“The accumulation of tragedy leads to farce”: An Interview with Aleksandar Hemon

Ena Selimović interviews Aleksandar Hemon, the Bosnian-American author whose most recent work is entitled The Zombie Wars. Their conversation touches on multilingualism, translation, Trump, nationalism, marketing and contemporary immigrant literature in the U.S., the Yugoslav diaspora, and the false rigid line widely drawn between tragedy and comedy. The questions come out of the recent resurgence of interest in immigration and immigration literature, and attempt to challenge the tendency to read it only through the lens of trauma studies.

This interview was conducted on October 17, 2016, at the Writers Workspace in Chicago and over email.

Ena Selimović: In Specimen, you recently wrote an article about being “pathologically bilingual.” In some way, I see this concept describing your work in general. Beyond being a hyphenated American, there are concepts in your works that remain untranslated (for example, the sevdah lyrics in Nowhere Man). Why leave certain terms untranslated? Are these markers of particular ethnic belonging or affiliation that are genuinely unable to be translated? Is this a strategy of highlighting the necessity of multilingual existence, that language denotes as much a symbol of signification as it does a way of being? Would you say that we are the language we speak? That we live differently through the particular languages we use?

Aleksandar Hemon: Robert Frost said poetry is what is lost in translation, but then Brodsky said poetry is what is gained in translation. And both of them are right. I prefer the Brodsky approach because I don’t think it is the case and I think it’s wrong to believe that things cannot be translated. Or to believe that they shouldn’t be translated, and that we are just going to speak in our own language on this side and you speak your own language on that side and we just respect each other. Suburban multiculturalists: just don’t cross over here, we’ll be great neighbors. You know, in the Frost poem “Mending Wall,” there’s that line “good fences make good neighbors.” But translation is unconditionally essential and necessary, it’s always happened and it’ll always happen. And when your translation is a creative endeavor, you are going to mistranslate something. Something is going to be lost, for sure. But suppose you could translate everything exactly, suppose that every Bosnian joke could be exactly translated into English—we know it’s impossible because so much of it is cultural in the sense of the practices of the people who live there— but just suppose. If it could be exactly translated, English and Bosnian would be the same language. There would just be different words for the same thing, the languages would be dialects, or the same language. The purpose is not to find exact matches, for that is either impossible, or meaningless; in trying to approximate, translation changes language, it expands it. So that the English language is full of words from other languages, precisely because there were no matching English words. I used to teach English as a second language and I would start, when I taught lower level classes, mainly Russian speakers, I would start with a map of the world where each country from which words came into the English language. Pogrom from Russia, sushi from Japan, banal words, but even the banal words transform experience. In trying to find equivalent concepts and failing, languages change. So you can think, and this is what nationalists do, that language, our language, is this solid, eternal thing that is best equipped to express the “essence” of our national being. Since the essence doesn’t change, language doesn’t change—or shouldn’t. So you have Academy police as in France or Germany protecting the language from influences, keeping it pure, because if it is too infected with foreign words, then the national essence is fucked up. To me the concept of language in which there is constant circulation is appealing, where translators of literature play a crucial role, as do writers who inescapably import words from other languages—not already accepted, like sushi, but what has not been used. Take sevdah—I could explain the concept, make an attempt at it, but I like the idea that sevdah one day could be an English word, while still being a Bosnian word. I try to import the word. An interviewer asked William Carlos Williams about a strange idiom he used in “Paterson”: “Where did you get this?” And Williams said, “From our Polish mothers.” Which I took to mean that Polish mothers translated an idiom from Polish, used it in English, and then it ended up in arguably the best American poem of the twentieth century. This transformation and translation is what immigrants and people who come from elsewhere do; they transform the English language, or any language for that matter, as they do transform the new country. This is a troubling idea for nationalists.

ES: What do you think, then, about current categories of the American literary market—of “immigrant” or “ethnic” literature? That there is a multicultural “turn”? That we are in an age of “world literature”? Would you consider yourself a part of these categories? You are often compared to Nabokov and in conversation with the likes of Gary Shteyngart or Teju Cole, and many other “ethnic” writers.

