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History, Love, and the “What If-ness” of Fiction: An Interview with Aleksandar Hemon on “The World and All That It Holds”

History, Love, and the “What If-ness” of Fiction: An Interview with Aleksandar Hemon on “The World and All That It Holds”

  • An interview with Aleksandar Hemon about his new novel, "The World and All That It Holds."

Everyone has those moments in their lives that didn’t turn out the way they thought they might. Whether by making the wrong choice or saying the wrong thing or being impacted by chance, time and the world continue to move further and further from that moment, and the human life impacted at that exact moment is never what it was before. Such is life and such is the lives of the protagonists in Aleksandar Hemon’s latest novel, The World and All That It Holds. The novel starts with Rafael Pinto, a romantic, educated, gay Sarajevan pharmacist witnessing fate—in the form of an accordion—keep someone from stopping the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and, thus, World War I. From that moment on, Pinto’s life is constantly pushed forward. To war, where he meets the love of his life, Osman Karišik. To the east, to Tashkent, where they are prisoners of war and eventually spies. Then finally across the Taklamakan Desert and all of China, to Shanghai where Pinto and his (and maybe Osman’s) daughter, Rahela, are refugees, much older, now witnessing the start of World War II. What keeps these three pushing onward, despite being far away from home, is the deep love they have for each other.

In our conversation, Hemon shared his ideas of what literary fiction can do to reimagine those moments that a life cannot get back. Our conversation covered the ethics of storytelling, who gets to tell certain stories, who gets erased as time and the world spin forward, and how language is the evolutionary tool needed to tell stories the way they need to be.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

RS Deeren

To start, can you share a bit about the story behind The World and All that It Holds. It is over a decade in the making; it is a partial collaboration with Bosnian composer Damir Imamović’s new album; it blends fiction with nonfiction conventions; and mixes narrative points of view. It’s a hell of a book.

Aleksandar Hemon

I know it’s at least twelve years because I sold it on proposal to my British publisher in 2010. But I had already conceptualized some things and could formulate it enough to write a proposal. I don’t know how long it had taken me to get to the point. So yeah, that’s how it all started.

I read history books, generally with spies and that sort of thing. I came upon a book: Colonel Frederick Bailey’s memoir, Mission to Tashkent, published in the 1920s. He was a British spy sent to investigate what the Bolsheviks were doing in Central Asia—in a part of the Russian Empire then called Turkestan. It took him a while to get across the mountains. In the meantime, the Bolsheviks took over. There’s a series of adventures that my character Moser-Ethering is based on. The important thing in Mission to Tashkent is that at some point, the Bolsheviks’ secret police, the Cheka, are chasing Bailey and he’s pretending to be a Romanian Albanian soldier because he doesn’t speak Russian or German.

At some point he runs into a guy from Sarajevo, who was in the Austrian army, a former prisoner of war who was now working for the Cheka. This guy tells Bailey: Listen, I know who you are. Let’s take care of each other. So, he hires Bailey to work for the Cheka while the Cheka is looking for Bailey. He conceives of a plan to get out of Tashkent while all of the Cheka bosses are looking for Bailey. His plan is to spread the rumor that Bailey is in the Muslim potentate of Bukhara, lobbying the amīr there to attack the Bolsheviks. Since the Bolsheviks can’t identify Bailey, the man from Sarajevo volunteers himself and Bailey to “take care” of Bailey. It’s like that Borges story, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” where a spy is sent to kill someone and turns out it is himself.

They make it to Bukhara then Persia. They didn’t go East like in The World and All That It Holds. The man who helps Bailey then vanishes from history, as far as I know.

I read that and thought, this is good. I started imagining a story about someone who is stuck in Tashkent at the peak of the Revolution and is plotting and willing do anything to get back to Sarajevo.

That’s the germ.

