'Book of My Lives': Aleksander Hemon's remarkable tale

Chicago author's short stories are as remarkable as his literature

  • Pin It
Author Aleksandar Hemon

Author Aleksandar Hemon (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune / March 15, 2013)

Aleksandar Hemon landed in the United States two decades ago, January 1992. He was 27, a young Bosnian journalist from Sarajevo arriving on a one-month visa, arranged through a cultural exchange program sponsored by the State Department. Just after he arrived, war broke out in Yugoslavia. Hemon was stranded. In the years since, as he settled into this country and became an acclaimed writer — became one of Chicago's finest contemporary writers and arguably its most important literary talent since Saul Bellow — Hemon has told this immigration story many, many times.

“I have to be honest,” he said. “I don't get excited repeating it anymore, explaining to people how I arrived at this point.” Then he adds, “But I do like stories, and I do get pleasure from telling a great one.”

And so, not unlike Joan Didion, who famously wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” he told me a story: “After I arrived, the last stop of my tour was New York City, and as corny as this sounds, I remember walking around Manhattan, going to this place, to that place, moving through hotel lobbies, and I'm not sure why, but the Beatles' ‘Nowhere Man' was following the entire time. Things were getting worse in Yugoslavia — now ‘Nowhere Man'! It was too easy, like walking in a bad movie. And yet — what was I going to do now?”

There is so much story to the story of Aleksandar Hemon, so much incident, acclaim and tragedy, spanning three decades and two continents, that, though he has four celebrated works of semi-autobiographical fiction and now a collection of essays, “The Book of My Lives” — which arrives Tuesday, its very title a nod at how expansive those lives have been — we need to start small.

With, say, soccer.

Let's start there because, as we rewind through his history, it offers a kind of calm. Hemon plays in an informal league in the Uptown neighborhood several times a week; he had played soccer all his life, but during his first years in Chicago, he didn't play at all.

“Not playing soccer tormented me,” he writes in “The Book of My Lives.” When I asked why he didn't play, he said he couldn't, that, though he had left Sarajevo before fighting began, and his parents got out before the first mortar shell exploded, something had severed inside. It's why, for the first three years he lived in Chicago, he could not write, either.

“English was not yet ready for me to write in, and my Bosnian, it was not functioning for me — the war had somehow (expletive) it up for me.”

Then one morning, he decided to join a pickup game, and slowly “his relationship with Chicago, initially a relationship of necessity, became one of love,” said John Freeman, his close friend and editor of Granta, the British literary magazine. Hemon played with Montrose Harbor leagues and Lincoln Park teams; the Uptown group he plays with now, on a baseball field adjacent to Senn High School, he's played with for a dozen years.

On a recent cold Saturday morning, freezing rain tapped on the empty parking lot alongside the field. Just after 7 a.m., cars began arriving, old and gray and dented, driven by youngish guys in tracksuits. Then new BMWs and oldish guys showed up. Then Hemon, on a bike, standing on the pedals, gliding around the backstop.

He looked content.

He leaped off his bike and warmed up, jumping in tight pirouettes and kicking at the sky. Meanwhile, the field grew crowded with players, a wild social and class mix: new immigrants with lousy jobs, old immigrants with lousy jobs, men with scars from internment camps; Indians, Iranians, Irish; brain surgeons, cell biologists. Hemon was the only writer, the only MacArthur Foundation “genius.” He's also the tallest member of the team, broad-shouldered, bald and intimidating.

The players shoveled the field, creating boundaries with the snow, and the game started. A few minutes in, a short Nigerian with braids began yelling, “Sasha! Sasha!” Hemon, whose nickname is Sasha, was playing midfield. Three goal-scorers had flown right past him. “How, Sasha?” the man yelled. Hemon said nothing. The player beside Hemon sighed, “I know, I know …” The Nigerian cut him off: “What you mean? If you knew, you wouldn't!”

Hemon's face tightened.

Later, his wife, Teri Boyd (a former Tribune photo editor), told me her husband was on his best behavior, most likely because I was standing there. Charlie Callahan, a team member (and vice president at Rothschild Investment Corp.), told me: “I couldn't say how many times I've talked Sasha off his bike and into staying when he's mad. He has an economy of speech, so it's interesting to hear a literate person threaten. I also couldn't tell you how many times I've heard him say, ‘If you keep that up,' and ‘I am going to hurt you.'”

A few days before that game, we sat at Hopleaf, the Andersonville pub that Hemon calls his second home, a few blocks from his actual home. We talked about awards, and he told me about being nominated in 2008 for a National Book Award, for “The Lazarus Project,” his best-seller telling parallel stories across a century, one about a Jewish immigrant killed by Chicago police in 1908, the other about an Eastern European writer in Chicago obsessed with the story. Hemon has a dense Eastern European accent and a bemused, watchful face. He said he hated the experience of being nominated, “because I wanted to win, and I didn't want to want it. People were rubbing my shoulders as they announced my name, and I am like, ‘Please! Stop touching me!'” (He did not win.)

He added, “Even now, with this new book, it is well and nice, but if I want anything now, it is for nothing bad to happen. I just went skiing with my family in Colorado. Fantastic, but the accomplishment I felt was that no one was hurt. My goal this year, it is to not have a catastrophe.”

As he said this, he waved his hand and sent a glass of water cascading across the table.

He jumped up and ran for napkins, and as I waited for him to return, my mind wandered. Imagine being an aspiring writer, going to a country, being stranded, paralyzed with fear, unable to communicate. On the other hand, that's easier to imagine than what came next: Hemon set a goal of learning English and publishing a book in five years. To say he succeeded is an understatement. As crowded as the pool of contemporary writers wrestling with the American experience has become — Junot Diaz, Colum McCann, Jhumpa Lahiri — no discussion is complete without him. He created a body of stories so loaded with displacement, disconnection, humor, Chicago and Sarajevo, so consistent in voice — and occasionally in character, carrying some from book to book — “his work can feel like a massive, singular literary project,” said Sean McDonald, his longtime editor, now executive editor at publishing imprint Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

A massive act of thinly veiled fiction, read as a seamless whole. In “Nowhere Man,” his 2002 book, he writes of an immigrant canvassing Chicago, as Hemon did: “‘Hello,' Pronek said, ‘my name is Jozef and I am from Greenpeace. Do you care about the dolphins?'” In a chapter of his new book, “Reasons Why I Do Not Wish to Leave Chicago: An Incomplete, Random List,” he writes, for No. 13: “The highly muggable suburbanites patrolling Michigan Avenue, identifiable by their Hard Rock Cafe shirts, oblivious to the city beyond the shopping and entertainment areas.” And in “Lazarus,” though not of himself, he writes: “I am a reasonably loyal citizen of a couple of countries. In America — that somber land — I waste my vote, pay taxes grudgingly, share my life with a native wife, and try hard not to wish painful death to the idiotic president.”

  • Pin It

Local & National Video