Bosnian-American author Aleksandar Hemon has spent close to half his life in the United States, writing in English. But in all that time, his primary landscape, the map inside his head, has remained a fine-grained, street-by-street, multi-sensory memory of Sarajevo, the city of his birth.
In his short stories, novels and memoir pieces, Hemon restlessly re-creates his homeland, masterfully deploying his second language to burrow deep into his memories and render them freshly evocative and painful.
Hemon, who kicks off this year’s schedule of readings and events sponsored by the Center for Literary Arts at SJSU, wrestles with the dilemma of the exile. In 1992, he left Sarajevo for Chicago, just before the Serbian forces of Radovan Karadzic laid siege to the city, in what Hemon, in an essay from his new collection The Book of My Lives, calls the notorious war criminal’s “motorcade down the hell-and-suffering highway.”
Hemon (and his family) escaped in time, but as an exile driven by harsh history instead of an immigrant by choice, he can’t let go of a mingled sense of guilt and unfinished business.
In “The Lives of a Flaneur,” Hemon describes his 1997 return visit to the stricken city: “Everything was fantastically different from what I’d known and everything was fantastically the same as before.” He seeks out his treasured places, finding them where they always were but marred by “siege scars.” Even his cached smells and tastes of Sarajevo have been tainted by the war; the coffee now tastes “like burnt corn.”
He confesses to the ultimate untreatable wound of the exile: “I was displaced in a place that had been mine. In Sarajevo, everything around me was familiar to the point of pain and entirely uncanny and distant.” In time, he fashions a life in Chicago, restlessly walking its streets and cementing new physical and psychological markers, but the wound of memory doesn’t heal that easily.
In his novel The Lazarus Project (2008), Hemon brilliantly lays the halves of his divided life one atop the other, palimpsest style. In alternating chapters, Hemon tells two interlocking stories. The first re-imagines a historical incident from 1908 in which a young Eastern European immigrant named Lazarus Averbuch was shot by a Chicago policeman.
Lazarus, a Jew from the Ukraine, might have been an anarchist, as the tabloid press of the day shouts in hysterical headlines—or maybe just the idealist that his stricken sister recalls.
The second story is related by a Brik, a Bosnian writer in exile who plans to retrace Lazarus’ old-country origins. As Brik and his photographer pal and fellow exile Rora ramble through Eastern Europe, they lose sight of their ostensible subject and are drawn instead to the inexorable magnet of Sarajevo. With the impulsive Rora acting as Dr. Gonzo to Brik’s Raoul Duke, the pair push their way toward a heart of darkness: a gangster named Rambo who flourished during the war years. At times, Rora’s tales of his encounters with Rambo seem too fantastical, but as Brik explains about Sarajevans, “There was a storytelling code of solidarity. É Disbelief was permanently suspended, for nobody expected truth or information, just the pleasure of being in the story and, maybe, passing it off as their own.” Then that suspended reality falls hard back to earth and does damage—a technique Hemon often uses in his short stories as well.
Brik never sorts out Lazarus’ short life and sudden death; the effort, however, brings him closer to his own bifurcated self. The Lazarus Project races to keep its century-separated narratives aloft, but Hemon pulls off the feat because he knows the listener is “in my power for as long as he listened to me.”
The stellar fall roster for the Center for Literary Arts also includes appearances by local authors Alan Soldofsky and Nick Taylor, Sept. 30; a book-release party for Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage by SJSU professor Susan Shillinglaw, Oct. 9; and Sandra Tsing Loh, Oct. 14-15.
Sept. 18, 7pm – Reading and Book Signing, MLK 225/229
Sept. 19, 1pm – In Conversation with Peter Orner, MLK 225/229
SJSU Center for Literary Arts
Both events are free
Barnes & Noble Blossom Hill
Renette Torres signs Widows Peek, Sep 14, noon. Robert Balmanno, signs his books Runes of Iona and September Snow. Sep 21, 11am. Also Sep 28, 11am at Barnes & Noble Stevens Creek, San Jose.
Barnes & Noble Eastridge
Robin Chapman signs California Apricots. Sep 21, 3pm at Barnes & Noble Eastridge Mall, San Jose.
Barnes & Noble Stevens Creek
Bay Area native Gregg Hurwitz discusses his latest book, Tell No Lies. Sep 14.
Books Inc. Mountain View
With California Apricots, Robin Chapman shares the history of Silicon Valley’s lost apricot orchards. Aug 29, 7pm. Also Sep 21, 3pm at Barnes & Noble Eastridge Mall, San Jose.
Hugo and Nebula prize-winning author Kim Stanley Robinson discusses Shaman, a coming-of-age tale set 30,000 years in the past. Sep 6, 7pm. Cathleen Miller explores the life of reproductive rights advocate Nafis Sadik with Champion of Choice. Sep 9, 7pm.
Tom Kizzia shares the story of a modern-day homesteading family in the Alaskan wilderness in Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier. Sep 18, 7pm
Clive Thompson discusses Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better. Oct 2, 7pm Investigative journalist Eric Schlosser discusses Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. Oct 3, 7pm.
Indu Sundaresan shares The Mountain of Light, a story of loss and recovery based on the tumultuous history of a legendary 186-carat diamond. Oct 7, 7pm.
Elizabeth George shares her newest in the Inspector Lynley series, Wounded Prey. Oct 17, 7pm.
Books Inc. Palo Alto
New York Times bestselling author Gregg Hurwitz discusses his latest book, Tell No Lies. Sep 12, 7pm.
The Peninsula Parlour presents Stegner Fellow Anthony Marra discussing A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, in conversation with Lisen Stromberg. Sep 17, 7pm.
Assistant managing editor of Newsweek Evan Thomas discusses Ike’s Bluff, the account of how Dwight Eisenhower saved the world from nuclear holocaust. Oct 3, 7pm.
(unless otherwise noted, events take place in at the store in Menlo Park)
Mal Warwick, The Business Solution to Poverty: Designing Products and Services for Three Billion New Customers, Sep 10, 7:30 p.m.
A double event with Ellen Hopkins, author of Smoke and Sonya Sones, author of To Be Perfectly Honest: A Novel Based on an Untrue Story, Sep 11, 7pm.
National Geographic Live Speaker Series presented by Kepler’s and The Fox Theatre
“Bryan Smith: The Lens of Adventure,” Sep 17, 7pm. Fox Theatre, Redwood City.
Nick Taylor discusses his historical novel Father Junipero’s Confessor. Sep 25, 7:30 p.m.
Author Khaled Hosseini in conversation with Tamim Ansary. Hosseini’s newest book is And the Mountains Echoed. Sep 27, 7:30pm. Fox Theatre, Redwood City
Jennifer duBois discusses Cartwheel, her thriller about an American exchange student arrested for murder. Oct 2, 7:30pm.
Andrew J. Bernstein shares California Slim: The Music, the Magic, and the Madness, a memoir of a musical journey that began when, as a teen, he took music lessons from Jerry Garcia. Oct 14, 7:30pm.
Avi Tuschman, Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us. Oct 24, 7:30 p.m.
Alexander McCall Smith makes his only Bay Area appearance to discuss The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon: No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Nov 14, 7pm.