Writers & Company

Aleksandar Hemon on how his parents fled the Siege of Sarajevo and started a new life in Canada

The Bosnian-American author on his childhood and how his refugee parents shaped his worldview.
Bosnian-American author Aleksandar Hemon spoke with Eleanor Wachtel in 2019. (CBC)
Listen to the full episode52:19

In his prize-winning writing, Bosnian-American author Aleksandar Hemon often draws on his own experience of exile. Hemon was in Chicago when the Siege of Sarajevo began in 1992. He remained there after being granted political asylum.

Then, after only three years, he began publishing acclaimed fiction in English, prompting comparisons to Vladimir Nabokov, among others. Hemon has now come out with two works, which are bound together in one book. My Parents  recounts how his mother and father fled Sarajevo and settled in Hamilton, Ont.

This Does Not Belong to You is a collection of short pieces that explore Hemon's own childhood, personal observations and affecting narratives. Hemon is the recipient of a Guggenheim Award, a MacArthur 'genius' grant and the PEN/W.G. Sebald Award.

He spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from Princeton, N.J., where he teaches creative writing.

Stories my father told me

"The world during my parents' childhood included ammunition and various units of various armies, but there were always adventures. The war didn't diminish the stories — on the contrary; the stories he told us about that time were full of adventures.

"There were also a number of stock characters, of course, much like in any cyclical narration. He would want us to hear about them and we waited for them to show up. One of the stories my father told us was about when he and his older brother and some of the kids from the neighbourhood threw ammo into the fire to try to distract a unit that was about to pilfer my grandparents' house.

"But because they were playing with ammo and finding it all over the place, they found a box of landmines that they thought were hand grenades. With a hand grenade if you pull out that ring you have five or ten seconds to throw it. But they found landmines, which explode on impact as soon as the pin is pulled. My uncle pulled a pin and the mine exploded in his hand. It blinded him and blew off his right hand."

Ruptured continuity

"My mother told this story about when she left for university and was planning to go to the coast with my father. This was somewhat untraditional for an unmarried couple going by themselves on vacation. She asked my grandfather for permission and he told her that it was her life. The way I interpret it — and he was right about it — was he didn't know exactly how the world my mother lived in worked, but he trusted her judgment. My mother always appreciated that trust her father had in her. But the trust is also necessitated by the fact that he didn't quite know what it was like.

"What happens in a place like the Balkans and Yugoslavia, much less than the United States or Canada, is there are vast gaps between generations. The experience of my grandparents and my parents was so vastly different that there practically was a rupture of the continuity of experience.

"The same thing exists even between me and my parents, particularly after our migration. In a stable comfortable society, there is this assumed continuity of knowledge and wealth and information and property and so on. Whereas where we came from, there's a regular periodic rupture, so that each generation has to start from scratch."

Dealing with displacement

"My parents have done pretty well living in Ontario. They value their health. They are very proud of their homes and the space that they created for themselves in Canada. But the loss is indelible. That's a traumatic event in their life. It's what divides their life into 'the before' and 'the after.'

"The after is pretty good, relatively speaking. Obviously many people were killed, or lost family members, or are far more severely traumatized perhaps. But that displacement is always traumatic."

Aleksandar Hemon's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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