Forging Narrative Spaces: An Interview with Aleksandar Hemon

February 17, 2016

Hemon 2

Interviewed by Todd Summar

Aleksandar Hemon slips fluidly between genres and forms, each project an unexpected new entity, yet still part of a continued conversation with the world around him. Born in Sarajevo, Hemon was visiting Chicago in 1992 during the outbreak of the war in Bosnia. He stayed here and became a United States citizen in 2000, the year his first book, the short story collection The Question of Bruno, was released. His writing, in various ways, has been colored by the experience.

Released last May, Hemon’s darkly comic novel The Making of Zombie Wars was a surprise not only to longtime readers familiar with Hemon’s more serious (but still often humorous) tone but also to his agent, whom he surprised with the manuscript at a meeting in 2013. Though Zombie Wars is, as Hemon describes it, a farce, it tackles themes that have long preoccupied him—the immigrant experience in America, the harmful effects of war, the American privilege of avoiding big problems. Joshua, the protagonist, writes a zombie-centric screenplay in 2003 that reflects the jingoistic mood of the country as the U.S. invades Iraq. Like many of Hemon’s previous books—the 2013 essay collection The Book of My Lives, the 2008 novel The Lazarus Project (a finalist for the National Book Award), and the 2002 novel in stories Nowhere Man, to name a few—Zombie Wars sees the author flaunting the irrelevance of the line between nonfiction and fiction. In fact, he’s often been quoted as saying that there is no Bosnian word for the literary distinction between the two.

I met Hemon at a coffee shop in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago shortly before Christmas. The holiday music playing in the background was a bizarre soundtrack to our conversation. Hemon was later headed to the studio where he writes. Though we had previously met through mutual friends, I never had the opportunity for an in-depth conversation with him. It’s easy to become distracted by Hemon’s impressive identities: critically acclaimed author, contributing writer at The New Yorker, winner of the MacArthur “genius” grant, writer-in-residence at the United Nations Headquarters. But as we spoke, shared a laugh over the cringe-inducing music, and commiserated about the state of U.S. politics, it was easier to see him both as a hard-working writer with a disarming sense of humor and as a concerned citizen of the world.

Todd Summar: You’ve said that you do not see a distinction between nonfiction and fiction and that you think more in terms of story. What determines whether something becomes an essay or fiction, and do you know before beginning?

Aleksandar Hemon: I do usually. Recently, I wrote a nonfiction piece and I turned it in to a major magazine and they had all these fact-checking questions. Some of the facts are not checkable because so much had happened long in the past and had been passed on to me by way of family stories. It’s about my father’s uncle who spent twenty years or so in a Stalinist concentration camp. He was born in Bosnia, then became a Communist, then went to the Soviet Union where he spent thirty years, twenty of which he was in the Gulag. The piece is about how stories are passed until they’re distorted. The original experience is not available, except as a story. I tried to rewrite it as a fiction piece, but that failed because it didn’t need fictionalization. It was embedded in history. Fictionalization was doable but not necessary. It has to be necessary. And this is the only time, as far as I know, that I tried to convert something that I had written as nonfiction into fiction. I don’t have a set of criteria that determines this; I just know this story needs little embellishment. In the novel that I recently published, The Making of Zombie Wars, the starting point was my thinking about a time when I was teaching English as a second language. A student made a pass and I declined it and nothing happened. If something had happened, then I guess that could have been a nonfiction piece in some iteration. But if nothing happened, then what do you do? So I made up something.

TS: So it becomes a matter of exploring what the possibilities might have been?

AH: It’s the standard Aristotelian distinction between history and poetry—history is what has happened and poetry is what might happen. The most important part for me is the means to tell a story. Here is a story I’d like to tell. But story always involves thinking and feeling. Even when writing a nonfiction piece as a story, it does not preclude essayistic thinking.

TS: Your class at Columbia College Chicago focuses on narrative architecture and has attracted both nonfiction and fiction students. What, to you, is narrative architecture and how does it work across the genres?

