MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, what's up with all these people yelling at these town halls? I talk about it in my weekly commentary in just a few minutes.
But first, another installment in our Summer Reading Series. All summer long, we've been interviewing authors about their works, and then we ask them to continue the love by recommending another author to our listeners. We started with Colson Whitehead, who recommended Junot Diaz, who recommended Achy Obejas, who in turn recommended Aleksandar Hemon for his just-public short-story collection, "Love and Obstacles." And Aleksandar Hemon joins us now from Chicago. Welcome, thank you for joining us.
Mr. ALEKSANDAR HEMON (Author, "Love and Obstacles"): My pleasure.
MARTIN: Many people probably know your work from The New Yorker magazine. But just in case, there is a story in the collection, "American Commando," that opens with a lovely paragraph, and I was hoping I could persuade you to read just a bit of it to give the readers a sense of your work.
Mr. HEMON: I can try.
MARTIN: Okay, please.
Mr. HEMON: (Reading) When I was in grammar school, I most loved the weeks when I was the red dot, the one in charge of cleaning the chalkboard. My job was to keep the sponge wet and to wipe the chalkboard when the teacher demanded it. I took pleasure in erasing everything, the smell of moistened chalk and the dryness of my hands afterward. And I loved leading the classroom to wash the sponge in the bathroom.
The hallway would be silent and empty, redolent of clean children and floor wax. I relished the squeaking of my shoes, the echoes in the void. I walked to the bathroom slowly, adjusting my steps to produce a screechy rhythm.
MARTIN: And we will have more on our Web site. Thank you for that. Now, critics have talked about just the crystal clarity of your sentences. In fact, one wrote that Hemon cannot write a boring sentence.
Mr. HEMON: Yes, well, I guess that's true. I guess I can write boring sentences. I just cut them out.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HEMON: I found myself here because of the Bosnian War. I was born and raised in Bosnia and came to the United States for a short visit.
MARTIN: And you had no intention of staying, right?
Mr. HEMON: I'm not, unless someone offered me a well-paid job. And for some reason or another, nobody offered me a well-paid job. In fact, nobody offered me a job.
MARTIN: In fact, though, which is something that comes up in your work, just the exhaustion of trying to survive.
Mr. HEMON: Well, yes, if you consider survival looking for a job or getting a Social Security card. But at the same time, my friends and people I know in Sarajevo were surviving at a most basic level, and I had no right or intention to complain about my bureaucratic survival stories.
MARTIN: Well, but you could, though. I mean, one of the things that I think emerges in this collection is that - what's the word I want to use? It's that sense of the awareness of that.
I mean, on the one hand, you know, it has its own hardships, trying to sort of make your way in a new place, particularly a place that you did not intend to be, and then being aware of the realities that other people are experiencing. I'm thinking particularly of your story, "The Conductor." You kind of have a little bit of a rage in there, a little bit of a rant, would you say?
Mr. HEMON: Well, it's not exactly me, it's my character. But there's no shortage of anger in my life, generally speaking. I just transfer it and transform it for my characters so that (unintelligible), his life resembles my life. There are significant differences. Those who don't know me, they can't see the differences.
MARTIN: I mean, talk about that if you would. This makes writers crazy, of course, when people assume that all their work is autobiographical, but there are similarities in the details. And so, when you were writing "Love and Obstacles," where would the you end and the characters begin? Do you want us to guess? Do you want us to be puzzled or to be thinking that?
Mr. HEMON: I want the reader to think that there was life involved in those stories, someone's life. And if I have to, you know, offer pieces of my life to vouch-safe for the reality and the truthfulness of the stories, that's fine by me. And so, I do certainly invite, or at least my stories invite, this kind of autobiographical interpretation.
At the same time, if this were only a concealed, stealth memoir, as it were, then I would have failed as a writer because why not write a memoir? I do not write memoirs and have no interest in writing memoirs. So, if I could briefly describe my process, it will be this: I start from a personal space and then expand outwards.
So, you know, the character has some similarities and has similar experiences, but then he lives an alternative life. And in that, the character has become someone else. When I read those stories, I do not think of me or my life. I can see why people would think of me and my life, but that's not my life.
MARTIN: How old were you when you started learning - when you started writing in English? You were…
Mr. HEMON: That was in '95, so I would have been 31.
MARTIN: Thirty-one? And people compare you to Nabokov, of course, but he'd been studying English for, you know, much of his life before he started publishing in English. And I'm just wondering, do you think in Serbo-Croatian and then translate in your head or are you thinking in English now? How does that work?
Mr. HEMON: Well, I think in both languages and sometimes I don't think at all. I think to write in any language, at least write creative fiction, the language has to be a part of the subconscious mind. You cannot think about it, in fact, the way you don't think about walking. And for some reason or another, although I had studied English before I came to the United States, it had not been part of my subconscious mind for obvious reasons, because I was living in a different language.
But sometimes in the '90s, because of the war or because of the fact that I was here, the English language entered my subconscious mind, which is to say that I don't know which language I'm thinking in when I'm thinking, at all. It doesn't really matter to me. It's all so much the same and sometimes they're not in language. They could be in images.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with author Aleksandar Hemon about his new book of stories, "Love and Obstacles." The stories are set variously in Kinshasa, in Sarajevo, and in Chicago. And I'm just wondering, how did you - how do you start? Do you start with a place? Do you start with a feeling, a person in mind?
