In 1992, while visiting Chicago on a programme sponsored by the US government, Sarajevo-born Aleksandar Hemon found himself stranded, as the Siege of Sarajevo, the longest in the history of modern wars, began. From a tourist, Hemon found himself reduced to a refugee overnight. In the intervening years of struggle, Hemon worked at odd jobs — canvassing for Greenpeace and selling magazine subscriptions door to door — while teaching himself English. He also began writing short stories, drawing on his own experience of becoming unmoored.
Literary stardom followed almost immediately. Hemon’s first collection of short stories, The Question of Bruno (2000), was followed by Nowhere Man (2002), another collection of stories, a novel, The Lazarus Project (2008), and several other books, each of which has won critical acclaim for its exploration of themes of cultural identity, conflict and displacement. Hemon’s non-fiction writings have been equally prodigious. Partly because of his Slavic background and for his original use of the English language, Hemon, 51, has often been compared with Vladimir Nabokov. In India for the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival, the Chicago-based writer talks about how Europe is failing its immigrants, the relationship between history, memory and story and the run-up to America’s presidential election this year. Excerpts from the interview:
Much of your writing revolves around displacement, loss and violence. Do lived experiences form the basis of your work? Do you see a continuity between memory and imagination when you write?
Displacement destabilises the very foundations of reality, which is not a bad thing for a writer to experience. I think that history, memory and story operate and formulate themselves on a continuum, with a great amount of overlapping. No history can be comprehended unless it’s personal, which means it can be remembered, which means it can be narrated (and) conveyed as a story.
In one of the essays in The Book of My Lives, you talk about your professor, Koljevic, who says to you, “Stay out of this, stick to literature.” Can the arts remain divorced from reality, from the violence of everyday lives?
Of course, it can’t. Literature is part of everyday life and history to the exact same extent to which it is dependent on language, which is always both entirely personal and entirely public.
Across the globe, we are witness to a rise in intolerance, to a disregard for the rights and freedoms of others. As a writer, and also as someone who had to seek a new life for himself in a new land, how do you react to it?
Intolerance is too weak a word to express the ways in which power employs difference as a way to enforce obedience. There are all kinds of writers, including fascists and bigots. As for me, I want to find a way, delimit a field in my writing in which difference is exposed as insubstantial and non-essential.
Your last book, The Making of Zombie Wars, dealt largely with the dehumanising of immigrants. How do you respond to the immigrant crisis in Europe and the way it is being handled?
Europe is failing daily, ethically and politically. The way that the plight of refugees is ignored or treated as a nuisance to the pleasant life of Europeans is shameful. But I also don’t understand what Europe thinks will happen to a child starving on a Greek island, becoming aware that her life means nothing to some rich Englishman or Belgian. It is the kind of thing that will never be forgiven, nor should it be.
Did you ever contemplate moving back to Sarajevo once the war got over? Do you go back?
I go back all the time and often I think I should spend more time there. I love Sarajevo deeply, with all its problems and pain. It is the city that defined me. I don’t think, however, that I’d move back there. I’ve lived in the US most of my adult life and my writing career is here. In some ways, Sarajevo is closer to Chicago, than Chicago is to Sarajevo.
In a way, your own story – stranded in Chicago in 1992, learning to speak English and then going on to become a celebrated writer – echoes the great American story of equal opportunities. But America can also be a land of inequalities. How do you look at it?
I did all right, but there are so many people who couldn’t. So I don’t want to serve as an excuse for a system of exploitation of immigrants — and Americans — that I escaped, with luck to a large extent. We’re in the middle of an election season in which one of the Republican candidates is pretty much inviting Americans to a lynching party of immigrants. People get killed for appearing un-American. I do not wish to serve as an excuse for a false narrative of America as welcoming. Ask my Mexican friends or Sikhs who get randomly shot by anti-Muslim bigots what they think of “equal opportunity.”
You have often spoken about how male power is deeply ingrained in America’s political system. With Hillary Clinton contesting as a presidential candidate this year, do you think the country is ready for a woman at the helm?
I think that a part of the country is. The other part, however, will have a chance to reach the darkest depths of misogyny. The United States is hurling toward a conflict. Hillary will not be a leader to the whole nation. I fully expect wide-spread right-wing terrorism to be the consequence of Hillary’s running for president.
I have read your essay on why you adore Chicago, but did you never feel the urge to move out to a more mainstream cultural hub such as New York?
No. I deplore New York, which suffers from something I call metropolitan provincialism: the belief that anything and everything that is worthwhile is either already there or on its way there. In another words, nothing really interesting is happening anywhere else. I like to be outside of that and not to be involved in that kind of cultural entitlement.
What does writing mean to you?
It is the primary way for me to engage with the world. I am stupid when I don’t write, which is I want to write all the time. I don’t have enough time to write everything I’d want to.
Tell us about your relationship with language. How does mastery over two linguistic traditions inform your work?
Literature is made of language, and the fact I have two languages makes everything twice as good. Once I realised that I did not have to choose between the languages I was liberated — I had twice as much to work and play with. Back in the Nineties, I realised I would have to write in English because I would live in the US for a very long time, likely through the end of my life, so I had to enable myself to write in English. The way to go to about that was to read a lot, and absorb the language that way.
Who have been your literary influences?
Everything I read influences me, and I always want to read more. But I’m very fond of (Vladimir) Nabokov, (Anton) Chekhov, Danilo Kis, (Franz) Kafka, and, lately, Elena Ferrante.
One of the things that strikes me about your work is the lack of a defined “closure”.
I cannot stand closure. There is a particular kind of bourgeois literature that likes to resolve all the conflicts and restore the image of the world as harmonious. The world, for me, is confliction, which is what makes it tragically beautiful.
Is there an architecture to how you write?
I delimit the space within which my characters and I will conduct our expeditions and explorations. I never know where exactly we will go, but I also know that there is an end to our journey.
You have often spoken about your discomfort with distinctions such as fiction and non-fiction. What about it do you find most troubling?
The notion of truth as self-evident bothers me when deployed in narration. I think that truth does not precede narration but rather it emerges in the course of it.
What are you working on at present?
I have three or four projects, plus my engagement with the Netflix show Sense8.