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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Book of My Lives

Aleksandar Hemon

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



On the evening of March 27, 1969, my father was in Leningrad, USSR, in pursuit of his advanced electrical engineering degree. My mother was at home, in Sarajevo, deep in labor, attended to by a council of her women friends. She had her hands on her round belly, huffing and crying, but the council didn't seem too worried. I was orbiting around her, exactly four and a half years old, trying to hold her hand or sit in her lap, until I was sent to bed and ordered to sleep. I defied the order so as to monitor the developments through the (somewhat Freudian) keyhole. I was terrified, naturally, for even if I knew that there was a baby in her stomach, I still didn't know how exactly it was all going to work, what was going to happen to her, to us, to me. When she was eventually taken to the hospital in obvious and audible pain, I was left behind with terror-provoking thoughts, which teta-Jozefina tried to counter with the guarantees that my mother would not die, that she would come back with a brother or sister for me. I did want my mother to come back; I did not want a brother or sister; I wanted everything to be the way it was, the way it already used to be. The world had harmoniously belonged to me; indeed, the world had pretty much been me.
But nothing has ever been—nor will it ever be—the way it used to be. A few days later, I was accompanied by a couple of adults (whose names and faces have sunk to the sandy bottom of an aging mind—all I know about them is that neither of them was my father, who was still in the USSR) to retrieve my mother from the hospital. One thing I remember: she was not half as happy to see me as I was to see her. On our way home, I shared the backseat with her and a bundle of stuff they claimed was alive—that was supposed to be my sister. The alleged sister's face was seriously crumpled, containing only an ugly, indefinable grimace. Moreover, her face was dark, as though she were soot-coated. When I traced my finger across her cheek, a pale line appeared under the soot. "She is filthy," I announced to the adults, but none of them acknowledged the problem. From thereon in, it would be hard for me to have my thoughts heard and my needs met. Also, chocolate would be hard to get.
Thus my sooty alleged sister's arrival marked the beginning of a tormentful, lonely period in my early development. Droves of people (bringing chocolate I couldn't touch) came to our home to lean over her and produce ridiculous sounds. Few of them cared about me, while the attention they paid to her was wholly, infuriatingly undeserved: she did nothing but sleep and cry and undergo frequent diaper changes. I, on the other hand, could already read small words, not to mention speak fluently, and I knew all kinds of interesting things: I could recognize flags of various countries; I could easily distinguish between wild and farm animals; cute pictures of me were all over our house. I had knowledge, I had ideas, I knew who I was. I was myself, a person, beloved by everyone.
For a while, as painful as her existence was to me, she was but a new thing, something you had to get around to get to Mother, like a new piece of furniture or a wilted plant in a large pot. But then I realized that she was going to stay and be a permanent obstacle, that Mother's love for me might never reach pre-sister levels. Not only did my new sister impinge upon what used to be my world, but she also obliviously asserted herself—despite having no self at all—into its very center. In our house, in my life, in my mother's life, every day, all the time, forever, she was there—the soot-skinned not-me, the other.
Therefore I tried to exterminate her as soon as an opportunity presented itself. One spring day, Mother stepped out of the kitchen to pick up the phone and left her alone with me. My father was still in Russia, and she was probably talking to him. Mother did stay out of my sight for a while, as I watched the little creature, her unreadable face, her absolute absence of thought or personality, her manifest insubstantiality, her unearned presence. So I started choking her, pressing my thumbs against her windpipe, as seen on television. She was soft and warm, alive, and I had her existence in my hands. I felt her tiny neck under my fingers, I was causing her pain, she was squirming for life. Suddenly, I recognized that I shouldn't be doing what I was doing, I shouldn't be killing her, because she was my little sister, because I loved her. But the body is always ahead of the thought and I kept up the pressure for another moment, until she started vomiting curdled breast milk. I was terrified with the possibility of losing her: her name was Kristina; I was her big brother; I wanted her to live so I could love her more. But, although I knew how I could end her life, I didn't know how I could stop her from dying.
