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Sasha Hemon, or, Turning sad European Lemons into delicious American Lemonade!

by poemless Tue Jun 24th, 2008 at 06:28:20 PM EST

The greatest living European writer resides in ... Chicago.  No, you can't have him back.


(image © Velibor Bozovic)

Wikipedia : Aleksandar Hemon

Aleksandar Hemon (born 1964) is a Bosnian fiction writer living in the United States.  Hemon was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, then Yugoslavia, to a father of Ukrainian descent and Serbian mother. Hemon's great-grandfather, Teodor Hemon, came to Bosnia from Western Ukraine prior to World War I, when both countries were a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Hemon graduated from the University of Sarajevo with a degree in literature in 1990. After moving to Chicago in 1992 knowing little English, and finding himself unable to write in his native Bosnian, he resolved to learn English within five years.

In 1995, he began to write in English, and his work soon appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. In 2000 Hemon published his first book, The Question of Bruno, which included short stories and a novella. His first novel, Nowhere Man, followed in 2002. Nowhere Man concerns Jozef Pronek, a character who earlier appeared in one of the stories in The Question of Bruno.

As an accomplished fiction writer who learned English as an adult, Hemon has some similarities to Joseph Conrad, which he acknowledges through allusion in The Question of Bruno. All of his stories deal in some way with the Yugoslav wars, Bosnia, or Chicago, but they vary substantially in genre.

Hemon was awarded a "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation in 2004.

Hemon has a bi-weekly column called "Hemonwood" in the Sarajevo-based magazine, BH Dani (BH Days).


I don't know if he is really a genius.  I don't know where that bar is set these days.  Technically speaking, I suppose genius is determined by an IQ test.  I'm just a few painful points shy of the mark, so it's entirely plausible, even probable, that Hemon has hit it.  But I don't know for certain.  Nor can I speak to any comparisons to Joseph Conrad or Vladimir Nabokov, other than to say that I don't really like those writers very much.

People say he is a genius because of his freakish language-acquisition skills.  Which are quite freakish indeed.  

The cynic in me also suspects that people say he is a genius because of his refugee-ish status.  We like a bit of hagiography to go along with our genocides.  I mean jesus christ, the poor guy is BOSNIAN!  Isn't it terrible what his people have been through?!  When it comes to white European nations, Americans find the slaughter of innocents an act of unmitigated evil.  So here we have before us a shockingly talented refugee come here to live the American Dream and he likes to write about Us.  Give this man a column in The New Yorker!

Here are his short stories published in The New Yorker.

I will refer to the author as "Sasha" because 1) that's how he is always introduced, 2) I have this little kink about Slavic diminutives and 3) then we rhyme.

"Uhm, so, what does he write?"

Briefly, he writes about living in Sarajevo and Chicago and about being, for lack of a better term, Eastern European and other things as well.  Genre?  The contents of his books may be autobiographical or fantasy or parable or historical fact; they are shelved in the fiction section, but I think the label "creative writing" is about the only useful description here.  Form?  Vignettes, anecdotes, memories, jokes, dreams, observations, invented newspaper articles, etc...  His writing resists chronology and whatever your expectations are about narrative arcs.  Style?  Touching but not sappy, insightful but not haughty, funny but not funny haha funny.  Also, the words "peevishly" and "akimbo" are used a lot.  Which I like because they are fun to say.  Peevish...  Say it.

"Ok, so, what's so great about him?"

There are many reasons that I adore the work of Sasha Hemon and they have nothing to do with genius awards, inventive post-modern writing genres, or Bosnia, of which I still don't really even know the location, since Wikipedia keeps demanding I don't  confuse the "Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina" with "Bosnia and Herzegovina" or "Bosnia (region)," which are all different things somehow, and somehow there is "Republika Srpska" inside one of these Bosnian entities but it is not to be confused with the "Republika Srbija," which is a whole separate country and apparently at one time all of these plus the Ukraine belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  All I know is that there was a war (why?) and now Sasha Hemon lives with us and not you.

