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The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Aleksandar Hemon

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When writer Aleksandar (Sasha) Hemon was twenty-three, he hosted a radio show in his hometown of Sarajevo called “Sasha Hemon Tells You True and Untrue Stories.” One segment was about a cousin of Sasha’s who “lost all his limbs and lived a miserable life until he got a job in the circus, where, night in and night out, elephants rolled him around the ring like a ball.” Another featured Hemon himself as an historian, uncovering the truth about historical figure “Aphonse Kauders,” whose teachings had inspired the platform of the “Transnational Pornographic Party.” Hemon wrote angry letters to himself, which his friends and co-workers read on the air. Some listeners called in to rail at him for knowing less about Kauders than they did; others proposed that he be made head of the station.

Over dim sum in Chicago last week, Sasha laughed about the radio show. “All those stories were untrue,” he said. “I just made them up. There was no nonfiction in those. Fiction can be true and untrue at the same time.”

Sasha Hemon’s life is full of astonishing stories, both lived and imagined. In 1987, he moved from Sarajevo to Chicago, where he learned and then taught ESL, canvassed for Greenpeace, played obsessive soccer, and walked the city until it belonged to him and he belonged to it. He wrote books: The Question of Bruno, Nowhere Man, The Lazarus Project, Love and Obstacles. He won awards, including a MacArthur Genius Grant. His most recent book is the blazingly beautiful memoir The Book of My Lives, in which he writes about subjects from chess, to dogs, to war; high-level mathematics, to disillusionment and displacement; the metaphysics of family meals (borscht), to the memory-collapsing pain of losing a baby daughter. He favors stories, and The Book of My Lives tells them well and unapologetically, sometimes layering and other times peeling as it goes. Hemon’s wisdom and compassion are ubiquitous, and he himself is funny and thoughtful in person. We sat down at his neighborhood Chinese restaurant Furama to talk about the complicated truths and stories at the core of his own life and latest book.

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The Rumpus: My favorite Chinese expression is “jing di zhi wa”: the frog in the well who looks up and thinks he can see the entire expanse of heaven, but can actually only see a single circle of the sky. Reading The Book of My Lives, I had the thought that you never have that problem.

Aleksandar Hemon: That’s what the frog thinks.

Rumpus: Do you ever find yourself too far inside of a place to see or write about it clearly? Or do you observe from the margins?

the book of my livesHemon: To know the margin, like the frog, you have to know what the center is. And I have been on the margins in terms of having to find a place to live and getting a job, but at some point, and before that point, I always thought no matter where I am, that’s the center. I am the absolute center of everything. Everyone operates within their own domain and obviously those domains overlap to a great extent. I never thought of myself as an outsider. Because outside of what? You would have to give advantage to this space where you’re not, to think of it as sovereign because you’re not there. I was always in the center of where I needed to be.

What I was interested in is the lens organizing my sovereign space. I avoid the term outsider and also exile for the same reason. Outsider implies a kind of nobility. Washington D.C.! Congress is full of self-declared outsiders. It’s a tainted word, like freedom—”freedom” is the cheapest word. Outsider means you’re not responsible for any of it. Outsider means “I will accept the possibility that I don’t have responsibility for what is happening inside my domain.”

Rumpus: What about in terms of physical dislocation and geography? When you write about moving to the U.S. and assembling a street map in your mind, you say that borders are nonexistent in Sarajevo but in Chicago, they are designed to keep people safely apart. Is that a culture-shocked observation from when you were first here or an objective one about the nature of American cities in general?

Hemon: Chicago has very few public spaces where people are encouraged to get together. It’s partly to prevent riots, and also to segregate a city with a history of racial segregation. Giving people cars? It’s all under the pretense of giving everyone a lot of space. So circulation in the city is discouraged, at least functionally; the subway is designed to take people downtown to work and then back home. Bus lines, too. And whenever they cut services, they cut out the poor neighborhoods, which reinforces segregation even if it’s not cynical. Sarajevo and European cities are not designed the way Chicago is, like a grid. They tend to go out of the city center concentrically. So there was the sense of physical displacement, yes, and I needed to contend with that. So I assembled my domain.