My mother heard her desperate cries, dropped the phone, and ran to her aid. She picked my sister up, calmed her down, wiped off the curds, made her inhale and breathe, then demanded an explanation from me. My just-discovered love for my sister and the related feeling of guilt did not at all displace my self-protective instincts: I bold-facedly stated that she'd started crying and I'd merely put my hand over her mouth to prevent her from bothering Mother. Throughout my boyhood I always knew more and better than my parents thought I did—I was always a little older than what they could see. In this instance, I shamelessly claimed good intentions coupled with little-boy ignorance, and so I was warned and forgiven. There is no doubt I was monitored for a while, but I haven't tried to kill Kristina since, loving her uninterruptedly.
The recollection of that sororicide attempt is the earliest memory in which I can observe myself from outside: what I see is me and my sister. Never again would I be alone in the world, never again would I have it exclusively for myself. Never again would my selfhood be a sovereign territory devoid of the presence of others. Never again would I have all the chocolate for myself.
When I was growing up in Sarajevo in the early seventies, the dominant social concept among the kids was raja. If one had any friends at all, one had a raja, but normally the raja was defined by the part of town or the building complex one lived in—we spent most of our nonschool time playing in the streets. Each raja had a generational hierarchy. The velika raja were the older kids, whose responsibilities included protecting the mala raja—the smaller kids—from abuse or pocket-emptying by some other raja. The older kids' rights included unconditional obedience on the part of the mala raja, who could thus always be deployed to buy cigarettes, naked-lady magazines, beer, and condoms, or to volunteer their heads for the velika raja's merciless filliping practice—my head was often submitted to a cannonade of the dreaded mazzolas. Many rajas were defined by and named after their leader, usually the strongest, toughest kid. We feared, for example, the raja of Ciza, who was a well-known jalijaš, a street thug. Normally, Ciza was old enough to be gainfully invested in various forms of petty crime, so we never saw him. He acquired a mythological quality, while his younger brother Zeko ran the daily operations of doing nothing in particular. It was he who we feared most.
My raja was a lesser, weak one, as we had no leader at all—all of our older boys, alas, took school seriously. We were defined by a playground between the two symmetrical, socialistically identical buildings in which we lived; we called it the Park. In the geopolitics of our neighborhood (known back then as Stara stanica—the Old Train Station) we were known as the Parkaši. The Park not only contained playground equipment—a slide, three swings, sandbox, merry-go-round—but there were benches as well, which served as goals whenever we played soccer. There were also, more important, the bushes where we had our loga—our base, the place where we could escape from Ciza's marauding raja, where we hoarded things stolen from our parents or pilfered from other, feebler kids. The Park was therefore our rightful domain, our sovereign territory, on which no stranger, let alone a member of another raja, could trespass—any suspected foreigner was subject to preemptive frisking or punitive attack. Once we waged a successful campaign against a bunch of teenagers who mistakenly thought that our Park was a good place for smoking, drinking, and mutual fondling. We threw at them rocks and wet sand wrapped in paper, we charged collectively at the isolated ones, breaking long sticks against their legs as they helplessly swung their short arms. Occasionally, some other raja would try to invade and take control of the Park and we would fight a war—heads were cracked, bodies bruised, all and any of us risking a grievous injury. Only when Zeko and his troopers—our more powerful nemesis—came to the Park did we have to stand back and watch them swing on our swings, slide on our slide, piss in our sandbox, shit in our bushes. All we could do was imagine merciless revenge, deferred into an indefinite but certain future.
Now it seems to me that when I wasn't in school or reading books, I was involved in some collective project of my raja. Besides protecting the sovereignty of the Park and waging various wars, we spent time at one another's homes, swapped comic books and football stickers, sneaked together into the nearby movie theater (Kino Arena), searched for evidence of sexual activity in our parents' closets, and attended one another's birthday parties. My primary loyalty was to my raja and any other collective affiliation was entirely abstract and absurd. Yes, we were all Yugoslavs and Pioneers and we all loved socialism, our country, and its greatest son, our marshal Tito, but never would I have gone to war and taken blows for those. Our other identities—say, the ethnicity of any of us—were wholly irrelevant. To the extent we were aware of ethnic identity in one another, it was related to the old-fashioned customs practiced by our grown-ups, fundamentally unrelated to our daily operations, let alone our struggle against the oppression we suffered from Zeko and his cohorts.
