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Working with Words: Ennis Cehic

Read Friday, 3 Apr 2020

We spoke with The Next Chapter recipient and New Metonyms author Ennis Cehic about working in advertising, dressing up for writing and the power of The Doors.

Cover of 'New Metonyms'
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What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?

Photograph of Ennis Cehic

I have a memorable experience of finishing East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I must’ve been 21 at the time, and I recall, very vividly, coming to the last pages of the book on a train home. I was so overwhelmed by the story that I began to cry and I didn’t want any of the other commuters to notice me. As soon as the doors opened, I rushed out and stepped away from the crowd to hide. 

I’ve often thought back on this moment – why this particular book touched a nerve with me. Steinbeck’s inspiration for the novel came from the fourth chapter of Genesis, which recounts the story of Cain and Abel. While I was reading the book, I was pondering my relationship with my own brother. It made me realise that I didn’t want to lose him, in any capacity. I thought this was a profound connection of the writer-reader context. This dialogue I was having with Steinbeck’s magnum opus demonstrated to me how powerful literature could be. 

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?

I didn’t have any interest in literature during my childhood. Books were never in my periphery of curiosities – I just wanted to be outside with my friends. 

Literature became an interest in my final year in high school. And that’s thanks to my English teacher, who urged me to write a story for the Year Twelve yearbook. After that, I guess, I got very comfortable being alone with my thoughts. Expressing myself became a personal interest; a kind of inner quest to make poetry from my life started to form. I began to listen to music more intensely. Read more ferociously, but still – I didn’t write. That only started around the age of 18 when I discovered The Doors and Jim Morrison.

The song, ‘Break on Through (To the Other Side)’, has a divinely literal meaning for me. 

I began to scribble in notepads. Just typical tales of a dreamer questioning existence, with lots of feelings disguised as poems. But looking back on this collection through the years, I notice just how much of a desire I had for a broader vocabulary. I wanted to master English (it’s my third language) and the poems I was writing all sounded like they were yanked out of a thesaurus.  

What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?

I wanted to master English (it’s my third language) and the poems I was writing all sounded like they were yanked out of a thesaurus.

For the past 14 years, I’ve been working in the advertising industry as a creative. It has always struck me just how many other writers have worked in adland. From Salman Rushdie to Peter Carey, Bryce Courtenay, James Patterson – even the great poet Mayakovsky started his early writing career in advertising. 

For me, advertising has had a major impact on my writing, both in form and theme. Right now, I am working on a short story collection called Sadvertising which explores the existential dramas of the advertising industry, consumerism and technology.  

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I’d definitely be a full-time adman, no doubt.  

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

I don’t know if I got any specifically bad advice – all is for the taking if you know how to make use of it. But last year, when I became a recipient of the Wheeler Centre’s The Next Chapter award, I began to write Sadvertising under the mentorship of Nam Le. I learnt and re-learnt a great deal about writing during this time. And one thing in particular stayed with me: he said that breakthroughs in writing often come from focus, clarity and a great deal of luck. 

The ‘luck’ part of that equation, I’ve noticed does come, but only when you free yourself of every possible burden. 

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?

I don’t publish poetry, but my notepads are 95% poetry. I note down all my observations and thoughts in prose and abstract poems. 

It’s the only way I have ever kept a record of my life. 

Which classic writer, book/play/film do you consider overrated? 

When I think of the word, overrated and its meaning of valuing or praising something too highly, I think of Peter Handke – the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature winner. 

I’d been moved by Handke’s work as a student, and I’d seen his incredible literary merit. However, his record of downplaying Serbian war crimes and denying the Srebrenica genocide of the Bosnian War – including the publication of his 1996 book, A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia – completely snubs the horrific truth of what occurred in my country. 

On top of that, he also spoke at the 2006 funeral of Serbian ethno-nationalist politician Slobodan Milošević, who was on trial at the time of his death for crimes against humanity and genocide.

These actions made me feel completely disillusioned about his powerful oeuvre – his life’s work – which the prize is judged upon.  

I was living in Sarajevo last year, when the Nobel Prize was announced. When the announcement was made that he had won, the city fell into a diffused mourning. And to me – a child of the war, a Bosnian who was exiled from his homeland at gun point – the accolade for Handke made Sarajevo’s four-year siege, with its starvation and hunger, its 10,000 deaths feel like it meant nothing.

Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?

Every time I receive an email from an editor that tells me a piece I have written has been published, I go through a very panic-stricken moment of wanting to obliterate that piece of writing from existence.

When I relocated to Sarajevo in December 2018 to write full-time (after I became a recipient of The Next Chapter award) I spent over a year there writing every day. A habit I picked up (which has since stayed with me) was to dress up for writing.  

It makes the work all the more serious.  

Have you written anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?

Every time I receive an email from an editor that tells me a piece I have written has been published, I go through a very panic-stricken moment of wanting to obliterate that piece of writing from existence.  

Which artist, writer or character would you most like to have dinner with?

Since we’ve been in this period of great isolation and we’re all staying home, waiting for COVID-19 to pass, I have – like many others – been cooking more. I believe I have somewhat mastered the potato gratin dish and I would love to have the great French writer, Alexandre Dumas over for dinner to gauge his thoughts on my gratin. 

While he wrote some of the most popular books of the 19th Century, Dumas thought that his 1,150-page compendium on cookery, Le Grand Dictionnaire de cuisine would be his masterpiece, but he never published it during his lifetime.

Earlier this year, Ennis released a literary photography book called New Metonyms with Australian photographer, Shantanu Starick. The book is an independent release and explores the post-conflict image of Cehic’s homeland, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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