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My Parents: An Introduction / This Does Not Belong to You

9780374716257 fc
Hardcover, MCD × FSG, 2019
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Aleksandar Hemon

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Two books in one in a flip dos-à-dos format: The story of Aleksandar Hemon’s parents’ immigration from Sarajevo to Canada and a book of short memories of the author’s family, friends, and childhood in Sarajevo

In My Parents, Aleksandar Hemon tells the story of his parents’ immigration to Canada—of the lives that were upended by the war in Bosnia and siege of Sarajevo and the new lives his parents were forced to build. As ever with his work, he portrays both the perfect, intimate details (his mother’s lonely upbringing, his father’s fanatical beekeeping) and a sweeping, heartbreaking history of his native country. It is a story full of many Hemons, of course—his parents, sister, uncles, cousins—and also of German occupying forces, Yugoslav partisans, royalist Serb collaborators, singing Ukrainians, and a few befuddled Canadians.

My Parents is Hemon at his very best, grounded in stories lovingly polished by retelling, but making them exhilarating and fresh in writing, summoning unexpected laughs in the midst of the heartbreaking narratives. This Does Not Belong to You, meanwhile, is the exhilarating, freewheeling, unabashedly personal companion to My Parents—a perfect dose of Hemon at his most dazzling and untempered in a series of beautifully distilled memories and observations and explosive, hilarious, poignant miniatures. Presented dos-à-dos with My Parents, it complements and completes a major work from a major writer.

In the words of Colum McCann, “Aleksandar Hemon is, quite frankly, the greatest writer of our generation.” Hemon has never been better than here in these pages. And the moment has never been more ready for his voice, nor has the world ever been more in need of it.

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An excerpt from My Parents: An Introduction / This Does Not Belong to You


Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, on a mountain called Jahorina, there was an old hotel called Šator. It was half an hour from Sarajevo, but a stone’s throw away from our family mountain cabin, from what I now refer to as my previous life. The hotel was open only in the winter; when you stood in the snow outside it under a frigid, starry sky it reeked of cafeteria grease, of woodstoves, and of cigarette smoke; you’d hear the thumping from the disco club in the basement. For the rest of the year, the hotel was vacant. One summer, when I was ten, I broke into the hotel bar by cracking its window—it took me an hour—and stole a bottle of blueberry juice. I had no interest in juice, I just wanted to open the window, but once I got in I had to take something to prove that I’d done it. The bartender, who idled in the summer, caught and blackmailed me, asking for money not to tell my parents. There once was a boy who made a man mad. I told him to fuck off. He told my parents. They punished me, but that blueberry juice was the sweetest potion, and I would never have any regrets. The hotel cleaning staff was Baja, a woman of an indeterminate body shape and age who lingered in and around the hotel, always clad in a blue overcoat, a black scarf on her head, one of its corners covering her jaw to warm it up. She was, like a ghost, impervious to pain. She had an eternal toothache she would not treat, the abscess swelling until it devoured and destroyed her eye. Nobody ever saw her clean anything, though a friend of my parents’ who’d stayed at the hotel told us that Baja had once walked into his room without knocking, looked around, and said: “Why don’t you clean this up? It’s disgusting.” Right behind the hotel, there was a peaked boulder where we’d climb when there was nothing else to do, which, in the summer, was most of the time. If we looked from the top toward where we came from, we could see the weekend-house cluster below, hear the buzzing of circular saws, the banging of hammers, the din of aspiration, for everyone was perpetually getting ready for some future in which their active lives would be successfully completed and there’d be nothing but peace, virginal nature, and socialist retirement. The war would cancel the future, but back then, when we were kids, the future was always on its way, its advance currents humming inside everything we knew or cared to know. If we looked in the other direction, wooded vales and ridges, meadows and roads, stretched toward Sarajevo and farther beyond it, onward to the horizon, into which the sun would slot like a coin at the end of the day. We’d stand at the edge of the boulder, pine and fir tips arising from the verdant void beneath our feet, and we’d look, and look, and look—our visual field had no limits, in exactly the same way our life had no end. The garbage from the hotel was dumped right behind it, down the slope at the foot of the boulder. My sister and I didn’t find that strange. By the time we emerged from our unconscious childhood, the world seemed fully established, everything as it was, everything happening as it happened, all the points and objects fixed, all the hierarchies and structures natural and unalterable. We’d descend from the peak to the garbage dump to browse through trash-stuffed plastic bags and rotten food remnants. One day, we found a plethora of plates, saucers, cups, and bowls strewn all over the dump—the hotel had replaced their dishes with new ones. We spent the whole day breaking the old dishes with rocks, against one another. We discussed nothing, devised no plans; it was clear to us what needed to be done, and we just did it. The dishes were nondescript, beige, we shattered them into smithereens, taking a break for lunch, smashing some more in the afternoon. We sustained small cuts, but didn’t care, they were the blisters of toil, the stigmata of devotion. Thus we discovered the pleasure of unbridled, unlimited destruction, the endless joy of converting everything into nothing. Now I realize it was one of the happiest days of my childhood, perhaps of my entire life. And when we went back to the dump some time later and found new garbage, new generations of refuse, we knew that underneath it all were our smithereens, that we could keep forging them for as long as we lived, and that we would always remember the day we broke the limited whole.