One day I went, with nearly all of my raja, to Almir's birthday party. Almir was somewhat older than me, therefore an authority on many things I knew nothing about, including the explosive properties of asbestos, which we called "glass wool" and to which we somehow had unlimited access. On one occasion I had repeatedly ducked as he threw, like a hand grenade, a handful of "glass wool" wrapped in paper, promising an explosion that never came. Almir was also old enough to be getting into rock music, so at his party he played Bijelo Dugme, the Sarajevan rock band that was at the time scaring the living daylights out of our parents, what with their hairy looks and antisocial, antisocialist, asinine music. Other than that, Almir's was birthday business as usual: we ate the sandwiches, drank the juices, watched him blow out the candles on the cake, offered him our gifts.
For his birthday party, Almir was neatly dressed, which on that occasion meant a wool sweater with black and orange stripes, somewhat fluffy and comparatively resplendent—our socialist-Yugoslavia clothes were decidedly drab. The sweater visibly belonged to someplace else, so I asked him where it came from. It came from Turkey, he said. Whereupon I quipped: "So you are a Turk!" It was supposed to be a funny joke, but nobody laughed; what's worse, nobody thought it was a joke. My point was that a foreign sweater made him a kind of foreigner, a teasing possible only because it was manifestly and unquestionably untrue. The failed joke entirely changed the mood of the party: to my utter surprise Almir started inconsolably crying, while everyone looked at me admonishingly. I begged them to explain what it was that I'd said, and when they didn't, or couldn't, I tried to outline how the joke was supposed to have worked, digging thereby a deeper hole for myself. Let me not go through all the steps of the descent into a disaster—before long the party was over; everyone went home, and everyone knew that I had ruined it. That is, at least, how I guiltily remember it.
Subsequently, my parents explained to me that Turk was (and still is) a derogatory, racist word for a Bosnian Muslim. (Years later, I would recall my inadvertent insult, yet again, while watching the footage of Ratko Mladic speaking to a Serb camera upon entering Srebrenica, where he was to oversee the murder of eight thousand Bosnian Muslim men—"This is the latest victory in a five-hundred-year-long war against the Turks," he said.) After Almir's birthday party, I learned that a word such as Turk could hurt people. Moreover, it seemed that everyone knew about it before me. What I said othered Almir, it made him feel excluded from the group I was presumably unimpeachably part of, whatever group it was. Yet my joke was supposed to be about the flimsiness of difference—as we belonged to the same raja, having fought many a war together, the sweater established a momentary, evanescent difference. Almir was teasable exactly because there was no lasting, essential difference between us. But the moment you point at a difference, you enter, regardless of your age, an already existing system of differences, a network of identities, all of them ultimately arbitrary and unrelated to your intentions, none of them a matter of your choice. The moment you other someone, you other yourself. When I idiotically pointed at Almir's nonexistent difference, I expelled myself from my raja.
Part of growing up is learning, unfortunately, to develop loyalties to abstractions: the state, the nation, the idea. You pledge allegiance; you love the leader. You have to be taught to recognize and care about differences, you have to be instructed who you really are; you have to learn how generations of dead people and their incomprehensible accomplishments made you the way you are; you have to define your loyalty to an abstraction-based herd that transcends your individuality. Hence the raja is hard to sustain as a social unit, your loyalty to it—to the "we" so concrete that I could (still) provide a list of names that constituted it—no longer acceptable as a serious commitment.
I cannot honestly claim that my insult was directly related to the fact that our wars and the golden days of our Park sovereignty ended soon thereafter. At some point all the conflicts with other rajas were resolved by playing soccer, which we were not all that good at. We still couldn't beat Zeko and his team, because they had the power to determine when a foul was committed or a goal scored. We did not dare touch them and even when we scored, the goal was always denied.
As for Almir, he didn't play soccer well enough and he got even more into Bijelo Dugme, a band I would forever hate. Soon he reached a point in his life when girls were accessible to him. He started leading a life different from our boyish lives, becoming someone other than ourselves well before we could. Now I don't know where he is or what happened to him. We no longer belong to "us."
