This Violent World: How
Literature Helps Us Cope
On learning from the writing of Aleksandar Hemon
“It felt like coming on a little secret, like a fairy tale almost,” Ben said.
Ben is a friend I met on the day we moved into a co-op on Chicago’s South Side. (“Cute guy,” I thought when I saw him, and later, when I’d come to know his political daring and stubborn innocence, “He’ll be my friend until the end of time.”) We’d both became nomadic in the decade since then—he’d moved to Berlin and worked in the Middle East; I’d lived in South Asia—but have never lost touch. When we were both in Chicago last fall, he came to dinner and told stories of his greatest destination yet: his ancestral village.
It was a story of identity and homecoming, but also extremist violence, and eventually about the power of story made real. It made me think of Aleksandar Hemon, one of Chicago’s most famous writers.
It’s a simple story, really. Ben is half-Armenian, son of a family that once lived in eastern Turkey. Last June, he’d joined an international team monitoring a controversial election in the country. While there, he’d asked officials to send him to Elazığ, the town nearest his forebears’ village.
It was an act of subtle daring. “My dad… he’s never gone to Armenia or to Turkey, and he’s afraid to go there,” Ben said. “And he drove into me, ‘Don’t tell anyone you’re Armenian,’” fearing reprisals of the persecution that goes back to the genocide a century ago. But election officials agreed to Ben’s request, and once in Elazığ, he divulged his background to a local man—who nearly broke into tears of joy over Ben’s return. Amid an avalanche of hugs and history lessons from the local Armenian minority, someone offered a ride to a semi-abandoned stony hillside. “We found the old ruins” where his great-grandparents had lived, he told me. “These houses have been untouched for almost a hundred years.”
That was Ben’s fairytale.
Yet his father’s fear wasn’t entirely irrational. Just before going to Elazığ, Ben went to a rally in Diyarbakir, the conflict-ridden city near the Syrian border. The day had felt celebratory; leftist frontrunner Selahattin Demirtaş was on the microphone, the crowd chanting praise for a campaign that promised minorities representation and safety. Then two bombs exploded.
“I was close enough to feel the shockwave,” Ben told me, worry stitched across his face at the memory. He wasn’t physically hurt, but over 100 others were. Four died.
No whimsical fable in that.
* * * *
Four weeks after Ben had come through Chicago, I sat in another café alone, weeping so hard I trembled. A journalist friend had just sent along jarring news: Hours before, a gunman had shot an innocent foreigner to death in a verdant neighborhood of Dhaka, Bangladesh. I was as horrified as if the gunfire had happened in front of me.
I could imagine the corner where aid worker Cesare Tavella was mortally wounded. The neighborhood, Gulshan, is embassy-studded, wealthy, formerly considered especially secure. Two years ago, when I was a Fulbright fellow in Dhaka, the embassy would send out mass emails chiding Americans to confine themselves to this area whenever violence seized the country. That was why an Italian man apparently chosen for his total innocence died writhing on a verdant, quasi-suburban corner. It was a warning: you foreigners aren’t safe here anymore. Five days later, the murder of a Japanese farmer in rural Bangladesh intensified the message: you are not safe anywhere in this country. When a bomb exploded in the midst of a Shia holiday procession on October 22nd, a security analyst told the New York Times, “They are trying to brand anyone other than Sunnis as heretics and deviants.” He meant ISIS.
None of this was a surprise. When I moved to Bangladesh in 2012, I fell in love with the country’s vibrant literature and rich history. But it was easy to recognize a rising tide of Islamic extremism, too. In 2013 and 2014, the nation suffered dozens of deadly riots led by Islamic fundamentalists and right-wing extremists. By early 2015, people outside the country began acknowledging the risk of full-fledged armed conflict. By the end of the year, one Islamist publicly promised an upsurge in violence, calling it “a tsunami on the doorstep of Bangladesh.”
I believe it. When they killed the first foreigner, I began to dread it.
* * * *
Ben and I suffer no special plight. This is an era of bombings and shootings spreading from Ankara to Paris to Bamako to Brussels fast enough to transform massive funeral marches to blasé Facebook posts saying je suis sick of this shit. Our worry is well-trodden, ultra-common.
