Immigrant Song

On Wednesday, February 11, Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian writer based in Chicago, read passages from his upcoming novel “Love and Obstacles.” The event, hosted by the Franke Institute for the Humanities at the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library, was well attended and deservedly so: after reading for thirty minutes, Hemon spent more than an hour answering questions.

Hemon’s greatest literary influence has been the civil war that occurred in Sarajevo and the rest of the Balkan states during the mid- and late 1990s. While stressing that he hadn’t actually “experienced the war” himself–he visited the U.S. in 1992 and found himself stranded here, unable to return when the fighting broke out–he has been affected by it nonetheless. An analogy about the city of Chicago being like “loving a woman with a broken nose” was countered with his take on Sarajevo, which he compared to “loving a woman with a broken spine.” He spoke of the Bosnian Diaspora, which is a huge group considering that, from a country the size of Chicago, 250,000 of its people now reside in North America. He felt that immigrating had “enriched him,” a sentiment that was not shared by many he knew; his family, for one, felt “emptied” by the situation, and considered the Diaspora “a tragedy.” The dispersion has affected the direction of his writing: Hemon became interested in understanding the tragedy in the situation, even if he didn’t share the sentiment, while thinking of specific characters and the way war and displacement would affect them in the span of his novels.

When asked why he writes in English instead of his native Bosnian, Hemon explained that it allows him to reach a broader audience and lets him be part of a literary tradition that has produced luminaries such as Shakespeare and Nabokov. Though Hemon might not yet have the wide recognition those two authors maintain, he’s hardly without acclaim; he’s been published in the New Yorker and the Paris Review, and his 2008 novel “The Lazarus Project” was a National Book Award finalist. His decision to write in English, however, adds to the complexity of his position: Bosnian, living in America, heavily influenced by his ethnic roots, but choosing not to write in his native tongue.

Pressed for his response to being perceived as a symbol of his native country, Hemon answered that he can’t represent Bosnia, since he is only one of many voices. In some ways, his response is an evasion of identification. But more importantly, it indicates a desire to be appreciated simply for the talented writer that he is.