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Strolling down Clark Street in Andersonville with Aleksandar Hemon—as he makes the three-block trek from his house to his office—is a lesson in rootedness. Here’s Middle East Bakery & Grocery, where he buys phyllo dough to make pies. Over there is Andies Restaurant (“I remember when it was just a storefront with a grill and a window”) and Kopi café (“I don’t particularly like it, but I want it to be there for 50 years”). If it weren’t for the soft eastern European accent, you would never know that this bald, powerfully built 48-year-old had spent most of his life halfway around the globe.
Barely two decades ago, at 27, Hemon found himself stranded in Chicago when war broke out in his hometown of Sarajevo. He had no job, barely spoke English, and knew only one person in the city. Now he’s one of America’s brightest literary lights: author of the critically acclaimed novels Nowhere Man (2002) and The Lazarus Project (2008), a contributing writer at The New Yorker, a National Book Award finalist, and a winner of the MacArthur “genius” grant. Farrar, Straus and Giroux just published his first nonfiction book, a collection of personal essays called The Book of My Lives. How did he pull all this off?
“It’s a bit of a story,” Hemon says with a slow smile, reaching into the pocket of his well-worn jeans for a small cloth and beginning to clean his glasses.
Hemon was raised on the main boulevard of Bosnia’s sophisticated capital city (then in Yugoslavia). A rambunctious child, he was fed a steady diet of books by his mother, Andja, an accountant (father Petar was an engineer), to keep him busy. Enthralled by storytelling, he wrote his first novel in sixth grade. “It was, predictably, about a boy misunderstood by his parents.”
By the time Hemon had completed mandatory military service and earned a degree in literature from the University of Sarajevo, cultural exchanges for promising Eastern European writers were being offered by a now-defunct arm of the U.S. State Department. Hemon jumped at the chance. In January 1992, he set off on a month-long American tour, tacking on extra weeks to see Canada and visit a friend he’d met the previous summer in Kiev. The friend, George Jurynec, lived in Chicago.
It was on the TV in Jurynec’s Ukrainian Village apartment that Hemon saw the first horrifying images of war: an old friend being beaten in a Sarajevo riot, a Serbian in paramilitary gear kicking a dead Bosnian woman in the street. At the urging of his father, Hemon reluctantly applied for political asylum.
With just $300 in his pocket, the young man was forced to scramble for odd jobs—waiter, Greenpeace canvasser—while managing his fear and longing for Sarajevo. He set about learning Chicago by walking its neighborhoods. “Pullman, Beverly, Lakeview, and then the Parks—Hyde, Lincoln, Rogers,” he writes in The Book of My Lives. “I began to sort out the geography of Chicagoland, assembling a street map in my mind, building by building, door by door . . . I was a low-wage, immigrant flaneur.”
If Hemon had any hope of earning a living by his pen, he also had to master English. His strategy: scour sales at local libraries for 25-cent copies of books he had already read in Serbo-
Croatian. “I reread them in English,” he says. “Tolstoy and Chekhov and Raymond Carver.” He took inspiration from the virtuosity of Vladimir Nabokov, another novelist who learned to write in a language not his own. “There is a moment [in Nabokov’s Lolita] when Humbert Humbert says that the cars are lined up like pigs in a trough,” says Hemon. “And ever since, every parking lot looks different to me.”
In the next five years, Hemon completed two short stories that were good enough to run in small literary magazines. Nicole Aragi, a New York City literary agent, came across one of them and offered to represent Hemon. She sent a new story of his, “Blind Jozef Pronek”—about a Bosnian refugee who settles in Chicago—to Deborah Treisman, then deputy fiction editor at The New Yorker. “We all agreed this was a voice to work with,” says Treisman. The magazine published the piece in 1999. In Hemon’s writing, as in Nabokov’s, “there’s real pleasure taken in language itself—coming up with imagery that is very unexpected,” Treisman says.
Why didn’t Hemon move back to Sarajevo after the war ended? “My parents landed in Canada in 1993. My sister lives in London,” he says. “[Sarajevo] is where my past life is.” What about New York City, where his editors lived? He measures his words. “Wherever there is a benefit or advantage to positioning yourself in some hierarchy, that’s the name of the game [in New York],” he says. “I never felt any animosity from any writer in Chicago.”
Quite the opposite. Hemon’s closest friends in town include short story writer Stuart Dybek, poet Reg Gibbons, and Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here. “[Alex and I] meet once a month for dim sum,” Hemon says, “and talk about recent books and what’s happening in our lives. We don’t spend much time gossiping. This is not a gossip town.”
The collegiality of the city’s literary scene is arguably partially due to Hemon. In 2011, he and his wife, Teri Boyd, a freelance photo editor, began hosting a monthly writers’
salon at the North Side tavern Hopleaf (they know the owner). Attendees have included Dybek, Kotlowitz, crime novelist Sara Paretsky, and cartoonist Chris Ware, who lives in Oak Park. “Most of the writer friends I have in the city come by,” Hemon says.
Fittingly, it was Hemon’s growing love for Chicago that helped him win Boyd. In 2005, shortly after he and his first wife, Lisa Stodder, split, Boyd contacted him. She asked if
Hemon would write an essay for a book she was working on called Chicago in the Year 2000. Smitten, he gave her “Reasons Why I Do Not Wish to Leave Chicago: An Incomplete, Random List” (on the next page). Two years later they were married.
Hemon and Boyd’s second daughter, Isabel, became the subject of Hemon’s best-known New Yorker article. In July 2010, at the age of nine months, Isabel was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She died 108 days later. “The Aquarium,” Hemon’s story about that period, was a National Magazine Award finalist.
In Hemon’s book-lined writing studio, I ask why he decided to write about something so painful. He pauses, looking down at the table. “In the end, the reason I wrote it is because I could not not write it,” he says softly. “If I [have] committed my life to writing, that means that I should be able to write difficult pieces. And this is as difficult as could be.”
When he told his older daughter, Ella, that Isabel had died, the three-year-old asked for another sister. In October 2011, she got her wish. Hemon, Boyd, Ella, toddler Esther, and their Rhodesian ridgeback, Billie, still live in Andersonville—that little piece of Chicago that Hemon calls home.
As we finish some tea, Hemon rubs his head and wonders aloud if it’s time for his barber to shave it again. “I’ve had the same barber for 18 years,” he says, smiling. “I like growing old with people. I like growing old with the city.”