They Got Real: Aleksandar Hemon and Colum McCann


Last Friday at McNally Jackson Books Aleksandar Hemon read from his new memoir The Book of My Lives and talked words with Colum McCann, an event sponsored by FSG Books and the PEN American Center. A few people showed up, then a few more and a few more, and next thing you knew it was the 4 train at rush hour.

1. Ohrly? Colum McCann & Aleksandar Hemon

First, things got serious. As a young man at the University of Sarajevo, Hemon took a poetry criticism class with the charismatic Nikola Koljević where they “unpacked poems like Christmas presents.” Later, Koljević became a high ranking figure in the Serbian Democratic Party, and played a role in the deaths of thousands during the Bosnian War. What did Hemon learn? “Just because you read Shakespeare doesn’t mean you won’t become a fascist.”

Second, Colum McCann and Sasha Hemon got real Q&A style. And so will we …

McCann: Why do you write? Hemon: The reason to do it is better than the reason not to do it.

McCann: Why write about a difficult subject like the death of your daughter? Hemon: If I avoid difficult things, I’m a hack. If I’m a hack, I should have a lot more money.

McCann: How did you start writing in English? Hemon: I believe in the audacity of despair.

McCann: Can stories save us? Hemon: No, but they help. Storytelling is a kind of basic agency. It’s how we affect and process the world.

McCann: What do you say when you’re writing a memoir? Hemon: I’m between novels.

1. Téa Obreht, B&N’s Miwa Messer, ed. Sean McDonald 2. McJ’s Alice Whitwham & FSG’s Sarita Varma

How did Hemon and McCann become pals? It involved a bar at 3am, the song Waltzing Matilda, and a choir of humming French men that made Hemon think, “I could marry this guy if it were legal.” To which we say, “Hemon, move to New York!”

Oh, and if you want to double check our quoting skills, listen to PEN’s recording of Hemon’s reading and his talk with McCann.


–Sean Campbell lives, writes, and occasionally updates his blog in Bed-Stuy

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