"I'll repeat the question."

~Ok, some of the reasons are very narcissistic.  He writes about my town, my neighborhood, my experiences.  That street he is writing about?  I live on it.  That bus?  I take it.  That cafe?  I sit in it.  That beach?  That's my beach.  Those people?  I know them.  That dynamic within that group of study abroad students?  I know all about that.  That guy canvassing for Greenpeace?  He was my roommate.  Those Eastern European immigrants at the ESL center?  I tutored them.  I mean, sometimes it's just creepy.  Like I'm reading my own journal, only written by a complete stranger.  His works are often semi-autobiographical, and it is sometimes hard to differentiate between the author and his characters (he says he has this problem too.)  But the odds are that I've unwittingly run into at least one of them at some point.

~Even more narcissistic is the fact that the backdrop and props are not just the same, but often so are our (mine and the fictional -maybe- characters') reactions to them, often variations of fear, paranoia, existential alienation, enchantment or daydreaming.  If I went further with this, it would sound very pretentious and ... sad.  So I won't.  But if you read all the way through this, it appears there exists a perfectly rational explanation.

~His mastery of the language is impressive and would be even if he were a native speaker.  The fact that he learned English as an adult just knocks the breath out of you a little bit.  You know how I am about good prose.  His prose will kick your ass it is so good.  Have you read any English-language fiction recently?  It makes me want to rip my eyes out.  Either there is no talent left, or the talented have all been shipped to one of those secret CIA detention centers in Europe.  There really aren't many talented writers in America who are not from Bosnia and living up the street from me.  

~There is this concept of sevdah, which he describes as "pleasant soul pain, when you are at peace with your woeful life, which allows you to enjoy this very moment with abandon."  This is a specifically Bosnian concept, perhaps, only in the nuances inaccessible to someone like me.  But I think it is a version of a peculiarly Eastern European (I'm not getting into it here DoDo.  I'm talking about culture, not geography.) concept.  Or theme.  Whatever that intangible, untranslatable mood or mentality is that sucks me into Slavic literature like a junkie into an opium den, it's in the work of Sasha Hemon.   "Pleasant soul pain, when you are at peace with your woeful life, which allows you to enjoy this very moment with abandon" sounds about right.

Here's an excerpt from an interview he did for Salon.

More spilled spaghetti: Aleksandar Hemon, author of "The Question of Bruno," talks about his favorite spies and the need for messiness in American fiction.

April 27, 2000 |  Aleksandar Hemon attributes his astonishing mastery of English (he arrived in America eight years ago with only a rudimentary knowledge of the language) to a job he had canvassing for Greenpeace in Chicago, the city that he now loves and calls home. "There was this period of intense speaking, producing words on the spot without rehearsing. I was not a person who enjoyed public discourse. I became a mature human being here, an older, and presumably wiser, person in English."

And Hemon has been good to English, as well, as the recent publication of his short-story collection, "The Question of Bruno," conclusively proves. It's a book full of peculiar and yet startlingly apt phrases ("the pungent, sneezeful greenness of green onions," for example). It's also a book of shifting, elusive moods, whether Hemon is writing about a childhood enthusiasm for the Russian master spy Richard Sorge; the sentimental, boozy expansiveness of a Bosnian family reunion; the absurd, horror of life in Sarajevo during the war; or the almost psychedelically vivid perceptions of a recent immigrant who sees American objects in starker relief partly because he doesn't know the names of any of them. Salon reached Hemon by phone at his home in Chicago, where he regards the publication of "The Question of Bruno" with unflappable aplomb.

You were writing fiction before you came to the U.S., but since your recent work is so much about loss and culture shock, I assume it must have been about something else. What?

It was some kind of minimalist shit. The stories were kind of pared down, a response to what was going on around me and so kind of nihilistic, too. They were not very good. A book of my short stories was supposed to come out [in Bosnia] in the summer of '92. Stopping that was the best thing the war ever did. They were a symptom of helplessness. There was so much overwhelming stuff around there was really no point in writing stories. They had this inherent meaninglessness that I couldn't overcome. One of them was about Kafka's death. It was dreadful. Here I was in my 20s writing about the meaning of life and death.

