Aleksander Hemon Posts

On “Dying” and “In Gratitude”

jenni-diski51hmou4betl-_sx311_bo1204203200_I’m writing a memoir, a form that in my mind plays hide-and-seek with the truth. It contains what I imagine and what I remember being told. Absolute veracity is what I am after. 

Jenni Diski In Gratitude 

Two women writers, Jenni Diski and Cory Taylor, are diagnosed with cancer and its inoperable. Trying to come to terms with the doctor’s grim prognosis is not easy. Suddenly time takes on a different meaning. Jenni Diski began a column for the London Review of Books once her cancer was diagnosed. It was a series a essays that were published reflecting on her life, her birth family, her writing, her school and most significantly her complicated relationship with the Nobel Prize winner, Doris Lessing, who took fifteen-year-old Jennifer Simmonds under her wing. The Australian writer Cory Taylor too spends a while in her memoir, Dying, remembering her mother and the choices she made. In both the memoirs what comes across clearly is that the two dying writers are reflecting upon their past but are also hugely influenced by and acknowledge the presence of the women who made the writers what they are. Jenni Diski had always nursed a desire to be a writer but had not been very focused about it till she met Doris Lessing and was introduced to her world of writers and other creative minds who always made interesting conversation and had ideas to offer. Cory Taylor discovered that her mother had had a dream to be a writer but never achieved it. She writes in Dying : “Writing, even if most of the time you are only doing it in your head, shapes the world, and makes it bearable. …I’m never happier than when I’m writing, or thinking about writing, or watching the world as a writer, and it has been this way from the start.” Three Australian writers including Benjamin Law wrote a beautiful obituary for Cory Taylor in the Guardian terming Dying as a “remarkable gift” for providing a vocabulary and invitation to speak about that “unmentionable thing”, a “monstrous silence” — death. ( 6 July 2016, http://bit.ly/2dPq0Mx ) These sentiments on writing and the gift of the memoir can probably be extended to Jenni Diski and In Gratitude too.

Apart from Jenni Diski’s and Cory Taylor’s preoccupation with writing and their evolution as writers what comes 41vdphgesjlthrough strongly in both memoirs is the tussle between secular and religious modes of coping with death and its rituals. Also how ill-prepared a secular upbringing makes an individual in understanding burial rites or managing one’s grief once a loved one departs. How does one mourn? The structures of religious rituals seem to take care of the moments of sorrow. There is much to do. Yet the challenge of speaking of death and the process of dying is not easy. Cory Taylor had even contemplated euthanasia and ultimately passed away in hospice care.

In Gratitude and Dying: A memoir put the spotlight on the magnificent leaps medicine and technology have made, in many cases it has prolonged life but with it is the baggage of ethics — whether it is possible to go through the agony of pain while dying a slow death or to end it all swiftly by assisted suicide or euthanasia. These are critical issues not necessarily the focus areas of both books although Cory Taylor confesses in having contemplated euthanasia. While reading the memoirs innumerable questions inevitably arise in a reader’s mind.

Some of the literature  published recently has been seminal in contributing to the growing awareness and need to discuss death increasingly in modern times when advancement in medical technology seems to prolong human suffering. Also in an increasingly polarised world between the secular and religious domains bring to the fore the disturbed confusion that reigns in every individual on how to deal with the dying, the finality of death, disposal of the mortal remains and the despair it leaves the distraught survivors in. Some links are:

  1. “Daughters of Australian scientists who took their own lives reflect on their parents’ plan” http://bit.ly/2dDfvc8 ( Jan 2016)
  2. Amitava Kumar’s essay “Pyre” published in Granta ( https://granta.com/pyre/ ) and recently republished in Best American Essays 2016, edited by Jonathan Franzen.
  3. Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal ( 2015)
  4. Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air ( 2016)
  5. Aleksander Hemon’s moving essay on his infant daughter’s brain cancer ( “The Aquarium: A Child’s Isolating Illness” JUNE 13 & 20, 2011 ISSUE http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/06/13/the-aquarium )
  6. Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture  ( 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ji5_MqicxSo )
  7. Andrew Solomon’s essay on his mother’s decision to opt for euthanasia ( “A  Death of One’s Own” 22 May 1995 http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1995/05/22/a-death-of-ones-own )

In Gratitude and Dying are strangely comforting while being thought provoking in raising uncomfortable questions about mortality, importance of time, maintenance of familial ties and doing that which pleases or gives the individual peace. Both the memoirs have a confident writing style as if by capturing memories in words the writers are involved a therapeutic process of facing their mortality while the urgency to their writing has an unmistakable strength to its tenor as if no one will have the time to dispute their published words.

