Culture versus genes
by - an interview with Aleksandar Hemon
You went to America in January 1992 for three months and have remained there till this day. What have you been doing?
I came to Chicago in March 1992 after travelling through the United States and Canada. I was supposed to fly back home in May 1992 - on the day, as you know, that the Sarajevo siege began. My first, casual job was keying numbers into a computer for a property dealer who paid wages below the legal minimum, which I was only too happy to accept, however, since I did not have a work permit. Then I worked in a sandwich bar and after that as a canvasser for Greenpeace - my job was to go from door to door in the Chicago suburbs and ask for voluntary contributions. I did this for two and a half years, during which by my own reckoning I talked to around 5 000 people. In this way I started to chat in English. After that I took out a loan and tried to get an MA in English literature, while working in a bookshop. I then taught English to immigrants, mainly Russian Jews. I also worked as a motorcycle mail carrier. For the past few years I have been living on a scholarship doing a doctorate at the Loyola University of Chicago.
Ever since the first translations of your stories you have been living off your writing. This is a rare success.
It is only this year  that I started to earn my living by writing. Before coming to Chicago one of my stories was published in an anthology of the best Yugoslav writing of 1991, which was edited by David Albahari and Mihajlo Pantic. In the autumn of 1991 I had completed a book while sitting on Jahorina and gave the manuscript to a publisher, which I think was called Zadrugar. However, when the war started and I found myself in Chicago I realised that I should be living here for a long time, maybe for ever, so that I would have to learn to write in English. If language is linked to experience then the American experience demanded the English language. I read new works, but also re-read books which I have always loved in order to see how they function in the new context, in the context of war and genocide. One of my favourite teachers at the [Sarajevo university] faculty of world literature was Nikola Koljevic, who most likely, if he had not killed himself, would have suffered ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ
the same fate as a war criminal like Rosenberg, and I obsessively searched through my memory for the symptoms of his genocidal nature. So I read like mad and when I was not working I made long lists of words on cards and then looked for them in dictionaries. I was able to communicate fine in matters of everyday life, but writing demands much greater control. My plan was slowly to gather knowledge, in which my postgraduate studies were a great help. I gave myself five years to learn to write in English, but for one reason or another wrote my first story in English after three years.
What was it about?
It was `The Sorge Spy Ring'. Writing in a non-mother tongue was a strange experience: I found myself using words which I did not know I knew. The word would come out of the pen, after which I would look it up in the dictionary and it was the perfect word.
An additional problem was the conviction - the axiom of national literature - that a writer can only write properly in his or her mother tongue, since the mother tongue comes from this or that national being. I cannot say I really carried within myself this national being, apart from the Bosnian microbes that flew together with me across the ocean; but nevertheless I had grown up with the idea of literature being possible only in one's mother tongue. So that while writing that first story in the English language I kept expecting that the whole thing would be impossible - I was doing something which my literary education deemed theoretically to be impossible.
Do you mean that you wrote in English and then the stories were translated into Bosnian?
That story was published in Sarajevo in translation. The collection of stories published in Sarajevo under the title The Life and Work of Alphonso Kauders was also published in translation. It was a really weird situation: stories published in translation in my mother tongue. The publisher, Bosanska knjiga, despite my insistence, did not reveal in the notes on the author that almost all the stories, with the exception of the title story, were in fact written in English. Consciously or unconsciously they were unable to accept the possibility of Bosnian literature in the English language. The problem of national literature is the same as that of nation: it excludes or kills those whose identities are not evident and which do not contribute to the firmness and clarity of the national being.
Despite theoretical difficulties, I found writing in English extremely satisfying, so that after `The Sorge Spy Ring' I continued to write in English. Literary agents, all of whom are to be found in New York, read regularly and th1oroughly all the small magazines, even if their print run is no more than a few hundred copies. My agent Nicole Aragi, who represent a relatively large number of writers of short stories rather than writers of novels, reads each Thursday a heap of such small literary magazines.
One Thursday she read my story `Islands' (which deals with the island of Mljet), in a journal published in one thousand copies, and got in touch with me. It makes a great difference to have someone to represent you. She then orchestrated a great campaign, which included publication of a story in The New Yorker, the result of which was great interest throughout the world - at this moment twelve European countries plus the USA and Brazil.
Danilo Kis once got a large payment for a story in The New Yorker, from which he erroneously concluded that he could make a decent living in that way. Was your text too submitted to a ruthless editorial intervention?