(...)

You have a close, almost obsessive attention to detail and to capturing the qualities of objects and places, which isn't surprising since you're often trying to hold on to a lost time and a lost world, particularly when you're writing about Sarajevo. Yet even when you seem to be yearning for the past, you tend to pick out things to describe that are gross, even disgusting.

Most people who are in a comfortable situation of having a continuous life, they imagine their lives in the best possible way, even if the objects in that life weren't exactly like that. But if you look at it closely, if you have to remember because if you don't things may disappear, you remember in a kind of panic and you don't know what may show up on the surface of your memory. People who have involuntary memories of things like child abuse -- I don't have that, but I'd bet they remember details very vividly. Smells and touches and textures. Something that doesn't allow them to remember it comfortably. There's a man pissing under my window right now.

That's like the kind of detail I was talking about.

He's also pushing an ice cream cart. Serendipity, the mother of knowledge.

I developed a cruel hatred for Willa Cather after her 20th detailed description of the juniper bushes in the desert.  Hemon's "details" are not that of a novelist trying to fill space or describe in words what can easily be captured in a picture.  They are the details of an environment as seen through the eyes of a mouse caught in a trap, or a person in a foreign country, or someone who has just awoke from a nightmare and is searching the room for the devil or the kid in the schoolroom who's just been told of his leader's death.  When there is so much confusion in the moment that your brain begins taking inventory of everything on autopilot so you can make some sense of it later, when unusual circumstances have you ascribing unusual meaning to ordinary objects and events.  ... Like a child who has been abused, I guess.  Yes.  That makes sense.

When people ask me who my favorite author is, I sheepishly say "Dostoevsky."  Sheepishly, because it sounds fucking pretentious.  But it's true.  Because he could see the world through the eyes of an abused child.  

That's also true about the effect of canvassing, btw.

"Ok, I'm sold, or have decided to humour you, hoping you'll stop soon.  What do you recommend I read, then?"

Uhm.  All of it.  The books are small things.  

His first book was The Question of Bruno.  Don't ask me what it is about.  It's about many things.  Stylistically, it's his most creative work.  The character of Jozef Pronek is introduced.

One passage I remember from it is a scene in which Pronek goes to retrieve his coat from the Art Institute of Chicago's coat-check, and worries that the coat he's been given might not be his, that it might be an exact replica.  And how would he ever know?  And now he's stressing out about having to create all new memories for his new coat...

I was working at a bookstore when Hemon's first book was published.  But I think I must have read his second book, Nowhere Man first, because I distinctly remember 1) feeling a deep, intense connection to the book and 2) being very demanding about making other people read it.  Like a Jehovah's witness.  Anyway, it may be about Joseph Pronek, or it may be about the Devil or it may be about Sasha Hemon.  Who knows?  It's brilliant, though.  

One passage I remember from it is a letter Pronek receives from his childhood friend in Sarajevo, who describes watching a horse commit suicide, jumping off a cliff, during the war.

For those of you who are my fans/stalkers, you can check out my city/neighborhood in The Pronek Guide to Chicago, which pairs these wonderfully gritty black and white photos with passages from the book.  

I can't talk about Hemon without mentioning Veba Bozovic, whose photography I only first saw in The Lazarus Project, which featured them and photographs from the Chicago Historical Society.  But apparently Bozovic has taken photos for all of Hemon's books.  I'm mad about his spooky photography.  He doesn't try to make Chicago prettier or more interesting than it is in reality, but it maintains a dream-like (nightmare-like?) quality.  In movies, one sometimes sees a scene from the perspective of a wolf.  These photos remind me of that.    

Not content with a simple guidebook, The Lazarus Project has an accompanying ... slide show!