AH: To the extent that writing or any art is making stuff, most of the time I worry about how to make stuff. However, I could spend time arguing with imagined enemies. Sometimes I argue in my head in English with some imaginary counter-position. Here’s the problem with American literatures of now, at least parts of it, the dominant parts. There are very few people who run the business of literature who understand the difference between the monolingual and multilingual mind, and therefore the reality that is possible in it. The publishing industry, the main generator of discourse, is largely populated by monodimensional people trying to understand a multidimensional space and they project it on a single plane. A multidimensional object represented in a two-dimensional system is flat. It’s a problem of perception. Immigrant writers and multicultural writers, many of whom are my friends, are aware of that; we talk about it all the time. The industry sees that multidimensionality as part of the immigration phenomenon; we came here and started writing in English—and that is true, obviously—and by doing so, we are presumed to have lost some kind of essence or home that existed in the previous language. But the possibility that one can exist in two languages simultaneously is baffling to monolingual people. So there is a sort of self-congratulatory aspect to “immigrant literature,” like “Look at us, reading all these people from elsewhere and we understand.” In terms of not just culture or politics, but also in terms of thinking about language and the world and society and identity, all that, that monolinguality, monoculturalism is being dismantled before their very eyes, and they don’t see it with their monodimensional eyes. I mean, Trump is at the far end, the metastasis of that kind of thinking, just completely incapable of understanding another person who might have a mind of their own. But this is the American problem right now. They do not understand that—“they,” not everyone, but people of the monodimensional mind, who have largely voted for Trump—what kind of change is taking place, that there is an epistemological transformation taking place. On the right, the reaction is some form of suppression—“only English here”—but on the left, the reaction is a sort of perpetuation of immigrants as a stable, self-evident, neutralized category; the discourse has been set and they keep talking about those things in the same way, the vocabulary is already available, the set of clichés is available, the concepts are available, and they just regurgitate it over and over again with this false expertise.

The immigrant writer category, it’s not my concept. People who are in that category, I tend to know a lot of them, I tend to like a lot of them as individuals and writers. I like their work and we can sit around and talk about this all day long. But there’s no Headquarters of Immigrant Writers where we have to call in, see how we’re doing, and receive orders. I would not disown myself and say “I am not like those people.” I am exactly like those people in many ways, but we don’t think of ourselves as immigrant writers. It’s much more complicated than that. I fully own the term immigrant, but I am much more than an immigrant writer.

ES: One way that the publishing industry as well as some readers push the dominant immigrant category onto writers is by referencing some greater community that exists within the U.S. Does an ex-Yugoslav diaspora exist? What brings it together, if so (say, in Chicago)?

AH: There is no ex-Yugoslav diaspora because it’s been broken and its diasporic structure replicates the situation in the Balkans. However, there is a certain amount of overlapping, which operates differently in different generations. So, my parents’ generation, because they’ve had this dream of Yugoslavia and had a good time there and it was a good place for them, they find people of their generation from any persuasion or background and there is always some overlap. And they’ve even learned to perform the kind of dance where they don’t talk about anything that happened after ’91, about the war, and they stay away from politics. There are also younger people who didn’t experience Yugoslavia or the war, except through their parents, and are in a position similar across the ex-Yugoslav diaspora in that they’ve internalized their parents’ mythology but only speak English. Their parents suffer from some form of nostalgia, there was the war that no one likes to talk about, there is the past as the depository of stories. And there are all these pre-war bands from Former Yugoslavia who tour the lands of the diaspora and most of them address the whole crowd, regardless of their background, and that is a business decision. So when Plavi Orkestar goes to Australia, they don’t just pick Bosnians or Serbs, not only for commercial reasons but also because pop music was never defined in ethnic terms before the war. There are younger people who might, if pressed politically, replicate that nationalist or national positions of their parents, but in some ways they have this strange diasporic identity wherein they are the children of immigrants and to them, because they had no experience of war, the old land becomes this utopian space, where their parents used to be happy in ways that are not available now, not to the parents, not to the children.

ES: That leads to a question of audience. Are you read different in ex-Yugoslavia v. the States? How, if at all, do you present yourself differently, given this understanding of culturally and experientially defined overlaps? I feel pulled to ask that clichéd question: What audience do you write for, if you imagine any while writing?

AH: My work in Former Yugoslavia has a kind of self-selective audience by virtue of my defining myself as Bosnian and also my political positions. They come through in my fiction as well as in my columns, which are trans-shared among people of that political persuasion—roughly, anti-nationalist. It’s a self-selective audience. I don’t get read by people who like to read Dobrica Ćosić or like to listen to Thompson. At least I hope not. Perhaps it’s a function of having a conflictual personality, but I spend a lot of time thinking that what I do is not really understood. I have to fight against that thought because it’s delusional, and vain, and egotistical, Trumpian, so to speak. Nevertheless, those who are the closest to understanding what I do is a very small group of people, essentially my friends, a list of a hundred, maybe two hundred, and then maybe the second circle around them, the one-degree-of-separation crowd, the friends of the friends, people who are in exactly my position and have had exactly my experience: the experience of immigrant life, and of life in Sarajevo, in Former Yugoslavia, and were affected by the war. It’s a very, very small group of people and it’s practically set. And they’re all friends. It’s not an audience. It matters to me what they think. If I write something and they call it bullshit, that’s a serious problem. Sometimes I run things by them. Because some of it is about them, quite directly, particularly in my nonfiction. I don’t think of an audience, just of this imaginary hometown, scattered around the world.

