Since his 2000 literary debut, Aleksandar Hemon has been hailed as "a maestro, a conjurer, a channeler of universes." In books including The Question of Bruno and Love and Obstacles, he's written about archdukes and exiles; a Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina of memories; and a Chicago that's in your face.
Hemon joins NPR's Scott Simon to talk about his first nonfiction book, The Book of My Lives. It's a memoir of Hemon's early life in Sarajevo; his flight and acclimation to Chicago; and his touching, staunch and sometimes painful life with a family that's stretched between a home city decimated by war, and the hometown he has adopted for his imagination and future.
On hosting radio shows in Sarajevo
"I had a number of shows. I had music shows; one of them was called Evergreen Barometer. And I guess we were expected to play, you know, everlasting kind of music. But I played a lot of punk and bands like MC5, the revolutionary Detroit band from the '60s, and I also wrote film reviews and book reviews. [Another] I can't even call it a show — it was a very, very small segment, about three minutes, of something called Sasha Hemon Tells You True and Untrue Stories, whereby I would, weekly, write a one-page or two-page story at most. ... One of those stories featured a cousin who lost all his limbs and ended up, his career, at a circus being rolled around by elephants. I was young and, you know, I was prone to such things."
On how the Bosnian War changed his fiction
"I had written fiction before, but the fiction was in the vein of the story that I just mentioned: somewhat nihilistic and absurd, and sorely devoid of — how would I put it — the real human experience. And with the war, there was a different kind of responsibility toward the reality of human experience. In other words, fiction could no longer be entirely fictional. And for that reason, I suppose I developed a different part of my sensibility, which I hadn't had up to that point. Or, in other words, I started paying attention to people and their feelings and their experiences. And to process that traumatic transformation, I felt that I had to write — and not just to record, but rather to imagine ways of existing, comprehending beyond the limits of my available self."
On embracing his inability to keep things simple
"When I go to see a doctor and they ask me basic information about my health, I extend every answer to a simple question into some sort of a story. So when they ask me, you know, 'How much red meat do you eat a week?' and then I start telling them a story about different kinds of red meat that I might eat and what it means to me, and then five minutes later I look up and the doctor looks at me as though I'm possessed. Because for some reason I cannot — as you can hear now — I cannot give a simple answer to very simple questions. And my instinct is contrary to the American instinct of simplification. I move in the direction of complication. That is not good for book sales, let me tell you. But it's good for storytelling."
On Mingus, the imaginary brother and blue alien on the book's cover, whom his daughter Ella invented to cope with the death of her younger sister Isabel
"She came up with Mingus because Mingus allowed her to tell stories to herself and us — incomplete, unfinished, rambling stories that allowed her to process the difficult experience of her sister's illness and then death. I understood, watching her and listening to her, that it was by coming up with these stories featuring Mingus that she was trying to understand what was happening. So for instance, Mingus would have a tumor — my little daughter, Isabel, she had a brain tumor, a very malignant one — and so we talked about these things and she would bear witness, Ella would. And so then she would come up with Mingus having a tumor, and then he would go to the hospital and then he would be better in two weeks. And so there were a number of issues that came up in our family that she would assign to Mingus to process narratively. It was the most fascinating process. One of the reasons I wrote this piece — which, as you can imagine, was very difficult to write — was to bear witness to Ella's narrative accomplishments and to put forth the recognition that this is what we do, what I do as a writer; that fictional stories that we tell to one another, in the end, are really a way to process our experiences, to organize them in some form, even if, you know, incompletely and in a complicated way. ...
"So, what she was doing is, fundamentally, the same thing that I was doing — coming up with an imaginary life, imaginary characters and giving them stories to live through. And Mingus is still alive and well. He still is featured in my daughter's stories. Last year I asked my daughter, 'How come we've never seen Mingus? You know, I would like to meet Mingus.' And she said, 'Tata' — she calls me Tata — 'Tata, Mingus is imaginary!' Which was no contradiction to her: He was imaginary and real at the same time."