Author Aleksandar Hemon exemplifies honest writing

photo courtesy of Vassar College

The warm Spitzer Auditorium provided a cozy escape from the crisp autumn evening outside, where the chilly November wind and the night sky had blanketed the campus in a sheet of darkness. As students, faculty and local residents filed into the brightly lit room on Nov. 6, copies of distinguished author Aleksandar Hemon’s novels were unloaded onto the table set up at the front of the auditorium, right next to the podium at which Hemon himself was set to give the 2019 Gifford Lecture.

The Gifford Fund for Visiting Writers was established by former students and faculty as a response to the retirement of William Gifford, a beloved creative writing professor in the Department of English. The fund and its corresponding lecture honor Gifford by bringing established authors to campus to teach students more about their craft and the importance of honest writing.

Hemon was born and raised in Sarajevo, Bosnia and later came to the United States for a temporary exchange program for journalists in 1992. However, he was unable to return to Sarajevo due to the outbreak of the Bosnian War, and was granted political asylum in the United States. Although his experience with writing started in Bosnia, he continued as he moved permanently to the United States. Upon arriving in the States, he meticulously studied the English language to continue his writing career. His efforts paid off in his numerous award-winning novels, including “Nowhere Man,” “The Lazarus Project,” and “Love and Obstacles.”

Hemon’s writing features the authenticity that encompasses the purpose of the Gifford Fund. Professor of English Amitava Kumar emphasized this point in his introduction to the lecture, sharing one impactful quote that reveals the grittiness of Hemon’s writing: “This is how history works: everything begins far away and long ago, with armies moving, women weeping, children orphaned, burning cities scalding the skies; everything ends in my body, with my writing about it.”

In his reverential introduction, Kumar praised the editorial Hemon wrote for the New York Times last month about Peter Handke, an author who won the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature. In the article, Hemon discussed the controversy behind Handke’s unsympathetic views on the Yugoslav Wars and the campaign of ethnic cleansing that the president of Serbia administered in Bosnia. “Any survivor of genocide will tell you that disbelieving or dismissing their experience is a continuation of genocide. A genocide denier is an apologist for the next genocide,” Hemon wrote in his piece, titled “The Bob Dylan of Genocide Apologists.” Kumar then reflected, “Where Handke’s writing now represents a forgetting of history, Hemon’s struggle has been in the domain of memory, the struggle to remember.”

Kumar ended his introduction with a statement connecting Hemon’s work with the Gifford Fund, saying, “[Hemon’s] has been a strong, eloquent voice against white supremacy—he practices what Gifford would call ‘honest writing.’” The audience would then experience Hemon’s honest writing as he began to read aloud excerpts from a couple of his books.

Hemon started with multiple excerpts from his latest book—“This Does Not Belong to You.” The novel is a collection of Hemon’s childhood memories: fragments of observations and experiences he witnessed growing up in Bosnia. As he began to read, the steady rhythm of his voice guided anticipated listeners through these tales. The audience hung onto every powerful word. At one point, while reading an excerpt about a bully he had encountered, Hemon left the room in awed silence as he recounted, “[W]e learned that to win a fight you have to be willing to destroy your opponent totally, that you must never consider his body, worry about his pain. Do not start a fight unless you can destroy the opponent; do not start a war unless you are willing to commit genocide.” Later in the same excerpt, when describing the boy being bullied, he wrote, “After a while, the wounds would heal, the pain would fade, and he’d find himself destroying some other kid, perhaps even me. This is the way of the world.”

Hemon then read a short story titled “Good Living” from another one of his earlier books, “Love and Obstacles.” The excerpt featured a Bosnian narrator who sold magazine subscriptions door-to-door in Chicago. The authenticity of his words was clear in numerous moments of the story; for instance, when the narrator describes his job at the beginning, Hemon read, “I was desperate at the time, what with the war displacement, so I shamelessly exploited any smidgen of pity I could detect from lonely housewives and grumpy retirees whose doors I knocked at. Many of them were excited by my very presence, as I was living evidence of the American Dream.”

The lecture concluded with a question-and-answer segment, giving the audience the opportunity to directly participate in the event. One of the questions centered around Hermon’s writing influences, especially when he had to learn to write in English. “[W]hen I got to the United States, and realized that I had to be here for a very long time, as I have, I decided I would have to write in English…I gave myself an arbitrary deadline to enable myself to write in English,” he said. “[T]he way I thought I could accomplish that was by reading, which I think is how you do that in any language. So, I started to read a lot.”

As the lecture came to a close, people filed out of their seats and eagerly crowded around the table with Hemon’s compelling novels—supplied by Three Arts Bookstore—waiting to get a signed copy for themselves.

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