ES: In addition to this false rigidity of binaries set about multilingualism, literary categories, and immigrant communities or audience, there is often a monodimensional reading of the coexistence of comedy and tragedy in literature. Important to my work on the kind of multilingual literature that your work embodies is the theme of humor, which does a particular kind of affective work in immigration literature. There’s a good line in Faruk Šehić’s Knjiga o Uni: “Moj zivot nije entertainment.” In some ways, humor makes immigrant writers entertainers. What role does humor play for you? Some now argue we’re entering an “era of comedy.” What do you say to this language of a “shift” or “turn”?

AH: To think of humor as an isolated category is the wrong way to think about… People ask me sometimes, “So, where do you get humor?” The implication of the question is that I write a first draft and then I go fetch the humor bucket and pour some humor in the text for comic relief. But that’s not how it works for me, or anyone who’s actually seriously funny. I do not like stand-up comedy precisely because there’s this expectation it’ll be funny all the time—humor in stand-up comedy is segregated. It’s easy to be funny that way, because everything is set up for funny. It’s like humor porn; everyone is ready to be aroused and then anything appearing to be funny can trigger that. For me, it comes down to the complexity that I and writers I like—and people I like, whether they’re writers or not—see in the world and their experience. To us the world and our experience are complicated things because of our immigrant, or refugee, or historical experience at large. Everything is complicated. I prefer complicated people, and everyone is complicated in some ways—again, it’s that multidimensionality. Experience cannot be simplified to humor or tragedy. That might seem possible in a continuous society that has had no major historical or societal ruptures, where you can pretend to simplify your life and eliminate all these distractions and focus on pleasing yourself, fulfilling your needs. But for much of the human population, the world is an unimaginably complicated place. This complicatedness I love, and I work to imagine it and formulate it. I think that literature is the best place for it, because language can contain all that complicatedness. Movies simplify things. Any kind of visual representation to some extent has to simplify things. But language and literature can engage with this complicatedness. To me, humor is part of this complication, and you cannot isolate it. There are moments in life, obviously, where there’s tragedy and there’s comedy, but it’s very hard to find lives that are tragedy from birth to death, or comedy from birth to death. For me, to speak in my experience, and to make it exclusively a joke or make it a mere tragedy is equally abstract. As Faruk Šehić said, my life is not entertainment, but it’s also not tragedy. It is not a horror film. It is many things at the same time. This is far more common than not. The trouble is, to return to the monodimensional American mind, that many Americans think it’s one or the other. Funny stuff should be funny, and tragic stuff should be tragic. And when it’s mixed it is an exotic phenomenon—you know, immigrant literature. But the mixedness is the default situation. To me, the bizarre situation is to have those things sorted out. Chekhov was great at tragedy and comedy at the same time. There’s that great scene in Ivanov when they’re at some party and they mope because Moscow is far away and nothing is happening here in the provinces and their lives are wasted. So one of those characters is moping in the corner at the party, and he tells the other one, “Oh, what are we going to do, he will never make it to Moscow,” and starts crying. And then the one he’s talking to also starts crying. And then the third one comes and it’s a tragic situation—a standard Chekhovian our-lives-are-wasted kind of thing—the third one says, “Why are you crying?” And he says, “Oh, we’ll never make it to Moscow, it’s horrible.” Then the third one starts crying. Then the fourth one arrives, or maybe the fifth one, and just starts crying without asking. At which point it is comedy. The accumulation of tragedy leads to farce. I always liked this. Chekhov translations in English are not good, because they can’t see the comedy. Constance Garnett, the standard translator, was a sort of a puritan so she cut down the comedy ’cause drama cannot be funny. But Chekhov’s very funny. In any case, it was not all tragedy in Chekhov, at least one side is comedy. Granted I have not studied this, but Chekhov plays are in American theater presented largely as this bourgeois, complaining tragedy. Nabokov said about Chekhov that he wrote sad stories for humorous people. That is, that you could not see the sadness unless you had a sense of humor. And—Nabokov didn’t say this—but it seems to me that Chekhov also wrote humorous stories for sad people: to get the jokes you had to have experienced sadness or at least have an understanding of sadness. Humor as an isolated thing is stand-up comedy, might be enjoyable, but it’s entertainment, it’s Seinfeld, it’s great, but it’s not art, and it’s not life. To have tragedy and comedy operating at the same time, that to me is an interesting formal challenge, but it’s also interesting as human experience.


Cover photo credit: jvoves/flickr/some rights reserved

Liked it? Take a second to support Balkanist on Patreon!
Ena Selimovic

Ena Selimović was born in the former Yugoslavia, spent her early childhood in Turkey, and now calls the United States her primary home. She completed her M.Phil. in Comparative Literature at Trinity College in Dublin; her master’s thesis explores lingual exile and silence in ex-Yugoslav diaspora literature, focusing on the writings of Aleksandar Hemon, Ismet Prcic, and Dubravka Ugrešić. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis.