Saturday, May 10, 2008

Aleksandar Sasha Hemon

On May 7th, 2008 Kepler's welcomed Aleksandar Sasha Hemon, reading from his new book "The Lazarus Project," a novel interspersed with evocative black-and-white photographs, some shot by his friend photographer Velimir Bozovic, others found in the Chicago Historical Society archives.

In my introduction I retold a story I heard from Patrick Hunt, an archaeologist at Stanford, who spoke about his trip to Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas (check his book "Ten Discoveries that Rewrote History"). Patrick was sitting there on the mountain one day, when he noticed how the spot was cone-shaped, like a huge megaphone made of granite walls, like an amphitheater, so he took his flute out and started playing a simple song, no more then ten notes. To his astonishment the sound came back to him. He kept playing, and each new theme echoed back to him perfectly harmonized. Some people were beginning to sit down, to listen. After he stopped playing, all those flute harmonies still echoed for a while and when the music finally faded away a triple rainbow opened up. So, he thought, this is all too much, I better go now. Then he realized that the 30-40 people who came to sit around him and listen were all local Catchuas. One little man came up to him and said in broken Spanish, "Signor, tu es un amauta (high priest)." The little man explained that he just heard him perform with his flute an ancestral Catchuan ritual that had been lost for over 500 years. And then the little man asked, "What else do you know?"

This story reminded me of reading Aleksandar Sasha Hemon's writing and his way of making his home in English, an outsider at first who came to United States with just a basic command of English and who became an amauta, a high priest (scholar), in linguistic terms comparable to Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Conrad. He published his first book, a short-story collection "The Question of Bruno" in 2001, and his second, a novel "Nowhere Man" in 2004.

I read in an interview that his wife, one of his first editors, would gently correct him by saying, "Sasha, we don't say that like that in English," to which he would lovingly respond, "But darling, now we do!" In Sasha, the MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" winning author of three very important books, we can see why the place or the language doesn't belong only to those born into it. It belongs to those who make us see it again, as if for the first time.

Sasha thanked me for the introduction and said that he was never called a priest before, but that he might consider starting a church of his own - after all, it seems to be a profitable business! During his reading, the DVD of the photos continuously played in the background. The overhead lights were dimmed. One particularly arresting photograph showed Lazarus Averbuch ((19-year-old Eastern European immigrant) sitting upright in a chair, his hands folded in his lap, and an older man in black suit and cylinder hat, standing behind dead Lazarus and holding his head.
Hemon’s inspiration for his book came exactly from this 1908 photograph. Hemon was motivated by this tragedy, the death of the young man who escaped pogrom only to be shot inside the home of Chicago Police Chief George Shippy. He wanted to re-create Lazarus's life and to honor the grief and hope of immigrant dreams.

In fact, Hemon's slideshow and reading induced almost a dream state in which our eyes followed the story of the photographs while our ears listened to Hemon's storyteller voice tell a story of a young Bosnian writer’s voyage to Lazarus’ home village Kishinev (today’s Moldova). ~~~ Aggie Zivaljevic


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