Often credited as a multi-genre writer, Aleksandar Hemon’s repertoire includes short stories, novels, nonfiction and screenplays. Yet even so, Hemon resists, redefines and liberates his prose from genre labels by incorporating multiple forms and styles throughout each work. For Hemon, as a writer and professor, it is not about what a piece of writing “is” in a categorical sense, but rather how to employ the possibilities of language to construct complex narrative spaces. “My Parents: An Introduction” and “This Does Not Belong to You,” the two volumes that constitute Hemon’s latest work, are no exception.
“This Does Not Belong to You” is composed of discrete memories from childhood to young adulthood with a “present-tense” Hemon reflecting on them in some instances. Although they can be read as standalone pieces, the book as a whole can be interpreted as a case study on memory. We see a writer intent on the preservation of his memory—not only with what happened but also how memory moves in the body and the mind. With an intense focus on word-level considerations, Hemon creates both interiority and atmosphere, which are stylistically punctuated by the gaps and enjambments that accompany the experience of remembering (which is just as much about not-remembering).
“My Parents: An Introduction” is also concerned with Hemon’s past, but incorporates a wider domain of historical analysis, sociopolitical inquiry and narrative terrains. The book revolves around his and his parents’ immigration from Bosnia to North America due to the political upheaval and genocide in the 1990s. But for Hemon to do so requires engagement across multiplying contexts such as Eastern European history, psychology and narratology. “My Parents” is just as concerned with the present as it is the past by examining the nexus of nationalism, fantasy and political utopia in what was his Yugoslavia alongside the contemporary United States.
After living in Chicago for most of his literary career, Sasha Hemon took a position at Princeton last year and left for New Jersey; we conducted this interview via Skype. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you describe the process of writing these two books?
As I was writing “My Parents,” all these memories of my childhood and family life began bubbling up. There were quite a few memories I could never quite forget, and I could never quite understand why they were so persistent and indelible, why I was so stuck on remembering them and what they meant. I started writing them down in one-hundred, 200, 300 words without any ambition or plan to publish. When I had around one hundred of them, I brought them to my publisher and my agent and they were surprised—and so was I—because I am two books behind on my original contract.
Eventually we came up with the format of putting these two books together because you run into issues when you try to publish two books around the same time, and the book of memories is a little weird so I don’t know if it would have survived by itself.
By weird do you mean the stylistic choices in terms of the missing punctuation or incorporating different spacing choices in the memories? Did you write those in as you were remembering or after in revision?
That was part of the process. As I was writing, I would try to see what would happen if I did this or did that, and some of those were obvious choices to me, as if somehow I knew how to write them.
There’s a running motif of destruction and deconstruction in “This Does Not Belong to You.” Some memories include smashing plates with your sister, burying a broken toy car in the yard, and the “un-building, the pleasure of disarticulation” when taking apart your Lego homes. Is this a destructive space between “memory” and “story?” Do you believe by writing down a memory, you destroy it or deconstruct it into something else?
Once a memory is narratized, it becomes an object, which means it is transferable and no longer amorphous and diffuse. It becomes solid, and this is even before writing it down. Once you write it down, each of those things become an object that is unalterable and therefore becomes an element in the world, and this transfer is both productive and destructive.
In my fiction, I have integrated some of my memories and in the process I embellished them; and now I can’t remember in certain instances what happened and what I embellished. Those memories became a thing unto itself because they became a text.
There’s a certain amount of loss in writing down a memory, but it also ensures the memory lasts. So there is this negotiation when converting something into a lasting object and losing something when doing so.
What do you lose?
This sense of continuous, active remembering as an internal experience. The text remembers, but I don’t.
“This Does Not Belong to You” feels stark (without sacrificing on detail), whereas “My Parents” is more text-heavy and includes footnotes that provide exposition on historical data, psychology paradigms, and narrative theory while also adding in humor and wisecracks. What is the relationship between the text and the footnotes?
The thing with writing about my life and the lives of my parents in the United States is that Americans may not have that historical background, so you have to explain yourself from scratch and footnote your whole existence. I’ve always dealt with that, as I’m sure many immigrant writers do, and some of the first stories I published in “The Question of Bruno” had endnotes and footnotes in order to deploy vital information in, let’s say, some kind of nonstandard way. I wanted to provide as much information as possible but at the same time I didn’t want it to be dry: it’s the lives of the people I love, so I had to straddle those two considerations. But some of the information in the footnotes are just whimsical and I included them because they were interesting to me.
