Photo/IllutrationKayoko Yamasaki recites her poetry at the Tale of Genji Museum in Uji, Kyoto Prefecture, on Nov. 9. (Rikako Takai)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

UJI, Kyoto Prefecture--Poet and translator Kayoko Yamasaki is no stranger to the vicissitudes of war. As a longtime resident of Serbia, she knows many people whose lives were dramatically upturned by the Balkan Wars that raged throughout the 1990s.

What her 37 close friends ate during the turmoil is the theme of her “Pan to Noichigo: Senka no Serubia, Tabemono no Kioku” (Bread and wild strawberries: memories of foods in Serbia under fire), a nonfiction book that won the 29th Murasaki Shikibu literary prize on Sept. 3.

Yamasaki, 63, gave a lecture in Uji on Nov. 9 and told The Asahi Shimbun in an interview that she decided to focus on food and recipes to depict the lives of her friends during the conflict.

“War makes the importance and richness of human lives invisible,” Yamasaki said. “But I want to listen to what each of those individuals has to say and sympathize with them."

She poured such feelings into the book.

In one chapter, Yamasaki writes about a man who survived even though the electrical supply to his home had been cut off. In the beginning, he ate meat from the freezer after allowing it to thaw.

When his stockpile of macaroni, noodles and jam had run out, he began collecting nettles growing around nearby buildings to make soup.

After he finished eating all the stalks and found himself short of even basics like flour, he started quarreling with his family members because they were so hungry.

“Such a thing should never happen again,” the man told Yamasaki. His words haunted her.

Another friend lost her husband without warning.

“I will eat after I finish work,” the husband said as he left home, never thinking that he might never see his wife again.

Soon after, he was killed.

The woman still pictures the meal she prepared for her husband.

Another woman who was a child during World War II recalled how she used to pick wild strawberries and deliver them to injured soldiers.

Yamasaki, a native of Shizuoka Prefecture, attended the University of Sarajevo in the former Yugoslavia after she graduated from a university in Japan. As a high school student, she read Dostoevsky’s novels and became interested in Russian literature.

In 1981, she married and moved to Belgrade, where she had three children.

A decade later, the former Yugoslavia started to collapse, and Yamasaki lived through the civil wars whose hallmark was ethnic cleansing.

She started interviewing her friends, who talked about their families and their lives during wartime. Some of them spent days telling their stories.

“Everybody put importance on food, even in the worst situation," Yamasaki said. "They said it was a way they found to resist the abnormal situation that war brought to their lives.”

The point Yamasaki wanted to get across in her book is this:

"To pass on the stories is to share each other's experiences. If I don’t write now, the stories I heard from my friends will never get attention and vanish (from history).”

Yamasaki teaches Japanese literature as a professor at the University of Belgrade and spent three years finishing her book.

“By concentrating on food, which is the basis for all living creatures, I hope to convey difficult stories of history beyond the country's borders.”