Where am I?

Award-winning Bosnian author visits University

Aleksandar Hemon, winner of the 2004 MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant and two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, has a writing routine many students can probably relate to.  “I put it off as long as possible,” Hemon says.

The Sarajevo-born author, however, did not put off learning to write in English after coming to the US in 1992. Just three years later, he had his first short story published.

In the Lewis Room of the Library on April 10, Hemon read from his latest book, “Love and Obstacles,” a collection of short stories narrated in first person by a man who, like Hemon, lives in the shadow of the Bosnian War and Genocide.

“It is the central fact in the life of the narrator as it is the central fact in my life,” Hemon said during a discussion of his book with a panel of students and faculty the day before the reading.  Though he confronts the war in his stories, Hemon says he is wary of presenting it from an “essentialist point of view.”

“I’m suspicious of writers who behave or write as though they have been elected by their people to express the essences of those people,” Hemon told the panel on Friday. “Any kind of national essentialism leads to what happened in Bosnia.”

The author was visiting the US when Serbian ultra-nationalist forces surrounded his hometown in 1992. Over 10,000 people were killed in the Siege of Sarajevo, and thousands more were displaced. This was only one of many atrocities committed in Bosnia between 1992-95.

Hemon’s fiction has earned him comparisons to Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov as well as Joseph Konrad, the Polish-born author of “Heart of Darkness.” At the panel discussion, he said he admires these writers, as well as the Yugoslavian author Danilo Kiš.

Although Hemon is often praised by American critics for his playfulness with language, he says it is an artistic sensibility that has almost nothing to do with his late start in learning English.

“I write a column for the magazine ‘Dani’ in Bosnian […] and I do the same thing: I constantly make up words and twist idioms and break down and make fun of clichés,” he said. “A lot of writers I like, they do that, they break down the scar tissue of language and activate dormant meanings.”

In “Love and Obstacles,” Hemon sets an old woman “flinging her arms around like a demented windmill.” A necktie can stretch “across the chair seat, like a severed tendon” and a book can “spread its wings on the floor.

A frequent contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Times, Hemon has also written two other collections of short stories, “The Question of Bruno” and “Nowhere Man,” along with a novel, “The Lazarus Project.”

Patrick McCarthy, who organized the event, and Jasna Meyer, associate professor of communication, each gave a brief introduction to Hemon at the reading on April 10.

Pausing occasionally to let the audience catch the irony of a passage or to adjust his thick black-frame glasses, Hemon read from “The Conductor,” a story in which a displaced Sarajevan author struggles to “conduct” himself as a Bosnian for an American audience.

Hemon leaves many Bosnian words and phrases untranslated in his work.

Nasja Meyer, professor of Bosnian/Croatian language at the University, says this might be an attempt to help readers understand the “alienation of foreigners” in the stories.

“He shows how complicated it is for (Bosnians) to explain themselves and the war to other people,” she says.

First-year student Carlos Duran says Hemon’s work has helped him to “understand different aspects of Bosnia” that he has heard about in his Bosnian language class with Nasja Meyer.

The reading was funded in part by the ongoing Bosnia Memory Project, which has featured films and discussions about Bosnia at the University and also spearheaded the exhibit “Prijedor: Lives From the Bosnian Genocide.”

Ben Moore, associate professor of English and director of the Bosnia Memory Project, says the University was very fortunate to have hosted the reading. “It’s amazing to have a writer of such acclaim not only come but actually meet with faculty and staff on multiple occasions,” he says.

Moore also anticipates future cooperation between the Bosnian Memory Project and the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Academy of Arts and Sciences, of which Hemon is president. According to its Web site, the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Academy of Arts and Sciences helps young Bosnian American scientists, artists and professionals “build the bridges of cooperation with the homeland.”

When asked at Friday’s panel discussion for his opinion about the younger Bosnians that the Academy works with, Hemon said they are the “the best generation, the only hope for Bosnia.”

by Megan Myers