The New Yorker is considered to be the most prestigious publication, so far as short stories are concerned, and they pay well - a dollar per word - so that they are very conscious of their power and are very demanding. On the whole I cannot stand The New Yorker. The stories published there are of a certain type, in regard to both content and form, which means that a certain type of short story becomes standardised and treated asÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ
natural, hence the best. The current chief editor Bill Buford is an idiot with a very limited imagination and a head full of general themes, but he has a little black book with the telephone numbers of Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes. I was close to a nervous breakdown when I worked with them on the publication of `Blind Jozef Pronek', and harboured many ethical doubts and questions: should I send The New Yorker to hell or compromise? I compromised when I realised that I should have total control over my book and that publishing in The New Yorker would help me get a publisher, which is what indeed happened. I can imagine how Kis must have felt, given that he was already a recognised and important writer, and then some arrogant New York editor tried to make him write as he wanted.
In which way does the literary market there differ from the one here, insofar as we have or have had one at all?
The literary market in America is unbelievably different from `our' market or markets. In America around two million titles are published each year, of which only a small part belongs to so-called `serious literature'. This means that an enormous number of books compete for readers, who are at the same time viewers and listeners. One consequence of this is a segmented market which functions in cahoots with the politics of identity. Books are published with certain reading publics in mind: well-to-do white males, or Afro-American women or gays or Hispanics or whatever. On the one hand this imposes limits of the genre type but, on the other, it does mean that there is necessarily no overlap or dialogue between these reading groups. This situation, of course, bothers those who would like literature to be universal, to express `human' values which are allegedly transcendental, although much of the literature `with identity' has the same ambition. Such fragmentation of the market is simply impossible in the area of former Yugoslavia, because all the national states in it are busy establishing their own monolithic cultural space and are preoccupied with promoting national literature whose `value' cannot and must not be tested by the market. Ivan Aralica [a minor and notoriously nationalistic Croatian writer] does not need an agent or reading public, since to him Tudjman (God rest his soul!) and the HDZ are both agent and readership.
Surely you do not mean that a great country like America fails to take pride in a clearly defined national literature?
There is an American national literature too, which functions differently, because American nationalism functions differently. American nationalism is not able, like the Croat or the Serb variety, to proclaim a thousand-year tradition, and it does not produce the same kind of myths of subjugation and national awakening or the transcendental need for self-fulfilment in a national state. Americanism, in contrast to the Serbism or Croatism, is not a genetic but a cultural enterprise. In other words, anyone can become American, while you can become a Bosniak, a Serb or a Croat only by birth and even then you can be suspected. To be an American is to accept a certain system of cultural values which neatly coincides with the axioms of capitalism. To become an American in the American symbolic system means to constantly work for self-realisation within the capitalist market - the more you act as an individual within the market, the more American you become.
In the course of the 1990s Bosnian-Herzegovinian literature has produced a great number of superb books of both prose and poetry, which have also been well received abroad. However much we may argue that the war themes have contributed to this interest abroad, it remains the fact that this literature is well received on the basis of literary and aesthetic criteria.
I am not sure that the literature of Bosnia-Herzegovina has properly responded to the war and genocide, if one takes it as a monolithic cultural unit. In my view we are dealing with a certain generation, tÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ
he generation of Semezdin Mehmedinovic and Miljenko Jergovic, which proved more able to confront the catastrophe of the war and the disintegration of identity than did, say, Sidran's - let alone that of Nedzad Ibrisimovic and people like him. This is because they were able to understand the war not as `our' war against `them', not as a war between two (or three) ethnic identities with a transcendental centuries-old essence, but as a war that was destroying old identities and creating new ones, a war that was not on the border of civilisations but at their cross-section. The older generations slid completely into national self-pity, while for Semezdin, say, the war was a transformational experience.
Sarajevo Blues, which has had a second printing in the United States, recognises in a visionary manner the experience of Bosnia in its global meaning and recognises this meaning in the details. Miljenko's stories are similar in this regard - Sarajevo Marlboro is local because it is global - while the anthology of younger poetry which he has edited cannot be classified as national literature, not even in the utopian multiethnic sense.
In my view this is the most interesting aspect of the interest in Bosnia, this global relevance of the Bosnian experience. On the one hand, the war has put Bosnia on the map. In the United States a good part of the population would not be able to find Austria on the map, let alone Bosnia, but who cares for maps when Bosnia was on television! What is more important, however, is that the wars in the Balkans and especially in Bosnia are a direct consequence of the crisis of the national state, and in connection with that of the crisis of national identities. This, however, is something with which the political subconsciousness of almost every state in the world is unable to grapple at this stage.
