PEN Atlas Q&A: Aleksandar Hemon

Aleksandar Hemon’s latest novel, The Making of Zombie Wars, is published by Picador Books this month. Here, the Sarajevo-born author talks to PEN Atlas about the undead, reading in translation and the relationship between humour and despair.

Interview by Rebekah Murrell.

English is your adopted written language, Chicago your adopted city. Do you see yourself as a writer in translation?

No, I’m not a writer in translation. I think of myself as a bilingual, bicultural writer, because I write in two languages, English and Bosnian, and when I write in either of those languages, I’m fully inside that language, so I don’t translate as I write. I have a Bosnian translator who translates my things from English into Bosnian and I supervise the translation. I have no need to translate in my head. It’s important, however, to stress that being a bilingual and bicultural writer is related to a particular state of mind, I think – when language or thoughts or literature is produced in the overlapping space between two languages or two cultures or two frames of mind, it is not unlike having an extra dimension in your head. The thing is that in a two-dimensional world, a three-dimensional object would appear as two-dimensional, so in some ways monolingual people can’t quite see the presence of both languages in the thought process that leads to the literature that I write.

You are comfortable in long form fiction, short story, non-fiction – which, if any, is the genre you enjoy working in most? Can fiction do what non-fiction can’t?

I think of myself as a writer, not a novelist and being a writer means writing everything and anything along the writerly continuum. I’ve written poetry which was terrible but I’ve written it; I’ve written film scripts and in between I’ve written journalism, and so-called non-fiction and fiction, and it is important to me to think of myself as someone who can write in any form or genre. As for fiction and non-fiction, in many ways the difference is not so much arbitrary as it is pointing in the wrong direction. When I wrote The Book of My Lives and published The Book of My Lives, I was aware that people asked me about fiction and non-fiction and the difference thereof; in Bosnian, there’s no way to describe the difference between fiction and non-fiction and there are no words that are equivalent to fiction and non-fiction. The way I think about it is that my non-fiction is true stories unless they’re journalism obviously, and so the overarching concept in all that is storytelling – or in fact even above that or beyond that it’s thinking in language and so the form depends on what I’m thinking about in language.

The Making of Zombie Wars explores the resurgence of the zombie trope in American culture, particularly post-9/11. Why do you think the notion of the undead resonates so powerfully?

In American culture, there’s space for the American public to work out their anxieties, or fears, and zombies allow for working out the anxiety about anonymous un-individualised masses advancing towards the privilege that we have here. Zombies are dangerous only because they appear in large, unstoppable numbers, and they are driven by a voracious hunger that leads them to – in the movies – literally eat our lives. So this trope could be applied to or could be pertinent to any fear that is a fear of masses. That then applies to immigrants, perhaps, or the masses of others: terrorist Arabs, Muslims who, for some reason incomprehensible, want to destroy and devour our way of life. I think that is why the trope of zombies has been resurgent after 9/11 and after the Iraq invasion – I think it’s going to be even more so after the current refugee crisis in Europe.

You have won a long list of accolades and prizes, including the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2003 and a Genius Grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 2004. Has winning prizes affected your relationship to your work? 

Well, the accolades… I think to write one has to have a peculiar combination of arrogance and ability to search for things without any certainty that something could be found.  Arrogance is necessary for just starting a project because this world does not need another book; the only reason to write a book is because you cannot not do it, and for me, if I cannot not write a book, then I write it. And so it is to the extent that I have confidence, it comes from there – that once I have set out to write a book, I have no other choice, and because I’ve done it before, I think I can do it again. At the same time, one has to be used to the perpetual discomfort of writing, where everything could turn meaningless in a word or two, and this tension between the redundancy and the necessity of writing is what drives me. In that context, accolades do not prove to me that what I have done is good because I had to decide that even to begin the process; nor does the absence of accolades – because I have won many prizes but my books haven’t; nor does the absence of accolades bespeak anything about the way my work exists in the world – I mean, as far as I’m concerned. In other words, it’s meaningful to me and then the hope is that it will become meaningful to others. Once it’s meaningful to me, it cannot be made meaningless, so I do not need evidence that it’s meaningful.