Rumpus: Within that domain, what about personal interiority and exteriority? Do you have to blur those borders to write stories?

Hemon: When I was young, I was all about personal sovereignty and that junk, because there was no privacy and the available ideologies were collective, both socialism/communism and nationalism. And every agency—political and therefore, by extensions, all other agencies—were collective. And also I was young and this is what young people do when they want to assert themselves on the world. So I was all about individualism. Conan the Barbarian was one of my favorite movies. But only when I got here did I realize that I had overrated that kind of individualism and Conan the Barbarian was a proto-fascist in more than one way. In Sarajevo I thought I was inventing myself from scratch, but only once I was devoid of the network of the people and practices that are part of living in a city like that did I realize how much of my interiority and selfhood was really dependent—operated and actualized itself—upon that network of exchanges with other people. It’s about physical space but also just spending a lot of time with friends and family in your daily life.

Rumpus: Is that what culture shock is? The wobbly process of reinventing yourself in a context that isn’t what you’re used to?

Hemon: It’s a shock but I would call it a shock of displacement; culture is incidental to it. The primary thing is the physical displacement because your body knows the spaces. The culture shock operates at the level of the door handle because door handles are different here. You touch it, you feel other clicks, a new handle in a sense; your body is used to a lot of different sensations. So the shock is physical first. It’s the shock of the spaces.

Rumpus: One of the most moving parts of the book is the anecdote about your professor, Professor Koljevic, and your brutal disillusionment after he becomes one of the highest positioned members of the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS). After he has used his Shakespeare-laden brain to help you “unpack poems like Christmas presents,” you later try to unread, unlearn what you read and learned with him. Is it possible to unlearn? Or unread? Can we overwrite the shattering things we’ve learned?

Hemon: When [Professor Koljevic] was a teacher, he was apolitical. His approach was that we were all doing what we were doing in a safe zone, safe from politics and the various ugly things that were available at the time. I thought of it as ennobling, as in, If I keep learning this, I’ll be safe from all the shit, but it turned out he was a spy in that safe zone all along. Or at least the way he thought and talked about it did not in any way prevent his becoming a fascist. And then what is the purpose of it at all? We read Shakespeare and we think aren’t we great, but it turns out we are fascists and so what’s the point other than just enjoying it? The whole purpose of literature was called into question.

love and obstaclesWhat I had to unlearn and reevaluate was the way I thought about literature, which was significantly influenced by him. He influenced the way I think. He wasn’t the only one who became a fascist. Another of my professors was said to have been photographed kicking a human head like a soccer ball. But I had hated that professor from the first day I saw him. I didn’t have to undo anything he taught me because he taught me nothing. And so it was perfectly consistent when he joined SDS and became a fascist; it was no surprise at all. But this one [Professor Koljeciv], I thought that he was noble, ennobled by literature. I liked him and thought he was smart.

To unread, I read things with the facts of his fascism and the war in the equation. And the things I read looked different. I started appreciating and valuing different things. Some things just became insufferable to me, and not just literature. I used to like horror movies and now I couldn’t stand them. Gratuitous violence in general, but also Conan the Barbarian didn’t look the same—all that steel and muscle. So in that sense I had to start from scratch, but it coincided with—or was the same project as—acquiring the English language. So as I was re-reading and re-thinking about my professor’s influence, I was also acquiring the English language so that I could write in it. And I suppose I have no way of knowing if that project [the unlearning] worked, other than the acquisition of language. But if it did work, it was because of the high pressure. There were things at stake. I was not reading for pleasure; it was more complicated than that.

Rumpus: I took it to be a gesture of tremendous complexity and empathy that you mention the one-chapter book Professor Koljevic’s daughter’s wrote when she was little, Book of My Life, and then call your memoir The Book of My Lives.

Hemon: Thank you. I don’t know if I thought about that. I heard sometime before the war that his daughter had muscular dystrophy and was in horrible pain and her body was deformed. And when he shot himself, he was an alcoholic. A Guardian journalist who interviewed him shortly before [his death] speculated that his daughter’s suffering influenced that, helped him get into drinking. And there were other things, too. His daughter, I met her once, she was a sweet kid; she did nothing to me. And I have no idea what her relationship with her father was. I knew his son, too. He was slightly younger than I am. And as far as I know he did not become a fascist. He did not object in an ethically impressive way to his father doing terrible things; he maybe stayed in the domain of art. But he was not a fascist.

