Issue 86 |
Winter 2001-02

John C. Zacharis Award Winner Aleksandar Hemon


John C. Zacharis Award Ploughshares is pleased to present Aleksandar Hemon with the eleventh annual John C. Zacharis Award for his collection of stories, The Question of Bruno (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2000; Vintage, 2001). The $1,500 award -- which is named after Emerson College's former president -- honors the best debut book by a Ploughshares writer, alternating annually between fiction and poetry. This year's judge was John Skoyles, who is a Ploughshares trustee.

Aleksandar Hemon was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 1964. His parents both worked for a large state company -- his father as an engineer, his mother as an accountant -- and Hemon was, by his assertion, a fairly normal middle-class kid, albeit a bit rambunctious. "Then I hit adolescence," he recalls, "and thought that I needed to express myself. I wrote my first poem, appropriately, on a sheet of toilet paper, and started writing a novel about the problems of an adolescent -- a highly original idea, I thought -- and dropped it after one chapter." His discipline and skills steadily improved, and by 1990, when he graduated from the University of Sarajevo with a degree in literature, he had published quite a few of stories and articles in Yugoslavia. In 1992, he went to Chicago on what was planned as a short visit, but he was soon stranded in the U.S. as Sarajevo fell under siege.

Hemon found himself unable to write in Serbo-Croatian. When it become clear that he would be in the U.S. more or less permanently, he gave himself five years to master enough English to write fiction. In the meantime, he worked as a waiter and Greenpeace canvasser, then as a bookseller, ESL teacher, and bike messenger, while getting his M.A. in English literature from Northwestern University. He assumed he'd continue his studies in Northwestern's Ph.D. program, but, to his surprise, his application was rejected. "I didn't know what to do," he says. "I was unemployed, had no money or future." He had been working on his first short story in English, "The Sorge Spy Ring." He finished it, and began another. "I wanted to record and remember my life, as I thought the war in Bosnia was going to erase us all."

The story was taken by Reginald Gibbons at TriQuarterly. Hemon then won an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award, for which Stuart Dybek was a juror. When Dybek guest-edited Ploughshares, he solicited a story called "Islands" from Hemon, which prompted the agent Nicole Aragi of Watkins/Loomis to call him up. "I was standoffish at first," Hemon says, "because I had been contacted by an agent before, and that one wanted a novel, and I didn't want to write novels. I also didn't think that it could really get published, because I was a foreigner and wrote in English, my non-native language, and I had ideas what short stories could do. But Nicole was patient and got me published." Hemon received a two-book deal for The Question of Bruno and a future project from Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. "Islands" was reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 1999, and then subsequent stories appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, Granta, and The Best American Short Stories 2000. Still living in Chicago, Hemon is currently teaching a few courses at Northwestern and completing his second book, Nowhere Man.

Reviewing The Question of Bruno in Ploughshares, Peter Ho Davies wrote: "The stunning stories in this first collection by Bosnian exile Aleksandar Hemon achieve the remarkable and delicate feat of being at once strikingly diverse in setting, style, and period, and subtly and sinuously intertwined. They range in space from a sniper's alley in Sarajevo to a fast-food eatery in Chicago, and in time from the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand to the shattered streetscapes of the former Yugoslavia as broadcast on CNN. Along the way, Hemon proves himself a gymnastically versatile stylist, as comfortable with an epistolary story as pseudo-memoir, hyperrealism, or postmodern playfulness."

John Skoyles, in choosing the collection for the John C. Zacharis Award, adds: "In many of the stories, he manages both horror and hilarity, and he pulls it off with an exquisite sense of timing. The book is richly human and relentlessly self-effacing. Above all, I admire the imaginative construct which allows him to draw on both historical and personal records, transforming them into a narrative that's both moving and entertaining."

Read Hemon's story "Islands" from Ploughshares Spring 1998.