His third and most recent book is The Lazarus Project.  It's crazy meta-meta, about the story of a Russian Jewish immigrant in Chicago in 1908 who is killed by the police for being an anarchist (he wasn't) and a Hemon-like writer and his Bozovic-like photographer friend living in Chicago in 2008, who decide to go back to Eastern Europe to research the life of the murdered immigrant.  Ostensibly.

A couple of memorable passages: after 9-11, the observation of a mentally ill street person wearing a "United we stand!" sticker on his forehead, "his multiple personalities united for the war against terror;" the Hemon-like character walking into the kitchen in the middle of the night and seeing a can of "Sadness," which later turns out to be a can of sardines.  But it is too late: the psychological damage caused by the fear that they're mass-producing sadness for retail is already done.

I went to a reading.  Hemon talked about memories, and trying to figure out what is invention and what is true, trying to construct history from other people's memories of the past and trying to hold onto your memories and identity in a strange place where no one is around who shares your memories, no one who can confirm them or deny them.  His parents were there at the reading; that was charming.  I guess they will be able to confirm he was there.

Here is something else, kind of random: "Sarajevo Is..."

Here is Hemon saying something about war:  For Wife of Bath, who thinks he's "definitely hot."  ;)

I have no idea why Serbs were fighting with Bosnians or even who was fighting and killing whom.  It makes me sad.  I don't think things happen for a reason, always a good reason being implied.  Wars start because people pick up guns and start killing each other, not because the universe has a personal will and wants this one person to find greatness at the expense of everyone else.  I don't take the position that if it weren't for a chain of events sparked by the war in the Balkans, the world would be missing this literary genius.  Maybe a literary genius or two or more perished in the war.  Hemon could have chosen to return to Sarajevo and could have had his head blown off.  Or he could have decided to move to New York and gone into marketing.  I'm not grateful for the circumstances under which your genius from Sarajevo came to be living in and writing about my Chicago.  Or for any of the unfortunate circumstances under which centuries of immigrants have found themselves in this godforsaken country.  It makes me sad.  

It makes Sasha Hemon write. Which is something to be grateful for.

Display:
How come no one ever identifies as a "Herzegovinian?"

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.
by poemless on Tue Jun 24th, 2008 at 06:51:09 PM EST
Well, I would not so identify even were I a one-of-those. Who else could pronounce it? How could you toast the Queen before the beer got warm?

Speaking of writers with recognisable geographic referents, one thing I really like about William Gibson's latest is the parts of Vancouver he describes that I know very very well. I can hear the gulls cry at 0200h....But I am sure your fellow is better, and I will ferret out his works like an old stoat.

by PIGL (stevec@boreal.gmail@com) on Tue Jun 24th, 2008 at 07:03:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
My grandfather, BTW, went to his grave regretting the demise of the Empire. In retrospect, he had a point. Kinda like Yugoslavia except in black and white with long dresses and champagne. Plus, what is the word, schl"amperei, which I much prefer to ruthless, mirthless, efficiency. If only they had just attacked Serbia without waiting for permission from the bloody Prussians!
by PIGL (stevec@boreal.gmail@com) on Tue Jun 24th, 2008 at 07:11:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There is a novel where, at the end of WWI an Austro-Hungarian military unit is being disbanded and everyone is happy to be able to return to their newly independent ethnic-based countries, except for the Jew.

Does anyone know what novel this is? I read about this scene in some article once.

About Yugoslavia: I have had a number of conversations with Croats of my generation (I'm 32) and slightly older. The older Croats and the girls in my generation tended to see the breakup of Yugoslavia and Tudjman's flavour of Croatian nationalism and insane. The boys in my generation (late teens at the time of the start of the Yugoslav wars) were all nationalists.

In relation to this I also had a discussion with a number of people from former Austria-Hungary and all of them agreed that Spain is a "big country" and so I couldn't relate to their "small country" concerns about national independence.

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 02:59:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
"Basques? What Basques?"