In December 1993, my sister and parents arrived as refugees in Hamilton, Ontario. In the first couple of months, my parents attended English-language courses, while Kristina worked at Taco Bell, a purveyor of fast "ethnic" food, which she preferred to refer to as Taco Hell. Things were very complicated for them, what with the language my parents couldn't speak, the generic shock of displacement, and a cold climate that was extremely unfriendly to randomly warm human interactions. For my parents, finding a job was a frightening operation of major proportions, but Hamilton is a steel-mill town teeming with job-hungry immigrants, where many of the natives are first-generation Canadians and therefore friendly, and supportive of their new compatriots. Soon enough my parents did find work—Father at a steel mill, Mother as a superintendent in a large apartment building, in which many of the tenants were foreign-born.
Yet within months, my parents started cataloguing the differences between us and them—we being Bosnians or ex-Yugoslavs, they being purely Canadian. That list of differences, theoretically endless, included items such as sour cream (our sour cream—mileram—was creamier and tastier than theirs); smiles (they smile, but don't really mean it); babies (they do not bundle up their babies in severe cold); wet hair (they go out with their hair wet, foolishly exposing themselves to the possibility of lethal brain inflammation); clothes (their clothes fall apart after you wash them a few times), et cetera. My parents, of course, were not the only ones obsessing over the differences. Indeed, their social life at the beginning of their Canadian residence largely consisted of meeting people from the old country and exchanging and discussing the perceived dissimilarities. Once I listened to a family friend in what could fairly be called astonishment as he outlined a substratum of differences proceeding from his observation that we like to simmer our food for a long time (sarma, cabbage rolls, being a perfect example), while they just dip it in extremely hot oil and cook it in a blink. Our simmering proclivities were reflective of our love of eating and, by extension and obviously, of our love of life. On the other hand, they didn't really know how to live, which pointed at the ultimate, transcendental difference—we had soul, and they were soulless. The fact that—even if the food-preparation analysis made any sense—they did not love committing atrocities either and that we were at the center of a brutal, bloody war, which under no circumstances could be construed as love of life, didn't at all trouble the good analyst.
Over time, my parents stopped compulsively examining the differences, perhaps because they simply ran out of examples. I'd like to think, however, it was because they were socially integrated, as the family expanded over the years with more immigration and subsequent marriages and procreation, so that we now included a significant number of native Canadians, in addition to all the naturalized ones. It has become harder to talk about us and them now that we have met and married some of them—the clarity and the significance of differences were always contingent upon the absence of contact and proportional to the mutual distance. You could theoritize Canadians only if you didn't interact with them, for then the vehicles of comparison were the ideal, abstract Canadians, the exact counterprojection of us. They were the not-us, we were the not-them.
The primary reason for this spontaneous theoretical differentiation was rooted in my parents' desire to feel at home, where you can be who you are because everyone else is at home, just like you. In a situation in which my parents felt displaced, and inferior to the Canadians, who were always already at home, constant comparison was a way to rhetorically equate ourselves with them. We could be equal because we could compare ourselves with them; we had a home too. Our ways were at least as good as theirs, if not even better—take our sour cream or the philosophical simmering of sarma. Not to mention that they could never get our jokes or that their jokes are not funny at all.
But my parents' instinctive self-legitimization could only be collective, because that was what they carried over from the old country, where the only way to be socially legitimate had been to belong to an identifiable collective—a greater, if more abstract, raja. Neither did it help that an alternative—say, defining and identifying yourself as a professor—was no longer available to them, since their distinguished careers disintegrated in the process of displacement.
The funny thing is that the need for collective self-legitimization fits snugly into the neoliberal fantasy of multiculturalism, which is nothing if not a dream of a lot of others living together, everybody happy to tolerate and learn. Differences are thus essentially required for the sense of belonging: as long as we know who we are and who we are not, we are as good as they are. In the multicultural world there are a lot of them, which ought not to be a problem as long as they stay within their cultural confines, loyal to their roots. There is no hierarchy of cultures, except as measured by the level of tolerance, which, incidentally, keeps Western democracies high above everyone else. And where the tolerance level is high, diversity can be celebrated and mind-expanding ethnic food can be explored and consumed (Welcome to Taco Hell!), garnished with the exotic purity of otherness. A nice American lady once earnestly told me: "It is so neat to be from other cultures," as though the "other cultures" were an Edenic archipelago in the Pacific, unspoiled by the troubles of advanced civilizations, home to many a soul-soothing spa. I had no heart to tell her that I was often painfully and sometimes happily complicated.