Read these books.

Jenni Diski In Gratitude Bloomsbury, London, 2016. Pb. pp. 250 £12.99 

Cory Taylor Dying: A Memoir Canongate, London, 2016. Pb. pp. £12.99 

24 Oct 2016 

 

 

Books in Indian advertisements

Breaking-the-Bow-finalTwo advertisements that have been shown on television recently have shown the women models reading two splendid books.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6YBUMkQDadg

This is an advertisement for a property portal, 99acres.com and it shows the model reading Breaking the Bow. It is a fabulous anthology of short stories edited by Anil Menon and Vandana Singh. This is speculative fiction inspired by the Ramayana, published by Zubaan. ( http://zubaanbooks.com/shop/breaking-the-bow-speculative-fiction-inspired-by-the-ramayana/ )

The TITAN Raga watch ad has been garnering a number of rave reviews for its representation of a modernAleksander Hemon Indian woman. But I like it too for the impeccable good taste the woman shows in the book she is reading — Aleksander Hemon’s The Book of My Lives, published by Picador. It is a collection of essays he has previously published and updated. These are accounts of his life in Bosnia, before and during the war, leaving for USA for a scholarship and unable to return, his new life in Chicago and the heart wrenching essay about his nine-month-old falling ill.

The first time I saw these advertisements I was delighted. For once the women models were shown reading…and reading books– two books that I liked very much!

1 Jan 2014

Literati: Memoirs (5 October 2014)

Literati: Memoirs (5 October 2014)

Jaya Bhattacharji RoseMy monthly column in the Hindu Literary Review was published online on 4 October 2014 and in print on 5 October 2014. Here is the url  http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/a-look-at-the-world-of-books-publishing-and-writers/article6471249.ece . I am also c&p the text below. 

Memoir is specifically an individual remembering their life as well as a period. It does not have a single narrative nor is it a teleological narrative as an epic is—it is episodic and a collection of personal anecdotes that the memoirist chooses to recall and share publicly. Ian Jack wrote in the Guardian ( 2003): “Writing one’s own personal history used to be called autobiography, Now, more and more, it is called memoir. The two words are often used interchangeably and the boundary between the two forms is fuzzy, but there are differences. An autobiography is usually a record of accomplishment. … The memoir’s ambition is to be interesting in itself, as a novel might be, about intimate, personal experience. It often aspires to be thought of as “literary”, and for that reason borrows many of literature’s tricks – the tricks of the novel, of fiction – because it wants to do more than record the past; it wants to re-create it. If a memoir is to succeed on those terms, on the grounds that all lives are interesting if well-enough realised, the writing has to be good.”

Some of the notable memoirs, each representative of a distinctive subject, in recent months have been Sanjaya Baru’s The Accidental Prime Minister, Damian Barr’s Maggie & Me, Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year, Naseeruddin Shah’s And One Day, Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Aleksander Hemon’s The Book of My Lives; Pamela Timms’s Korma, Kheer & Kismet: Five Seasons in Delhi, Malala Yousafzai with Patrick McCormackMalala, Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldier’s Letters, 1914-18, David Omissi (editor), Remember the Time: Protecting Michael Jackson in His Final Days, by the singer’s security guards, Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard, with Tanner Colby. The popularity of this genre has had an effect on contemporary writing in that they are in the oral form of storytelling and are dependent upon personal histories. For instance, journalist Marja Mills’s The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee is about the “story of Mill’s friendship with the Lee sisters”, but the author’s note states it is a “work of nonfiction”. A similar book is Veena Venugopal’s brilliant and disturbing The Mother-in-Law, it consists of experiences of daughters-in-law profiling their mothers-in-law to Veena over a series of interviews.

