forms over the next decade – feature article, short story, even a children’s story – before realising only a novel would allow the depth of treatment it required. I had wanted to be an author since I was a child and had written several unfinished pieces of fiction. But it was only when I started an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, aged 35, that I developed the confidence to embark on a war novel.

I researched extensively, reading a range of siege fiction, novels set in the former Yugoslavia, war ethnographies, memoirs, political and historical books. I interviewed my great-uncle and his wife many times and lived in Sarajevo for five months in 2011 to speak in depth with a dozen other people who had lived through the siege. Black Butterflies fictionalises and weaves together their experiences with Dobri’s story and my father’s rescue of my grandparents. About two years into writing, I made the decision – with Dobri’s blessing! – to make the protagonist female. The switch freed my imagination and allowed me to inhabit the novel more fully. I was excited to convey war through a woman’s eyes. So much war fiction is from a male point of view and I wanted to give voice to a woman’s experience.

Black Butterflies can be read as a universal story about what happens when an everyday woman’s life is uprooted by war. It begins in Sarajevo in March 1992 as political tensions mount and barricades go up each night, and follows artist and teacher Zora, who, separated from her husband when fighting erupts, decides to remain in the city she loves. It’s a tale of resilience, loss, love, and the power of art to transcend the destruction and dehumanisation of war.

(c) Priscilla Morris

Find out more on priscillamorris.org and follow on @priscillamorriswriter

About Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris:

Sarajevo, spring 1992. Each night, nationalist gangs erect barricades, splitting the diverse city into ethnic enclaves; each morning, the residents – whether Muslim, Croat or Serb – push the makeshift barriers aside.

When violence finally spills over, Zora, an artist and teacher, sends her husband and elderly mother to safety with her daughter in England. Reluctant to believe that hostilities will last more than a handful of weeks, she stays behind while the city falls under siege. As the assault deepens and everything they love is laid to waste, black ashes floating over the rooftops, Zora and her friends are forced to rebuild themselves, over and over. Theirs is a breathtaking story of disintegration, resilience and hope.

SHORTLISTED FOR THE WOMEN’S PRIZE 2023

SHORTLISTED FOR THE RSL ONDAATJE PRIZE 2023

SHORTLISTED FOR THE AUTHORS’ CLUB BEST FIRST NOVEL AWARD 2023

SHORTLISTED FOR THE WILBUR SMITH PRIZE 2023

SHORTLISTED FOR THE NOTA BENE PRIZE 2023

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Priscilla Morris is a British author of Bosnian and Cornish parentage. She grew up in London, spending summers in Sarajevo, and studied at Cambridge University and the University of East Anglia. She teaches creative writing and divides her time between Ireland and Spain. Inspired by real-life accounts of the Siege of Sarajevo (1992-96), Black Butterflies is her debut novel. It was short-listed for the RSL Ondaatje Prize, the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award, the Wilbur Smith Prize, the Nota Bene Prize and the Women’s Prize 2023.

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