— Aleksandar Hemon landed in the United States two
decades ago, January 1992. He was 27, a young Bosnian
journalist from Sarajevo arriving on a one-month visa,
arranged through a cultural exchange program sponsored
by the State Department. Just after he arrived, war
broke out in Yugoslavia. Hemon was stranded. In the
years since, as he settled into this country and became
an acclaimed writer — one of Chicago’s finest
contemporary writers and arguably its most important
literary talent since Saul Bellow — Hemon has told
this immigration story many, many times.
have to be honest," he said. "I don’t get
excited repeating it anymore, explaining to people how I
arrived at this point." Then he adds, "But I
do like stories, and I do get pleasure from telling a
so, not unlike Joan Didion, who famously wrote, "We
tell ourselves stories in order to live," he told
me a story: "After I arrived, the last stop of my
tour was New York City, and as corny as this sounds, I
remember walking around Manhattan, going to this place,
to that place, moving through hotel lobbies, and I’m
not sure why, but the Beatles’ ‘Nowhere Man’ was
following the entire time. Things were getting worse in
Yugoslavia — now ‘Nowhere Man’! It was too easy,
like walking in a bad movie. And yet — what was I
going to do now?"
is so much story to the story of Aleksandar Hemon, so
much incident, acclaim and tragedy, spanning three
decades and two continents, that, though he has four
celebrated works of semi-autobiographical fiction and
now a collection of essays, "The Book of My
Lives" — which arrived Tuesday, its very title a
nod at how expansive those lives have been — we need
to start small.
start there because, as we rewind through his history,
it offers a kind of calm. Hemon plays in an informal
league in the Uptown neighborhood several times a week;
he had played soccer all his life, but during his first
years in Chicago, he didn’t play at all.
playing soccer tormented me," he writes in
"The Book of My Lives." When I asked why he
didn’t play, he said he couldn’t, that, though he
had left Sarajevo before fighting began, and his parents
got out before the first mortar shell exploded,
something had severed inside. It’s why, for the first
three years he lived in Chicago, he could not write,
was not yet ready for me to write in, and my Bosnian, it
was not functioning for me — the war had somehow
(expletive) it up for me."
one morning, he decided to join a pickup game, and
slowly "his relationship with Chicago, initially a
relationship of necessity, became one of love,"
said John Freeman, his close friend and editor of Granta,
the British literary magazine. Hemon played with
Montrose Harbor leagues and Lincoln Park teams; the
Uptown group he plays with now, on a baseball field
adjacent to Senn High School, he’s played with for a
a recent cold Saturday morning, freezing rain tapped on
the empty parking lot alongside the field. Just after 7
a.m., cars began arriving, old and gray and dented,
driven by youngish guys in tracksuits. Then new BMWs and
oldish guys showed up. Then Hemon, on a bike, standing
on the pedals, gliding around the backstop.
leaped off his bike and warmed up, jumping in tight
pirouettes and kicking at the sky. Meanwhile, the field
grew crowded with players, a wild social and class mix:
new immigrants with lousy jobs, old immigrants with
lousy jobs, men with scars from internment camps;
Indians, Iranians, Irish; brain surgeons, cell
biologists. Hemon was the only writer, the only
MacArthur Foundation "genius." He’s also the
tallest member of the team, broad-shouldered, bald and
players shoveled the field, creating boundaries with the
snow, and the game started. A few minutes in, a short
Nigerian with braids began yelling, "Sasha! Sasha!"
Hemon, whose nickname is Sasha, was playing midfield.
Three goal-scorers had flown right past him. "How,
Sasha?" the man yelled. Hemon said nothing. The
player beside Hemon sighed, "I know, I know …"
The Nigerian cut him off: "What you mean? If you
knew, you wouldn’t!"
his wife, Teri Boyd (a former Chicago Tribune photo
editor), told me her husband was on his best behavior,
most likely because I was standing there. Charlie
Callahan, a team member (and vice president at
Rothschild Investment Corp.), told me: "I couldn’t
say how many times I’ve talked Sasha off his bike and
into staying when he’s mad. He has an economy of
speech, so it’s interesting to hear a literate person
threaten. I also couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve
heard him say, ‘If you keep that up,’ and ‘I am
going to hurt you.’"
few days before that game, we sat at Hopleaf, the pub
that Hemon calls his second home, a few blocks from his
actual home. We talked about awards, and he told me
about being nominated in 2008 for a National Book Award,
for "The Lazarus Project," his best-seller
telling parallel stories across a century, one about a
Jewish immigrant killed by Chicago police in 1908, the
other about an Eastern European writer in Chicago
obsessed with the story. Hemon has a dense Eastern
European accent and a bemused, watchful face. He said he
hated the experience of being nominated, "because I
wanted to win, and I didn’t want to want it. People
were rubbing my shoulders as they announced my name, and
I am like, ‘Please! Stop touching me!’" (He did
added, "Even now, with this new book, it is well
and nice, but if I want anything now, it is for nothing
bad to happen. I just went skiing with my family in
Colorado. Fantastic, but the accomplishment I felt was
that no one was hurt. My goal this year, it is to not
have a catastrophe."