The situation of immigration leads to a kind of self-othering as well. Displacement results in a tenuous relationship with the past, with the self that used to exist and operate in a different place, where the qualities that constituted us were in no need of negotiation. Immigration is an ontological crisis because you are forced to negotiate the conditions of your selfhood under perpetually changing existential circumstances. The displaced person strives for narrative stability—here is my story!—by way of systematic nostalgia. My parents ceaselessly and favorably compared themselves with Canadians precisely because they felt inferior and ontologically shaky. It was a way for them to tell a true story of themselves, to themselves or anyone willing to listen.
At the same time, there is the inescapable reality of the self transformed by immigration—whoever we used to be, we are now split between us-here (say, in Canada) and us-there (say, in Bosnia). Because we-here still see the present us as consistent with the previous us, still living in Bosnia, we cannot help but see ourselves from the point of view of us-there. As far as their friends in Sarajevo are concerned, my parents, despite their strenuous efforts at differentiation, are at least partly Canadian, which they cannot help but be aware of. They have become Canadian and they can see that because they remained Bosnian all along.
The inescapable pressure of integration goes hand in hand with a vision of a life my parents could live if they were what they see as being Canadian. Every day, they see the Canadians living what in the parlance of displacement is called "normal life," which is fundamentally unavailable to them despite all the integrationist promises. They are much closer to it than any of us back home, so they can envision themselves living a normal Canadian life—my parents can experience themselves vicariously as the others, not least because they have spent so much time and mind on comparison with them. Still, they can never be them.
The best theoretical expostulation on the subject above is a Bosnian joke, which loses some of its punch in translation but retains an exceptional (and typical) clarity of thought:
Mujo left Bosnia and immigrated to the United States, to Chicago. He wrote regularly to Suljo, trying to convince him to visit him in America, but Suljo kept declining, reluctant to leave his friends and his kafana (a kafana is a coffee shop, bar, restaurant, or any other place where you can spend a lot of time doing nothing while consuming coffee or alcohol). After years of pressuring, Mujo finally convinces him to come. Suljo crosses the ocean and Mujo waits for him at the airport in a huge Cadillac.
"Whose car is this?" asks Suljo.
"It's mine, of course," Mujo says.
"That is a great car," Suljo says. "You've done well for yourself."
They get in the car and drive downtown and Mujo says: "See that building over there, a hundred floors high?"
"I see it," Suljo says.
"Well, that's my building."
"Nice," Suljo says.
"And see that bank on the ground floor?"
"I see it."
"That's my bank. When I need money I go there and just take as much as I want. And see the Rolls-Royce parked in front of it?"
"I see it."
"That's my Rolls-Royce. I have many banks and a Rolls-Royce parked in front of each of them."
"Congratulations," Suljo says. "That's very nice."
They drive out of the city to the suburbs, where houses have grand lawns and the streets are lined with old trees. Mujo points at a house, as big and white as a hospital.
"See that house? That's my house," Mujo says. "And see the pool, Olympic size, by the house? That's my pool. I swim there every morning."
There is a gorgeous, curvaceous woman sunbathing by the pool, and there are a boy and a girl happily swimming in it.
"See that woman? That's my wife. And those beautiful children are my children."
"Very nice," Suljo says. "But who is that brawny, suntanned young man massaging your wife and kissing her neck?"
"Well," Mujo says, "that's me."
There is also a neoconservative approach to otherness: the others are fine and tolerable as long as they are not trying to join us illegally. If they are here already and legal at that, they will also need to adapt to our ways of life, the successful standards of which have long been established. The distance of the others from us is measured by their relation to our values, which are self-evident to us (but not to them). The others always remind us of who we truly are—we are not them and never will be, because we are naturally and culturally inclined toward the free market and democracy. Some of them want to be us—who wouldn't?—and might even become us, if they are wise enough to listen to what we tell them. And many of them hate us, just for the hell of it.
