Toxic Assets and English Syntax

Love and Obstacles BY Aleksandar Hemon. Riverhead Hardcover. Hardcover, 224 pages. $25.

The cover of Love and Obstacles

Aleksandar Hemon does not write for, in his words, “therapeutic reasons.” But as the virtuosic author told me over a southern-fried lunch in Chicago one cold, damp March afternoon, writing has unexpectedly helped him fuse his two lives: At twenty-eight, in the spring of 1992, he became stranded in Chicago during a month-long journalism program, when his home, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, fell under siege and was ravaged by civil war. In just a few years, Hemon was publishing stories written in English, which he perfected by reading Nabokov and canvassing door-to-door for Greenpeace. Hemon, a MacArthur “genius,” has since astonished critics and readers with four especially inventive works of autobiographical fiction, earning National Book Critics Circle nominations for his novels, Nowhere Man (2002) and The Lazarus Project (2008), the latter of which was also a National Book Award finalist. His latest publication is Love and Obstacles (Riverhead, $26), interconnected stories that portray the evolution of a young writer, indirectly mentored by, among others, a hard-living, tall-tale-spinning American he meets in Africa and his own father, who dismisses fiction because he is only interested in “the truth.” During our conversation, Hemon explained his disdain for memoirs and contemplated the poetry of misheard song lyrics. —KERA BOLONIK

BOOKFORUM: I read that you used to count beats when you started writing in English. Do you still?

ALEKSANDAR HEMON: Early on I had to count and pronounce the words to find the right rhythm. Now I can hear the English language faster so I don’t count anymore.

BF: You started writing in English less than a decade after you learned it and quickly became a virtuoso. It’s like you are showing native speakers a new way of using English.

AH: I like to hear that. It occurred to me recently that there might be a connection between my relationship to English and the fact that I can never remember lyrics for any song. Songs I’ve been singing along with for forty years, like the Beatles, I can never keep the order of the words the way they’re supposed to be. It always falls apart. But language never comes to me as complete and finished. And this is the case in Bosnian just as much. It creates some kind of mystique, a phenomenology of writing.

BF: The American character who appears in the first story, “Stairway to Heaven,” loves wordplay, inverted adages like “tunnel at the end of the light.”

AH: “It’s all bridge under the water” [laughs]. I’ve been saying these things jokingly to people for years. Some of them I wrote down, but some I just knew. Writers I like don’t take language for granted. It’s not just this machine you use to get places.

BF: When I read Nowhere Man, I felt like I was reading somebody who was evoking, through cadences and sentence structure, another language through the vehicle of English.

AH: I know what you mean. I can write fiction in Bosnian, but for no particular reason I just turned out to write in English. To me, literature is a way to be engaged with the world and organize that engagement in some sort of comprehensible way. There are voices that come through me that aren’t even mine but that I have heard and have tried to imitate. One of the compulsive linguistic things I do is, when I’m home alone, I often speak to myself or do things in a mock Sarajevo-thug voice. I sing these horrible songs to myself in Bosnian that I hate, but it’s a particular manner of wailing. I start singing to this [raising his glass of wine], for example. I don’t really control it; it just comes up.

BF: The narrator’s father, who appears in “The Bees, Part 1,” has a “hatred of the unreal” and isn’t keen on his son’s literary aspirations. Is your own father like this?

AH: Yes. The most disdainful thing he could say about any kind of narrative art is that it’s unrealistic. He doesn’t really read books—he reads newspapers. No fiction, other than my books. It’s not the absence of imagination—it’s a different kind of imagination. My father is an amazing storyteller. He can turn a visit to a supermarket into a story.

BF: The father has his own literary aspirations, motivated by his need to document what he deems to be the truth.

AH: Stories, whether they’re told or written, document human experience, and that is different from documenting fact. If I try to tell you what happened to me in ’91, I’ll have to guess about certain things, I’ll have to make up certain things, because I can’t remember everything. And certain memories are not datable. You and I might remember our lunch, but some years from now we won’t remember it was on a Friday. I will not connect it with what happened this morning because they are discontinuous events. To tell a story, you have to —not falsify—but you have to assemble and disassemble. Memories are creative. To treat memory as a fact is nonsense. It’s inescapably fiction.

BF: There’s always embroidery. It’s human nature.

AH: There’s something called the narrative paradigm, which suggests that people think about themselves as a character in the story of their life. We have to organize information to be received through our senses, through our intellect, through other books, into some sort of a story. I think editing is one of the most important parts of storytelling. There’s great pleasure in actually taking out, including the stuff that I might have started the story with, not to mention the sentences with curlicues and the boring stuff.

BF: Your fiction borrows from your life, but you’ve said you hate memoirs.

AH: I hate confessional memoirs. There are valuable memoirs, no doubt. But you have to have a life worth talking about. Not every experience is valuable. Literature, to my mind, starts from some sort of personal space—and then it has to go beyond that. Whatever experience you may have had, whatever stories you might have to tell about yourself, they have to be transformed into something that’s meaningful beyond yourself. And because it’s transformed at some point, it stops being about you. The person in my fiction is not my life, so we can talk about it. If it were my life, what would you have to say about it? Memoir is not subject to interpretation. That is antithetical to literature. Confessional space is solipsistic: I’m the only one there, you don’t get to enter. You can watch from the outside and as a voyeur, and that appalls me.

BF: You use material from your own life as a jumping-off point.

AH: The language of stock phrases is not personal. All day, I’ve been reading the expression “toxic assets.” What the fuck is that? To me it’s become music already, but it has nothing to do with my life. I have to absorb it so that it becomes something inside me. It has to be personal before it makes any sense, whether it’s the phrases I have had in my head for years before I give them to a character or some story from a portion of my life. Then I add to it, and it becomes a construction that is no longer mine, that is not me.

BF: In “Stairway to Heaven,” the teenage narrator is trying to figure out how to construct a story out of his time in Africa, to report to his girlfriend back home. How do you make readers take that leap and appreciate an experience so foreign to them?

AH: The challenge is, how do you talk about other people’s experiences? If you have fear of talking about other people or with other people, of telling their stories and not just yours, then you’re going to end up in a kind of solipsism where everyone speaks individually but nobody hears. Reading fiction is trying to imagine what someone else’s life is like. This transference from private to public, from personal to shared, that’s the exhilarating thing about literature. I can read Madame Bovary—I know it’s not me. I’m not French, I’m not a woman. But I can communicate with her.

BF: Your life is bisected: There are the first couple decades in Sarajevo, and then in 1992, you begin your Chicago life. What does it feel like to have built your body of work in exile, in another language?

AH: It’s no longer strange to me because I’ve been here for a while. There was a time, and this is in itself a symptom of trauma, when I thought about the previous life and this life—the discontinuity, the rupture. Whatever happened in the previous life was inaccessible and unavailable. Actually, the exact word is unreal. But then, I closed that gap, and it’s now all part of one life because writing has provided me with a context where the previous life and the present life could be reconciled and engaged with each other. Still, there is a sense that something is irretrievably lost, but I’ve learned to live with that.

BF: You started writing in Bosnia. Have you ever revisited those stories and thought about rewriting them in English?

AH: No. There weren’t that many of them, and they were godawful. But I did write a poem a long time ago that was called “Love and Obstacles.” I had a band, and we sang this song. But it had nothing to do with this book. I just like the title.