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Bosnian author talks of war, inspirations

By ALEX DRAGONE | April 2, 2015

Bosnian-American author Aleksander Hemon spoke Tuesday evening as part of the President’s Reading Series hosted by the Writing Seminars Department in Mudd 26.

Hemon was born in 1964 in what was then the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, part of the greater Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. After studying literature and library sciences at the University of Sarajevo and working as a journalist, Hemon was invited to the United States in 1992 by the now-defunct United States Information Agency.

Before he could return to Bosnia, the Yugoslav People’s Army had surrounded the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, beginning an almost four-year siege on the city and the start of the Bosnian War. Hemon watched the war, one marked by ethnic hatreds and atrocities against civilians, from the United States.

“It is the central event of my life,” Hemon said. “It’s the thing that started a number of storylines in my life that I now live. It’s what defines me and everyone I know from Bosnia — my parents, my family, my friends, my enemies.”

Hemon returned to Bosnia in 1997.

“It was [a different country], but there were continuities, and those continuities were just as troubling,” Hemon said. “So to see the same city [Sarajevo], the same layout, the same people, but everyone damaged. So it was both the same and entirely different. The shock of it was not [that] it was different, but it was the same and different.”

Professor Jean McGarry, co-chair of the Writing Seminars Department, introduced Hemon.

“There are three theories about what makes for great fiction,” McGarry said. “One such is to be an author lucky enough to be born into interesting times... another is to be one of those lucky few upon whom nothing is lost, and the third, the easiest — and the one I like the best — is that it’s enough to have lived through childhood and survived it to tell the story.”

McGary introduced Hemon as an expert in comedy and character-writing.

“Tonight’s author, Aleksander Hemon, has all three,” McGarry continued. “I think the chief of all these literary givens and gifts is the ability, which in Mr. Hemon’s case seems to be close to an obsession, to see behind the curtain; or rather, to see exactly the kind of thing no one in their right mind wants him to see. Characters — and they are characters in that other sense of the word — characters in Hemon’s fiction are seen not just at their worst because Mr. Hemon is a comic writer, but in moments and in attitudes they couldn’t imagine ever being caught in.”

Hemon read a story from his 2009 short story collection Love and Obstacles. The story he read, “The Conductor,” is about a young, struggling Bosnian poet and his love-hate relationship with a fictional Bosnian master poet. The protagonist and narrator live in America during the Bosnian War where the young poet later meets his old mentor.

“I think someone mentioned that it was autobiographical,” freshman Ashley Yoo said of the story. “And I guess it’s kind of like a more everyday account of this made-up, fictional character... I guess it was kind of cool being able to take one person’s account and then taking something so everyday and then turning it into something that you can share with other people.”

“[I] loved it,” McGarry said. “I just thought it had a very interesting form. It seemed to kind of wander a little bit, but the wandering was exciting. And then when you got to the end, if you read the story again, you’d say, ‘Oh yes, this all fits together.’”

“I wanted to write a story about a poet,” Hemon said, “who, in the middle of all that mayhem, somehow manages to create these moments of balance and harmony.

Hemon explained to the audience his love of music as a motivation for writing the story.

“The other thing was that whenever I go to Chicago, it has a great symphony orchestra,” Harmon said. “For many years, I have been subscribed and went to its concerts. And so at end of every concert the conductor goes out and comes back and makes the brass section get up and the strings get up and actually everyone gets up. And every time, I imagine that he does all that, except he says, ‘Except for you — the trumpet. You stay down.’ And so for some bizarre reason this amused me at the time. How this is connected to the story I cannot explain, but I wanted someone to say, ‘You, sit down.’”

Hemon has won numerous awards and commendations, including a MacArthur genius grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a USA Fellowship. He has published five books — three novels, a short story collection and a memoir.

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