Rumpus: About staying in the domain of art—when Professor Koljevic says to you, “Stay out of this, stick to literature,” is that possible? To stay out of “it” and stick to literature?

Hemon: Not under siege, no, somehow you’re affected by war.

Rumpus: But can anybody who sticks to literature “stay out of it” politically?

Hemon: No, I don’t think so. But in a stable society, where all of the conflicts are either regulated or covered up, you can live under the impression that you are operating in separate domains of literature and politics.

Rumpus: In that situation, what would fuel your writing?

Hemon: I don’t know. Writing is a mode of agency in the world that is different from mere employment. There has to be some sort of ethical or moral drive, even if you are unaware of it. Politics is about ethics and morality, openly or not openly. So in other words: I have a vision of the world and there’s an ethical dimension. If I represent the world as it is as harmonious, that’s a political position. An unjust world represented as harmonious is a political position. War represented differently, or engagement represented differently, that’s a political position. But politics imagined as direct agency, whether by voting or by participating in politics, you can think you’re not political because you don’t do anything between elections.

Rumpus: You say your writing is tainted by helpless rage. I wonder about “helpless”—it feels like an engine that revs underneath the syntax. What fuels it now?

the lazarus projectHemon: The rage? I’ll tell you how it works. And I’m sure it complies with some sort of psychological disorder. I have a little bit of a cold and so my nose is running, and so I start thinking this all while I’m making tea this morning: there are germs everywhere. And there are germs everywhere because the climate is fucked up. And the climate is fucked up because everybody’s indulgent and politicians who thump their chests, talking about America, the country? They’re not doing anything about it. And my daughters’ world is in peril because what is it going to be like in fifty years? New York is going to be flooded. So this rant goes in my head while I’m making tea. And then something happens and I’m off it. When I was writing The Lazarus Project, I wrote pages and pages and pages of rants against Bush’s America and Bush himself. But then I cut it all out—I didn’t cut it, it never made it into the first draft. I write in longhand and when I wrote in longhand they were there, but when I typed, I edited and decided not to put them in. I put in some rants and assigned them to [The Lazarus Project's protagonist] Brik, because he has a similar kind of rage. But I didn’t fully succumb to it. I wanted to share this rage—in the book or in person, to anyone who would listen. I knew it was empty energy unless it could be converted into something else. Something else being a story or a character like Brik.

So I threw a lot of it away—but it stays there, too. And it is perhaps a source of energy because it comes out of a need, sometimes a  desperate need to be engaged with the world. I want to change something. I want to stop the germs from attacking my daughters.

Rumpus: What about your daughters? You live in an all-girl family, a veritable feminist commune.

Hemon: I swim in a sea of estrogen.

Rumpus: How is that?

Hemon: It’s great, it’s warm. I love it. I’m sure if we had a boy or boys, I know I would love them. But I love girls. I love that situation. I love watching them becoming people. And to think that not so long ago there was a time when a father would not want his girls to do certain things, because it was improper—would have violated some code so that I wouldn’t have let my daughter play soccer, would buy her only pink stuff, so that she’s sensitive to pink and other pink things. It’s silly.

Rumpus: It almost makes you feel like there’s a context in which “freedom” can be a less cheap word.

Hemon: It does. When I came to the U.S. even before I came to Chicago, I traveled a lot. I went to Canada to see a friend, a woman I had met in Ukraine in the summer of ’91. And she had a friend who was a journalist and we were talking, and I was—part of my knee-jerk nihilism at the time—I was saying that the world doesn’t change, there’s no progress, it’s war all the time, we don’t learn from anything, other than technology it’s not different from medieval times. She objected. She said, “That’s not true. A generation ago I couldn’t vote. I wouldn’t have been able to vote.” And I did not argue because it was self-evidently true. And to claim the world doesn’t change, you need a certain privilege to claim that, if it looks the same to you. I dropped that position at that moment.

