Tuesday, October 4, 2011

With best wishes, Sasha Hemon

I believe I've mentioned I'm kind of a fan on Aleksandar Hemon, no? And that I was headed to a book festival in Scranton where he was to be a panelist, right? I was hoping, since I knew one of the festival's organizers, that I might manage to get a special introduction, either right before or right after the book-signing part of the panel. Or something. Anything, really, would've been great. Exciting. Blog-worthy.

But Bill, the aforementioned organizer, my former instructor, and the person who got me reading Hemon in the first place, did me and my friend Betsy, who made the epic journey with me (Side tip: Don't travel I 81 N through Pennsylvania on a Friday evening.) one better. Bill actually palmed Hemon and his co-panelist, Teju Cole (another amazing writer. Open City. Read it), off on us. We were in charge of getting them lunch.

So off we went, while my brain sang with terror, anticipation, excitement, to a little cafe down the street. Just the four of us (by the way, I think I've previously described Hemon as a polar bear of a man. I'm kind of happy to say I was dead-on accurate in my description. Cole, on the other hand, looks like Mos Def's little brother. Which is actually meant as a compliment).

We spent the next two hours steeped in a remarkably deep and philosophical conversation, mostly about religion. We talked about Mennonites and Pentecostals and miracle working. We talked about the absence of faith and the strange ways we justify it when we have it, the way some of us cherry pick to concentrate on the beautiful parts and conveniently ignore the ugly bits. We talked about how some people can derive great and pure joy from organized religion, and how sometimes, you should get your kid baptized, just in case. Someone mentioned Kierkegaard. Then Dawkins. Hitchens made an appearance, I think, and Catholic priests. Miles Davis came up a few times (certainly a holy man in some circles). We talked about Bosnia and Nigeria, the intimate act of sharing a cup of coffee and the way war ruptures not only physical life, but psychological life, too. We talked about the motivation to write, the ways in which that motivation manifests itself. And I couldn't help but wonder if these two men thought like this all of the time. I couldn't help but wonder if either of them ever did or said anything mundane, or stupid. Or if they ever shut their big big brains off for a second and just watched Glee or something.

And yes, I told Hemon (who I think I am now able to call "Sasha") that I'd named my dog Bruno, after his first book. He seemed strangely pleased.

To characterize it as an incredible experience is to fall laughably short. I'm still processing the whole thing. I feel fantastically lucky to have spent a few hours with a dear friend and two literary powerhouses who seemed to genuinely enjoy themselves, too (perhaps they are good actors?). I suspect I'll have more to say as time goes on.

Post Script:

The most delightful moment of the conversation came, ironically enough (for me, at least), when Hemon had excused himself to the restroom. While he was away from the table, I asked Cole if he'd grown up speaking English, or if he'd learned it later. He replied that he began learning/speaking English at about six.  Then he said, deadpan, "I think our friend Sasha is coming along beautifully with his English language skills, don't you? I'm sure one day he'll master it."

Thanks, Betsy, for snapping this great photo!

1 comment:

  1. Hemon's quite like Joseph Conrad in re: the English language. Conrad didn't learn how to speak English until he was in his 20s, but you would never know that if not for the obligatory introductions to all his works here in these modern times. Now, if only Hemon would write a tragic tale of the sea...You're best buddies now, get him started on it already!