Aleksandar Hemon’s The Book of My Lives
The acclaimed Chicago writer releases his first nonfiction collection.
ALEKSANDAR HEMON HATES NEW YORK. The Chicago-based writer, who is often praised for his inventive use of language, voices his dislikes readily and with considerable flair. When discussing his 2012 visiting writership at New York University, he says the students and colleagues were great—among them authors Jonathan Safran Foer and Sharon Olds. But living in the Big Apple? “Torment! It’s the Vatican of entitlement. You walk into a cloud of glamor, and then you have to reproduce it. Otherwise, you’re out.”
As we sit in a coffee shop on Broadway—the North Side Chicago street, that is, not the famous NYC thoroughfare—Hemon, with a wry grin, offers an illustration of what he sees as New York’s inflated ego. “On Sixth Avenue, there’s a Container Store that just opened. They had blurbs in the window. It’s literally a store that sells emptiness, a store of nothing—and there were blurbs that said, ‘What a great store! I had so much fun here!’”
Forty-eight-year-old Hemon, born in Bosnia, views Chicago much differently. He first came to the city in 1992 on what was supposed to be a month-and-half-long visit, but was stranded here when his hometown of Sarajevo fell under siege. He watched the devastation unfold on TV. Chicago gradually became home, a process he describes in his first nonfiction collection, The Book of My Lives, out Tuesday 19 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. In the essay “Reasons Why I Do Not Wish to Leave Chicago: An Incomplete, Random List,” he cites the general lack of entitlement: “The blessed scarcity of celebrities in Chicago…Oprah, one of the Friends, and many other people whose names I never knew or now cannot recall have all left for New York or Hollywood or rehab.” But he can articulate what he likes with equal passion and precision: “The American vastness of the Wilson Street beach, gulls and kites coasting above it, dogs sprinting along the jagged waves, barking into the void.”
Hemon, who goes by Sasha, is a homebody. The coffee shop where we meet, Coffee Chicago, is just a few blocks from his house in Edgewater, which he shares with his wife, Teri Boyd, and his daughters, Ella, 5, and Esther, 16 months. A few blocks up Broadway is the Writers WorkSpace, a quiet collective studio where he goes to write. He relishes this well-contained routine. “Did you know that [the musician] Nick Cave puts on a suit every day before he goes to work in his home office?” Hemon asks. “I admire that professionalism.” (Today, his own attire features warm layers for his walk to the WorkSpace: a black zip-up jacket and a newsboy cap to cover his closely shaved head.)
In The Book of My Lives, Hemon talks about feeling “deeply displaced” during his first few years in Chicago. It was the early ’90s. He was renting a tiny studio in Edgewater, working as a canvasser for Greenpeace and finding himself unable to write in Bosnian (he felt detached from the war-torn country) or English (he had only a basic command of the language). As he grew to be an Edgewater local, the lakeside neighborhood—and by extension, Chicago—became his own. In the 2011 essay “The Lives of a Flaneur,” he writes, “Over time, I acquired a barber and a butcher and a movie theater and a coffee shop with a steady set of colorful characters—which were, as I’d learned in Sarajevo, the necessary knots in any personal urban network.”
Meanwhile, Hemon picked up English, in part by reading Nabokov and underlining words he didn’t know. In a few short years, his stories in English started appearing in prestigious publications: Ploughshares, The New Yorker, The Paris Review. He authored books of autobiographical fiction (The Question of Bruno, Nowhere Man), receiving a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 2004, as well as a steady stream of critical praise, much of it along these lines: “A virtuoso linguist, stylist and social observer” (San Francisco Chronicle); “A maker of amazing, gorgeous sentences in what is his second language” (Los Angeles Times Book Review). His 2008 novel, The Lazarus Project, was a finalist for the National Book Award.