Aleksandar Hemon

Photograph: Carlos Javier Ortiz

Hemon near his Andersonville home

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.”

* * *

Reasons Why I Do Not Wish to Leave Chicago: An Incomplete, Random List

Excerpted from The Book of My Lives (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25)

By Aleksandar Hemon

Aleksandar Hemon and his dog, Billie

Photograph: Carlos Javier Ortiz

Aleksandar Hemon and his Rhodesian ridgeback, Billie, in February

1. Driving west at sunset in the summer: blinded by the sun, you cannot see the cars ahead; the ugly warehouses and body shops are blazing orange. When the sun sets, everything becomes deeper: the brick facades acquire a bluish hue; there are charcoal smudges of darkness on the horizon. The sky and the city look endless. West is everywhere you look.

2. The way people in the winter huddle together under the warming lights of the Granville El stop, much like young chickens under a lightbulb. It is an image of human solidarity enforced by the cruelty of nature, the story of Chicago and of civilization.

3. The American vastness of the Wilson Street beach, gulls and kites coasting above it, dogs sprinting along the jagged waves, barking into the void, city kids doing homemade drugs, blind to the distant ships on their mysterious ways from Liverpool, England, to Gary, Indiana.

4. Early September anyplace in the city, when the sunlight angles have abruptly changed and everything and everyone appears better, all the edges softened; the torments of the hot summer are now over, the cold torments of the winter have not begun, and people bask in the perishable possibility of a kind and gentle city.

5. The basketball court at Foster Street beach, where I once watched an impressively sculpted guy play a whole game—dribbling, shooting, arguing, dunking—with a toothpick in his mouth, taking it out only to spit. For many years he was to me the hero of Chicago cool.

6. The tall ice ranges along the shore when the winter is exceptionally cold and the lake frozen for a while, so ice pushes ice against the land. One freezing day I stood there in awe, realizing that the process exactly replicates the way mountain ranges were formed hundreds of millions of years ago, tectonic plates pushing against each other. The primeval shapes are visible to every cranky driver plowing through the Lake Shore Drive mess, but most of them look ahead and couldn’t care less.

7. Looking directly west at night from any
Edgewater or Rogers Park high-rise; airplanes hover and glimmer above O’Hare. Once, my visiting mother and I spent an entire evening sitting in the dark, listening to Frank
Sinatra, watching the planes, which resembled stunned fireflies, transfixed with the continuous wonder that this world is.

8. The blessed scarcity of celebrities in Chicago, most of whom are overpaid athlete losers. 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, where they can wear the false badge of their humble Chicago roots, while we can claim them without actually being responsible for the vacuity of their front-page lives.

9. The Hyde Park parakeets, miraculously surviving brutal winters, a colorful example of life that adamantly refuses to perish, of the kind of instinct that has made Chicago harsh and great. I actually have never seen one: the possibility that they are made up makes the whole thing even better.

10. The downtown skyline at night as seen from the Adler Planetarium: lit windows within the dark building frames against the darker sky. It seems that stars have been squared and pasted on the thick wall of a Chicago night; the cold, inhuman beauty containing the enormity of life, each window a possible story, inside which an immigrant is putting in a late shift cleaning corporate trash.

11. The green-gray color of the barely foaming lake when the winds are northwesterly and the sky is chilly.

12. The summer days, long and humid, when the streets seem waxed with sweat; when the air is as thick and warm as honey-sweetened tea; when the beaches are full of families: fathers barbecuing, mothers sunbathing, children approaching hypothermia in the lake’s shallows. Then a wave of frigid air sweeps the parks, a diluvial shower soaks every living creature, and someone, somewhere loses power. (Never trust a summer day in Chicago.)

13. The highly muggable suburbanites patrolling Michigan Avenue, identifiable by their Hard Rock Café shirts, oblivious to the city beyond the shopping and entertainment areas; the tourists on an architectural speedboat tour looking up at the steep buildings like pirates ready to plunder; the bridges’ halves symmetrically erected like jousting pricks; the street performer in front of the Wrigley Building performing “Killing Me Softly” on the tuba.

14. The fact that every year in March, the Cubs fans start saying: “This year might be it!”—a delusion betrayed as such by the time summer arrives, when the Cubs traditionally lose even a mathematical possibility of making it to the play-offs. The hopeless hope is one of the early harbingers of spring, bespeaking an innocent belief that the world might right its wrongs and reverse its curses simply because the trees are coming into leaf.

15. A warm February day when everyone present at my butcher shop discussed the distinct possibility of a perfect snowstorm and, in turn, remembered the great snowstorm of 1967: cars abandoned and buried in the snow on Lake Shore Drive; people trudging home from work through the blizzard like refugees; the snow on your street up to the milk truck’s mirrors. There are a lot of disasters in the city’s memory, which result in a strangely euphoric nostalgia, somehow akin to a Chicagoan’s respect for and pride in “those four-mansion crooks who risk their lives in crimes of high visibility” (Bellow).

16. Pakistani and Indian families strolling solemnly up and down Devon on summer evenings; Russian Jewish senior couples clustering on Uptown benches, warbling gossip in soft consonants against the blare of obsolete transistor radios; Mexican families in Pilsen crowding Nuevo Leon for Sunday breakfast; African American families gloriously dressed for church, waiting for a table in the Hyde Park Dixie Kitchen; Somali refugees playing soccer in sandals on the Senn High School pitch; young Bucktown mothers carrying yoga mats on their back like bazookas; the enormous amount of daily life in this city, much of it worth a story or two.

17. A river of red and a river of white flowing in opposite directions on Lake Shore Drive, as seen from Montrose Harbor at night.

18. The wind: the sailboats in Grant Park Harbor bobbing on the water, the mast wires hysterically clucking; the Buckingham Fountain’s upward stream turned into a water plume; the windows of downtown buildings shaking and thumping; people walking down Michigan Avenue with their heads retracted between their shoulders; my street completely deserted except for a bundled-up mailman and a plastic bag fluttering in the barren tree-crown like a torn flag.

19. The stately Beverly mansions; the bleak Pullman row houses; the frigid buildings of the LaSalle Street canyon; the garish beauty of old downtown hotels; the stern arrogance of the Sears Tower and the Hancock Center; the quaint Edgewater houses; the sadness of the West Side; the decrepit grandeur of the Uptown theaters and hotels; the Northwest side warehouses and body shops; thousands of empty lots and vanished buildings no one pays any attention to and no one will ever remember. Every building tells part of the story of the city. Only the city knows the whole story.

20. If Chicago was good enough for Studs Terkel to spend a lifetime in, it is good enough for me.

First published by 3 Book Publishing, © 2006 Aleksandar Hemon