In 1992, literary badass Aleksandar Hemon left his native Sarajevo for a cultural exchange program in Chicago. He expected to stay abroad for only a few months. And, well, plans changed. The siege on Sarajevo, which lasted 43 months and produced the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II, began. Unable to return to Bosnia, he made Chicago home and got serious–really serious–about mastering English. Just 10 years after writing his first story in his new language, he had already won a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur “genius grant.” Hemon is known for biting irony, humor, and humanity in his novels and stories (The Lazarus Project, The Question of Bruno, Love and Obstacles, Nowhere Man). The rawness of those elements also rings through his first book of nonfiction, The Book of My Lives, which released last week. We caught up with Hemon over the phone about mining real life for fiction, writing in foreign tongues, being a flaneur in Chicago, and the beauty of playing defensive midfield.
Hemon will be speaking on Thursday evening at the 92nd Street Y and on Friday at McNally Jackson Books.
The Book of My Lives is your first book of nonfiction. What’s the divide for you between fiction and nonfiction, and how do you use your life as a jumping off point for your novels and stories?
History is what happened, literature is what might have happened. The nonfiction in The Book of My Lives is what happened, or what I remember happening. There could have been an event in my life, a story I could tell over a dinner party that would take a few minutes to tell, but I start imagining what if these things had happened in a different way when I write fiction. A lot of stories came from that space. For instance, I have a story in which a teenage boy goes to buy a freezer for his family and he has all kinds of adventures. I went to go buy a freezer for my family, but I just bought it and came home. I see myself living an alternative life in fiction, and in that sense, I don’t see myself. I’m not different from any other writer when they write their work of fiction and in the process of writing are living the alternative lives of their characters.
Both your fiction and your nonfiction draw upon life in Chicago, and parts of your new book feel like a love letter of sorts to the city. How would you characterize your relationship with Chicago?
Chicago is my adopted hometown, if you wish. Sarajevo is my hometown. I, for some reason, need to relate to the space that I live in, the city that I live in, both in terms of expanding my network of people as wide as possible, but also in terms of the actual architectural space. I need to walk the streets, to have a sense of where I am in space and accumulate sensory memories that are related to that space, so I can internalize it.
When you have returned to visit your old hometown of Sarajevo in these past 15 years after the war, what do you feel?
I don’t go for nostalgic reasons or to find something that I lost. It is a new city that lives without me, and my friends there live their own lives. To me, there’s the sadness of what happened to Sarajevo and how it was before the war. But life continued after the siege. When I tap into life, I tap into that life: life now, not life before. I’m not as sentimental as I used to be or could be.
Something that fascinates me about your life and your writing is your relationship with the English language. How do you feel working in the tradition of Kafka, Nabakov, Celan, Conrad, Beckett, etc., to be a writer writing in a foreign tongue?
There is a tradition of people writing in English as a second language, and that tradition is getting bigger and more expansive by the day, because there’s a vast number of people writing in English who learned it as adults, as I did. But to write in any language, it has to be part of your subconscious mind. You cannot translate. For whatever reason in the ’90s, the English language entered in my subconscious mind and it has stayed there. I am bilingual fully, where I don’t know what language I am thinking in or dreaming in. Right now I am talking to you in English, but right after this I am going to talk with a friend of mine in Bosnia. The language will be different, but it will be my same mind. It took a little to get to that in the ’90s. The main means of doing that was through reading, just as it is in one’s native language. To acquire a language for writing, you acquire it from books. It’s not just talking to your friends and family and reading newspapers and watching television. It comes from books themselves, and the language and the tradition of the literature you absorb. I feel English is mine. It is my language. I’m not adrift in it. I don’t have to apologize or ask anyone permission for writing in it.
As English was becoming part of your subconscious, which writers influenced you the most?
Nabokov. Lolita is the greatest American novel of the 20th century, and it was written, of course, by a Russian immigrant. It regales me daily. But he also has a number of stories that are about displacement, of Russians after the revolution. Some are written in Russian, but he translated them and edited them, and then some of them are written in English. They contain this foreboding of displacement that I connect with, and those stories are a little less cold than his later works as he moved towards abstraction, as with Pale Fire.
What’s your advice for young writers?
The only advice I have is read, read, read. Reading is all that matters, really. There is a tradition and an industry of “creative writing” in this country, which is fine, but reading is how you learn to write. Reading constantly. Reading deeply. Reading and rereading. Nabokov said rereading is all that counts. Rereading everything, and not just fiction. I think writers are dilettantes by nature. If you spread your nets and try to catch as much as possible, God knows what may be useful down the road. So, read compulsively.
The Book of My Lives touches on your passion for playing soccer. How often are you playing these days, and what position?
I play two or three times a week. I travel too much for a league, but there’s a steady crowd with whom I’ve played for many years. We yell at each other and insult each other and curse, so in that sense it’s serious. Now I’m playing defensive midfield, destroying other people’s attempts to do something beautiful.