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.
by poemless on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 11:59:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
With that title, I thought Sasha hemon was a neocon and you were deconstructing an [Europe.Is.Doomed™ Alert] op-ed... Then I read the diary...

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 03:01:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
When have I ever written an [Europe.Is.DoomedTM Alert] diary?

I do admit to using a controversial headline to get your attention though. :)  

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 10:48:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That was not a rhetorical question, btw.

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.
by poemless on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 01:53:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
They'd be Croats, Bosnian Croats to be exact, and I believe there is a certain sense of regional identity among them.
by MarekNYC on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 11:50:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This is so confusing...  

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.
by poemless on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 10:47:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
For some time during the Yugoslav Wars, the Croat part of Bosnia configured itself as a self-proclaimed Republic of "Herceg-Bosna". There was a Muslim part, and a Serbian part, "Republika Srpska". The West managed to convince the Croats and Muslims to merge back together into a Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina which, together with the Republika Srpska makes up Bosnia and Herzegovina.

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 10:54:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Oh, that makes perfect sense...  

I'm being sarcastic.  I used to think the term "Balkanization" just meant, "breaking up into separate parts because people refuse to get along."  But it appears to be a bit more complicated, doesn't it?  

Here's how I imagined it worked:

There was Yugoslavia.  In Yugoslavia lived Serbs, Bosnians, Croats, Slovenians and er, maybe Montenegrins and Macedonians.  They fought each other for a reason I do not know and split into their respective groups.  It may or may not have had something to do with Muslims...

But if there now exists a country called Bosnia and Herzegovina which is comprised of a Bosnian-Croatian piece and a Serbian piece...  meaning they're all living in some kind of peace in one country (which I know is possible because they do that in my neighborhood too), what was the point of splitting Yugoslavia up into all those countries?  Seems like splitting up cells and getting the same DNA in each one.  And I don't even know what the ethnic or religious differences between everyone are or why they would necessitate violence and separation.  Aleksandar Hemon is identifies as Bosnian, but his heritage is Ukrainian and Serbian, and he's not Muslim.  I'm so confused...  What the hell makes Bosnia not Croatia or Serbia, besides a map?  

I wish someone with divine patience and no horses in the race would diary this.

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 02:59:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Bosnia was arguably the most ethnically diverse of the Yugoslav republics and the (plurality) Bosniak population (mostly Muslim) found themselves in the cross-fire of the war between Croatia and Serbia. It was in the interest of the Bosnian Croats and the Bosniaks to federate because the Bosnian Serbs had taken 50% of the territory. See wikipedia for maps of the ethnic distribution within Bosnia.

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 03:08:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Oh, the fact that the Croats and the Bosniaks federated doesn't mean they didn't start out ethnically cleansing each other. See Mostar.

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 03:46:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Maybe I would be less frustrated if I stopped operating under the assumption that there is a logical reason (indefensible, but internally logical) for everyone deciding to kill each other.


"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.
by poemless on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 03:55:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes.

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 03:59:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
If you want some fun complications of ethnicity in the Balkans and central Europe, there is this old thread at language hat :

languagehat.com: PEACHES IN CLUJ.

The Szeklers are an interesting group. They claim to be a people related to, but distinct from, the Hungarians. Their traditions claim descent from Attila's Huns, but I don't think even they believe that. (Although it's surely no less likely than descent from the Roman colonists of Dacia.)

Other theories have them as Pechenegs, as Hungarized Avars, or as an offshoot of the Magyar Hungarians themselves. The Szeklers dislike this last one BTW; they insist that they are distinct from, though closely connected to, the main Hungarian stock.

There are some fascinating peculiarities about them. For instance, before they were brought firmly under the Hapsburg crown in the 18th century, they were largely self-governing. And their basic units of government were village communes known as "tens". These is eerily reminiscent of the habit of many Central Asian horse nomads. The Mongols, for instance, organized their societies along military lines, with the squad of ten horsemen -- the "ten" -- being a basic unit.

languagehat.com: PEACHES IN CLUJ.