There is a point in fighting. There is a point in struggle. Not wholesale revolution, maybe, that might not be possible, an absolutely just society, but there are plenty of spaces and places where it’s worth putting up a fight.

Rumpus: Can you name some of them?

Hemon: Well this country, or any country. I have a hard time imagining a country or a government where I would say, “Oh, this is good,” where I could live under a government that I respect for a day or a week, even to see what it feels like. It’s never happened in my life, not even close. So I hope for less anger. So I’m far from happy with the Obama Administration/Regime, but I’m less angry than I was under the Bushes’ administration. I’m still angry about many things.

I feel guilty eating while you’re working.

Rumpus: This isn’t work for me. What’s your idea about the notion of genius? Does it exist? Are people geniuses?

Hemon: You walk into an Apple Store and throw a stick and you’ll hit a Genius. It’s another cheap word.

nowhere manSeems to me that geniuses would have to know what they are doing. The way Einstein is a genius. Or Beethoven: someone who affects a wholesale change in the domain. I’m bright, but there are lots of bright writers and people everywhere. In no way, at no point do I think I’m better than them. I went to a MacArthur Foundation retreat once; it was the only time I met anyone from the Foundation, a weekend retreat up in Wisconsin. A few fellows were there for a weekend and everyone gave a presentation. At any given point, I felt that I was the stupidest person in the room, and I was perfectly happy to be there. There was no cosmology. There were doctors who revolutionized the way people think about intensive care and treatment of traumatic injuries. A microbiologist who figured out ways in which bacteria or viruses become virulent, because you can have a certain amount of germs inside you and your body can fight them, but when the threshold is met somehow they all turn. And how do they communicate within the body? They had these presentations and I was in absolute awe. I just felt like an amateur. And it did not insult my ego at all. In fact, it was the most privileged position that I had access to, because I’m a dilettante by temperament. I don’t have any expectation, anything, so to hear people actually know what they’re doing was amazing.

Rumpus: So in spite of the fact that you’re no longer living in an SRO, you still have your thumb on the pulse of vital Chicago?

Hemon: I know a lot of people in the city, at all levels, horizontally and vertically—and that to me is a privilege, to me as a person but also a writer. I’ve dined with billionaires, and I play soccer with busboys.

Rumpus: Dined with who?

Hemon: Billionaires.

Rumpus: Oh, I thought you said Bill Ayers, and I was like, I know that guy. [Bill Ayers is DeWoskin's father-in-law.]

Hemon: Well, that too. What’s the expression Sarah Palin said? Palling around with terrorists? I’ve done that, too.

Rumpus: About those horizontal and vertical levels: what about your students? What about teaching ESL?

Hemon: I loved it. It was a good job. I loved my students. I recognized some of them; they reminded me of my parents, both their situation and my parents themselves. When my parents were in Canada they went to ESL class with other immigrants. Most of my students were Russian speakers. I loved engaging with them.

Rumpus: I love teaching ESL because the students have no access to cliché, so they can’t relax into it in boring ways.  I often find their writing to be grammatically odd and uniquely expressive. It has its own kind of accuracy.

Hemon: In my class, the students had a drive to represent themselves, and they had very few occasions outside of the classroom—many of them had no job, and if they did, it was not a job where they’d engage with other people directly. It was more low-wage jobs, they worked in factories or packing bags at Dominick’s. I remember one of my students, an older man, who, toward the end of the term, went and got his driver’s license by himself. He was as proud as anyone I’ve ever seen. Because he actually managed to operate in this society, this level of logistics. My students wanted to talk about where they came from and who they were and what their lives were like, but also what they thought about this country, this everything. And it was not always a happy exchange; they were unhappy in some ways. Their prejudices found different targets, but it was engaging.

Rumpus: Do you ever write poetry anymore?

Hemon: No.

Rumpus: What about your terrible high school poems? Is there any hope of the world getting to see them?

Hemon: The world has enough problems.

