There Is No Real Life


Brad Fox interviews Aleksandar Hemon in Guernica:

Aleksandar Hemon—Sasha, as he likes to be called—left his native Sarajevo for Chicago on a cultural exchange program in 1992, just as the siege began. He resolved to settle, mastering English while he canvassed for Greenpeace and watched his hometown burn on the news. Once a journalist in Bosnia, Hemon wrote his first story in English in 1995 and within a decade received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur “genius grant” for works penned in his new language.

His 2008 novel, The Lazarus Project, began as an investigation into the true story of an escapee from the pogroms of Eastern Europe, who was shot by Chicago’s police chief in 1908. Photos of a police captain posing with the corpse are included in the book, which Hemon calls “an Abu Ghraib novel.” It is narrated by Brik, a columnist and Bosnian immigrant to Chicago, who wins a grant to travel to Moldova and finally to Sarajevo to research the worlds that both he and Lazarus left behind.

Unconcerned with the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction—“There’s no such difference in Bosnia,” he says—Hemon’s work investigates the many uses of narrative, from jokes and gossip to the way states create national identities and individuals struggle to maintain coherence. “In some way there is no real life,” he says. “It’s always the story of your life that you’re living.” Among the most deeply felt of these explorations, the essay “The Aquarium,” from his forthcoming nonfiction debut, The Book of My Lives, describes experiencing the death of his one-year-old daughter as his three-year-old acquires language and invents an imaginary brother. The book’s dedication reads, “For Isabel, forever breathing on my chest.”

I met Hemon at his agent Nicole Aragi’s apartment in Chelsea. When I arrived, I found him in front of a large TV discussing soccer coaching strategies with the Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah. Hemon led me to a long, heavy wood table and we sat directly across from each other. He nervously fingered a plastic bottle cap, bouncing it off the tabletop over and over again as we talked. His presence was large and looming, and there was a controlled aggression in his posture. He was serious but laughed easily, adamant but occasionally self-mocking. “There’s a very simple rule of writing,” he told me. “It’s all shit, until it isn’t.”

Brad Fox for Guernica

Guernica: What do you make of the story that Sasha Hemon came to America, couldn’t speak English, and then two years later sat down to write The Question of Bruno: Stories?

Aleksandar Hemon: That’s the great American story [laughs]. It complies with the story of immigrants who came through Ellis Island: they were nobodies—half-human somehow. They had potential, but of course they couldn’t do anything with it over there, because it wasn’t America, so they came here, and suddenly they bloomed.

I don’t know the numbers, but roughly half of the people who came through Ellis Island returned home. They came here to make money, not to make history.

Guernica: But you didn’t return home?

Aleksandar Hemon: I could have at a certain point, but I didn’t. Life had started here. Chicago is not a bad place to live. But the usual story of immigration is the happy fulfillment of human potential in America that is not available anywhere else—it’s propaganda, really. It’s more complicated than that.