Lesleyanne Ryan's Lit Wish List Is Five Books to Change the Way You See the World

What Canadian books would you like give or recieve this holiday season?


Braco cover

Lesleyanne Ryan is the author of Braco (Breakwater Books, 2012), her debut novel. I'd title her Lit Wish List: Five Books to Change the Way You See the World, in part because Ryan herself wrote a book that will change the way you see yours, and it would seem her reading leans in a similar direction, tales of survival, challenge, trial and adversity.

Ryan is a Canadian Armed Forces veteran and served as a Peacekeeper in Visoko, Bosnia from October 1993 to April 1994. For her years in service, Ryan has received The Canadian Decoration (for 12 years of service), The UN Protection Force Medal, and the UN Peacekeeping Medal.

Ryan is also a four-time winner of the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts and Letters Award in the category of Non-Fiction, and the winner of the Fresh Fish Award for Emerging Writers.

Look for her Lit Wish List: Five Books to Change the Way You See the World after this interview.

Julie Wilson: Tell us the story at the core of Braco, and the inspiration for your young protagonist.

Lesleyanne Ryan: When I was serving in Bosnia in 1993-94, my unit had 150 troops detached to protect the town of Srebrenica. One of the drivers who delivered supplies to our troops told me that he had met a boy and, despite the UN aid shipments, the boy and his family still did not have a lot of food. So, for the next few months, I gave the driver whatever food I could find. In March, '94, our troops in Srebrenica were replaced by the Dutch. On his last trip into town, the driver was given a gift from the boy for each of us—a green Srebrenica license plate.

We lost contact with the boy and, a year and a half later, the Bosnian Serb army invaded Srebrenica. Within days, over 8000 men and boys as young as ten-years-old were murdered. I still don’t know what became of the boy, but when I learned the details of the Srebrenica massacre, I decided to write Braco as a way of explaining—to myself—what may have happened to him.

JW: While you serving in Bosnia, were you aware that you were piecing together a story?

LR: While my grandfather served during the First World War, he kept a diary and, as a result, was able to share his experiences in later years. I know it took him a long time before he opened up about it, but I remember that he found it was important to talk about what he had experienced. I think that was in the back of my head and, while away, I kept a very basic diary. I never imagined it would lead to anything.

JW: Given the choice to write this story as a piece of creative non-fiction or fiction, why do you suppose you chose a fictional account?

LR: I’ve written a number of creative non-fiction stories about my personal experiences in Bosnia and I find there are limits with creative non-fiction that would

Lesleyanne Ryan

have made it impossible to properly tell this story. It took me some time to finally pin down that fine line between creative non-fiction and fiction and since I wanted to tell the story from multiple points of view, it was better to take the real events and drop fictional characters into those events.

JW: After retiring from the military, you completed a creative writing diploma, yet upon returning from Bosnia, you struggled with reading. I'm curious to know if the structure of school helped in any way.

LR: I was always an avid reader up to my deployment, but on my return to Canada, I found I didn’t have the concentration to get through a newspaper article, let alone a novel. It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder two years later that I understood what was happening. For example, one symptom of PTSD is called intrusive thoughts. This involves the constant re-hashing of traumatic and related memories that is impossible to control. I could start reading a sentence and before I made it to the next one, my mind would be back into those memories. It was frustrating since I used to read so much. So, between 1994 and 2003, I didn’t read a single book.

When I retired from the military in 2002, I remembered what my grandfather had said about needing to talk about what happens during war, and realized I had to stop thinking about it and start talking/writing about it. So, I sat down one afternoon and took the most traumatic memory I had and wrote a story. I found it so therapeutic, I kept writing and soon found I could replace traumatic memories with the words I wanted to write. So, instead of rehashing memories, I began rehashing the next sentence, the next paragraph, the next story.