While we’re on “My Parents,” you invoke the image of concentric circles to describe your father’s identity because of his family’s migration and how the same piece of land was at different times called Vucijak, Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Ukraine. Do you think this same idea of concentrism can be applied to genre, especially when a work adopts many different disciplines?
Genre is a way to organize narrative space, to conceptualize the complexity of narrative situations. Memoirs, essays, novels, none of those terms fit exactly; it’s only when you pile them on that they begin to describe what I am trying to do. I don’t think I’m the only one doing it, but I think the reduction to one genre misses the target.
The lives of my parents were never, not for a moment, outside of history; so, I could not talk about my parents as an isolated bourgeois unit that minded their own business and lived their own melodramas. You cannot talk about their lives without talking about history, which is itself concentric circles: you have local history, the history of the city, the history of the country, the history of the bigger country, the history of the region, the history of Europe, the history of the world.
I can’t think of my life or anyone’s life except as a set of complex, concentric narrative spaces where people must make choices in historical situations which were not under their control.
You mention Bosnian does not have separate terms for fiction and nonfiction; instead, it’s about using the possibilities of language to produce as they are produced by rich narrative spaces (or narrative architecture). How does the essayistic voice play a role in this understanding?
An essay is an exercise in thinking in language—and I wouldn’t call it “voice,” but rather, the “consciousness” that is thinking and operating in language. I think all writing is thinking in language, but you can code your own thoughts and dialogical discussions in a novel through the plot, characters, or the internal logic of that genre. For instance, if you have a plot, you expect it to be resolved in some way. If the characters are in love, they’re going to make it… or not.
But with the essayistic form, there’s a different way of communication with the reader. The writer is in some ways more direct and less determined by a genre’s conventions. The predictability factor is in some ways different—I don’t know if it’s lower or higher—but it’s different.
The thinking I like the most, especially when writing, is the thinking that surprises me. So, if the essay is consciousness on the page, do you think it opens up more opportunities for unpredictability and surprise?
I think part or even most of the pleasure in all writing and all literature is related to a sense of discovery, a sense of acquiring knowledge that is not available otherwise. But the modes of acquisition in the novel and the essay are different. A novel’s mode is not directly conveyed as a thought or as a thesis to be proven or disproven. But in the essay, the proposition is “I am going to think before you and then you engage in that thinking and see where we get from there.”
A theme that both books share is nostalgia. How has thinking about nostalgia shaped you?
Nostalgia is a narrative operation, it’s the kind of retroactive utopia no matter how you bend it. There’s individual, personal, reflective nostalgia, where you’re young and you partied on the seaside. The smell of the pines, and the sea, and the girls and boys, and drinking, and all that, right? That’s irretrievable, it’s gone. It’s a narrative engagement, it’s a recollection that is never completed, and so there’s some beauty to it, of course, but it’s nonproductive.
Conversely, there’s a collective, nationalist nostalgia for some imaginary place or country that was pure until the foreigners, traitors, feminists fucked it all up. It posits, “Oh, there was a time where it was all good for us…” The tricky thing about nationalism is that it looks local and unique, but a collective, restorative and nationalist nostalgia is a prime symptom of fascism.
You don’t mention it outright, but you make allusions to “Make X-Land Great Again” and the dangers of ultra-patriotism and national fantasy when you discuss how your native nation(s) fell in “My Parents.” How has the Trump administration impacted this book?
Some parts of “My Parents” were written before Trump was elected and even perhaps before he announced his nomination. But the beginning of it all was the refugee crisis and how it was represented in Europe and the United States. Even before this Ellis Island mythology, refugees and even immigrants in general have been represented as this faceless, zombie-like mass with no lives, no individuality, no complexity; they are just driven by a hunger to “get what we have.” But this is not really the case: Everyone is a person and everyone has a story.
I could deduce that those people on the boats in the Mediterranean or crossing the border into Texas have lives, families, pasts, narratives, but you rarely see a face and it’s hard to get a story when you can’t see an actual person.
Western culture has treated them as empty nobodies who have no life, no history, no past, but they do. There’s a whole universe in each person and I obviously cannot talk about all those people individually, but I know my parents and I wanted to show a life of these ordinary people living through extraordinary circumstances.
And not just the MacArthur geniuses?
Well, my parents are not, but there is a complexity, a fullness, the concentric circles of life, and I wanted to convey that in the wake of the refugee crisis in Europe and the crisis that is Trump. I’m also working on a collection of narratives of Bosnian refugees from twenty-five to twenty-seven years ago and it’s called “How Did You Get Here?”