As for Damir Imamović, he’s a friend of mine. I love his music. He plays traditional Bosnian music called Sevdah, which overlaps with Sephardic music. Imamović is one of the few openly gay men in Sarajevo; that’s important, as it pertains to this novel, to share the goal of reinserting the lives of LGBT people into history. Somewhere in the pandemic, I was working on the book, and I thought, Pinto and Osman sing songs to each other.

So Imamović and I were talking, and I suggested he record an album that would feature some of these songs. He loved the idea. Because he’s a big name in the world of so-called “world music,” Smithsonian Folkways—the biggest traditional music label in the United States—wanted to work with him. He pitched this project to them, and the album will be called as the book: The World and All That It Holds. It’s all done and dusted; it comes out in May.

RS Deeren

Throughout the novel, there are examples of how the many make up the whole; (of course) nothing and no one is just one thing. The world, countries, cities, and individuals like Pinto, Osman, and their daughter, Rahela, all have their complexities highlighted. One of my favorite aspects of this novel is that there is a resistance to compartmentalize the characters even when there are powers larger than them who wish to whittle them down. Can you speak a little about the complexities of your characters and the world that shaped them?  

Aleksandar Hemon

I strive for complexity. Everyone is complicated. The question is, how do you think about yourself? What racism—among other things like idiotic nationalism—does to people is reduce people into one thing, an essential thing. Of course, any kind of bigotry reduces other people to that one thing, and then dismisses their thing as what makes them legitimate or of lesser value.

I think everyone is a universe unto themselves, and that in a perfect societal order, a democracy, everyone can be all they want to be, providing they don’t harm others.

What literature can do is accommodate that endless complexity. That’s what I like about books. What I detest in literature—and it doesn’t necessarily have to be bigoted, though there’s plenty of bigoted literature—but what I detest aesthetically and ideologically is typicality. Typicality in literature or movies, any kind of narrative art that provides typicality. It’s fucking boring.

I have always wanted to sort of find ways and space for people to be many things, to be irreducible. That’s not easy. One aspect of Pinto that I wanted to deal with is Pinto’s multilinguality. I wanted his consciousness to be multilingual and to be present as such, not to be described as such, but to be to operate as such. Which is why all these languages are in the book. I think there are five languages in the first chapter alone, counting English.

I’m not objecting to your question at all, but there are no countries after the first chapter. At no point do the characters pass through any territory that could be described as a nation-state, which means that all kinds of social hierarchies and orders we get from a nation-state are not available to them. Pinto’s gay in our parlance, but the concept didn’t exist as such at the time; there was no society in the book that Pinto passes through that would perceive him as such. Once you have a nation-state, there’s a connection with morality, ethics, and politics. The state enforces what they see as morally and ethically appropriate and punishes those who do not fit that. In some other states, his behavior would be illegal, but Pinto and Osman never go through any of that.  

RS Deeren

You use the word “typicality.” Can you expand on that? Even the narration mixes points of view, from varying perspectives of 3rd person to a retrospective 1st person. The epilogue then appears to be nonfiction with the 1st person narrator telling the reader the supposed real-life locust of this fictional story.  Reading the epilogue felt like a ramped-up version of overhearing parts of a great story and wanting, but never getting, to know the rest. Does this book break that idea of typicality?

Aleksandar Hemon

I hope so. What fiction can do is you can create worlds from scratch, even if it uses history. Fiction allows people to operate in a way that is not quite available in so-called “real life.” I mean, it’s available, but it’s not visible. I think a central issue of literature is the “Theory of Mind,” which in psychology is the notion that at some point children learn at around the age of five that someone else’s mind is not thinking the same thoughts as they do. They might have different feelings, different desires, different ideas, different politics, different everything.

But that doesn’t mean that we know what’s in that mind. I have to speculate right now what you might be thinking, and you are speculating too, which is why you’re asking me questions. Even if the fiction one writes is autobiographical, someone will look at those characters, and they will have to enter, or at least expect that they would have access to their consciousness. But they don’t. We only have access to representations of other people’s consciousness.