Many novels rely upon autobiographical experiences to create a story but as Akhil Sharma points out, “I think nonfiction requires an absolute commitment to the truth. In non-fiction I need to include things to present the situation and characters in a rounded way. I don’t know if I do that in my novel. Family Life is so completely a story that many boring but very important things were left out. All fiction draws on life but that does not mean all fiction should be viewed as managed non-fiction.”

The fact is memoirs sell at a brisk pace for traditional publishers and constitutes a large chunk of self-published books. On digital platforms too— Facebook status updates, longreads and blogs— posts that are read and discussed animatedly are those written from a personal point of view. For instance Sudhanva Deshpande’s moving tributes uploaded on to his Facebook wall as he watched his father, the noted Marathi playwright, G. P. Deshpande, lie in a coma or Vandana Singh’s blog post “Some musings on diversity in SF” about travel writing and scifi.  In fact, Andrew Stauffer of Book Traces (a crowd sourced web project to find drawings, marginalia, photos and anything else in copies of 19th and early 20th century books) says “It’s certainly true that readers used the margins of their books for a kind of journaling and memoir-writing, in the quasi-private, quasi-public space of the domestic book. I don’t know if that obviates the desire for long-form memoirs. You might think about our current digital culture of commenting and liking online, and how that incremental curation of a persona is a stand-in for autobiography.”

This raises the question of how do we classify biographies such as A.N. Wilson’s splendid Queen Victoria that draws heavily upon the Queen’s personal correspondence and diaries, making her at times speak in her own words—is it a memoir as well? But as Diana Athill, legendary editor who wrote an essay in the Guardian recently about death, while reflecting upon an incident from her childhood involving her mother says, “It was a shock to come up so suddenly against the fact that what to me was history, to her was just something from the day before yesterday.” For me this is the prime objective of a memoir—making the past accessible through a personal account.

6 October 2014

Aleksander Hemon, “The Book of My Lives”

Aleksander Hemon, “The Book of My Lives”


Aleksander HemonThe 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. p.17
 
I first came across Aleksander Hemon when I read his moving (and painful) essay, “The Aquarium”, in the New Yorker. ( http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/06/13/the-aquarium, 13 June 2011) It was about the loss of his second daughter, an infant, from a brain tumour. Then I read a brilliant interview by John Freeman published in How to read a Novelist: Conversations with writers ( First published in the Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/feb/23/aleksandar-hemon, 23 February 2013 ). In it John Freeman observes that “Hemon has been widely praised for the unexpected images [ his] style creates, but it was not, he says, the hallmark of a writer trying to bridge here and there. It was deliberate, honed, and in some cases mapped out. ‘I wanted to write with intense sensory detail, to bring a heightened state.’ He is a sentence writer who counts beats as a poet does syllables.”

Aleksander Hemon was born in Sarajevo and has lived in Chicago since 1992. The Book of My Lives is his fourth book, but first nonfiction. It follows A Question for Bruno ( 2000), Nowhere Man ( 2002), The Lazarus Project ( 2008) and Love and ObstaclesThe Book of My Lives consists of 16 essays that were originally published elsewhere, such as The New YorkerGranta, and McSweeney’s. There were revised and edited for the memoir. The essays vary from time spent in Sarajevo, being with the family, eating his grandmother’s homecooked broth, to participating in a Nazi-themed birthday party for his younger sister and disappearing off to the family cabin on the mountain called Jahorina, twenty miles from Sarajevo, for weeks on end to read in solitude and peace. On one such visit, the American Cultural Centre called him to say he had been invited to America for a month. While he was there, the war broke out in Sarajevo and he could not return for many years. The second half of the book consists of essays documenting/coming to grips with the new life/experiences — of being an immigrant in America. 

The funny thing is that the need for collective self-legtimization 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 out 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. ….p.16
 

I read this book while travelling through Kashmir. In fact it took me a day to read, completely engrossed in it. It was a little surreal reading the essays while on holiday in Kashmir, especially those describing the conflict in Sarajevo, since the presence of the security forces, the freewheeling conversations with the locals about recovering from many years of conflict, or the tedious security checks at the airport are constant reminders of how fragile any society affected by conflict is. It is a memoir I would recommend strongly. A must.