Narration is migration. Anyone who moves from one place to another has a story to tell, and Trump is openly denying the value of that. So both these projects are ethically relevant as they are narratively relevant.
Every refugee is more intelligent than Trump because one way to become stupid is to have no mental challenges, and Trump has never been challenged mentally.
Can we talk about your Twitter for a second? You have these really interesting #Trumpoetry Tweets where you rewrite his phrases into poems. Why did you start doing them?
I was trying to come up with an editing exercise for my students to show how language is malleable, how cuts and organization can create a semblance of meaning. But no matter how you bend Trump’s words, there’s nothing there. It’s a total void and the exercise ended up exposing his vacuity. It’s fascinating; you look for a thought, and there’s no thought.
This vacuity contrasts with how you describe your father’s identity as possessing plural “interconnected and interdependent” ones, and I’m wondering how you think that idea plays out on the level of the state? We saw on the campaign trail how “identity politics” that focused on only one or two identity markers as salient and intelligible worked out really well for one candidate and disastrously for the other.
You can think of identity politics as reductive, that it is pinning an identity on a person and ensuring that the person abides by the demands of that particular identity. And of course society puts pressure on some identities more than others. What bigotry—meaning racism, sexism, homophobia—does is assign and reduce you to an identity so that it becomes a dismissible one. And that, of course, creates a hierarchy where at the top is white, heterosexual, Anglo-Saxon men. For them, that simplification works. The reward for being reduced is being at the top of it all, which only works for these white, heterosexual, Anglo-Saxon men.
One of the words that is bounced around is intersectionality, and it’s a graduate school word for that fact that we are all layers of many things that make us complex people. To me, the greatness of humanity, the greatness of human life, the potential of human life, is precisely containing all these potentialities, these various dimensions of oneself. And one can act personally, politically and intellectually from many of those positions simultaneously.
The more aspects or facets of identity that one can express and live in, the more one is free. But to have a full expression of one’s multi-identity, of one’s potentiality, you need democracy. You need a diverse multicultural, multifaceted society which is tolerant not out of kindness of the heart but because that’s the logic of the democracy: it ensures the maximum amount of freedom for everyone regardless of the combination of their identities.
The counter-impulse, the Trumpist impulse, is to reduce democracy, to reduce and control the field in which people can express their complex identities and to create a field in which the most simplistic identities are the ones that gain. There is no range or continuity between gender identities, no racial gradations or nuances, no complex sexual identities, no complex ethnic identities, no complex class identities, all that is being constantly simplified.
In “This Does Not Belong to You,” one of your memories from your childhood is about coming home after spending weekends at the coast. You write, “Home is a place where there is a void when you’re not there; home is what your body fills out. Nowadays we live elsewhere and otherwise, but there is still nobody in our place when we are not there… Here, there, wherever I may be, I’m always absent somewhere.” How has your relationship to Chicago changed after being away for a year?
I miss Chicago, but I’m not suffering at Princeton. I visited Chicago and it was the first time I ever stayed in a hotel, which was strange. I have a similar relationship to Sarajevo. When I go there, I’m both at home and coming from my home. I see people, I hang out, I know where I want to eat and dance and wherever else, but then I go back home. It is possible to multiply homes.
You write “When I was a boy, I wanted to be a historian.” Do you think you’ve accomplished that as a writer?
Well, there’s a difference. History is, and should consist of, or at least be buffered by facts. Historians do this work of collecting and interpreting facts that are vetted and consolidated by the work of the whole field of history. Not because one historian said so, but from the critical mass of testimonies, accumulating discourse, and other indisputable sources.
Literature does not operate that way. It’s not facts. But what literature does, I think, is that history is lived in. You can conceptualize by way of the work of the historians, but everyone lives in history. It is a mental, physical, linguistic experience. So how do you organize, narrate or convey that not as facts, not as discourse, not as a system of events if you wish, but as this experience?
One way to think about it is that history is the totality of human experience, and so it needs to generalize from everyone’s experiences, whereas literature is how we have access to individual or collective experiences in a more digested form. As a writer, I prefer individual experiences because each person contains an entire universe of stories, of infinite potentialities through their imaginations, and each of these stories are the stuff of literature.
In this way, literature doesn’t have to generalize; literature can operate under the assumption everyone is different; it’s ideally and ultimately a democratic space. Everyone can be different in literature.
Aleksandar Hemon will be in conversation with Nami Mun at Women and Children First on June 27 at 7pm.
“My Parents: An Introduction” / “This Does Not Belong to You”
By Aleksandar Hemon
MCD x FSG Books, 368 pages