Writing becomes an ethical question: Whose consciousness are you allowed to represent, and under what conditions? Those are absolutely legitimate and necessary questions. Are there issues of cultural appropriation? On the one hand, there’s a history of white men fantasizing about what someone else might be thinking, entirely projecting into that consciousness. On the other hand, if we assume that we cannot really imagine anyone else’s consciousness, the end result of writing then is I talk about myself all the time. That’s the end of literature, the end of art. Everyone is speaking about themselves to everyone else, and that’s it. That’s the end. I cannot accept that.

For The World and All That It Holds, I thought it’s risky, in the sense of stage fright. I asked myself: Can I do this? Can I imagine a consciousness from 1914 by a queer man who speaks a language that I don’t speak and who then has experiences that I’ve not had and goes to places I’ve never been?

I said fuck it. Let’s do it. Let’s see what happens. This is where typicality becomes an ethical category. What a lot of—for the lack of a better word—”white literature” has been doing historically is it would pick someone other than them, reduce them to some set of typicalities, or stereotypes, and then talk about them as if their consciousness and the universe inside them was self-evident and easy to understand. There’s an ethical aspect to complexity. The only way for me to justify to myself that I am writing about someone who is not me is if I imagine the endless complexity.

This is why the first-person narrator—the researcher figure—is in the book. I have to acknowledge that I am imagining it. That it is not, as is or as was. It’s not our knowledge; it’s propositional. What if? Which is the essence of fiction. What if such a person existed? And if such a person existed, what would they think, what language would they speak, who would they love, how would they love them and what would they eat, and where would they live?

That’s the beauty of fiction and narrative art in general because the only access to other people’s consciousness is language. You can’t do it in cinema. Music doesn’t work that way. Visual art is also a visual representation. The only thing that connects us all is language. Language is this human evolutionary achievement that allows us to form societies and read books 700 years ago and imagine what those lives were like.

RS Deeren

You’ve also used the term “antibiographical” before to describe your writing. You mentioned this term recently in a Publisher’s Weekly interview. The book uses some nonfiction conventions. Can you speak a little bit on that and how it may pertain to The World and All That It Holds?

Aleksandar Hemon

The characters in the book are very similar to me. From the same background, which really applies to about a million Bosnians in the way that we left the country. But at the same time, fiction is “What if?” The Aristotelian definition, though he was talking about poetry, it still applies to fiction, is “history is what happened and poetry is what could have happened.”

This what if-ness is what interests me. So, in my quote-unquote autobiographical works, people would be of a similar background. They would be similar to me, would be in a situation in which I might have been. But then they made different decisions. This is what I mean by antibiographical in terms of fiction, because what if-ness is the essence of fiction, I would put my biographical characters as they were in a “what if?” situation.

And of course, you, as a fellow writer know that I’m everyone in my goddamn book! I have to imagine all of them making decisions in different situations. I’ve written both autobiographical nonfiction and books that people perceive as biographical fiction, so these it’s not that I finished one stage of my writerly life and started a new one. It was all happening simultaneously.

And so, this is antibiographical, because there is no point of overlapping between me and the characters other than just sort of knowing the area.

Ideologically, if we think about the ethics of literature as “I can only talk about my experience, fictional or non-fictional, then there’s only biographical fiction and biographical nonfiction. But I want to imagine how other people live or have lived. I’m fucking bored with myself. I find new spaces in me, but I really don’t like talking about myself that much. It’s not interesting. That’s not where the good stories are.

RS Deeren

Examples of the power, limits, and uses of languages are throughout Pinto’s journeys. Many moments are truly delightful: Pinto drafting poems in German, Spanjol, and Bosnian; Pinto and Osman singing to each other in Spanjol; Rahela singing to the 1st person narrator in Bosnian. As Pinto and Rahela migrate east, they pick up more hunks of languages. Finally, in Sarajevo, Rahela says that the language she speaks is “a mishmash of Spanjol, Bosnian, German, and a dozen [other] languages” which connected her to Pinto but seem to isolate her from everyone else. Can you share a bit about the use of languages in this novel?

