Aleksandar Hemon in Conversation with Colum McCann

Hemon_mccall In the Believer:

COLUM McCANN: What are we doing here? Why aren’t we in a pub?

ALEKSANDAR HEMON: Because you live in the provinces, far away from everything.

CM: So, we’re here… to talk (as the bishop to the hooker). The next question is: why are we here? That, of course, is easy to answer. But, seriously, sometimes I wonder if we—I mean, we, us, as writers—have to increasingly justify ourselves, you know, like visual artists, whose primary mode of entry into their art seems to be the painstaking explanation of it. Forget the painting. There’s a whole business built up around it. The artists have to acquire a specific language. Have you read any of those “statements of purpose” (!) by some of the contemporary artists? It’s like stepping through acres of fresh tar. You pick one foot up only to find the other sinking further.

AH: Actually, I have not read any of those statements of purpose, but I can imagine what they look like. I wouldn’t be so hard on artists, though. On the one hand, every artist, writers included, have an ethics and an aesthetics, whether they can formulate them or not. I happen to think that it is good to be able to formulate—it is good to know what you are doing and to be able to talk about it. On the other hand, art is so widely (and often thinly) spread, that anything can be it. A lot of it is nothing but a gesture, not an object, not a thing unto itself, and it literally does not exist without interpretation. I am all for interpretation, but for the past century or so, an interpretation can be slapped on everything and anything. Literature, on the other hand, is always something—it is either story or poetry, ideally both. That is, you always know what it is and even if the interpretation is not available, the experience of language is. Language is so inherent to humanity, so necessary for even basic thinking, that stories and poetry are available to anyone who can process language. So it’s easy for us.

CM: I happen to think that an ounce of empathy is worth a boatload of judgment. A writer can disease himself or herself with his or her own position, thinking about it too much. But, that said, I’m slightly off-put by our world getting increasingly rarefied, like the world of art, where we must justify ourselves with our meaning. Imagine constantly explaining ourselves. Like a football commentary or something…