The Germans of Romania come in at least two flavors, BTW -- Saxons and "Flemings". The Flemings weren't actually Flemings, but they came from a different part of Germany than the Saxons, and spoke a different dialect. I have the impression that the two eventually grew together into Siebenburgerdeutsch -- both waves arrived in the middle ages, so there was time -- but I'm not completely sure of that, and welcome correction.

Oh, and there's also a small third wave of Germans from Germany who came to be mine bosses and technicians during the 19th and early 20th centuries. (Our landlord is one of those -- his grandfather was a Sudetendeutscher who came here between the wars.) This group was never more than one or two percent of the total German population before 1989, but my completely anecdotal and unscientific impression is that it's probably now more like five or ten percent of the ever-dwindling remnant German population. I'm really not sure why.

Anyhow.



Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 11:11:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I wonder why he was unable to write in his native Bosnian.

Maybe he is like a good friend of mine, interpreter at my wedding when the mayor did his discourse, Stefan, who also is a Yugoslav national, family originally from Montenegro but he grew up in Istanbul and went to international school in Switzerland. Speaks German, Turkish, Greek (his mom is greek), Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and English, but not a word of Serbo-Croate.

I always thought it would be odd to carry around a passport of a country whose language one does not speak, but people do it.

Poor Sasha Hemon. He may be in beautiful Chicago, nicest city in the US (caveat, I've never been to San Francisco) but he is still stuck in the United States. Like being in Lahore Pakistan...beautiful and cool city plumb in the middle of an ideological shithole.

The Hun is always either at your throat or at your feet. Winston Churchill

by r------ on Tue Jun 24th, 2008 at 11:47:33 PM EST
He writes in Bosnian as well, for a magazine there, I believe.  His published books are in English.

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.
by poemless on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 10:45:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I've been nursing a parallel theory that we confer official museum-grade status on writers from ethnic groupings we feel guilty about - 'we' meaning the mostly white, mostly middle class, slightly angsty and concerned audience which reads what's usually called 'literature'.

This isn't about talent, or the lack of it. More that there will always be talent which isn't picked up because it doesn't tickle the ethnic 'oh, the horror' guilt buds in the right way. Even when there's plenty of horror and brutality - which seems to be another essential contemporary ingredient.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 05:46:26 AM EST
Perhaps Hemon's success is due to its unclassifiability. Even to himself. Freed by uncertainty, strangeness.

Chialvo suggests that natural occurring neural networks (biological brains and such) pay more attention to un-accommodated situations (information) rather than well-known situations (or information). Because, if it was the other way, the system would tend to specialisation; in other words, loss of information, closure to the outside world.

by findmeaDoorIntoSummer on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 06:21:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It's all about the amygdala.  Memory, flight or fight response, fear conditioning, sensory systems...  

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.
by poemless on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 11:54:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I've been nursing a parallel theory that we confer official museum-grade status on writers from ethnic groupings we feel guilty about - 'we' meaning the mostly white, mostly middle class, slightly angsty and concerned audience which reads what's usually called 'literature'.

Perhaps less theory than fact.  Which, as you point out, doesn't necessarily reflect the talent of those who are conferred the honor, but perhaps the opportunities available to them.  The arts are often funded by charitable foundations, philanthropists, grant organizations.  In fact, Hemon's last novel has a character trying to get money from a private foundation to pay for his trip to Europe.  Anyway, often these people and organizations have agenda to promote this or that ideal, advance the success of this or that group.  I suppose having a tragic story helps in the acquisition of funds.  And I suppose some individuals feel helpless in the face of tragedy and want to make a difference in some small way.  I suppose some just want to make a solid karmic investment.  