he said this, he waved his hand and sent a glass of
water cascading across the table.
jumped up and ran for napkins, and as I waited for him
to return, my mind wandered. Imagine being an aspiring
writer, going to a country, being stranded, paralyzed
with fear, unable to communicate. On the other hand,
that’s easier to imagine than what came next: Hemon
set a goal of learning English and publishing a book in
five years. To say he succeeded is an understatement. As
crowded as the pool of contemporary writers wrestling
with the American experience has become — Junot Diaz,
Colum McCann, Jhumpa Lahiri — no discussion is
complete without him. He created a body of stories so
loaded with displacement, disconnection, humor, Chicago
and Sarajevo, so consistent in voice — and
occasionally in character, carrying some from book to
book — "his work can feel like a massive,
singular literary project," said Sean McDonald, his
longtime editor, now executive editor at publishing
imprint Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
massive act of thinly veiled fiction, read as a seamless
whole. In "Nowhere Man," his 2002 book, he
writes of an immigrant canvassing Chicago, as Hemon did:
"‘Hello,’ Pronek said, ‘my name is Jozef and
I am from Greenpeace. Do you care about the dolphins?’"
In a chapter of his new book, "Reasons Why I Do Not
Wish to Leave Chicago: An Incomplete, Random List,"
he writes, for No. 13: "The highly muggable
suburbanites patrolling Michigan Avenue, identifiable by
their Hard Rock Cafe shirts, oblivious to the city
beyond the shopping and entertainment areas." And
in "Lazarus," though not of himself, he
writes: "I am a reasonably loyal citizen of a
couple of countries. In America — that somber land —
I waste my vote, pay taxes grudgingly, share my life
with a native wife, and try hard not to wish painful
death to the idiotic president."
Gibbons, a Chicago poet and Northwestern University
professor, was first to publish him, in the late 1990s
in the journal TriQuarterly. He told me Hemon’s first
stories, written as he was still grasping English,
needed the lightest of editing, and as Hemon continued
writing, "it became clear that here was a guy out
of nowhere, ambitious and operating in the tradition of
unbelievable European writers who write in English the
way Americans never do, who see everyday life as
painful, but absurdly painful — even fantastical at
comparisons between Hemon and Vladimir Nabokov, another
late-to-English Eastern European fabulist (and closet
humorist), dot reviews of Hemon’s work. Throw in grim
European stylists like Isaac Babel and Franz Kafka, and
his writing comes into clearer focus.
who is from Ireland, recalled meeting Hemon just after
the 2000 publication of "The Question of
Bruno," Hemon’s first book.
were both emigrants, we were both (soccer) fans, we both
had bad hairdos, but most of all we cared about
literature. It was always about language, the way words
slip in under our skin. We were both writing because we
felt it was the only thing we could do. He wrote as if
his life depended on it, and I recognized that
feeling." Then he added: "He is the best
writer of our generation. I don’t think it’s
immigrant fiction. … It’s fiction that belongs
STORY CAN END HERE)
question: How long have you been writing in English? I’ve
been a journalist since about the time Hemon arrived in
Chicago; everything I’ve written has been in English.
Here is the first sentence of the first book Hemon
wrote: "We got up at dawn, ignored the yolky sun,
loaded our navy-blue Austin with suitcases and then
drove straight to the coast, stopping only on the verge
of Sarajevo, so I could pee." That sentence
contains nearly every note in Hemon’s writing ever
since. Have you ever written anything as good?
Hemon returned to the table with napkins, I asked what
he meant about avoiding more catastrophe. Eventually he
answered the question, but at first he told me a
different story, about survival and chocolate.
think I believe in the power of despair. Hope is nice
for television, but for me, it is a liberating moment
when you move in one direction because all other
directions are blocked. It is why I have always written
despite everything. It is refugee metaphysics. For
generations, my family, both sides, the concern was
always survival. The pursuit of happiness was a few
steps ahead always. But I grew up with middle-class
standards, so I struggle with this. My parents were
college-educated and would never have any wealth, and it
was fine. But my father, he knew poverty once, and when
he would travel abroad, he would bring back chocolate.
He would expect us to stretch it. But we knew chocolate.
