Alternative Lives: Reflections on an Interview with Aleksandar Hemon

By Tim Boswell

“I think a condition of writing or storytelling,” Aleksandar Hemon recently told me, “is to be able to occupy all of your characters, to inhabit the world that emerges between them.”

Hemon, a National Book Award finalist, two-time National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, and recipient of both a MacArthur “genius” grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship, was gracious enough to share a couple of hours of his time for an interview for Studies in the Novel. I provided the office and the muffins, he offered perspectives on topics ranging from translation to photography, multilingualism to discursive power. Sasha, as he likes to be called, is a Bosnian American writer who came to Chicago in 1992 and became stranded when his native Sarajevo came under siege. He is serious, thoughtful, and intellectually daunting. As Zadie Smith once said of Hemon’s collection The Question of Bruno, his writing is “all right I suppose if you appreciate multilingual genius types who learn the language in six months, write with great humor and style and then get compared to Nabokov in the New York Times.”

“In other words,” Sasha continues, discussing his characters’ viewpoints, “I cannot pick the right characters, or more valid positions, over the others, because in that case it would all be sliding toward propaganda. To me, that is not interesting….The advantage of writing is that you can occupy all those positions. I am everyone in my books.”

One of the many comments that sticks with me from our conversation is that, through his writing, he “imagines alternative lives” for himself. His books blur the lines between fiction and nonfiction, and indeed he has observed that there are no such distinctions in Bosnian literature, nor even words in the language to denote them. His stories, then—many of which share biographical elements with their author’s history—represent what has happened in his life, but also what might have happened and what never will. One set of potentialities is not more inherently true than another. Isn’t this the great pull and the enduring promise of literature? That we can imagine alternative lives, see through another’s perspective, explore the could-have-been and never-will-be?

When I was a child, this promise mainly encompassed tumbles down rabbit holes to new worlds, enjoying a shared viewpoint that went beyond the vicarious—as if merged with the protagonist à la Cameron’s Avatar. Seeing with another’s eyes. Neverland by proxy. The escapism endured, and I was trained to value others’ perspectives long before I saw “other” capitalized. I learned that imagining alternative lives is not a sign of ineffectual disregard of reality in favor of fantasy, like Thurber’s Walter Mitty, but rather a prerequisite for empathetic engagement with the world.

A quote from Hemon’s Nowhere Man summons this condition of inhabiting multiple worlds, one’s own and another’s: “Why couldn’t he be more than one person? Why was he stuck in the middle of himself, hungry and tired?” (198). Through telling or receiving a story, through inhabiting it imaginatively, we are able to be far more than one person. In my office, Sasha points out that this makes writing an inherently democratic project because you have to give everyone a voice. On the part of the writer, he says, this involves a necessary suspension of selfhood. In a sense, I suppose this indicates an inward turn not toward finding oneself through the act of creative effort, but toward finding others—embracing the perspectives and experiences denied us by the boundaries of lived identity.  

“This is the release from the chains of selfhood that we experience as writers, and as readers. Every day of my life in this real world I deal with the fact I can’t be anyone other than myself—indeed it is illegal to be someone else. You’re chained by and to your identity, to your legal or cultural parameters of identity, just by your daily practices, or your limited wardrobe….” Sasha leans back and smiles. “But in literature there’s this liberation of the self, or the possibility thereof, an imaginative possibility I can become someone I would never want to be or try to be in real life.”

There’s a scene near the beginning of Henry James’s novel Roderick Hudson where Rowland Mallet, an affluent bachelor and art connoisseur lacking artistic talent himself, states: “I’m clever enough to want more than I’ve got. I’m tired of myself, my own thoughts, my own affairs, my own eternal company. True happiness, we are told, consists in getting out of one’s self; but the point is not only to get out—you must stay out; and to stay out you must have some absorbing errand.” That absorbing errand for myself, and others I suspect, as Sasha’s comments throw into relief, is writing stories. And for still others, it is reading them. 

Sasha’s stories often feature Bosnians who come to America, sometimes to Chicago, and they work many of the same jobs—e.g., Greenpeace canvasser—that Sasha did himself. It is tempting to read their experiences, reflections, and observations as indicative of the author’s own outlook and history. I found myself puzzled when I read the story “Blind Jozef Pronek & Dead Souls,” out of his collection The Question of Bruno, at a moment when the eponymous protagonist is waiting in line to buy a hot dog and has Garth Brooks pointed out to him. Pronek, a Bosnian visiting the United States, has no idea who he is. The narrator then wryly informs the reader, “Garth Brooks, of course, is one of our finest country musicians.”

An American reader would not need this pointed out; a Bosnian narrator would not say “our finest.” I had to wonder, exactly what position is the author occupying in all of this?

The answer, it seems, would be “all of them.”

“One aspect of writing is accepting the loss of control, not in the sense of unconscious writing,” Sasha goes on, “but rather in the sense that your plans will not work out. You will have to adjust, and it’s part of the abandonment of the self. These people will not recite your lines you wanted them to.”

How often have I, as a reader, mistakenly thought I intuited an author’s perspective from a character’s words? How often have I, as a writer, attempted to bend a character’s will to my own? Of course deeper questions and greater minds than mine have delved into the intricacies of this subject. Yet the real magic of literature, of this remarkable interaction between author, reader, and text, endlessly multifarious and ephemeral, lies in this liminal space between intentional, individual creation on one hand and the relinquishment of self and determinacy on the other.

“The one who started the whole process,” Sasha says, “the planner, ‘the artist,’ the talked-up writer, the awarded author—is the one who loses control, and that’s fucking great. If he didn’t, it would all fail terribly…."

As readers, we must also relinquish a certain amount of control, and accept a kind of pleasurable cognitive dissonance in embracing two contrary positions at once: I know this story is made up, yet I believe that it happened. Sasha calls this a “beautiful intellectual somersault.” We are perhaps more flexible mental gymnasts as children, yet with regular activity, we can still pull off a passable tumble as the years drift by.

The muffins long gone, he answers the question of whether he sees himself in his books when he reads them. He does not, he insists—the moment these people and events enter a narrative, a world built through imagination, that’s not him.

“And it’s not even ‘not me’ in a sense of denying that I would say or do these things, it’s not me the way that this chair is not me. I can sit here, I can touch it, it’s attached to my ass as we speak….” He laughs. “But it’s not me. It’s a chair. So it’s a book, it’s a story, it’s a novel, it’s a character.”

“And this doesn’t make it less true to me,” he continues, “it makes it more true. I imagine alternative lives for myself, and it provides great pleasure."

Indeed it does.

For the full interview, see the summer issue of Studies in the Novel, out now.

 

Photo © Velibor Božović.

Tim Boswell is managing editor of Studies in the Novel. He holds a PhD in creative writing from the University of North Texas and works as a ghostwriter and book editor. He also blogs at www.bookexpeditions.com.

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