STARRED REVIEW
June 2019

Well read: June 2019

Feature by

In a wholly original memoir, Aleksandar Hemon relates his family’s large encounters with history and their smaller everyday concerns.

STARRED REVIEW
June 2019

Well read: June 2019

Feature by

In a wholly original memoir, Aleksandar Hemon relates his family’s large encounters with history and their smaller everyday concerns.

June 2019

Well read: June 2019

Feature by

In a wholly original memoir, Aleksandar Hemon relates his family’s large encounters with history and their smaller everyday concerns.

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Aleksandar Hemon, the Sarajevo-born writer and MacArthur grant recipient, offers a singular approach to memoir in two new books, published together in one volume in a quirky back-to-back, flip-to-read format that literally adheres the two narratives while intentionally keeping them separate. This unusual layout underscores the innate duality but inevitable divide in the story being told—well, stories. One half recounts the lives of Hemon’s father and mother both in their homeland and as immigrants in Canada, while the other is an impressionistic series of vignettes from the author’s childhood in what is now Bosnia. Collectively, My Parents: An Introduction / This Does Not Belong to You is about memory and loss, survival and resilience and an entwined sense of self and place.

Hemon’s parents were born in the years just before World War II reshaped the map of Eastern Europe and, with it, their futures. His mother’s family is ethnically Serb; his father’s family consists of Ukrainians who migrated to present-day Bosnia before the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. With the unification of Yugoslavia as a socialist state under Tito, the Hemons would have benefited greatly from the nation’s rapid, if long-delayed, move into the 20th century. But then the collapse of the Balkan state and its incendiary violence destroyed the Hemons’ civilized life. In their mid-50s, Hemon’s parents sought refuge in Canada and became the proverbial strangers in a strange land. Their story is one of unspoken trauma, masked beneath existential pragmatism. In their son’s assured narrative hands, it is also one filled with charm and wit.

Hemon’s own reminiscence of prewar Sarajevo, which makes up This Does Not Belong to You, is laced with many normal childhood incidents—stealing coins from his mother’s pocketbook, allowing a bully to destroy a cherished toy car—yet is marked by the knowledge that the world it evokes no longer exists. “Why revisit memories?” he asks early in the book, and this question becomes the watchword for both of these memoirs. The answers lie in the final sentences of This Does Not Belong to You, when Hemon’s mother asks her 6-year-old son for the details of a small ordeal he has weathered. “Tell me, Mama said, how you survived the flood. I want to hear it. Tell us.” So, the writer recalls, “I started telling them.” This is a writer’s testament to the act of storytelling, the art of writing and the impulse, to paraphrase Joan Didion, to tell stories in order to live, to make sense, to survive.

Hemon has taken the raw material of his family’s lives and preserved it in an unexpected way, excavating with it the sources of his own personal history.

My Parents: An Introduction / This Does Not Belong to You
By Aleksander Hemon
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

ISBN 9780374217433

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