Aleksandar Hemon

That’s a great question. There’s a notion of linguistics, the notion of, or concept of, “macaronic language,” and the Italian root is maccarone. It’s the kind of language that is common among immigrants. For instance, the parents speak their native language, but they insert English words for things that are not part of their previous experience. If one is from an immigrant family, they hear it all the time, particularly if the parents don’t speak English very well. They will not just speak in English but also there’s connection with their local experience, which requires the local language. An interesting thing is it becomes a language of intimacy in a family.

It’s conceivable to me that I speak English with my family because my wife is American, but I know a lot of Bosnian families where this macaronic mix gets the derogatory term “pidgin.” So, their language becomes private. It becomes only the language of the family. I took this to the extreme with Pinto; the farther away he is from his native space and language, there’s accrual of other languages. He has a predisposition for multilingualism because at the beginning of the book, in Sarajevo, as a Ladino- or Spanjol-speaking person in a country where the dominant language is Bosnian, Serbian, or Croatian, and then German, he was born bilingual, effectively.

The logical extreme of that is this private language. The character’s language is the aggregation of all that migration and only works in a situation of intimacy. At the same time, macaronic language occurs in spaces where there is multilingualism. Even English; Saxons used Norman words to describe whatever. Eventually, it gets standardized, then this fantasy of a “pure language” kicks in and tries to keep out “foreign” words. But every language that isn’t geographically isolated had a macaronic feature. So the people who imagine there’s a purity of language are the people who never go anywhere.

RS Deeren

Shifting focus a little: There is a love story at the center of The World and All That It Holds. A young and more romantic Pinto fantasizes about the love that might develop with a German Rittmeister. Then, during the war, he falls more in love with Osman as he listens to him tell stories. Osman’s voice then guides Pinto, and eventually Rahela, throughout their years as refugees and migrants. Numerous times Pinto wants to give up and die, but it’s Osman who keeps him going. You recently told Publisher’s Weekly that you saw the benefits of having Pinto and Osman being more than friends. When did that realization come to you that these two were in love and were queer? And what did that do for the writing process of this novel?

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Aleksandar Hemon

In the original book proposal, Osman and Pinto are friends. The main throughline, I thought, was they would find each other in Tashkent and then plot ways to go back to Sarajevo. Initially, the book was in some ways about nostalgia, Pinto imagining this space that he might never be able to go back to. At some point, I decided that I’d already written about nostalgia. That’s not particularly interesting to me, because it will be extremely dramatized. I’ve written about it in fiction and nonfiction, the longing for the home space.

I saw if they are lovers then they are together forever. The locusts of longing for Pinto would have been Osman himself. Though he thinks of his family and Sarajevo, having him love Osman shifts the focus very much. As friends, they would not have had a child, there would be no Rahela.

Love becomes not nostalgia, but a sort of active love. It’s something that Rahela could keep carrying; she came out of Pinto’s and Osman’s love. One of the experiences that is common among queer people across generations is the “found family.” It’s an important plot point that Pinto takes care of Rahela because it is his choice.

RS Deeren

Back onto the thread of one thing not just being one thing: there are many types of “love” in this novel besides the powerful one felt between Pinto and Osman. Pinto loves Rahela as if she were his own, despite possibly being “from [Osman’s] loins.” In his years in Shanghai, Pinto also loves Lu, a Chinese poet. Similarly, Rahela loves Pinto enough to return to Shanghai after World War II, despite the dangers of the Communist takeover. She also, for a time, believes she loves the American spy, Henry. When you started writing this novel, what role, if any, did love have?

Aleksandar Hemon

How do you maintain human connection in a situation of perpetual catastrophe? In typical romantic love, young people dance, and their eyes meet, and then they get it on, and then they break up, but they love each other and get back together. That all requires a kind of a stable sociological landscape. No bottom is falling out; bad things are not happening.

The interesting thing to me, because it’s my life—and also there was the pandemic, and then there was Trumpism, and worst things were going to happen and are going to happen. So, under what circumstances does love vanish?