And actually experiencing trauma like war or ethnic persecution etc. often drives people to write, create, to work through it, to "tell their story."  I guess it is possible for people with normal, privileged, safe, mundane lives to have something interesting to say.  But it's so much more exciting to read about people who have faces these character building obstacles and either overcome them or become martyrs.  [Kidding on the square.]  Also, the things that happen to Joe Blow down the street have happened to an individual.  Why should we care what he dreams about?  We all have dreams.  But if your people have been subjected to genocide, systematic racism, etc., your story balloons in significance because you are (we believe and no one corrects us) not just writing about your personal experience, but that experience of a whole "People."  Also, because of our collective guilt, we're also probably less inclined to be critical of such authors.  Like, we've done enough damage and should just keep our mouths shut now.  So no one tells Gary Shteyngart he's really not that great.  

All this said, Hemon really is that great.  Even if some people probably only read him or praise him or give him money because they're trying to deal with their own issues.  Ironically?, I'm fairly confident Hemon belongs to the "white, mostly middle class, slightly angsty and concerned audience which reads what's usually called 'literature'."

BTW, is Bosnian an "ethnic group?"  

Frankly, now that I think about it, I'm not even sure what an "ethnic group" is...

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 11:39:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I meant more that any time certain kinds of genocide and horror will be hawt, and others - not.

We had Günter Grass after WWII. Who the hell under the age of 30 has heard of Günter Grass now?

We also had British working class fiction. There's not so much of that around at the moment - but there is quite a bit of immigrant ethnic colour (of all sorts) fiction.

I'd lay reasonable odds that a great immigrant novel by an Eastern European will be discovered by the UK's literary industry within the next year or three - and there will be at least one rape scene in it, and probably also shocking scenes of violent human trafficking.

In the US Katrina fiction is just about starting to make an appearance. Iraq isn't - it's still too real to be mythologised. But give it five to ten years.

We don't have:

Native American fiction
Puerto Rican fiction
Indonesian fiction
Amazonian rain forest fiction
Etc...

It's not that these aren't being written - I'm sure they are. It's not that there isn't the potential for cathartic brutality and violence in those stories, because there certainly is. It's not that someone somewhere isn't reading them, or even writing abou them. It's more that they're not relevant to Western interests, so they'll remain outside the usual circuit of culture industry shindigs -  forever invisible to the New York Times and Guardian best-seller lists, which will continue to be populated by Dan Brown, Who Moved My Cheese?, and novels about married women meeting old boyfriends.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 09:23:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
We don't have:
Native American fiction

Sherman Alexie is a literary rockstar on our shores...

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Fri Jun 27th, 2008 at 10:43:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
He's awesome.

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Jun 27th, 2008 at 10:53:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I should have guessed there would be an exception for that niche:

Interview: Sherman Alexie | By genre | guardian.co.uk Books

Now 41, Alexie was one of Granta's 20 best American novelists under 40 in 1996, and was among the New Yorker's 20 best writers of the 21st century. Some critics have suspected that his literary territory (his titles are often flagged with "Indian" or "reservation") may have inflated critical sympathy. While James Buchan in these pages described his latest novel, Flight, as a "short-winded epic", it was praised in the New York Times as a "narrative stripped to its core, all rage and heart".

Flight is set on the underside of "sanitised and computerised" Seattle, amid destitute drunks, child-abusing foster carers and "kid jail". The teenage narrator Zits, an Irish-Indian "half-breed" with bad skin and no parents, meets a terrorist named Justice. Zits plans a shoot-out at a bank, but is hit by a guard's bullet and time-travels into other lives, including a child at Little Bighorn in 1876, a flight instructor betrayed by a would-be suicide pilot, and an Indian wino who turns out to be his father. Alexie has worked with charities for the homeless, yet the novel, although trenchant, seems less confrontational than earlier work. September 11 changed him, Alexie says, by revealing the lethal "end game of tribalism - when you become so identified with only one thing, one tribe, that other people are just metaphors to you".