But the violence isn’t new to this decade, either. Aleksandar Hemon knows this. In 1992, he was visiting Chicago just as war broke out in his native city, Sarajevo. Unable to return to Bosnia, he set down roots where he was. After learning English at age 27, he become one of the city’s most award-winning authors. He’s written at length about the war that reordered his life. In these days of anxiety, when it is easy to wish for a literary pathway through the constant violence, Hemon seems like the one to ask.
Actually, I’ve already discovered by chance how well his writing serves this purpose. In 2000, Hemon published a book of short stories called The Question of Bruno. Reading it on the train this October, I became so absorbed in one story that I forgot my body existed. When my abdomen tightened, it was like an alarm ringing somewhere far off; it took a moment to realize I still existed outside this book, that my inescapable physical self was feeling wrenching pain. Imagine that, I thought, and switched to staring out the window.
Hours later, after I’d reached home and gone to bed, I awoke in pain again and recognized for the first time why it existed. The story, “A Coin,” is about a woman living in besieged 1990s Sarajevo. She writes to a confidante, telling him of an aunt who dies of asthma and lies rotting in an apartment surrounded by snipers and nonstop shelling. After weeks with a corpse that cannot be removed, “Mother and Father wrapped her up in a bedsheet… their faces distorted by the urge to vomit,” the protagonist confides. “I couldn’t watch when they actually pushed her over the windowsill…”
In the dark, I thought, I know a version of that story. Mine was in Bangladesh, and it was nonfiction.
It happened on April 30th, 2013, six days after a factory in Savar, Bangladesh, had collapsed atop 3,500 workers. I was in the factory that day, ditching my academic research for a career in journalism in a single stroke. The scene could hardly have been more vivid. Camo-clad soldiers were digging in the rubble, no longer retrieving living bodies but rather corpses to haul away to the cheap, stinking coffins piled in an improvised outdoor morgue. Outside, crowds spoke of the situation as mass murder, a crime with which dozens would later be charged.
Down the road, swarms of frightened people hung in the driveway of a hospital, milling among walls of missing-person fliers, pleading uselessly with agitated doctors. In the middle of the ruckus was a rickshaw, a three-wheeled bicycle taxi of the kind ubiquitous in Bangladesh. Rickshaws are used to haul almost anything—furniture, raw meat. But this sight—two men leaving a hospital holding a corpse on their laps—was rare, and harsh enough to stop me cold.
Although a sheet obscured all but one jutting purpled foot, it was clear the body was one of the workers who then overwhelmed the hospital. The corpse lay stiff with rigor, as though its final act was an expression of disdain for being held. Its living relatives—two of the bereaved thousands then flooding Savar—seemed to agree. Too poor to take away the corpse in a hearse, but not so poor as to have forgotten modesty, both men wore expressions of bleak, uncomprehending horror. Like Fatima’s family, they seemed to avoid vomiting through sheer force of will.
In the few seconds I watched them, one of the men noticed me. Seeing a foreigner (we were considered especially important then; that’s why we’re targets for murder now), he raised his eyebrows and then reknitted them, telegraphing humiliation in a twitch. My stomach ached like I’d been punched. Between us came a silent, split-second agreement: I would pretend I hadn’t seen anything, to spare him some pain; he’d bury my white face in some forgotten corner of his memory.
We looked away. The rickshaw-driver, screwing up forbearance through watering eyes, began to pedal.
In “A Coin,” Fatima’s family keeps a vigil over the pavement on which her body splays. In contrast, I pretended so well that I believed my own lie. I wrote about the violent atrocity over and over, but never even thought of this moment. I felt a lingering stomach pain, an unbidden vigil of the body—but, made subtly stupider by self-protective forgetfulness, never realized why.
Then came Hemon, and insomnia, and a sudden clarity that made me dizzy with disgust. After a while, I wished to lean my head against the shoulder of the tall Bosnian author himself. I found the same comfort in his work that a sick person finds in laying their cheek on the cool bathroom tile floor after vomiting.
The next day, I found myself more light-hearted than I’d been in years. Amid fresh threats in Bangladesh—more corpses, a tsunami of them—I couldn’t explain my optimism. Then I realized “A Coin” had lifted away old pain and implied a way to be helped again after whatever is to come. Like Ben in his ancestral ruins, I felt I had come on a little secret.
