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Life, love and Sarajevo

by Shereen Ahmed Rafea November 5, 2013
Life, love and Sarajevo

A Bosnian refugee brings with him his habits, thoughts and ideologies and struggles to make them fit into the western world. Aleksandar Hemon wanders two cities with his memories, filled with questions.

A non-fiction account of his life, Aleksandar Hemon considers the psychology of refugees, and the balance one has to make in order to start anew.

Hemon grew up in Sarajevo, hanging out with his “raja” group, living with his parents and sister, and loving the city with all its complexity. Hemon writes about his life in a stunning new memoir titled The Book of My Lives, his first attempt at non-fiction.

Published earlier this year, the book consists of a collection of essays, most of which were previously published in The New Yorker. Hemon infuses these essays with emotional insight and sharp observations, combined with diverse memories.

Hemon doesn’t stick to a specific timeline. Instead, he moves backwards and forwards in time; in one instance he highlights the structure of Sarajevo’s neighborhoods, in another he relates childhood memories. He speaks about his family life, about war, immigration and political rebellion. These diverse essays fit together to complete the puzzle on how he views his life.

He recalls innocently calling a boy “Turk” at a birthday party, not knowing what it means. To his shock, the boy, a Bosnian Muslim, burst into tears. This experience introduced him to the racial tensions that plagued his hometown.

Hemon was in Chicago when the war broke out, and became stranded in the United States as a result. He uses this background to describe feelings of loneliness in a new town and his slow process of adapting. He is a wanderer and makes Chicago his home by familiarizing himself with every nook and cranny of the neighbourhood. He never lost touch with his Bosnian roots and went back to visit, describing the difficulty of seeing a city that is not yours anymore.

His writing is elegant, seamless and mixes humor with raw emotions. The tales jump from a family dog Hemon acquired, to Bosnian food and culture, to his writing endeavors. His descriptions make you smell the cuisine and empathize with a population who endured a traumatic war.

The saddest essay is about the death of his young daughter from cancer. It is a tearful recollection of an unexpected tragedy and a family dealing with a void in their hearts.

Although his previous books, such as The Lazarus Project and The Question of Bruno, were fiction, Hemon establishes himself as a strong contender in the non-fiction genre.

His memoir is an honest account of his upbringing and his current life. Hemon’s memories that shaped his identity as a Bosnian-American are raw, insightful, funny, and sad at the same time. His hometown of Sarajevo becomes intriguing as a city, and the image of its people transcends the war horrors flashing on the television screen.

He has penned a total of five books and written many stories for The New Yorker making it hard to believe that Hemon learned most of his English as an adult.

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