by Jerry Waxler
Zlata Filopovic was an ordinary 10 year-old girl, living in Sarajevo, a cosmopolitan city in Eastern Europe. Her family was well educated, and had warm friendships with neighbors from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. In 1992, in the name of ethnic purity, armed men encamped in the mountains overlooking the city and began a protracted campaign of terror. Artillery shells destroyed homes, businesses, and schools. Zlata’s apartment building lost electricity and gas so the family had to burn furniture to stay warm. When their water was cut off, her father risked sniper fire to fetch supplies from a distribution center. She stopped going to school, stopped playing outside. The family abandoned the rooms that faced the mountains. Month by month her life descended farther into chaos.
And day by day, she wrote in her diary short, innocent, and sweet entries to record the events, the things she lost, her friendships, and longings. Diaries are usually too introspective and too fragmented to add up to a readable book. Somehow Zlata Filopovic’s diary transcended these limits. Perhaps the readability of her entries arose naturally from the war itself. Dramatic tension erupted when, frightened by explosions, her family scrambled to the basement, not knowing how long they would be there or what would be left of their world when they emerged.
French journalists discovered that Zlata was recording her daily observations and passed the information along to publishers. Billing Zlata Filopovic as a “modern Anne Frank,” the book “Zlata’s Diary” sold out of its first run of 50,000 in France.
When she started writing, all she wanted was a way to record her private thoughts. Once published, the book became an instrument of social awareness, publicizing the plight of the Sarajevo people. The French authorities arranged her escape to Paris where she became an international spokesperson for the war’s assault upon innocence.
Erin Gruwell, a high school teacher in Los Angeles, instructed her class to read “Zlata’s Diary.” To Gruwell’s students, the racial hatred that had ruined Zlata’s childhood sounded eerily similar to their own gang infested neighborhoods. Literature intersected with life when Zlata accepted an invitation to visit Los Angeles to speak to the students. Her story exploded their neighborhood boundaries and instantly catapulted them into a sense of participation in a larger world. They in turn wrote about the meeting in their own diaries.
Their inspiring entries relating the war in Sarajevo to the undeclared war on the streets of Los Angeles eventually became published in another book, “The Freedom Writers Diaries.” The book was made into a movie, thus making the unlikely link between a little girl suffering a war in Eastern Europe and the millions of American kids and teachers who have been inspired by the Freedom Writers Diaries.
Zlata’s book expanded my world, too, offering an intimate, multi-cultural portrayal of a child trying to grow up amidst hardship, prejudice, and violence. The lesson that Zlata taught in her diary entries was that war stinks. There’s another lesson, as well. Through writing, one person, alone in her room, can reach the world.
What main “lesson to the world” do you think readers might draw from your life experience? Will it be a cautionary tale, a lesson of survival, or an appeal for harmony and empathy?
Most stories contain many messages. For example, in addition to a prayer for peace, Zlata’s story also portrays the wisdom of youth, the love of a mutually respectful family and community, companionship of a pet, and how people survive under extreme conditions. Extend your imagination and write about other images and ideas your readers might experience through your eyes.
Click here for my essay: Freedom Writers Diary Turns Journaling Into Activism
Carol O’Dell kept a diary, while caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s. Writing in the diary helped her stay sane, and afterwards, she used the immediacy of the writing to help her write her excellent book about the experience, “Mothering Mother.” Read mhy essay and interview on Mothering Mother: