Aleksandar Hemon's extraordinary life story is more than simply fodder for book publicists. It informs everything he has written, for his work is restlessly autobiographical, infused with the urgency of thinking through his life on paper.
In 1992, Hemon was a young Bosnian writer, just two years out of the University of Sarajevo and about to publish his first book, a collection of spare and modernist short stories. Then Sarajevo was surrounded by the Yugoslav National Army and the Bosnian War broke out. Hemon's book was never published. As he said later, "Stopping that was the best thing the war ever did."
Hemon was on a one-month tour of the United States when his city was besieged, and the visit turned him into an exile. He escaped the violence of the war but found himself estranged from his homeland and native language. He made Chicago his new home, applied for political asylum, and began to learn English. He completed a master's degree in literature at Northwestern University, and wrote his first short story in English in 1995. Soon, he was publishing stories in the New Yorker, Esquire, and Paris Review and earning adulatory comparisons to Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, two other writers who achieved literary fame after adopting English.
Hemon's change in language and life circumstances prompted an equally dramatic change in literary style. He began chronicling immigrant and exile experience with existentially haunting sentences such as, "I got up, out of my nonbeing, and stepped into the inchoate day." Almost immediately, he started winning literary prizes, book contracts, and the coveted MacArthur Foundation "genius grant."
He published The Question of Bruno, a novella and short stores, in 2000; and his first novel, Nowhere Man, which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, in 2002. The Lazarus Project, published in hardcover in 2008, was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award. He lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter.
This article was originally published in May 2008, and has been updated for the
May 2009 paperback release.
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