Rachel Dewoskin in Rumpus:
Rumpus: What about in terms of physical dislocation and geography? When you write about moving to the U.S. and assembling a street map in your mind, you say that borders are nonexistent in Sarajevo but in Chicago, they are designed to keep people safely apart. Is that a culture-shocked observation from when you were first here or an objective one about the nature of American cities in general?
Hemon: Chicago has very few public spaces where people are encouraged to get together. It’s partly to prevent riots, and also to segregate a city with a history of racial segregation. Giving people cars? It’s all under the pretense of giving everyone a lot of space. So circulation in the city is discouraged, at least functionally; the subway is designed to take people downtown to work and then back home. Bus lines, too. And whenever they cut services, they cut out the poor neighborhoods, which reinforces segregation even if it’s not cynical. Sarajevo and European cities are not designed the way Chicago is, like a grid. They tend to go out of the city center concentrically. So there was the sense of physical displacement, yes, and I needed to contend with that. So I assembled my domain.
Rumpus: Within that domain, what about personal interiority and exteriority? Do you have to blur those borders to write stories?
Hemon: When I was young, I was all about personal sovereignty and that junk, because there was no privacy and the available ideologies were collective, both socialism/communism and nationalism. And every agency—political and therefore, by extensions, all other agencies—were collective. And also I was young and this is what young people do when they want to assert themselves on the world. So I was all about individualism. Conan the Barbarian was one of my favorite movies. But only when I got here did I realize that I had overrated that kind of individualism and Conan the Barbarian was a proto-fascist in more than one way. In Sarajevo I thought I was inventing myself from scratch, but only once I was devoid of the network of the people and practices that are part of living in a city like that did I realize how much of my interiority and selfhood was really dependent—operated and actualized itself—upon that network of exchanges with other people. It’s about physical space but also just spending a lot of time with friends and family in your daily life.