They’re in a storage room somewhere, and I have those files. I was so obsessed with language—it was so constantly in my head. And I would just sit in front of a typewriter (that’s how old I am). And I would bang out the poems—I didn’t even know what they were—I would look at them after and wonder, What did I get? In the evening they would be about this and in the morning they would be about something else. And so I would force them upon my friends so they would tell me—well, I was hoping they would tell me they were good, of course, but also that they would tell me what they were about. How I’d affected them. And that didn’t work at all; my friends were avoiding me, saying, “No, please don’t!” But then I deployed some of those poems. I had a band and those poems were the lyrics, and it was all going swimmingly until the drummer refused to drum until I explained to him what the lyrics were about. You need the drummer. So I had to sit down with him and tell him this dazzling bullshit about what the poems were about.

Rumpus: What did you say?

Hemon: This and that, a whole projection. Now I understand how many critics work.

And I convinced him so much so that he started writing his own poetry, which managed to be even worse than mine. And then he wanted to use that as lyrics, so I had to try to fight that off. And then the band fell apart. Internal differences.

I started writing fiction/prose when I de-versed one of the poems. I converted it into a story.

Rumpus: Why?

the question of brunoHemon: It just looked like a story, so for some reason I decided not to pretend it was a poem. And then it was better. It was a short short. And I submitted it to some radio contest for short shorts and it won the second prize.  Nobody wanted to read my poems and this little thing, I just de-versed it, if such a word exists, and then someone responded to it. The worst poems? I read Rilke, the Duino Elegies and I tried to write like that. I didn’t even understand Rilke, never mind my stuff. But you know? There’s no bad writing; you did something. I was operating inside language, and I did something. I’m not ashamed of it.

Rumpus: So no poetry. What about movies? Will you let your books be movies?

Hemon: My agent said one time that there was some interest in the book, and then they read the book.

Rumpus: There’s a moment in the final chapter of the book, about the final moments of Isabel’s life, in which you write “My memory collapses.” Is it possible to re-imagine what you can’t remember? My friend, the writer Emily Rapp, who just lost her baby, Ronan, to Tay-Sachs, likes to respond, “Yes, you can,” when people say, “I can’t imagine.” Where you can’t (or can’t stand to) remember, can you imagine? Can imagination and memory compensate for each other?

Hemon: I think they can. It requires an effort, agency, so that you want to imagine what is deemed as unimaginable. And even if you’ve never fully imagined it, it is essential that we approximate it as much as possible. It applies to the Holocaust and it applies to the suffering of Baby Ronan. Of course, it might be more comfortable not to do that, but then you operate in the world of entertainment, where all the difficult questions are alighted or softened for easy consumption. This is a culture that continuously, consistently refuses to deal with the fact of death, on so many levels. From zombie and vampire movies, to the insane amount of death you can see at any moment on television or in the movie theaters, which makes it unreal, to the steady supply and pool of dreadful clichés when people talk about death. When the children in [Newtown] were killed and Obama said, “God called them home,” I wanted to break something.

But that’s not really for the parents or the children. It’s for the rest of us who do not want to think about it; the cliché activates the comfortable mental laziness, we sort of revert to the domain of the already-familiar, what we have already imagined so that it doesn’t seem that bad, and then slowly it slides out of view and then we think, Well, we will live forever.

Even when I’m dead, I can be a vampire, and have sex to eternity.

Rumpus: And eat dim sum.

Hemon: And eat dim sum.


Rachel DeWoskin’s novel, Big Girl Small, (FSG 2011) is the recipient of the 2012 American Library Association’s Alex Award and was named one of the top 3 books of 2011 by Newsday. DeWoskin’s memoir, Foreign Babes in Beijing (WW Norton 2005) about the years she spent in China as the unlikely star of a Chinese soap opera, has been published in six countries and is being developed as a television series by HBO. Her debut novel, Repeat After Me (Overlook Press, 2009), won a Foreward Magazine Book of the Year award. Rachel has written essays and articles for Vanity Fair, The Sunday Times Magazine of London, Teachers and Writers, and Conde Nast Traveler, and has published poems in journals including Ploughshares, Seneca Review, New Delta Review, Nerve Magazine and The New Orleans Review. She teaches memoir and fiction at the University of Chicago, and divides her time between Chicago and Beijing with her husband, playwright Zayd Dohrn, and their two little girls. Her most recent novel, Blind, will be released in August 2014. More from this author →