I'm sure he's great, but this does sound heavy on the guilt and horror buds, perhaps a little.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Fri Jun 27th, 2008 at 08:03:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
wow, good heads-up.

the noo yoika stories are genius to me...  :)

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 10:24:10 AM EST
This seems like as good a place as any to put in one of my semi-annual plugs for Writings from an Unbound Europe, published by my charming friends at Northwestern University. They oh so humbly describe their project as "the most comprehensive series of literature in translation into any language from the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe. The series makes available to the English-reading public the most interesting and vital works of contemporary prose and poetry from this region. To date, it includes titles from Bosnia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine."  Maybe DoDo can write them with some geographical corrections...  

This is where I first learned of Dubravka Ugresic, who is now one of my favorite writers.

And in the latest incidence of inevitably crossed paths, it appears Hemon is now teaching at ... Northwestern University.  

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 12:18:40 PM EST
European Tribune - Comments - Sasha Hemon, or, Turning sad European Lemons into delicious American Lemonade!European Tribune - Comments - Sasha Hemon, or, Turning sad European Lemons into delicious American Lemonade!
Moja wierna mowo,
służyłem tobie.
Co noc stawiałem przed tobą miseczki z kolorami,
żebyś miała i brzozę i konika polnego i gila
zachowanych w mojej pamięci.
Faithful mother tongue,
I have been serving you.
Every night, I used to set before you little bowls of colors
so you could have your birch, your cricket, your finch
as preserved in my memory.
Trwało to dużo lat.
Byłaś moją ojczyzną bo zabrakło innej.
Myślałem że będziesz także pośredniczką
pomiędzy mną i dobrymi ludźmi,
choćby ich było dwudziestu, dziesięciu,
albo nie urodzili się jeszcze.
This lasted many years.
You were my native land; I lacked any other.
I believed that you would also be a messenger
between me and some good people
even if they were few, twenty, ten
or not born, as yet.
Teraz przyznaję się do zwątpienia.
Są chwile kiedy wydaje się, że zmarnowałem życie.
Bo ty jesteś mową upodlonych,
mową nierozumnych i nienawidzących
siebie bardziej może od innych narodów,
mową konfidentów,
mową pomieszanych,
chorych na własną niewinność.
Now, I confess my doubt.
There are moments when it seems to me I have squandered my life.
For you are a tongue of the debased,
of the unreasonable, hating themselves
even more than they hate other nations,
a tongue of informers,
a tongue of the confused,
ill with their own innocence.
Ale bez ciebie kim jestem.
Tylko szkolarzem gdzieś w odległym kraju,
a success, bez lęku i poniżeń.
No tak, kim jestem bez ciebie.
Filozofem takim jak każdy.
But without you, who am I?
Only a scholar in a distant country,
a success, without fears and humiliations.
Yes, who am I without you?
A philosopher like everyone else.
Rozumiem, to ma być moje wychowanie:
gloria indywidualności odjęta,
Grzesznikowi z moralitetu
czerwony dywan podścieła Wielki Chwał,
a w tym samym czasie latarnia magiczna
rzuca na płótno obrazy ludzkiej i boskiej udręki.
I understand, this is meant as my education:
the glory of individuality is taken away,
Fortune spreads a red carpet
before the sinner in a morality play
while on the linen backdrop a magic lantern throws images of human and divine torment.
Moja wierna mowo,
może to jednak ja muszę ciebie ratować.
Więc będę dalej stawiać przed tobą miseczki z kolorami
jasnymi i czystymi jeżeli to możliwe,
bo w nieszczęściu potrzebny jakiś ład czy piękno.
My faithful mother tongue,
perhaps after all it's I who must try to save you.
So I will continue to set before you little bowls of colors
bright and pure if possible,
for what is needed in misfortune is a little order and beauty.

translation by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Pinsky with minor modifications.

by MarekNYC on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 12:15:08 AM EST
Who is the author?

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.
by poemless on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 11:18:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Oops, it's a Milosz poem, written in the sixties during his extended period as a prof in Berkeley and non-person in Poland.
by MarekNYC on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 01:45:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for the clarification.  

For a fleeting moment I thought you might be some rockstar poet who'd worked with the likes of Milosz and Pinsky!

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 02:38:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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