“I spotted a can in the corner whose red label read SADNESS. Was there so much of it they could can it and sell it? A bolt of pain went through my intestines before I realized that it was not SADNESS but SARDINES.” The Lazarus Project. Humour and despair are never far behind one another in your work. What do each illuminate in the other? Is humour a tool for political commentary? 

Humour and despair are siblings; where I come from, they come together often. Humour is a vast field of human expression, I suppose, and there’s a kind of humour that is mere entertainment and that’s fine of course. It’s very difficult to produce that and make people laugh; I have nothing but admiration for that. However, I like to think that what I do is not just entertainment and that the humour that appears in my books is just a different mode of the reader’s engagement, which might be pleasant as laughter’s pleasant but can never be reduced just to laughter – or, at least, I don’t want it to be. In The Making of Zombie Wars I made humour the spine of the book, as it were. It was its basic organising principle; when in doubt I would err on the side of funny, and that represents a tremendous risk, because if it’s not funny, it’s dead. If despair is alone, then it’s not quite entertainment but it reduces human experience to one pitch. In our lives we usually swing between despair and humour, or at least despair and joy, and that’s my way: I like to operate between despair and joy.

You are famously often compared to Nabokov. Which writers would you say have influenced you the most?

Nabokov is greatly beloved by me. I loved him before I began even to consider writing in English and once I found myself in the situation of considering writing in English he was a guiding light. The comparison, however, is unfair to Nabokov because he wrote 40 books in two languages, translated a major work of Russian literature and lived a fantastically productive writerly life. He was also of an entirely different background: his first words were in English, his first nanny was English and at some point his father had to hire a Russian tutor because he was concerned that Vladimir and his brother Sergei were not speaking Russian at the ages of four and five, so my story is somewhat different. As for influences, I guess Nabokov is one of them. I love a lot of Russians, I love Danilo Kiš. There is also a group of writers, or at least books, that are influential in that they help me define how I do not wish to write; in other words, they formulate their aesthetic or ethics in such a clear way that I could argue against them, and that is perhaps even more useful to me in terms of influences.

Who are your favourite writers in translation?

When I was growing up, nearly everything I read was in translation. I read some writers writing in Serbo-Croatian but they were forced upon me by the school system and I resisted them, a knee-jerk reaction resisting the authorities who wanted us to understand how great the prescribed writers were. I admire some of them now. But when I was younger nearly everything I read was in translation and in a small place, a small literary market as Bosnia or Yugoslavia was before the war, many books were translated. Having said that, I still read a lot in translation. Danilo Kiš, whom I’d read in Serbo-Croatian, I returned to him in translation; there’s a strange shift in the angle of light, as it were, cast upon a book if read in translation as opposed to the original language. Most recently I’ve been enjoying Elena Ferrante, and not enjoying Knausgaard, but I spend a lot of time reading books in translation.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?

I have written a book on the United Nations that is due for publication some time in 2016, so I’m not working on it, but that’s the next thing up. Other than that, I’m in the phase of thinking about various things, discarding ideas, trying to talk myself out of writing books that don’t need to be written, and that’s an essential part of the process. I have a couple of novels that I wish to write, which I will write, and I’m approaching the point where I will start making notes. I can’t say more about them as I don’t know what they will turn out to be. I have also been interested in Nabokov and I aim to write several essays about Nabokov’s work. I will see what that adds up to, and that is particularly exciting to me.

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About the Author

Aleksandar Hemon is the author of The Book of My Lives, The Lazarus Project, and three books of short stories, Love and Obstacles, Nowhere Man, and The Question of Bruno. His most recent book, the novel The Making of Zombie Wars, has just been published in the UK by Picador. Hemon has been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award no fewer than three times, and was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Genius Grant from the MacArthur Foundation. He lives in Chicago.

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