In the Sarajevo weekly Dani you have written about multiethnic America, i.e. Chicago, and compared it to Bosnia and Sarajevo. What are the differences and similarities?
Sarajevo and Chicago are similar to the extent that they have always been multiethnic, although the context of that multiethnicity changed over time. Not wishing to go into the past of Sarajevo and Chicago or to stretch the similarities too far, one can say that both cities - like all big cities - were sites of exchange, and that at certain times in the past they attracted a large number of immigrants who changed them. This similarity, however, is too generalised to be useful. What is more interesting is that Sarajevo and Chicago today are two different examples of the same crisis of national identities. While Sarajevo has become nationally more pure, Chicago and many other big American cities are becoming more complicated and more multiethnic. Both cases are the consequence, in my view, of a general crisis of the national state and it is not surprising, therefore, that multiethnicity in Sarajevo is less possible than in Chicago. Multi-ethnicity in Chicago, however, was never simple or comfortable.
Immigrants came to Chicago in search of work, not in search of a harmonious society; and since there is always less work than people, the resulting tensions are divided in accordance with ethnicity or race. Contemporary immigrants, however, are different and more complicated. While the immigrants of a hundred years ago left their countries in order to return only once or never, so that as a result they were assimilated more quickly and thoroughly, the new immigrants remain in touch with the area from which they came. Thus Chicago's Pakistani taxi drivers listen to tapes recorded in Islamabad mosques; Nigerian businessmen work in the local outlets of Lagos companies; Korean children hold monthly video meetings with their grandmother in Seoul; and so on. Air flights and telephone companies, not to speak of e-mail and the Internet, are relatively cheap and contact is not lost. This is evidently linked to globalization and has as its consequence the crisis of national identity. There is an emerging polarisation iÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ
n America: on the one hand, the ultranationalists bellow about the crisis of `our culture' and nation, about the need to protect the language and ban Spanish in schools, about the `new world order' which is wiping out national sovereignty.
On the other hand, unbelievable cultural and hybrid combinations are emerging in the cities, with the immigrants opening channels that bring in influences from the `third world' and thus changing the American cultural space. I, by chance, exemplify this.
Here in the Balkans there is much talk of conspiracies in connection with the `New World Order'. Does the conservative part of America not likewise feel threatened by that?
It seems to me that the world is changing in ways that are without a precedent, a process that is subsumed under the general name of globalization. In order to properly understand it, we must return to the forgotten philosopher Karl Marx. He insisted that capitalism is simultaneously the best and the worst thing that has happened to humanity: the worst, because it raises the levels of alienation and exploitation to unprecedented heights; the best, because it also leads to changes which strengthen those who
are subjected and subjugated. The same is true of globalization, since it is in fact globalization of capital which can no longer tolerate national borders or closed national markets. This capital is changing the world, exploiting cheap labour and expanding in line with the logic of capital. But the process is two-directional: American capital (which can no longer be only American) is changing the world, but the world is entering and changing America in a manner that is irreversible.
Semezdin Mehmedinovic has written about Bosnian refugees who in America have acquired their own graveyards. What can you tell us of our people in America? How are they doing?
`Our people' is a hazy category which assumes a monolithic nature and demands generalisation, while life is never so simple or, if it is, is not very interesting. There are about thirty thousand Bosnians in Chicago and how they fare depends on many things: class, gender, generation, etc. University educated people on the whole do well, once they have learned the language. On the other hand, women are better at adapting than men since, if I may say so, they have fallen from a lower height. Men who in their country controlled everything, who were more `free' and successful, find it harder to overcome the shock of change. The children, who learn English in a few months, are quick to adapt and soon come to look after their parents: they find them jobs,
pay the bills, and often end up supporting the family. A full inversion of the classical Balkan family hierarchy is thus not uncommon: the children function best, then women, then men. This is evidently a change that complicates the sense of identity. A young Bosnian woman, who finds a job here, who becomes a manager while being protected by the law from having her bottom pinched or from discrimination in employment, infringes the traditional family structure which lies at the base of the Balkan nationalisms.
A very personal question, if an answer is possible at all. Do you plan to stay in America or to return in the near future to Sarajevo?
I will remain in Chicago. My wife, Lisa Stodder, is born and grew up in Chicago. This is my home. I believe in local loyalties, loyalties towards friends and neighbours, and I have acquired them here in Chicago. Also, it is easier for me to be present in Sarajevo while in Chicago than the other way round. And there is also my budding literary career. I need, after all, to be in contact with the language in which I write.
Translated from Feral Tribune (Split),
6 December 1999