Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Hemon on migration


I am not sure if you are familiar with the work of writer Aleksandar Hemon. His most famous work is The Lazarus Project, which was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. Hemon was born in Sarajevo and came to the States in 1992 for what he meant to be a short visit. However, bombs started falling over Sarajevo and he was not able to leave. He's lived in Chicago ever since.

I've been meaning to pick up Hemon's books for a while because I knew that his writing is very much inspired by his childhood and young adult life in Bosnia but also shaped by his experience as an immigrant. For one reason or another I never did. Today, however, I came across a video interview of Hemon in which he talks about the importance of Sarajevo for his work and life. He says that everything he learned about the world, about living in a city, about living with people, he learned in Sarajevo. So, when he came to Chicago at the age of 28, he started looking for things that were important to him that were in tune with his sensibility. He looked for people to play soccer with, looked for a barber, a butcher, a coffeeshop, a bar. What he was looking for in Chicago, Hemon says, was what he loved about Sarajevo. According to Hemon, you acquire a sensibility in the city where you grew up and you transfer that over to wherever you happen to live next.

I am not sure if that's how things have worked out for me personally. Maybe that is the case because I left my parents home when I was only barely 18 and at that point had not yet developed any particular attachments. In all honesty, I feel like my sensibilities were informed more by my desire to experience something bigger, brighter, more exciting than the town that I grew up in.

But then I thought about it some more and realized that even though I might not realize it, that tiny little town is in me in more ways than I have cared to admit. I like cities, but I love the smaller ones where you say hi to people on the street and you know your neighbors and your corner store guy and you get your coffee from this one particular place you really love and over time develop a relationship with a kid across the street who is yet too shy to talk to you but always smiles back at you when you say hello.

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