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Interview with Dina Greenberg: Author of Nermina’s Chance and former Managing Editor of Chautauqua

Updated: May 3, 2022

With the publishing of Chautauqua Issue 19.2, members of the team have been looking back to past issues and reconnecting with past editorial staff members. Chautauqua is an interesting environment and creative team. Editors move in and out of various positions and roles on the team; Chautauqua is fluid. Undergraduates come and go as semesters change. Graduate students often work for a year or more and watch the full projects develop from beginning to end and mentor the undergrads. The mainstays, Jill and Philip Gerard, Chautauqua’s co-editors, stand at the creative helm making sure Chautauqua delivers a literary journal of consistent quality year after year.

Recently, I have been corresponding with one of the former Managing Editors of Chautauqua, Dina Greenberg. She was on the CHQ team from 2013 to 2015 and worked on Chautauqua issues 10, 11, and 12. I spoke with her about her time at CHQ. Since her time away from CHQ, she has released a novel, Nermina’s Chance, and continues to teach creative writing courses at Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington, NC.

What was your favorite part of being the Managing Editor of Chautauqua?

My tenure as Managing Editor for Chautauqua will always be one of the most rewarding times in my life. I love wearing lots of hats and this is exactly what the role calls for—whether it’s leading a discussion on the merits of a submission, planning a launch party, or editing one of the exquisite pieces that made the final cut.

But I would have to say my favorite part of the experience was building relationships with all of the talented individuals who contributed to this extraordinary anthology. Co-editors Jill and Philip Gerard were, and remain, the guiding force of this literary operation. Their generous spirit set the tone for every stage of the publication process. I loved the interchange between our team of undergrad and graduate students. I loved corresponding with the poets and writers whose works graced our pages, and I especially loved the opportunity to spend time at Chautauqua-the-place: the spiritual, creative, and physical heart of this beautiful journal.

Are there any lessons learned while you were a part of CHQ that you think about today?

Yes! Every single day! I came into the MFA program at UNCW as a “non-traditional” student. That’s code for “older” student. At fifty-four, my goals for the program were pretty solid: I wanted to complete my novel,Nermina’s Chance, and I wanted to hone my teaching skills. I achieved both goals and I can say that my work with CHQ helped enormously. For all of the reasons I just described, and also because analyzing, deconstructing, and tinkering with prose and poetry for the journal—all of this—made me a better writer and a better teacher. Critique is essential on both sides of the desk, so learning to calibrate this tool is crucial. CHQ taught me that.

I also learned a lot about copy editing and adhering to a particular style guide. Anyone who has poured over The Chicago Manual of Style will attest, this pursuit can be mind-numbing and frustrating, not to mention, insanely time-consuming. But those lessons taught me exactly how essential a style guide is to birthing an elegant publication. Adherence to the seeming minutia of style becomes a reflection of the writing, enhancing it, showcasing it to best advantage. Adherence to a style guide tells readers that the publication is dead serious about how a poet or writer’s work is presented. It says: “I value this work.”

What was your approach to writing Nermina’s Chance? Did you set out to write a novel or did it develop into a longer-form project over time?

Nermina’s Chance existed in multiple forms before it jelled into the novel it is today. First, there was a very, very long and unwieldy short story. Then there were a number of linked short stories. In between, there were lots and lots of timelines and outlines and character studies and several years of thinly veiled procrastination in the guise of research. In all fairness, though, the book is about a war that took place in the former Yugoslavia, in 1992 Bosnia, so extensive research was warranted. Even so, there came a point where I knew I needed to shift my efforts to writing.

When I came to UNCW I had a pretty messy draft, minus an ending! Robert Siegel, the professor for my first-semester novel course, instructed me to get out a yellow pad, sit down, and write the ending. To this day, I have no idea exactly how that came about. Clearly, I have an ending and clearly, I wrote it, but—in hindsight—I think there must have been a bit of magic at work. Maybe the magic was in being gifted a dedicated time to immerse myself in the work of completing the novel, of receiving feedback from incredible classmates and professors.

When looking at your website, I saw that you’re drawn to trauma caused by wars and the aftermath of war. What led to this particular interest?

In my first graduate program (at the University of Pennsylvania), my thesis addressed the role of chaplains providing mental health care in both hospital and military settings; this experience provided me entrée to the literature of combat-related trauma and PTSD, and to remarkable opportunities to engage with providers and also with survivors.

The impetus for Nermina’s Chance came from reading about and viewing 1992 footage of the Serbian campaign of genocide and rape (as a weapon of war) in Sarajevo, the site of the 1984 Olympics. One hundred thousand people lost their lives. Tens of thousands of refugees made their way to Germany, Denmark, and the U.S. At the time, I knew very little about the geopolitics and nationalism that set these events in motion, but the horror and injustice hit me hard and it stayed with me.

The concept for the novel percolated. My protagonist was a second-year medical student, a Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim). Her parents were both doctors. In short order, she lost everything—her home, her academic aspirations, her family. She set off on a quest to America to replace the family she’d lost, and this quest, in the aftermath of war, became the primary focus of the narrative.

And now, the most horrifying aspect of my book is how relevant, how familiar, Nermina’s story is. Today, our world has never been more volatile. In Bosnia—even before the outbreak of war in Ukraine—there had been calls by Serbian leaders for secession, visible cracks in the tentative “peace” that was hammered out in the 1990s. As Putin’s terror plays out across Ukraine and refugees stream into Poland and other “safe” NATO countries, I hold my breath. I pray that readers of Nermina’s Chance worldwide will find some measure of hope in these uncertain times.

I want to thank Dina Greenberg for her time and her thoughtful and eloquent answers. You can find more about Nermina’s Chance book trailer and Dina Greenberg’s personal website--

When thinking about the unexpected relevance and timeliness of Nermina’s Chance, I also think about how CHQ’s Issue 19 theme, Resilience, has also risen in relevance today.

Through the pandemic and as we all weather current world affairs, people remain resilient. Chautauqua with the help of several amazing writers, and through the hands and minds of our editorial staff, have collected three distinct issues that capture the ways humans are resilient in their day-to-day life and how against all odds, we remain.

Issue 19.1 and 19.2 of Chautauqua are now published on our website and you can find them on the homepage-- Be on the lookout for Issue 19.3 as that will be coming soon!

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