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Overcoming Obstacles: An Interview with Aleksandar Hemon

By Marcus Gilmer in Arts & Entertainment on May 14, 2009 5:00PM

2009_05_hemon.jpg Last year, we spoke with local author Aleksandar Hemon on the eve of the release of his novel The Lazarus Project. We expected big things of that excellent tome, but nothing could have prepared us for the widespread acclaim and awards heaped upon Lazarus, including but not limited to National Book Critics' Circle finalist (2008), National Book Award finalist (2008), and the Trib's Heartland Award (2008).

Now, Hemon is back with Love & Obstacles, a collection of short stories he worked on while he was also writing Lazarus; many of the stories appeared in The New Yorker. Focused on a single, unnamed narrator throughout the entire collection, Love & Obstacles traces the young man through his youth from Africa to Sarajevo to America in a journey that mirrors parts of Hemon's own travels. Throughout his journey, the narrator crosses paths with a seedy American traveler, a heralded Bosnian poet, and even fellow immigrants as his travels take him overseas to America, searching for manhood and an identity to call his own. Loaded with the same vivid imagery, marvelous turn of phrase, and the introspection that we come to expect of Hemon, Love & Obstacles is another success by one of Chicago's sharpest - and most essential - writers.

With Love & Obstacles hitting shelves today and a pair of local appearances this weekend, we caught up with Aleksandar to talk about the short story versus the novel, displacement, and why he puts his narrator in such awkward predicaments.

Aleksandar Hemon, Sunday, May 17, 3:00 PM, The Book Cellar (4736-38 N. Lincoln Ave.) and Monday, May 18, 12:30 PM, Borders on State Street (150 N. State St.)

Chicagoist: Is it right many of these stories were written at the same time you were working on The Lazarus Project?

Aleksandar Hemon: Yes. I would write on Lazarus and then I’d take a break and write a story and then I’d go back to Lazarus. I sort of alternated. I wasn’t writing Lazarus and the stories on the same day.

C: They definitely share similar spirit and themes, particularly “American Commando,” with its dealing of “identity” and even the idea of being a storyteller. How much did the two influence each other?

AH: I think they complement each other because one of the reasons I like doing two things at the same time is that I didn’t have to put all of one thing into the Lazarus book. I could separate them. I could do things in the stories I didn’t want to do in Lazarus. What’s in one book cannot be in the other. In Lazarus, Brik doesn’t have parents whereas in Love & Obstacles, there’s a lot of family. Brik never talks to family or other families whereas in this book, the narrator talks to other writers and poets. And little things like that really interested me.

Also, in terms of themes and issues, I didn’t want to go too far with some of them in Lazarus, so I could exploit them in the stories.

C: Several of the stories appeared in one form or another in The New Yorker originally. Was the plan always to collect them for release in book form?

AH: Yes. I always had that overarching concept for these stories. They would all be in first person and there would always be the same narrator. There would be his drinking, his parents, his reading other writers and other books.

2009_05_hemon2.jpg C: When you read the collection as a whole, the decision all makes sense, but some readers may wonder, “Why a collection instead of a novel?”

AH: Well both of these books [Lazarus and L&O] are “books” to me, they’re both pieces of literary art but they’re different genres. Like a conceptual album and an album full of singles. The difference in terms of production is that I wrote the stories one at a time, these single units so they could published in The New Yorker whereas for chapters of the Lazarus book, they needed the support of other chapters. Ideally, both have substantive cumulative power but in the novel it accumulates differently. In a book of stories, it collects at a different level; they’re separated by plots and events and time whereas in the Lazarus book, there’s a continuity of time and place and they’re connected to storylines.

C: Do you have a preference between the formats?

AH: I don’t. Honestly, I write both and I like to write both. I’m a little partial to the short story because it’s such an outsider genre in the publishing industry and across the board. Everyone thinks that the short story is half-dead. What writing students do when they learn to write, they practice for a novel by writing short stories. And there’s an aura of less value around short stories. I’ve always loved them. Some of my favorite writers are or were exclusively short story writers. Chekov, for instance. He only wrote short stories or plays. I don’t want to give up on the short story but I think there’s a different future ahead of us for it.

C: In The Lazarus Project, Brik said, "If you can't go home, there is nowhere to go, and nowhere is the biggest place in the world - indeed, nowhere is the world." And when we talked last year, we discussed that intimate idea of what defines "home" for someone. In the Love & Obstacles story "The Conductor," the aging poet Dedo tells the unnamed narrator, "Everywhere is here," and then pulls out a cell phone, which seems to shock that narrator. Am I reading too much into it or is this a somewhat related commentary to that idea of home, that now we are always connected?

AH: Well, it’s a way for everyone to feel different degrees because a lot of people are displaced and the place hardly defines a home anymore. And this is before all of the technology that allows you to be connected. I met a guy in St. Louis - St. Louis has the largest Bosnian community in America - and he watched the snow falling in Sarajevo online at night. At these lonely hours, he would turn on the camera and watch the snow falling. And, obviously, he would do that if he was in Sarajevo because in Sarajevo he would do it looking out the window or he wouldn’t do it at all. You could be present while absent. Or absent while present.

So certainly the notion of “home” has become more complicated. Technology is just an accoutrement to all that, that central fact of migration and immigration and vast numbers of people who are displaced. Those who are not displaced, their lives are affected by displacement in various ways. They have family who are elsewhere or they’re thinking of getting over the ocean to a different place or they’re just stubbornly staying at home.

C: You mentioned earlier how this book is different from Lazarus is that idea of family. I’m particularly interested in the father-son relationship that is seen throughout the book, especially in ”The Bees Part 1” but comes full circle in the final story when the unnamed narrator sees his own parents when meeting the parents of another character. You focused more on that specifically because of its absence in Lazarus?

AH: Well, if I introduced parents to Brik, he would be a different character. I would have to add things to the book I did not want to add. And there’s also another difference and that’s the significant presence of women in The Lazarus Project - the sisters: [Lazarus’ sister] Olga and then Rora’s sister and so on - whereas in Love & Obstacles is kind of a male book. I’m saying this in a good sense. There are all kinds of male fantasies involved which often end badly. So one of the lines of connection, one of the bonds is between the son and the father. The only real male bond in Lazarus is between Rora and Brik. The narrator of Love & Obstacles tries in various ways to achieve what he thinks is manhood and it doesn’t quite work out. And his father is one of the lines, one of the relationships he deals with.

C: You do seem to put the narrator in these awkward, disastrous positions. Do you like to put these characters in these situations and see how they work themselves out?

AH: Well, that’s the “obstacles” part, in many ways. But I love my books and I love my characters and I love this narrator. And he has these ambitions to be a writer, to be a man, he just doesn’t know quite how to do it. So, he tries to do these “manly” things which are catastrophic which come out of these needs to search his manhood. Therein lies the disaster: if he were to drop the pretense, the way he imagines himself, then he would be a better person. And that’s the obstacle to love.