We would devour it in like 10 minutes! And yet, when I
moved here in the ‘90s and had nothing, I could hear
him: ‘Don’t get used to the chocolate.’"
you know, Isabel died. Then my wife had surgery. So it’s
an annual thing. I am very tired of hospitals."
and Boyd — his second wife, after a 2005 divorce —
have a 5-year-old daughter, Ella, and a 16-month-old
named Esther, who, in 2011, was diagnosed with a very
rare medical condition called Prader-Willi syndrome. It
makes its sufferers ravenous, compulsively hungry; its
victims have been known to eat themselves to death.
you read the possible outcomes online, it looks like an
absolute disaster," Hemon said, "but Esther is
doing well, and some things express themselves
differently in different people."
there was summer 2012.
was having horrible headaches," Boyd told me,
"and a couple of doctors said it was probably a
result of the stress, but it was a cyst — a cyst
growing on my brain." Which led to a pair of brain
surgeries. (Boyd said she feels OK but added, "No,
I still don’t feel the same, to be honest.")
presumed stress she alluded to, Esther’s condition
aside, was assumed because of what happened in 2010.
took Isabel, their 9-month-old, for a routine checkup.
The doctor thought Isabel’s head seemed abnormally
large. Tests confirmed a tumor on her brain. She had a
rare form of cancer with a low survival rate, and she
died four months later. Hemon dedicated "The Book
of My Lives" to Isabel, "forever breathing on
its concluding story, "The Aquarium," which
appeared in The New Yorker less than a year after Isabel’s
death, is an unsparing account of Isabel’s last months
and Ella’s ability to cope by telling stories. It was
written in the Chicago production offices of filmmakers
Lana and Andy Wachowski (of "Matrix" and
"Cloud Atlas" fame), close friends of Hemon’s.
He normally writes (longhand) in coffeehouses and at a
writers studio on Broadway, but explained, "I
needed a weeping room, a place to write and weep at the
if she had hesitations about his writing that story,
Boyd said, "Yes, but I knew that he needed
if he had his own hesitations, Hemon replied:
"Well, I could not not write it. The only other
possibility was waiting, but the pain would not be less,
and if I can’t write about the painful things, then I
am a hack."
voice never cracked, and his eyes, visibly watery, never
flowed. "Trauma by definition is a rupture, a
segregating of life into before and after. There is
continuity in that we still love Isabel, but there is
also her absence. Therapeutically speaking, I want to
work toward one life again. We have two other children
and in more ways than one, Isabel is present in them. So
you develop a kind of layered conscience: You are aware
of your child who is here now, but you also miss, and
are always thinking of, your child who is not."
is not a sentimental guy.
do not wish to express ‘strength’ in these
situations," he said of his family’s troubles. He
is warm, funny at times but nonchalant. Asked how he was
able to write so well in English so fast, a story one
might assume is worthy of a story itself, he explained
that he had no choice. That, in 1995, after three years
of flailing at bad jobs in Chicago (bike messenger,
restaurant worker), he simply began writing, not always
knowing what words meant in English, but looking each
one up and storing it on an index card. He had studied
literature and written stories at the University of
Sarajevo, so he "reread in English the books I had
already read," he said, "partly to see how
they worked in English and what they meant now — in
light of significant developments."
well, that the literature professor who had meant the
most to Hemon during his college days in Sarajevo turned
out to be a proponent of the Bosnian genocide (and later
had thought there was solidarity between people of
sophisticated tastes," Hemon said. "Turns out,
life does not work like that."
goal, he said, was simply to bide his time, steeping
himself in writing and books. He received a master’s
degree in literature at Northwestern University, then
went to Loyola University for his doctorate. He began
making a name for himself in literary journals.
was literally five pages from finishing my thesis when
my agent called and said she had sold my book," he
said. "So, I literally stopped writing, stood up
and never finished."
made a hand-wiping motion.
asked, is that arrogant?
replied, how so?
said, a book deal is no promise of success.
told me a story: "James Joyce was 19, and he went
up to Yeats, who was much older, and said, ‘You are
too old for me to help.’ I remember reading that and
thinking, ‘(Expletive) yeah.’ But you have to be a
little crazy to write. I want to write a masterpiece,
though I have not yet probably, and if this makes me
final thing: Hemon will never leave Chicago.
says this. His wife says this. Though when I mentioned
it, he said: "I needed the infrastructure of a
hometown. But I wasn’t looking to be rooted. I was
looking to spread wide, not deep. I just wanted to know
a lot of people."
truth is, as unsentimental as he seems, he is
sentimental about the city. At the most recent monthly,
invitation-only gathering he hosts at Hopleaf —
started after Isabel died, as a way of building a
community of creative types — he never dropped his
goofy grin, jutting out his upper lip in delight. The
room was stuffed with artists, and Hemon was the center
of attention without seeming like the center of
best friend from home, Velibor Bozovic, now a
photographer in Montreal, put it differently, very
was in Sarajevo throughout the war. My first trip out, I
went to Chicago. I hadn’t seen Sasha in five
years," he said. "It was so cold, but we had
to walk the whole city anyway! He had to tell me about
the neighborhoods, the architecture, the people, so many
things. He was so obviously in love. But then, after
(making) a radical cut from your old life, you learn to
survive. Sasha might have ended up in hell, and I’m
not sure anything would be different."