Mr. HEMON: Well, it's various. I don't really have a method. With the Kinshasa story, this is an example of the difference between a story and a memoir. My father did spend some time in Zaire in the '80s, and I did go to visit him for six weeks or so. So, you know, I started thinking about a story that would take place in Kinshasa. Then I started thinking about an American neighbor who would be, well, a compulsive liar and exaggerator and how a boy who would have been similar to me in some ways, but - he's significantly different in this story, would become fascinated by this character whose name is Spinelli. And then I imagined the rest of the story.
So there is always a foundation, as it were, of my personal experience, but I don't use stories to talk about my personal experiences. It's just a starting point and then I expand outwards.
MARTIN: There is a passage in "The Conductor" where the character says, "I was sick of being asked where I was from and I hated Bush and his Jesus freaks with every particle of my being. I hated the word carbs and the systematic extermination of joy from American life, et cetera."
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: I don't think you have to be an expatriate to have those feelings sometimes, but I am curious about where that came from.
Mr. HEMON: Well, as I said, there's no shortage of anger in my life, but unlike the narrator, I have, you know, competing feelings and emotions about this country and the city of Chicago. In fact, Chicago I love and like a lot in many ways.
MARTIN: I think it likes you back, from what I can tell.
Mr. HEMON: Yes, well, it's a love affair. But I expand myself into the text, in some ways I'm everyone in my stories, so I give someone my anger. But then to the extent that I'm a kind person, which it might be, you know, questionable but to the extent that I imagine myself as a kind person, I give that kindness to someone else. It's hard for me to imagine - and this is only, perhaps, because of the limits of my imagination, that someone could write story in which they could identify only with one character, unless they're writing a memoir.
But if you are - once you enter the realm of imagination, I imagine being everyone in my stories - women, children, furniture, everyone. This is the joy of writing for me, this situation which you have to become someone else and see the world from someone else's position and to imagine the world with - as seen with someone else's eyes and experienced by someone else.
MARTIN: One of the things - you talk about the joy and the exhilaration, but I remember the Bosnia War. I remember covering it. It was a subject that engaged a lot of us in the news at the time. Maybe some might argue it did not engage us enough. I don't know. I'm curious about what it's like for you to revisit those days in your writing. I mean, one of the things that I found compelling is just the sense of the tension, the foreboding, the choices that people were making about to stay, to go, what to do. I'm just wondering, what's it like for you experiencing that again? Reliving that whenever you choose to do so, in your writing.
Mr. HEMON: Well, I experience it in language and in that sense I can transform it into something else. So it's not just a description, as I said, of my feelings or experiences. What I remember from those days in the '90s when there was war in Bosnia and I was here, is the sense of disconnect, if you wish. I, obviously, I could not be connected with the war, in the sense that it was my experience I was very far away from it. At the same time, I was moving and living among the people who had no connection whatsoever with that war. I felt for - very often, that I was walking a kind of a mental and emotional and intellectual bubble. That what I was seeing in this world was entirely invisible to other people and what they were seeing was entirely invisible to me.
I felt a kind of a - not quite a ghost, that's too dramatic, but someone who had at least a double life, if not a multiple life. And that tormented me in the '90s. But writing and literature allowed me to step out of this isolation into language, and because language inherently connects you with other people and thereby breaking up this bubble and, you know, entering the world.
MARTIN: Have you ever been back since…
Mr. HEMON: I go, yeah, I go once or twice a year.
MARTIN: How is it?
Mr. HEMON: Well, it's nice to see people who I know there and do things and spend time with people I like. At the same time, it's a state and a country that is increasingly failing in many ways. There are structural and all directly related to the involvement of foreigners in a lackadaisical way, to put it mildly. It's a long story, a different story. It's not quite working out.
MARTIN: It's such an unfair question, but do you have a favorite story in the collection, in "Love and Obstacles"?
Mr. HEMON: Oh, they're all like children to me. I like the stupid ones. I like "The Conductor" for a number of reasons.
MARTIN: I confess, so do I.
Mr. HEMON: One of which is that I wrote all the poetry by the poet Dedo. I used to write poetry and quit a long time ago, and this was the only time that I returned to writing poetry in 15, 20 years.
MARTIN: I was going to ask about that because the narrator is so adamant about it. I've never written about, I will not write anymore, I've walked away from it - and so what about that? Why did you stop writing poetry?
Mr. HEMON: Well, because I really wasn't good at it and when I was writing it, it always ended up being this pompous, humorless, dark thing, that was so hard to look at and think that it had anything to do with my life and experience or anyone else's life and experience, more importantly. I just quit, and the only way I could write it is really to write it through the character of Dedo. So I became him to write poetry and that's - that was a lovely experience. I really liked it.
A friend of mine who is a Bosnian poet, he implored me to write these poems, complete poems, because, you know, Dedo's poems are only quoted in parts, but I could never - once I stepped out of a character I could not write the rest of the poem. I only wrote one or two stanzas for Dedo, but not for me. But I like that. It's like being an actor and I'm liking that role.
MARTIN: What author would you recommend for the next installment of our summer reading series?
Mr. HEMON: I would recommend Colum McCann and his book "Let The Great World Spin." It just came out, I think, in June. He's a - full disclosure - he's a friend of mine and I've read his previous books. "Dancer" is a great book. "Zoli" is a great book. And "The Other Side of Darkness" is also a great book.
MARTIN: All right, our next summer reading selection - but we were speaking with Aleksandar Hemon. He's been a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle's Award. His work regularly appears in The New Yorker, Granta, The Paris Review and Best American Short Stories. In 2004, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a McArthur so-called Genius Grant. We've been talking about his latest book "Love and Obstacles," and he was kind enough to join us from Chicago. Alkesandar Hemon, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. HEMON: Thank you.
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