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 — became 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.
“I 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 great one.”
And 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?”
There 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 arrives Tuesday, its very title a nod at how expansive those lives have been — we need to start small.
With, say, soccer.
Let's 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.
“Not 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, either.
“English 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.”
Then 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 dozen years.
On 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.
He looked content.
He 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 intimidating.
The 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!”
Hemon's face tightened.
Later, his wife, Teri Boyd (a former 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.'”
A few days before that game, we sat at Hopleaf, the Andersonville 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 not win.)
He 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.”
As he said this, he waved his hand and sent a glass of water cascading across the table.
He 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.
A 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.”
Reginald 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 times.”
Indeed, 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.
McCann, who is from Ireland, recalled meeting Hemon just after the 2000 publication of “The Question of Bruno,” Hemon's first book.
“We 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 everywhere.”
Quick 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?
When 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.
“I 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.'”
As for catastrophe:
“Well, you know, Isabel died. Then my wife had surgery. So it's an annual thing. I am very tired of hospitals.”
Hemon 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.
“When 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.”
Then there was summer 2012.
“I 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.”)
That presumed stress she alluded to, Esther's condition aside, was assumed because of what happened in 2010.
Boyd 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 my chest.”
Indeed, 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 same time.”
Asked if she had hesitations about his writing that story, Boyd said, “Yes, but I knew that he needed to.”
Asked 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.”
His 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.”
Hemon is not a sentimental guy.
“I 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.”
Meaning, 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 killed himself).
“I had thought there was solidarity between people of sophisticated tastes,” Hemon said. “Turns out, life does not work like that.”
His 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.
“I 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.”
He made a hand-wiping motion.
I asked, is that arrogant?
He replied, how so?
I said, a book deal is no promise of success.
He 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 arrogant, OK.”
One final thing: Hemon will never leave Chicago.
He 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.”
The 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 attention.
Which is perfect.
His best friend from home, Velibor Bozovic, now a photographer in Montreal, put it differently, very Bosnian:
“I 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.”
Aleksandar Hemon discusses his new book of stories, "The Book of My Lives," and more with the Tribune's Christopher Borrelli. 7 p.m. Wednesday at Tribune Tower, 435 N. Michigan Ave.; $15 at 312-222-4369 or tribnation.com/events.