Here are some links related to Aleksander Hemon that are worth exploring: Gary Shteyngart in conversation with Hemon http://chicagohumanities.org/events/2014/winter/little-failure-gary-shteyngart-aleksandar-hemon

Aleksander Hemon interviews Teju Cole, Bomb http://bombmagazine.org/article/10023/teju-cole

An interview in the Salon http://www.salon.com/2013/03/23/aleksandar_hemon_i_cannot_stand_that_whole_game_of_confession_i_have_nothing_to_confess_and_i_do_not_ask_for_redemption/

Q&A in the NYT http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/20/waiting-for-catastrophes-aleksandar-hemon-talks-about-the-book-of-my-lives/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

Review in The Economist http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21575736-essays-exile-writing-survive

Aleksander Hemon The Book of My Lives Picador, Oxford, 2013. Pb. pp. 250 Rs 450 
11 Sept 2014 

Interviewing authors

Interviewing authors

John Freeman, How to read a novelistRead. Read. Read. Read.

The mantra that most writers suggest is the best way to hone one’s craft. The same holds true for reviewers, publishing professionals and anyone else in this profession of letters. In order to improve the skill one seeks to excel at, it is best to read as much as possible. Yet there is always more to learn about an author. Usually a good interviewer creates a portrait of the author that is deftly written and sharp in its analysis of their writing. ( It is fascinating to observe the interviewer being influenced by the writer, evident in the style of writing, the form the interview takes shape and at times even in the vocabulary.) With the internet becoming a repository of information about authors, their lives and anything else of remote interest to them and being at times to connect with contemporary authors in real time via social media platforms, the need to publish a book of author interviews seems to be futile. Having said that I have thoroughly enjoyed reading How to Read a Novelist by John Freeman and British Muslim Fictions by Claire Chambers. Two exquisite collections of excellent interviewers engaging with authors. In a matter of few pages they are able to introduce the author, give a bit of personal history (if required and relevant to the interview), a perspective on their oeuvre and highlight at least one essential aspect of the author that makes their writing unique. When John Freeman interviews Sarajevo-born, now settled in Chicago, Aleksandar Hemon, Freeman observes: ‘Hemon has been widely praised for the unexpected images this style creates, but it was not, he says, the hallmark of a deliberate, honed, and in some cases mapped out. “I wanted to write with intense sensory detail, to bring a heightened state.” He is a sentence writer who counts beats as a poet does syllables.’ (p.134) Or what he has to say of Michael Ondaatje — “Genres bleed between books in Ondaatje’s work.” Or about E. L. Doctorow that “his novels don’t read like researched books but restored originals, recently rediscovered.” Similarly Claire Chambers too has wonderful insights about the authors she meets whether it is Nadeem Aslam, Kamila Shamsie, Aamer Hussein or Mohsin Hamid to name some of them. The hard work that both John Freeman and Claire Chambers put into familiarize themselves with the authors is masked so well that each interview seems to effortlessly done. Yet it is obvious that considerable thought has gone into the preparation for every interview. They seem to be acutely aware of not being “over-prepared”, instead focusing on having “an actual conversation with all the unpredictability and freshness of a good one”. British Muslim Fictions

The beauty of each interview is that there is something for every reader to glean—it could be a person discovering an author for the first time or of a reader familiar with the author being interviewed. There is a restraint and a respect that each interviewer has for their author that shines through every profile. It also helps achieve the fine balance of the professional and personal dimensions of an author being presented without it seeming to be voyeuristic. Just enough of the authors personal lives, descriptions of their homes or even of their peculiar habits, such as Kazuo Ishiguro never likes to discuss what he is writing till he is done with it. These are two books worth buying, treasuring, reading for pleasure, to ponder over and if a student of creative writing, essential reading.

Women writingWhile reading these books, there were two other books from India that I recalled — Just Between Us: Women speak about their writing and The Big Bookshelf . Books published a long time ago, but continue to be relevant since they too consist of author interviews. The Big Bookshelf is based upon the years of experience Sunil Sethi had as host of NDTV’s Just Books. (http://profit.ndtv.com/videos/watch-just-books)  It ran for many years to finally end in summer of 2013. All though in October 2013, the state television channel, Doordarshan, launched a books programme called Kitabnama:Books and More. ( Link to episode 2:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wPCp8QyqAD4 ) It is a weekly programme, designed and curated by author Namita Gokhale. ( She is also one of the directors of the Jaipur Literature Festival.) Sunil Sethi