Anne Burt’s propulsive debut novel, The Dig (Counterpoint, $26) tells the story of Antonia King and her brother Paul who were found in the rubble of a bombed-out in Sarajevo, then taken in by a family of contractors in Thebes, Minnesota.
Burt talks to fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about her character’s struggle to reconcile her own ambitions while remaining loyal to her beloved, idealistic brother.
YZM: What’s your connection to Sarajevo; have you ever been there?
AB: I traveled to Sarajevo – it was the first time I’d left the United States —as a 19-year-old in 1987. This was before the Balkan Wars when Bosnia and Herzegovina were part of the former Yugoslavia. The experience never left me, as I think is often the case when a young person from one background has their eyes opened to a new culture for the first time. The city of Sarajevo I encountered then was filled with synagogues, mosques, and churches, all in seeming harmony through the naive outsider eyes of an American college student. And as a Jewish American, I saw a vision of a world where interfaith harmony was possible.
Only three years later, the violence and enmity that had been seething for centuries emerged again. As my understanding of history deepened and became more complicated, so did my thoughts about being a Jew in the world. And those thoughts and experiences led me to make both professional and artistic choices to explore genocide, exile, and trauma, whether from an overtly Jewish perspective or not. The possibility of making connections across specific traumas to universal human engagement continues to feel like a goal to strive for, in fiction and in life.
YZM: Antonia is such a rich, distinctive, and fully realized character; how were you able to inhabit her so completely?
AB: Antonia is a completely fictional character, but she is deeply informed by many sources. Sophocles’ Antigone is a major influence on the novel in general and the character of Antonia in particular: The epigraph from the play that I chose for The Dig (“It is the dead, not the living, who make the longest demands.”) provided me with a beacon for Toni’s inner life throughout writing the novel.
Much of Antonia’s backstory came from research I did as a consultant to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. between 2018-2021. Prior to consulting for the USHMM, I was Chief Communications Officer for Facing History and Ourselves, an organization that pioneered teaching difficult histories such as the Holocaust through the lens of human behavior and personal identity. I met survivors of many genocides and heard their stories. When I was writing The Dig, I immersed myself in written accounts of Sarajevo in 1993, mostly from two sources: the archives and bookstore of the USHMM and a marvelous organization based in Bosnia and Herzegovina, The Post-Conflict Research Center. I recommend connecting with the P-CRC to anyone who is interested in exploring the Balkans, past and present. A friend introduced me to a young Bosnian-born woman who has been living in the U.S. since she was Antonia’s age; she generously shared what she remembers of the sights, sounds, and smells of her birthplace and helped me tremendously as I tried to bring verisimilitude to Antonia’s fragmented memories in the novel.
The many stories, oral and written, I’ve had the privilege to hear from former child refugees and survivors of conflict, war, and genocide over many decades – each one unique in their particular details but universal in the emotional devastation they describe – all informed the childhood experiences I gave to Antonia and the variety of ways in which she tries to handle those memories as a young woman living and working in the U.S. in contemporary times.
YZM: You’ve said this novel was written through a distinctly Jewish lens; can you explain?
AB: My own daughter is 3G. Her father’s parents were Holocaust survivors who lived into her adolescence. I watched her metabolize this history as a young child. While the mother in me soothed and reassured her, the writer in me was always imagining all the “what ifs” that inevitably run through the minds of all storytellers. Fortunately my child has no direct experience of the sorts of trauma her grandparents faced, but envisioning her three-year old eyes and ears informed my creation of three-year-old Antonia lying under a cot in Sarajevo, hearing and seeing the violence she did.
Antonia, her brother Paul, and their complex adoptive family provide a window into the kind of refugee stories I’ve absorbed all of my life‚from my Ashkenazi Jewish grandparents, aunts, and uncles whose parents came from Lithuania and the Pale of Settlement at the turn of the 20th century, from the stories of my daughter’s grandparents, and from the stories of survivors I’ve made a profession out of sharing and highlighting for students of all backgrounds.
I see the world through a Jewish lens—how could I not?—and much of what that means to me is working to see individual human beings as worthy of empathy and respect in the face of difficult circumstances. As a fiction writer, I express this through attempting to create characters with emotional nuance and as much depth as I’m capable of providing. My ultimate goal in writing The Dig is to bring readers the experience of a good story, told through a character who creates meaning and connection for anyone who keeps turning the pages. I only hope that I’ve achieved something close to this in the creation of Antonia King.