Aleksandar Hemon’s The Book of My Lives
The acclaimed Chicago writer releases his first nonfiction collection.
Hemon doesn’t lie. Not in his nonfiction, at least. (Fiction is another story. But even then, he says he often begins with a situation that really happened, before following his imagination down the rabbit hole.) He says the stories that comprise The Book of My Lives—most of which were previously published in somewhat different forms—“were, for a number of reasons, events too intense or important to fictionalize.” There are essays on displacement, divorce, remarriage, his voracious reading habits (eight to ten hours a day in his mid-twenties at his family’s mountain cabin in Bosnia), soccer, chess and an ill-fated birthday party he attended while in college at the University of Sarajevo. The bash, at a friend’s home, had an unfortunate “Nazi cocktail reception” theme. It was intended to be a kind of art performance, and Hemon was cast as a Ukrainian collaborator. (“I drank vodka out of a cup and wore tall boots,” he recalls.) News of the party got out, and gossip about the “Nazi Nineteen” spread throughout Sarajevo, inciting anger and panic.
These events of his lives are by turns funny, intense, poignant and sad—in other words, great memoir material. Because Hemon has never kept a diary or even scribbled down notes, he was careful to check facts and consult with other people involved in these stories. “With nonfiction, I can’t make stuff up,” he says matter-of-factly. And yet so many memoirists do these days—a little embellishment here, a little lie there. Suddenly they’re in James Frey territory and going on Oprah to apologize. “The kind of memoir that has been dominating nonfiction, to my mind, has a fundamentally puritan quality,” Hemon says. “The format is to make a confession and thereby repent for whatever sins you might have committed.” No surprise it’s a format he hates.
The final piece in The Book of My Lives is a devastating essay, “The Aquarium,” originally published in The New Yorker in June 2011. It chronicles the death of his infant daughter, Isabel, and his other daughter Ella’s simultaneous invention of an imaginary brother, Mingus. While listening to Ella ramble on about Mingus, Hemon understood that “narrative imagination—and therefore fiction—is a basic evolutional tool of survival,” but also that, in the midst of Isabel’s illness, “he could not write a story that would help.” Trapped inside this aquarium of grief, he and Teri found it difficult to endure the platitudes of well-wishing people.
I tell Hemon I thought of this after the Sandy Hook shooting. “The moment that Obama said, ‘God took [the victims] home,’ or something like that, I just wanted to bawl,” he says, his voice catching. “Are you kidding me? If someone told this to me after my daughter died, I would’ve punched them in the face.” He continues, his eyes misting with tears: “When people fall upon clichés, it’s a way to not talk about the tragedy. We have to restore the unreality of our lives in comparison to the lives of parents who’ve lost their children for whom that loss is as real as anything can ever be.”
Hemon is a virtuoso linguist, maker of gorgeous sentences and arguably the best writer to currently call Chicago home, but he’s also a family man: a husband and dad. Is Ella’s Mingus still hanging around? “Oh, yeah,” he says with a smile. “Now Mingus speaks a language she invented. It’s called Silent Mastiff. Mingus knows every word of Silent Mastiff, and Ella only knows one.”
If she takes after her dad—which she seems to—his daughter will achieve fluency in no time. “She clearly has narrative talents,” Hemon says.