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Chicago Lit: Aleksandar Hemon pens memoir

Author Aleksandar HemClark Street Chicago Tuesday March 19 2013. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

Author Aleksandar Hemon on Clark Street in Chicago on Tuesday, March 19, 2013. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Aleksandar Hemon will discuss and sign “The Book of My Lives” at 7:30 p.m. April 24 at Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark.

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Readers of Aleksandar Hemon’s acclaimed novels and short stories will be familiar with many of the events of his alternately funny and tragic new memoir-in-essays, “The Book of My Lives” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25), the outlines of which — including his fateful journey from Sarajevo to Chicago just before the war in Bosnia that stranded him here in the early 1990s — he has often used in his fiction. They will not be surprised by the story of his gradual adaptation to and love affair with the Windy City, where he learned to speak and write in English and gradually found ways to combat every émigré’s feelings of alienation and displacement.

But nothing will have prepared the reader for the emotional wallop of “The Aquarium,” the devastating essay that closes the memoir. Originally published in the New Yorker, the essay tells the story of the illness and death of Hemon’s infant daughter, Isabel, who died of complications from surgery and chemotherapy for a brain tumor in the summer of 2010. In his customary crystalline prose, the writer pours out the agony of his family — including his wife, Teri, and their older daughter, Ella, now 5.

Some writers might have shied away from writing such a harrowing piece, since to do so would require the author to relive the most painful memories any parent can have. But for Hemon, there was no real choice.

“To fail to write the piece would have been an admission that words have limits — that writing, literature, language cannot handle difficult things — and I can’t think that,” Hemon, 48, says over breakfast in Andersonville, where he lives. “It seemed to me then, and seems to me now, that if I accept the possibility that I can’t write about such things, then I’m a hack. As human beings, and particularly as writers, we have to strive to convert our experience into language, and tell our stories to one another. Because if you avoid what’s hard, then what is left is only entertainment, and I despise entertainment as the dominant mode of human engagement. And so as difficult as it was, not writing it was not an option available to me. The only question was when.”

After receiving permission from his wife — “who could have vetoed it,” Hemon says, “but she knew I had to do it” — he undertook the writing in 2011, about a year after Isabel’s initial diagnosis and nine months after her death. “There was a lot of pain,” he says matter-of-factly. “To articulate what happened, I had to revisit it, look at it straight on. We were present in the room when Isabel died, and I had to relive that.” Then again, he relives it daily, even now. “There is no day when I don’t think about Isabel,” he says, “and spend time in that room.”

“The future was as precarious as Isabel’s health, extending only to the next reasonably achievable stage: the end of the chemo cycle; the recovery of her white-blood-cell count; the few days before the next cycle when Isabel would be as close to being well as possible,” he wrote. “I prevented my imagination from conjuring anything beyond that, refusing to consider either possible outline of her illness. If I found myself envisioning holding her little hand as she was expiring, I would delete the vision, often startling Teri by saying aloud to myself: ‘No! No! No! No!’” But the time did come when he didn’t have to imagine it, and denial was no longer possible.

The greatest wonder of the essay is the remarkable story of Ella, who dealt with the ordeal by inventing a brother, Mingus — named for jazz great Charles Mingus, whose music is a fixture in the Hemon household — about whom she began to construct elaborate narratives. (Mingus himself had a tumor and was undergoing tests at one point, but his sister took his temperature and administered medicine which allowed him to get better in two weeks.) “One day at breakfast,” her father writes, “while Ella ate her oatmeal and rambled on about her brother, I recognized in a humbling flash that she was doing exactly what I’d been doing as a writer all these years: in my books, fictional characters allowed me to understand what was hard for me to understand (which, so far, has been nearly everything).”

Like her father, Ella is perfectly clear about the nature of her artistic project. Not long ago, Hemon recalls now, he turned to his daughter and said, “Where’s Mingus? Why don’t I ever see him?”

Ella looked at her dad and giggled, as if he were being silly.

“He’s imaginary,” she said.

Kevin Nance is a local free-lance writer.

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