Aleksandar Hemon was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, (then Yugoslavia) in 1964. He is the winner of many literary awards and most tellingly has been heaped with praise by his fellow authors and was described as ‘quite frankly, the greatest writer of our generation’ by Colum McCann.
At the outbreak of war in his native Sarajevo in 1992, he has left stranded in Chicago with only ‘tourist English’ and isolated from his friends and family. He took a variety of odd jobs around the city in order to survive, while he set himself the task of learning English to a point where he could write in his second language. To achieve this goal he read as much literature as he could get his hands on, and last night sited Nabakov and Joyce as two of his inspirations. He set a time limit on this pursuit of five years, and achieved it in three, first publishing in 1995.
Since then he has won the MacArthur Foundation grant, was a finalist in the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Awards among many others. He has written five books to date: ‘The Book of Lives’ (2013), Love and Obstacles (2009), The Lazarus Project (2008); Nowhere Man (2002), and The Question of Bruno (2000).
The talk took the form of a discussion with Brendan Barrington who brought us through Aleksandar’s most recent release, a non-fiction work called ‘The Book of Lives‘. Aleksandar or Sasha to his friends and family read extracts from the book and then discussed each section with a questions and answers section afterwards.
One of the main influences on his love of literature was his favourite college Professor, Nikola Koljevic. The Professor was an expert in Shakespeare and took a special interest in the young and talented Aleksandar. After the outbreak of war, the professor amazingly became one of Radovan Karadzic’s deputies in the Serb Democratic Party. This astonishing transformation in status made him re-evaluate their previous meetings, looking for signs in anything he had said of these fascist inclinations, and didn’t find any. His thoughts on good and evil were fascinating to hear, and on the effect that war can have on an individual, and how they can be transformed for better or worse.
He also talked about the role of the immigrant within another society and how they are always seen as different. One of his many jobs was to teach English as a foreign language and the one aim that his students put before all others was to alter their accent, the obvious reason for this was that it immediately differentiates them from those around them.
One of the most haunting topics of conversation was about how his young daughter dealt with the illness and death of her younger sister. She was too young to grasp the complexity of what was going on around her, so created an imaginary friend Mingus, who was sometimes ill in hospital, but was always due to get better in two weeks time.
Aleksandar is a complex and interesting individual who you could listen to talk on a variety of topics for many hours. He is a deep thinker on topics such as war and immigration, and the complexity of his own life is something he draws from deeply in his own work.