Aleksandar Hemon talks freedom and hybridity in core certificate course

Written by
Danielle Ranucci '23
Jan. 24, 2023

Aleksandar Hemon, professor of creative writing in the Lewis Center for the Arts, visited Sandra Bermann’s “Translation, Migration, and Culture” course on December 6, 2023 to discuss his new novel “The World and All That It Holds.” “Translation, Migration, and Culture,” or TRA400, is a core course in the translation and intercultural communication certificate program.  

Originally from Sarajevo, Hemon is the author of “The Lazarus Project,” and the co-screenwriter of “The Matrix Resurrections.”

“He’s sometimes been compared to figures like Vladimir Nabokov or Joseph Conrad, and perhaps to the late James Joyce with the multilingualism that he’s embraced in this new text,” said Bermann, by way of introduction. Bermann is the Cotsen Professor in the Humanities, professor of comparative literature, and director of the Program in Values and Public Life.

“The World and All That It Holds” took Hemon twelve years to write. It tells the story of two lovers, Pinto and Osman, as they adventure through the 20th century and its various empires, from Sarajevo to Shanghai. Hemon’s book is unique for incorporating many languages, such as German, and a Sarajevan dialect called Ladino.

“This is what interested me in this book: I wanted a multilingual mind,” Hemon said. “I’m not a cosmopolitan multilingualist, but I have more than one language in my head at all times, and it is different in a way. There are extra dimensions. To me, these extra dimensions are the extra languages.”

The protagonists of Hemon’s novel also have multiple languages running through their minds. This “language hybridity” is rooted in the history of migration and imperial conquest. As groups of people migrate, they naturally borrow from the languages they encounter so they can communicate more understandably, he explained. For instance, Bosnian contains Turkish words from its past under the Ottoman Empire, and Austrian and Hungarian words from being ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

“This is how language operates,” Hemon said. “People will figure out how to communicate with each other under any circumstance.”

In contrast to this natural hybridity of language and identity, Hemon described the imposed standardization of language and “national essence” as a potentially-dangerous feature of nation-states.

“If the legitimacy of a nation is to be established then the idea is: if you’re born into a nation you have this essence, and your life is the expression of an essence,” Hemon said. “But on a vernacular level, people make these generalizations: ‘Bosnians drive like Bosnians and Serbs drive like Serbs.’ Of course that means it’s either-or. This is where it becomes dangerous: if you’re not doing it right, the way ‘we’ do it, then you’re suspect.”

Senior Alex Gjaja asked about language hybridity’s potential influence on Hemon’s exploration of religious themes in his novel.

“One of the things I wanted for sure is the book to cover the 20th century,” said Hemon. “It starts with the assassination in Sarajevo in 1914 and ends with 9/11.” He wanted the character Pinto to grow up with 19th century Jewish values, experience the wars and tumultuous societal upheavals of the twentieth century, and then question the orderly aspect of the world and the religious teachings he was raised with.

Hemon said that the title originated in Jewish religious texts — “God created the world and all that it holds.”

“I think what I like about it is that it instantly introduces the governing notion of the world. At no point until the very epilogue do these characters move through anything that can even resemble a nation-state,” he said. “Which also means that their identities are not related to the kind of identities that emerge in the cultural or linguistic space of a nation-state.”

Junior Sandra Chen asked about the possibility of thinking about literature in terms of art, dance and music.

Hemon said that hybridity could definitely be expanded into art, and even beyond. People could even think of themselves as detached from an “essence” of national, cultural, territorial or linguistic identity. “If we think of ourselves as complex entities of humanity that are not organized around this mystical ‘essence’ of identity, then inescapably, I think, the layers of your being multiply,” he said.

Hemon ended his discussion by contrasting bigotry with freedom. “The position of bigots is: ‘you are only one thing and we hate that thing.’ Whatever it is, they reduce you to one thing and they hate that one thing,” he said. “To me, freedom and antibigotry is allowing people in class and society, in art, in their heart, to be as many things as they want to be.”