AH: It has a dual meaning. Both architecture of space as conveyed in narration and stories, how to represent space in narration, and also the way that narration becomes a space unto itself. For instance, we looked at Kafka’s The Trial. The stairs go all the way to the door, the rooms are too small, the courtroom is a courtroom one day then it is a laundry room another day. So the distortion of space is meaningful. The idea is that space in fiction is not just a setting. One of the other books we looked at was Lolita. There is very little representation of space that is not distorted by Humbert’s mind and his compulsive, pathological desires. The hotel becomes a space that exists only in his mind. It’s interesting to me because I’ve always thought that the notion of developing a character is nonsense. That is developing a character as distinct and separate from other aspects of the narrative. My idea is that you develop a narrative space, all elements of it, and in that space, characters can have meaningful actions, or perform meaningful actions. There is no underlying theory [of narrative architecture] that I know of. It was an investigation in the form of a course.

TS: Can it also work for nonfiction?

AH: Consciousness is defined by several characteristics, including narrative—you are able to tell yourself the story of the self in your head and then to others. So your life can be perceived as a narrative. You can be conscious of your past as part of a story that includes your present and will include a future. You imagine your consciousness as a space. Hence, interiority. Consciousness that is ideally active, investigating something in the form of an essay. So, yes it does work. It’s a matter of conceptualization. It’s not a formula or secret. Or a self-help method. I conceptualize narratives as spaces, so that when I write, whether fiction or nonfiction, I delimit a space out of the infinity of possibilities and then I enter that space, and within the space I look around and investigate and write things until something occurs in that space. Then it can be organized or reorganized by way of editing. It also implies, as is often the case in nonlinear writing and nonlinear thinking, that you just spend time there. This is the way I conceptualize my writing. So that when I write a piece about my father’s uncle, it’s both spending time in the space that is delimited by the stories of my father’s uncle that I’ve heard and that I was part of because I’ve met him, but also the space of the Soviet Union concentration camps, which is obviously an imaginary space to me because I’ve never been there. I have to imagine it based on nonfictional data. He talks about the way he was tortured. I imagine the room. He does not describe the room, but I have to imagine that there’s a chair. He sits on the edge of the chair. He cannot sit fully or fall off; he just has to sit on the edge. So you imagine the body and space.

TS: So it becomes space in multiple senses of the word.

AH: Right. Space as an organizing or defining concept of the narrative process and that works just as well, as far as I’m concerned, in fiction and nonfiction.

TS: You’ve said one of your goals in teaching is to demystify the writing process, that there is no set bag of tricks. With that in mind, how should the writer approach each new piece? How would you tailor your process to the needs of the story?

AH: You have to invent the rules on location, so to speak. I don’t really have a bag of tricks, but enough confidence because I’ve done it so many times that I’ll figure out how to fix these problems. The problems I created myself. I’ve never gone through a creative writing workshop that I did not teach, so this came secondhand to me. I’ve heard people say during the workshop that you can’t start a story with this or that, that you have to do this at the beginning of that, and the character has to be conceptualized like this or that. To me, that makes no sense. Sure it can be done that way, but a set of prescriptive writing rules is complete nonsense. Figuring out how to tell a story while you’re telling it is the way I do it. It’s those decisions that I enjoy the most. There are several stages. I think about it, then I start writing it, then I write it. Other than editing, the first two stages always feel like shit. It’s never good. When I was younger, feeling that it was not good would freak me out, but now feeling that it’s not good is stimulating. I want to make it good, so I keep figuring out solutions to the problems that I created myself by producing text.

TS: If you think about a story for a while before actually writing it, how do you know when it’s time to write the story?

