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Aleksander Hemon

In 1992, Sarajevo-born Aleksandar Hemon was visiting Chicago when his home city came under siege. Unable to return home, he settled permanently in the United States. Hemon switched to writing in English in 1995, and has since produced a prodigious body of work, including the short-story collections The Question of Bruno (2000) and Love and Obstacles (2004), the novels Nowhere Man (2002) and The Lazarus Project (a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, 2008), as well as two works of non-fiction The Book of My Lives (2013) and My Parents: An Introduction / This Does Not Belong to You (2019). As a screenwriter he collaborated with Lana Wachowski and David Mitchell on the television series Sense8 and the film The Matrix Resurrections. Hemon was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2003 and a MacArthur Fellowship in 2004. From his office in Princeton – where he teaches creative writing – Hemon spoke to TANK about his new novel The World and All That It Holds (2023), the story of two Jewish and Muslim soldiers who fall in love against the convulsions of World War I, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the Bolshevik Revolution.

Interview by Matthew JanneyPortrait by Velibor Božovic

MATTHEW JANNEY What’s the origin story of your new book, The World and All That It Holds?
ALEKSANDAR HEMON The book took more than 12 years to write so I don’t remember the origin point, but I do know that at that time I was reading a memoir by Frederick Bailey, the British spy from the 1910s and 1920s, called Mission to Tashkent. He was deployed in Central Asia across the mountains from the British Raj to see what was up with the revolution. By the time he got to Tashkent the Bolsheviks had taken over and instantly started pursuing him; he had all kinds of adventures, false identities, et cetera. In the book, he runs into a guy from Sarajevo, Mandić, who was working for the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police, who were looking for Bailey. He told Bailey, “I know who you are, but let’s work together”, because Mandić’s sole project was to go back home to Sarajevo. So he orchestrated it. He eventually employed Bailey to work for the Cheka even while the Cheka was looking for him and at some point, realised that the way out for them was for Mandić to spread rumours that Bailey was in Bukhara. Mandić volunteered Bailey and himself to go to Bukhara and kill Bailey. They got the papers from the Bolsheviks and made it to Bukhara. I really liked this guy Mandić whose sole agenda, sole plan, sole desire, sole ideology was to go back home.

MJ A lot of your books focus on individuals caught in the crosshairs of history. In the epilogue to The World and All That It Holds, you write: “you can experience and understand history only when you’re inside it, but when you’re inside it you don’t have time or gumption for understanding.” How do you navigate that tension between trying to evoke history as it really was and the primacy of individual experience?
AH It’s hard for us to see the edges of history when we’re living it; we can only experience it upon us, upon the body. To perceive history, to conceptualise it, there has to be distance. But of course, we know instinctually or intellectually that it’s a continuity; I live in a history that started some time ago and there’s no sharp distinction between now and the past. We conceptualise history by narrativising, but it’s also reductive in comparison to our actual biological presence in history, right? Imagine being in the trenches in 1916 or presently in Ukraine – that is history but it’s not a conceptualisable category at that moment. It’s acting upon the body. The way into history is narrative. It’s not a single-person operation; it’s a collective experience. So there will be other witnesses. History has to be imagined, which doesn’t mean it’s fictional or fictitious or artificial. It means that for anything to be real, it has to be imagined as real first. We have to consensually or individually – or ideally both – agree that this is real, which is why it is possible for things to happen and for people to not believe they’re real: the Holocaust, the beginnings of wars, trauma, whatever it might be. We have to find a way into it and that is a narrative operation to a large extent. A lot of literature allows us to imagine experiences that are not our immediate experiences, but we are part of and imagine by way of narrativisation.

MJ On things that need to be imagined to be real, I immediately thought of climate change and the threat of global catastrophe. This gap between knowledge and action when it comes to climate is a failure of imagination, perhaps.
AH Right, it’s a psychological block. We can’t imagine our own death. We might imagine our life up to the point of death, but death is unimaginable. Climate change is the death of humanity, a sufficient number of people know and accept this, but we cannot imagine it because it’s so frightening. I guess it’s a necessary illusion of protection. We come up with narratives that are more comforting and nicer and more optimistic. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been asked questions about hope in my work or the work of others. It’s the spiritual corn syrup of America, hope.