I once taught to a class called War, Violence, and Suffering, where there were a lot of trigger warnings and a lot of attention to concentration camps. Even there, there was love. Not with everyone, it was extremely hard, it was survival, but even then, there was some kind of love.

Even when Pinto and Osman were friends, there was still love. They would be together for as long as they could. I wanted to test it and see under what circumstances could love remain. And what would they do for love in war? I know stories about it from my Bosnian friends and family’s experiences.

There is a counter example, Blood Meridian. I admire that book greatly, and I taught it in that class. That book is absolutely, fundamentally, apocalyptically, biblically devoid of love. It’s compelling and fascinating, but “bleak” does not even begin to describe it. That’s what a world devoid of love looks like; it’s the Judge. People are either killers or killed. That’s it. That’s not a world I want to live in. It’s certainly not a world I want to imagine, as much as I admire the kind of imagination that could come up with that.

My book doesn’t have McCarthy-level violence, but I wanted my characters to go through a lot of shit and see where would love stop. Would it stop? Of course, love doesn’t stop, but it also means that whenever it doesn’t stop it becomes greater in some way.

Love and obstacles. It’s a fundamental narrative structure.

RS Deeren

This is also a novel filled with storytelling. Osman takes center stage in this regard, especially during his and Pinto’s time in the army and in the times when Pinto is sick or in drug withdrawal. But Pinto is also a daydreamer when he’s younger, then as a refugee he shares with Rahela his memories. When she comes to Sarajevo, Rahela worries that the life she lived and the stories Pinto told were “terrible fairy tales.” Finally, in the epilogue, an elderly Rahela begins to tell you of her two fathers, of World War I, of life as a refugee. Can you speak a little bit about telling a story about telling stories?

Aleksandar Hemon

One of my theoretical positions in terms of thinking about this book is that migration generates narration. I have my own little formula: narration is migration squared. I think that this human proclivity to tell stories is closely related to our ability to move through space. Before it’s even art, we have to narrativize experience to convey it to others. It’s a feature of human consciousness. You go someplace to hunt for buffalo. Then you come back and tell the story of the hunt to the people who were left behind so they can do it themselves next time. Also, it’s a way to share experiences before literacy and good literacy could be reproduced endlessly in print.

These stories contained this information, and so what necessitated the need for information is migration. All the classic human literally works are epic. There’s a guy, usually but not always, going far away and then running into trouble, and then coming back and telling someone about it. Homer puts it all together and tells The Odyssey.

Part of the original concept for The World and All That It Holds was that Pinto, Osman, and Rahela would move through space, and then they would go east. That movement generates a need for narrative for me as a storyteller, but also the movement would generate a need for narrative in them as a family. If you’re away from your home space, you maintain a connection with your home space, and your family, by recalling those stories to yourself. In other words, a narrative as a reflective device.

I think human consciousness has to be narrativized to operate. That means that our sense of who we are has to be narrativized to make sense. It’s a bit of a delusion; we edit our life to be a story in which we are the main characters and then edit depending on how we imagine ourselves. So, if you’re passing through space, your story has to be constantly edited. There’s this friction of passing through space that generates narrative, and those narratives can have any number of forms, from stories told to other people, to memories, to books, to interviews. I wanted to activate all that with this book.

Stories have a greater value in the absence of a societal context in which society keeps telling the stories of typicality to their people. Stendhal famously said the writer carries a mirror down the main street of a town. This implies the existence of a town and a mirror and a street, which means there’s already some kind of social organization preceding everything. It’s sort of a bourgeois idea that the characters are not moving through space from, say, Bosnia to Shanghai, but through some kind of sociological landscape.

The movement through space was always part of The World and All That It Holds. I thought the value of this movement would be greater and more obvious if there were no other stories or societies that provided those typical stories. The source of stories is always people and history.

The World and All That It Holds
by Aleksandar Hemon
Published January 24, 2023

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