S8 E9 | CLIP

The Outsider

Exiled from his homeland, Aleksandar Hemon witnessed from afar the horrors of the Bosnian War. He vowed to never let the world forget.

AIRED: December 03, 2021 | 0:13:00

(gentle music)

(gentle music)

- [Narrator] Alexander Hemon lost much of his previous life

to the Yugoslav wars in the '90s,

but there's a reason he clings

to a world that no longer exists.

- In my particular case, and place where I'm coming

from in my family, there's a perpetual fear,

conscious unconscious that I experienced our existence

in the world will be erased.

If I don't tell stories

of my family, there might not be no memory of my family.

- [Narrator] Alexander or Sasha Hemon was born

in 1964 in Sarajevo in what was

then Yugoslavia, his most cherished childhood

memories where his father Peter's nighttime tales

of growing up in Yugoslavia during the second world war.

His father's descriptions of the lives

of Bosnian peasants during that time left

to hunger in young Sasha for nostalgia,

for people in places that only the collective memory

of shared stories can access.

- They are the same every time they are narrated,

they do not age or die or suffer, they keep existing

for as long as there's a story to be told.

This is one of the ways in which storytelling grounds being

in the ever-changing world.

It worked for Homer. It works for my father.

- [Narrator] Hemon's mother Anya,

meanwhile was a voracious reader who filled the shelves

of their home with great European classics.

One after the other,

young Sasha devoured Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, Rilke.

In high school he put these aside for a while

and became obsessed with J D Salinger

and Raymond Chandler, books stimulated Hemon's

hunger for knowledge and led him to pursue a degree in

literature at the university of Sarajevo.

College essays made him see himself

as a writer for the first time.

Shortly after he began working

as a journalist writing passionately

about his hometown in a column called Sarajevo Republica

for the newspaper, Nashidondi.

- I get energized and getting envolved with the world,

but by virtue of by way of writing, that's why I do it.

That's my high.

- [Narrator] As you get slob can close to collapsing,

Heman was chosen for a cultural exchange program in the U S.

He would have returned to Sarajevo

but got stranded in Chicago when the Bosnian war

broke out in April, 1992, forced into exile.

Heman learned on CNN that his neighbors were being butchered

and his beloved Sarajevo was being destroyed.

(gentle music)

- On the outskirts of the city in the Hills above,

the war was already mature and raging,

but in the heart of Sarajevo,

people still seem to think that it would somehow stop

before it reached them.

My father, however, advised me to stay away.

Nothing good was going to happen at home he said.

I was supposed to fly back from Chicago on May 1st.

On May 1st, I didn't fly home.

On May 2nd, the roads out of the city were blocked.

The last train with my parents on it departed

the longest siege in modern history began.

In Chicago, I submitted my application for political asylum.

The rest is the rest of my life.

- [Narrator] In Chicago, Heman had little money,

no family, no job, no visa, no idea what to do.

For a while, he found herself unable

to write in his native language.

New Bosnian words were coming out of the experience

of war and having watched the conflict from afar,

Heman felt those words were not his to use.

At the same time, his proficiency in English

was barely sufficient for life in America.

- My first legal job was canvassing door to door for

Greenpeace, for which I was trained

by a 19 year old named Jim.

At some point, Jim somewhat annoyed by me asked

how come you never use the articles?

Patiently, and painfully, I explained to him

that Slavic languages have no articles

and that it might take me a while to get that right.

And it wasn't as the articles.

I remember watching David Letterman's late night show

and having no idea what he was talking about,

just staring glumly while my friends roared with laughter.

- [Narrator] As the war progressed on the world found out

about the genocide being carried up by elements

of the Bosnian Serbs army against Bosnian Muslims,

some intellectuals Heman respected

and admired publicly dismissed the events and supported

to the Serbian nationalist president, Slobodan Milosevic.

The urge to write about Bosnia

and Yugoslavia grew more vital for Heman, his voice,

his stories were missing from the conversation

and he could no longer stand and watch in silence.

To make sure the world would hear him,

he poured himself into learning English

with the determination of an Olympian.

(gentle music)

- I read and read at first underlining words

on the page to look them up later

in my Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary,

which I brought with me.

I couldn't read as much as I needed

to because I was working.

So I enrolled in a master's program

in English, at Northwestern University for the sole purpose

of reading more and more systematically,

I took out a huge student loan,

which I'm still paying off and signed up for classes

with the intention of reading through the history

of English literature, refresh what was familiar,

discovering new things, fill out the gaps.

I once broke up with a young woman who thought we had

something serious going because as I told her,

I needed more time to read Shakespeare.

The sex was fine, but King Lear was better.

(gentle music)

- [Narrator] Heman believes the war

in Bosnia weakened his mental defenses,

blowing his subconscious gates open

for the English language to enter, but in retrospect,

he understands his linguistically obsessive brain

had its origins in childhood.