MJ As much as narrative secures a degree of individual coherence, it is often the root of conflict and division.
AH Narrative has neutral value. Propaganda is narrative too – including genocidal propaganda – it’s stories about other people that can lead to vast crimes. There’s a term in psychology, narrative paradigm, which essentially refers to the proposition that we are all the main characters in the stories of our lives, and we are also the editors of those stories. If I think of myself as a decent person then I might edit or at least conceal all the parts of my life that do not fit into that narrative. But the correct way to validate that is through other people. There’s a history of narratives, including literature, but also at the grassroots level; people telling stories to each other about their simultaneous synchronous experience. These are not necessarily mechanically reproduced, which is what’s necessary for propaganda, but the experience becomes stored in narrative. It pertains to both individual experiences and collective experiences. Homer and all of those early epic poets – this is how they operated. I think that the relatively recent self-centeredness of literary narratives is – and there are many sociological studies and speculations on Twitter and elsewhere about this – about transforming a personal set of feelings into an asset to legitimise someone’s own interiority. A lot of people talk about my work as being autobiographical, and I see why that is. I don’t think they’re wrong or stupid; it is just that I think of it differently because all of those books in which someone like me is featured were exactly anti-biographical other than the general outlines of a historical or personal situation – a Bosnian refugee, complicated identity, et cetera – notwithstanding. My characters made different decisions to the decisions I made in similar situations. So to me it was more about revising the narrative of my life point by point precisely to pull away from that self-centeredness. My preferred approach could be described by way of theory of mind, which is the basic ability in typically developed humans to assume and conceptualise that your mind is different from mine. So it’s not identification, but communication. You have a different life history, experiences, desires, thoughts, ethics and all of that. To me other people are more interesting than the perpetual confirmation of myself and my feelings by way of empathy or self-critique. I don’t have anything against him personally – he’s a Liverpool supporter, like me, among other things – but I find the work of Karl Ove Knausgaard to be a deplorable aesthetic.

MJ In the media you’re often likened to Vladimir Nabokov as a writer in exile, writing in an adopted tongue, among other comparisons. Does that label ring true for you?
AH I don’t want to compare myself to Nabokov. For one thing, when he left Russia, he never went back. Very few of his works and his characters end up in Russia. In Glory [1932], the protagonist plots breaking into the Soviet Union but the moment he crosses the border, the novel ends. So once he was out, he was out. Whereas I go back all the time, I can Zoom with people, which I do all the time in Sarajevo to see what’s up, to get the gossip, you know, in real time. The connection is entirely different. I am not in exile. Exile by definition, blocks a return to the place of origin. That complete blockage, as it were, is more conducive to revising the narrative of homeland retroactively into a utopian space; the taste of apples, you know, or the rivers – “how pure they were!” – everyone was always laughing, we went to the coast every year, et cetera. I know people who, for one reason or another, by choice or by necessity, haven’t gone back to Bosnia for many years and they remember it as it was when we were in high school. There are a lot of diasporic communities who reproduce this nostalgia of the ideal situation, the homeland, which can quickly lead to a sort of fascist mythology and fantasy about ethnically pure places where “we had everything”. Private nostalgia is remembering the taste of ice cream while knowing that it’s never going to taste the same. This is interesting to me narratively, whereas collective nostalgia is repugnant. In the original idea for this book the two characters, Osman and Pinto, would long for Sarajevo and it would have been about nostalgia. I was going to make Sarajevo more mythological and fantastic in their minds the further away in time and space they got from the city. Then somewhere along the line I decided that it would be more interesting if they were actually lovers. And if the object of longing was not Sarajevo in the past, but this person, this material body in the present. Then the whole book became about love, not nostalgia.

MJ The novel opens: “The holy one kept creating worlds and destroying them, creating worlds and destroying them, and then, just before giving up, He finally came up with this one.” Is there a concealed joke about writing in here? I am picturing you creating and destroying drafts and eventually submitting this, in the way that all works are never finished, only abandoned.
AH Well, yes, to some extent! Creating worlds and destroying and creating worlds and destroying. I don’t do drafts. It’s not that I finish a book and then put it aside and then I start again. So it’s not quite destroying in that sense. It is destroying and renewing the world, but the world never ceases to exist. And here is another strange thing about writing fiction: I have a shelf of books that I read for research, on the Great Game, POW camps in Central Asia, the Brusilov offensive et cetera, but I can’t remember any of that except what is in the book. Because I was not learning for knowledge, but rather learning to infuse the book with human experience. And so in that sense, I created a world and now it’s gone.

MJ What are you working on at the moment?
AH During the pandemic I started making music and got pretty serious about it. I’ve been releasing tracks and producing them for more than two years now. But I also started writing a book about it because I thought it would be interesting to record those experiences. Princeton was abandoned in the pandemic. I somehow spent a year and a half in this office in an empty building making music, imagining some future in which someone, including me, would dance to it. It just became a total compulsion. And I said to myself: “Why am I doing this? It’s totally insane. I’m almost 60 years old. I have a career. This is never going to work out. What is this need to make stuff in the middle of an apocalypse?” And so I started writing about it.◉