* * * *
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read,” James Baldwin once wrote, sounding decisive. A protagonist in “A Coin” said it more obliquely: “We watched the bundle of decomposed flesh as if we were on a wake, but a wake for something other than Aunt Fatima, and transcendently important nonetheless.”
Watching, grieving, extracting meaning and carrying on: It’s a clear sketch of reasons to write first-person narratives, or to read them. A story that makes the past real can be liberation in itself.
We will need the help. In mid-October, a bomb exploded in Ankara, Turkey, killing 100. No one ever claimed responsibility, but a former governmental minister connected the bombing to the Turkish government’s increasing extremism, a shift that mimics the one underway in Bangladesh. (Ben was safe in Germany, but not alright. When I reached him, he said he’d been watching “videos we shouldn’t have watched” and weeping.)
Meanwhile, the Bangladeshi government spent the autumn denying over and over that terrorist cells are within their borders, even as evidence suggested ISIS and a banned group called Ansarullah Bangla Team were responsible for numerous violent incidents. A prominent journalist claimed the murders were mere street crime.
None of that could slow an obviously deepening crisis. In late 2015, Turkey’s pro-minority left took losses in the election. Bombings have since recurred. In December, Malaysia busted a Bangladeshi linked to an extremist cell, reducing doubts of who was planning the violence in Bangladesh. Last fall, the US State Department began suggesting Americans avoid the country altogether; later, it sent out the similar notice about refugee-flooded eastern Turkey. It has become easy to envision even worse crises in both regions—something as catastrophic as the mass displacement that afflicted Ben’s ancestors, perhaps.
* * * *
Amid the looming conflict, I sometimes itch to pester Aleksandar Hemon himself about how to get through. But he’s already given an answer—or a non-answer, really. His latest novel, 2015’s The Making of Zombie Wars, offers a tangle of characters grappling with the aftermath of state-sponsored violence. But it offers less of a path through violence than a tangle of chronic dysfunction that loops back on itself hopelessly. The whole book offered only one gripping phrase—“the aphrodisiac of someone else’s courage”—but the phrase is about the protagonist’s solipsism, not a concern about global conflict. (“All of Joshua’s fantasies were about that first move: young women spreading legs on the El to exhibit the shimmer of their moist vaginas…”).
In an essay for Lapham’s Quarterly, Hemon writes about spates of bad luck Bosnians call katastrofa: “If you were lucky enough to have survived the catastrophic plot twist, you get to tell the story—you must tell the story.” But he seems to mean to tell, and not to listen, and certainly not to serve anyone’s interests but your own. He asks his father about “another katastrofa, as yet unimaginable,” and lets his answer—“We’re old. There might be a katastrofa, but we won’t be around, so we don’t care”—stand without critique. Nor does he explain why the difficulties already unfolding for Ben, me, so many others are “as yet unimaginable” to him.
Hemon stills complains of the Bosnian war: “[Recently convicted war criminal Radovan] Karadžić and his crimes have entered our genes, changing the way in which Bosnian bodies move, live, and breathe in the world… His evil is going to live on inside us for many generations.”
Ben’s family history hints that Hemon is right. But his recent essays could convince a person of quite the opposite. They’re studded with anecdotes of soccer and chess, “the green-gray color of the barely foaming [L]ake [Michigan] when the winds are northwesterly and the sky is chilly,” a raccoon invasion in his eccentric father’s garage. When Hemon lets Zombie Wars’ omniscient narrator wrap up the story with, “There was nothing to be done, nothing left to do,” I couldn’t help but read it in Hemon’s own voice, as though he was speaking about his own long-ago war. Despite everything, the Bosnian author has had the good luck to settle into an ordinary middle-class, Midwestern life.
Now, as I brace for the likelihood of armed conflict in Bangladesh, as my heart somersaults at Ben’s returning to the Middle East—the aphrodisiac of someone else’s courage, indeed—I try to imagine us in a life where the most noteworthy thing is a pesky raccoon. Now Hemon doesn’t make the past real for us, but rather the future.
And that, too, feels like a fairy tale.