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“Language depends on a code that is available to and reproduced by all, but the price of that is its flattening into clichés. I enjoy playing with that.” — Aleksander Hemon

Aleksandar Hemon.  — Martin Hunter
Aleksandar Hemon. — Martin Hunter

Why are zombies an apt metaphor for the current refugee crisis? How has the cultural discourse around refugees changed since you found yourself stranded in the US as an asylum seeker back in 1992?

Well, I never considered myself a refugee, because I could make a choice to stay — or so I thought. One thing that defines the situation of a refugee is an absence of choices, and a lack of agency. Refugee choices are limited — they leave to save their lives, they go where they can. This in itself dehumanises them — people leave because they are not treated as human beings worthy of dignity, or even life.

But then they are also represented, as is the case in Europe and the US and Australia and many places today, as masses driven by insatiable, incomprehensible hunger for what we have. And if ‘we’ let them in, they will at least infect our way of life. I have not studied the theory of zombies, but it seems to me that there was a resurgence of zombies after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. One of the advantages of zombies as a trope is that they’re infinitely killable, because there are so many of them, and because they’re not really alive anyway. The masses of refugees coming to Europe allow Europeans to ignore their individuality.


ALEKSANDER Hemon is an award-winning, Bosnian-born American fiction writer, essayist, and critic. Hemon was raised in Sarajevo, where he worked as a journalist with the Sarajevan youth press. In 1992, he participated in a journalist exchange programme that took him to Chicago. Hemon intended to stay in the United States only briefly, but when war broke out in his home country, he applied for and was granted status as a political refugee in the United States. His latest book, The Making of the Zombie Wars follows his hugely popular memoir The Book of My Lives (2013). It explores issues of privilege, dislocation, and identity, all through the lens of zombie culture. Following are excerpts of an interview with Hemon:


You have previously expressed your dislike for clichés, yet you often use them as a literary device in your work; why is that?

What writing and literature can and ought to do is release dormant possibilities of language, revive dead (or un-dead) metaphors and dismantle and reassemble clichés, expose lazy thinking and attack the comforts of treating the world as a familiar place. Language depends on a code that is available to and reproduced by all, but the price of that is its flattening into clichés. I enjoy playing with that.

There are moments in the book in which a character fails to translate a Bosnian joke into English. Do you think there is something about the experiences of one group, the flavour of its history that can’t be fully translated into another language, another cultural framework?

There is, but that is not the reason not to do it. On the contrary, if everything in one language was exactly translatable in some other language they would be the same language. But translating loosens the grip of lazy monolinguality — to speak and write unconcerned about whether what you want to say will be understood is the end of poetry. The fact that exact transition is not possible allows for transformation — a translated joke might not be as funny, but it might be a good story. Robert Frost, who I believe spoke only English, claimed that poetry is what is lost in translation. [Joseph] Brodsky, who was not monolingual and translated a lot, said that poetry is what is gained in translation.

What do you think about language as a tool of mediation between cultural differences? What is the role of the writer, especially fiction writers, in today’s starkly multi-polar world?

I think people are layered structures. No one is one thing. Everyone contains multitudes, at least potentially. What oppression does is violently simplify that complexity. Racism, or any kind of bigotry, reduces the inner worlds of a person to one thing, and that thing is presumably a mark of inferiority. It is a right of every person to be complicated in any way they wish. Language has space for all that. Two languages have twice as much space, and literature is a domain in which all those multitudes can be imaginatively deployed. I’ve learned to own my complications. When someone asks my characters: “What are you?” they say, as I do, “I’m complicated.”

The Making of the Zombie Wars is a testosterone-fuelled farce, set against the backdrop of the Iraq war. Why did you choose to contextualise it that way?

It was important that the story of the book took place during the Iraq invasion, which apart from its military, strategic and political operations, had an important psychosexual aspect — Bush and his warriors were to re-masculinise America. This particular ambition was enormously appealing to a substantial portion of the American public, much of which is agog with Trump’s Viagra populism. Joshua’s adventure is in some ways a parody of America’s adventure in Iraq, which has turned out to be an abject, humiliating, world-changing failure.

At some point in the book, your main character, Joshua is disgusted by the realisation that he has become “you people”, alien to himself, an immigrant in his environment. What scares Joshua about becoming “you people”?

By virtue of being American, Joshua has access to enormous privilege. Becoming “you people” would mean that that access would be limited, or denied. Liberal as he is, Joshua would rather not lose that privilege. The liberal, democratic West is now in the thrall of having to choose between the stated principles of justice, equality, solidarity and responsibility and brazen privilege, and many are finding out that they’re not willing to share any of it. So they elect Camerons [David Cameron, UK] and Trumps [Donald Trump, US Republican Presidential Nominee] and Le Pens [Marie Le Pen, French Far-Right Politician].

What do you hope the reader will take away from this book?

I wrote it to be funny, and funny is a very serious thing. Nabokov said that Chekhov wrote sad books for humorous people — because you could understand their sadness only if you had a sense of humour. Only the readers who laughed with my book will understand it and take it seriously.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 3rd, 2016