George W. Bush, in a speech to the faculty and students of an Iowa college in January 2000, succinctly summed up the neoconservative philosophy of otherness in his own inimitably idiotic, yet remarkably precise, way: "When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world and you knew exactly who they were. It was us versus them and it was clear who them was. Today, we are not so sure who the they are, but we know they're there."
And then the they flew in on September 11, 2001, and now they are everywhere, including the White House, by way of a falsified birth certificate. Every once in a while we round them up, take them to Guantánamo Bay on secret flights or arrest them in raids and deport them or demand from them to declare unequivocally that they are not them. And whoever they may be, we need to win the war against them so that we can triumphantly be alone in the world.
Here is a story I like to tell. I read it in a Canadian newspaper, but I have told it so many times that it occasionally feels as though I made it up.
A Canadian professor of political science went to Bosnia during the war. He was born somewhere in the former Yugoslavia, but his parents emigrated to Canada when he was a child, which is to say that he had a recognizably South Slavic name. In Bosnia, equipped with a Canadian passport and a UNPROFOR pass, he went around with armed, blue-helmeted escorts, fully protected from the war so he could study it. With his Canadian passport and a UNPROFOR pass, he passed through many checkpoints. But then he was stopped at one, and the curiosity of the soldiers was tickled by the incongruity of a South Slavic name in a Canadian passport, so they asked him: "What are you?" His adrenaline was no doubt high, he must've been pretty terrified and confused, so he said: "I am a professor." To the patriotic warriors at the checkpoint, his answer must've bespoken a childlike innocence, for they most certainly hadn't asked him about his profession. They must have laughed, or told stories about him after they let him go. He must have seemed unreal to them.
To be at all comprehensible as a unit of humanity to the ethnically brave men at the checkpoint he had to have a defined—indeed a self-evident—ethnic identification; the professor's ethnicity was the only relevant piece of information about him. What he knew or didn't know in the field of political science and pedagogy was hysterically irrelevant in that part of the world carved up by various, simultaneous systems of ethnic otherness—which, as a matter of fact, makes it not all that different from any other part of the world. The professor had to define himself in relation to some "other" but he couldn't think of any otherness at that moment.
To be a professor again he had to return to Canada, where he may have run into my parents, for whom he would have been a perfect specimen of one of them.
My sister returned to Sarajevo after the war and worked there equipped with a Canadian passport. Because of the nature of her work as a political analyst, she encountered a lot of foreign and domestic politicians and officials. Brandishing a somewhat ethnically confusing name, speaking both Bosnian and English, she was hard to identify and was often asked, by both the locals and foreigners: "What are you?" Kristina is tough and cheeky (having survived an assassination attempt early in her life) so she would immediately ask back: "And why do you ask?" They asked, of course, because they needed to know what her ethnicity was so they could know what she was thinking, so they could determine which ethnic group she was truly representing, what her real agenda was. To them, she was irrelevant as a person, even more so as a woman, while her education or ability to think for herself could never overcome or transcend her ethnically defined modes of thought. She was hopelessly entangled in her roots, as it were.
The question was, obviously, deeply racist, so some of the culturally sensitive foreigners would initially be embarrassed by her counterquestion, but after some hesitation they would press on, while the locals would just press on without hesitation—my sister's knowledge, her very existence was unknowable until she ethnically declared herself. Finally, she would say: "I'm Bosnian," which is not an ethnicity, but one of her two citizenships—a deeply unsatisfying answer to the international bureaucrats of Bosnia, bravely manning government desks and expensive restaurants.
Instructed by my sister's experiences, when asked "What are you?" I am often tempted to answer proudly: "I'm a writer." Yet I seldom do, because it is not only pretentiously silly but also inaccurate—I feel I am a writer only at the time of writing. So I say I am complicated. I'd also like to add that I am nothing if not an entanglement of unanswerable questions, a cluster of others.
I'd like to say it might be too early to tell.

Copyright © 2013 by Aleksandar Hemon