I knew the only way to get an audience for these stories was to go back to university to learn how to write the stories properly, but I also knew that would be impossible if I couldn’t read. That’s when I picked up my first book and through sheer determination, I was able to read it in two days—a record for me!

My PTSD symptoms still affected my concentration and energy levels, so I was only able to manage one course per term, but I developed a routine so that I was able to complete the BA in English and the Creative Writing Diploma.

And I’ve been slowly catching up on a decade of lost reading.

JW: On the note of reading, we're asking writers to recommend a few books they'd love other readers to pick up over the holiday season, be it for themselves or to gift to others. What are your suggestions?

Lesleyanne Ryan's Lit Wish List: Five Books to Change the Way You See the World

LR: I chose five books.

Warchild cover

Karin Lowachee
Aspect, 2002

This is the book I picked up that day in 2003 that got me back into reading. It’s a science fiction novel about a boy caught up in the middle of an interstellar war who finds himself being trained by the enemy to work against his own people. It’s a well written story that focuses on the characters while limiting the techno-babble.

I was actually surprised to find this listed as young adult science fiction. This is a great book for anyone, young or old, that loves science fiction.



George & Rue cover

George and Rue
George Elliott Clarke
HarperCollins, 2005

I actually read this as part of a non-fiction course and it helped me define that fine line between creative non-fiction and fiction.

In the novel, Clarke looks back on the lives of his mixed-heritage cousins as they are brought up in the poorest region of the country and follows them as they try to escape poverty, only to return to their native New Brunswick in the late '40s where they murdered a taxi driver and are executed as a result.

This book is engrossing and a rare look into a segment of the population we don’t often read about.


Burning Down the House cover

Burning Down the House
Russell Wangersky
Thomas Allen Publishers, 2008

A former volunteer firefighter, Wangersky’s memoir draws the reader into the daily perils he faced as an emergency worker and the toll it took on his life.

This book completely changed how I view emergency workers. In a world where their work is sanitized by prime time television, it is a startling reminder of what they face every single day.




The Cellist of Sarajevo cover

The Cellist of Sarajevo
Steven Galloway
Knopf, 2008

This was my first ebook. It follows the story of three people trying to survive the Siege of Sarajevo and their connection to a cellist who has vowed to play at the site of a mortar attack for 22 days—one each for the 22 people killed in the attack. Galloway really captured the “feel” of the city as I remember it and the realities of life during the longest siege in modern warfare.





How to Get Along with Women cover

How to Get Along with Women
Elisabeth de Mariaffi
Invisible Publishing, 2012

The stories are a refreshing, honest and sometimes surprising look at life in a way that goes beyond the surface as it explores a range of relationships.

It's also a great cover.

 About Braco: The year is 1995. The city of Srebrenica falls to Serbian forces. While women and children cling to uncertain security in the UN-protected area of Potocari, thousands of men escape into the woods. Within 48 hours, as many as 8,000 of these Bosnian men will be executed. Braco—the Bosnian word for little brother—follows fourteen-year-old Bosnian refugee Atif Stavic’s agonizing five-day journey through the woods. His goal: the safe city of Tuzla. To get there, Atif must navigate fifty kilometres of minefields, artillery fire, and firing squads, then cross the heavily guarded road that stands between him and his dream of sanctuary in the safe zone. In this ambitious and electrifying debut, former Canadian Forces peacekeeper Lesleyanne Ryan reveals Atif’s vividly realistic flight through a kaleidoscope of perspectives. A novel of searing detail and prismatic vision, Braco plunges full force into the traumatic events of the worst European conflict of our time and creates a testament to the power of human perseverance in the face of chaos and cruelty.

Which books have changed the way in which you see the world? Leave your comments below.


No matter who you're buying for this holiday season—Secret Santa, work colleague, book club, family, children, host, neighbour, "friend of a friend"—books truly are the gifts that keep on giving. 49th Shelf's Lit Wish List helps you find those books and encourages you to #givecdn!

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November 28, 2012
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