- My father and all of my family, my father's side,

they're all bilingual, and also when I was a kid

in school, I was good at language.

There was a competitive curricular activity called

The League Of Young Linguists because Bosnia has complicated

in so many ways, the official language was complicated,

so we would study the rules that were written by a

conference of linguists and then compete in knowing the

rules of the language and then the doublets and, you know,

synonyms and homonyms and all that,

the whole linguistic vocabulary

and language I adopted in elementary school because of that,

I was constantly trying to get out of that,

play soccer and do nothing, but my parents wouldn't let me.

I think my linguistic ability is partly due to that

because I was immersed in language in a very deep level,

in my native language, when I was a child.

- [Narrator] In 1995 alexander Hemon reached the goal

of publishing his first story in English,

two years before a self-imposed deadline.

His first book, "The Question Of Bruno" came out in 2000.

The same year Heman became an American citizen.

Heman's books attempt to intertwine his life

in Chicago and the cruelty he had escaped in Yugoslavia.

Mixing fiction and nonfiction,

they amount to an intimate mosaic

of a time and place that might have been lost.

- So he would watch CNN% footage

of people with familiar faces crawling in their own blood,

begging the unflinching camera for help,

people twitching and throttling

as their stumps spurtted blood,

people who were trying to help them dropping

like an imploded building shot by a sniper.

And he would know that was the end of their lives.

- [Narrator] Literary stardom happened almost immediately,

but for Heman becoming a great writer,

isn't primarily a matter of personal pride and vanity.

It's about defining the threat of annihilation.

- History is largely still to this day,

conceived off as a stories of great men usually,

but of great individuals who have agency,

and they were presidents that they were leaders

and they led the nation to whatever.

But who tells stories of the rest of us, the nobody's right?

And so to me, the agency in the world,

particularly for displaced people that the primary mode

of agency is telling a story.

I get to tell us stories and not about myself necessarily,

but about the world that defined me,

the world that can perish just like that,

based on a decision by some big shot.

In my particular case,

and the place where I'm coming from,

in my family, there's a perpetual fear,

conscious unconscious that I experienced our existence

in the world will be erased or could be erased.

Historical ruptures, that can mean,

you know, genocide Holocaust,

but also the ease of displacement

or the ease of our being subjects of displacement.

That we cannot, if I don't tell stories

of my family, there might not be no memory of my family.

All we have are these fragments

that we're trying to put back to get in various ways

and never think that could be entirely put back together.

I want to keep those fragments, so that the details,

the tastes, the moments, the angles of sunlight,

the story is my parents, this is what I, this is,

this is my project, I want to keep that somewhere in a book.

And so that book could be on the shelf

for the next 100 years

but someone someday will pick it up

and say, oh, these people lived in the world.

- [Narrator] Alexander Heman's books are full

of surprisingly intimate disclosures that grant access

to the most private domains of his character's lives.

He has deliberately played with the concept of privacy,

challenging cultural notions

of what can and cannot be made public.

- Well, here's the thing in Bosnian,

there's no word for privacy, in fact,

the word that is close to privacy and private in Bosnia

in the languages of the Western Balkans is really related

to private property, and so obviously

in socialism, when poor societies where you can,

no one had private property, except very few people.

I also think that, not to harp on this,

there there's a certain value that comes from the sort

of Protestant Puritan tradition,

that privacy needs to be protected,

partly because as a sinner,

you must have some sins in that private domain, right?

And so once you expose yourself

to the gaze of others, you know, your domain of privacy,

something's going to come up right.

And so I did not grow up in that tradition.

I wrote a book about my parents.

We talk candidly about things like the first time they had

sex when no one was uncomfortable, right?

Because there was no sin involved.

- [Narrator] Alexander Heman's otherness has granted him

a place of his own in the US these days,

he teaches creative writing at Princeton University.

His novel "The Lazarus Project"

was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award,

and he's received many significant awards,

including a so-called Genius Grant

from the MacArthur foundation, but for the most part,

Heman still feels like an outsider,

speaking a different language.

- Throughout this pandemic,

I lost touch with a lot of American friends,

but I lost touch with none of my Bosnian friends.

In fact, we are more in touch than we have been for years.

In other words we have learned to stay in touch

and to create a collectivity of experience

regardless of the circumstances.

But it's also I think that's the American culture

is inherently transient and forgetful.

And I think it's partly related to that.

A common belief that you change just renew yourself

periodically in various ways, you move from one place

to another and just become someone else.

(gentle music)

- [Narrator] Alexander Hemon has most likely reached

his goal of preserving the memory of his family

out of a place for future generations

to know and care about.

Whatever he does next,

we'll no doubt also challenge our preconceived notions

of who gets to tell the story, what gets told, and why.

(gentle music)

- [Narrator] "Articulate With Jim Cotter" is made possible

with generous funding from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

(gentle music)


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