AH: Thinking about it is a nice way to put it. The other way is I’m looking for all the reasons not to write it. Because there’s an infinite number of stories. I compulsively convert experience into narratives or, at least, test experience for possible narratives. When I walk down the street and see two people doing something, my mind quickly tests it as a possibility for a story. Say they are arguing or they are holding hands and they split suddenly. My mind is testing the possibility or a possible outcome of converting this experience or whatever I witness into a story. The stories that I think about for a long time, they go through an extensive testing. Why would I tell it? What’s interesting? Would I enjoy it? I tend to write notes of the things that interest me. Things I could do with language, or storylines, or situations, and so forth. The most inclusive story wins the contest and passes the test. At some point, all the tests are done, and at some point I cannot not write it anymore, and I start it. Or I find time to write something that I have had no time to write. I never write just one thing and I never think about just one thing. There are simultaneous projects, always. Not only things that I’m committed to, but also things that I’m waiting to start.

TS: So once it goes through that regimen of tests, then you know it’s ready to go.

AH: Then I write quickly. It doesn’t take long if I have time. I don’t have writer’s block or anything resembling that. I always have something to write. I can’t remember the last time I woke up in the morning and thought, “What am I going to write today?” Hasn’t happened in a decade. Writing is such an amorphous process and everyone does it to various extents. I could talk about it in terms of skiing or soccer or being a musician. Not that I’m a musician, I’m borrowing metaphors. I have an instrument, I wake up in the morning, I play the instrument. Not every time I play does a song, let alone a symphony, come out. But I never not play because the instrument is always there.

TS: In what way, if at all, does the process of turning a piece of your life into an essay alter the memory of that experience? Does capturing it on the page ever change it in your mind?


AH: I think writing changes it because it pins things down. It becomes a document by virtue of erasing certain ambiguities. Your memory changes. And so, to write things down, which is an age-old process of remembering, it alters it in a sense that now this is the version. Now this is how I will remember it. The memory is necessarily blurred. Which is also where stories come from. There’s that great Borges story, “Funes, His Memory,” in which Funes has perfect memory, then he falls off a horse and cannot forget anything thereafter. Not only that, everything is individualized to him because everything is layered and encrusted with a number of memories, so he cannot generalize. He cannot conceptualize and, therefore, he cannot tell stories. The narrator goes out of his way to identify his faulty memory, that he, unlike Funes, cannot remember some of those things. But out of that, storytelling comes. If memoirs actually worked as containers of pure memory, there would be no stories.

TS: In The Making of Zombie Wars, you explore the fear and anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. around the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In this instance, how did you decide to take a darkly comic, fictional route rather than nonfiction?

AH: I’ve tackled it in any number of manners. The previous novel, The Lazarus Project, was also related to Iraq and Abu Ghraib and various crimes that were committed in the name of freedom. But I’ve also written nonfiction essays in Bosnian and English. Essays, columns, interviews—I’ve been railing about it for almost fifteen years now. There’s a clear continuity, make no mistake about it, between George W. Bush and Donald Trump. The whole pretense that somehow Trump is this excrement that somehow shocks the Republican Party is complete and utter nonsense. He’s a descendant of Bush, clearly, an heir to Bush, and their project. What do you think Trump would have thought of, or does think of, Abu Ghraib? It’s a great fucking idea.

What was interesting to me was the notion of American male entitlement that is everywhere in so many ways and how part of the Iraq invasion project is the re-masculinization of America. The pathology of it was so evident to me throughout. That the “big dick” was an important part of the project. The Bush pageant with “Mission Accomplished” and the big balls. But also, I wanted someone who was relatively innocent of any kind of political ambition. Joshua, say what you will about him, but he’s not a bigot or hateful person. He’s just an entitled young man. And so he stumbles into the madness while the whole country is stumbling into madness. I wanted it to be funny as well. To be a farce, as it were. That was interesting to me. I think one of the possible narrative drives of any fiction is people making wrong decisions and then continuing to make wrong decisions. What was the first wrong decision and then how do you keep going? About fifteen years of wrong decisions by the political leaders of this country have led us to the verge of fascism and world war. But there’s no accountability whatsoever. No one was held accountable, other than a few grunts in Abu Ghraib, for what happened in Iraq, for what is happening there. The situation now is bin Laden’s dream come true. This far exceeds his wildest hopes. This is so much better than what they were gunning for when they took the towers.

TS: You’ve said that there is a lot of ignorance about what is going on with immigration in this country. What should people know about immigration, especially in light of the Syrian refugee crisis and anti-immigrant sentiments expressed by figures like Trump?

AH: I think the country and its public discourse are so dependent on platitudes and myths and just plain bullshit. As far as immigration, everyone is so stuck with the Ellis Island model, which is not really true. It’s sort of edited to fit the fantasies of the American dream. It was always more complicated than that. There are so many different trajectories that immigrants and refugees make to get to this country that everyone’s story is different. One of the differences between immigrants and refugees is that refugees have, at some point, experienced a vast diminishment or extinction of agency. They’re running for their lives. And so they go where they can. A sense of life’s worth comes from a sense that you have agency in your own life. They are trying to get to a place where they can make decisions about their lives, about their children’s lives. Immigrants have a certain amount of agency. They decide to come to this country. Their choices are limited, to be sure, tragically so, but refugees come from a different place and to a different place, and the world looks different to them. This doesn’t mean that either group is better or worse than the other as it pertains to national security or anything like that. It makes a difference in terms of relating to this place. Not America, necessarily; it could be this neighborhood or this city, this group of people.

The other thing, which is really important with those distinctions in mind, is that both immigrants and refugees change this place for the better, not just because it’s an in-flow of new minds, new blood, new people, but also because they are threatening the system in some ways. That’s fucking great, I think. But the demographics change, the cities change, the politics change. This change, this diversification, has great potential, and the reason for Trump’s success is that’s exactly what he has figured out. He hates the change. He thinks America’s great and those who fucked it up were foreigners and non-white people. If he can somehow manage to eliminate them, everything will be fucking peachy.

The interesting thing is that there is a liberal middle, and they’re just as afraid, but they will not voice it. They would tolerate refugees if they just kept the ethnic restaurants and shops and allowed for pleasant urban living, but the moment that some demands are made, the moment there is actual change, the moment they started invading American literature or whatever else, that’s a different proposition. And Trump has also realized that he can stoke that fear. It’s dormant or latent in many, but with terrorism and this kind of rhetoric, he can go to the center. He is moving toward the center, not away from the center. This is what frightens me more than anything else. This persistent notion right now that somehow, because of what he says, that he is eliminating himself from the mainstream political process. But he’s getting deeper. Now everyone knows about him. Now he’s the beacon against which everyone relates. The Republicans and Democrats. And everyone who’s interested in politics.

TS: Your upcoming book Behind the Glass Wall: Inside the United Nations will be published in June. What can you tell us about the experience of writing that book, as a writer-in-residence at the UN?

AH: The UN doesn’t open the doors much to the outside. But they allowed me access. There is no breaking news or analysis of the organization [in the book]. It’s like a travelogue from the UN Complex in New York, and it includes pictures. But I enjoyed it. I spent thirty minutes with the Secretary General and I sat in on various sessions. I also talked to security and tourist guides. People who work for the UN but are not at a high level. And it was interesting. Bosnians have a complex relationship with the UN, as many people do because the idea is great but it doesn’t quite pan out. But without the idea, you know . . . the existence of the UN after ’45 allowed us as humanity to conceptualize the possibility that humanity might have a common interest and common language. That conceptualization is impossible without the UN. That’s the importance of the UN. It fails in so many ways in various projects but I think it’s better that it exists than if it didn’t exist.

Todd Summar writes essays and fiction, and serves as an editor for publishers and individuals. His work has appeared in PANK,Literary Hub, and Joyland, among others. He is the founding editor of Goreyesque and a Creative Writing MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago.

Photo Credit: Todd Summar

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