Photos color

Time Passes in Sentences

Photography and text by Aleksandar Hemon

  • “His latest two-books-in-one memoir makes clear that a penchant for narrative—not to mention beekeeping, folk singing and righteous grievance—runs in his immigrant family."

    Julia M. Klein, Chicago Tribune
  • “These two new books are bound together in a single volume . . . [they] meet, like hemispheres, in the middle. Together, they constitute the poles of Hemon’s world: history and memoir, reality and myth, realism and the avant-garde.”

    Ryu Spaeth, The New Republic
  • “Hemon has always played with boundaries—of places, of selves—exploring how lines that can be so porous and contingent could also matter so much . . . There’s a fatalism that suffuses ‘This Does Not Belong to You,’ an overwhelming sense of mortality and the suspicion that storytelling might never be enough. This despair is leavened by what Hemon so beautifully and concretely conveys in ‘My Parents,’ with Hemon as a middle-aged son who is carefully and movingly trying to make sense of it all.”

    Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times
  • “Hemon resists, redefines and liberates his prose from genre labels by incorporating multiple forms and styles throughout each work. For Hemon, as a writer and professor, it is not about what a piece of writing “is” in a categorical sense, but rather how to employ the possibilities of language to construct complex narrative spaces.”

    S. Fedowsi, New City
  • “A witty, mournful two-in-one memoir. In My Parents: An Introduction, Hemon explores his parents’ history and melancholy relationships to food, music, marriage and other cultural touchstones. In This Does Not Belong to You, Hemon contemplates his inheritance. In either case, the mood is anxious. To be a Hemon is to be watchful, and what you’re watching for is the other shoe dropping.”

    Mark Athitakis, The Minneapolis Star Tribune
  • “Hemon continues to chronicle his family history with abundant skill and artistry.”

    A.V. Club
  • “Novelist Hemon brings his piercing sardonic vision to a perfectly matched dual book.”

    Jane Ciabattari, BBC
  • “[In] Hemon’s gorgeous new dual memoir . . . The writing contains both immediacy and a thrillingly historical long view . . . There is all the love and frustration here that anyone feels for their aging parents, with the additional heft of sympathy for their pain . . . While My Parents unrolls in great skeins of storytelling, its companion book, This Does Not Belong to You, is a series of short, spikier pieces, untitled, none longer than a single paragraph . . . some of the best writing about what it really feels like to be a child that I can recall reading."

    Kate Tuttle, Newsday
  • “His latest two-books-in-one memoir makes clear that a penchant for narrative

    not to mention beekeeping, folk singing and righteous grievance
  • “These two new books are bound together in a single volume … [they] meet, like hemispheres, in the middle. Together, they constitute the poles of Hemon’s world: history and memoir, reality and myth, realism and the avant-garde.?”

    Ryu Spaeth, The New Republic
  • "Moving . . . Hemon at his most contemplative, whimsical, and personal. He’s written autobiographical fiction and a collection of personal essays, but This Does Belong to You, being his most fragmented work, reflects his truest self . . . This Does Not Belong to You is Hemon looking deeply into himself, mining the recesses of his mind . . . it is, like My Parents, a joy to join in the reflection.”

    Barry Rosenthal, Los Angeles Times
  • “Hemon has always played with boundaries

    of places, of selves
  • “Hemon’s newest, most delving nonfiction work . . . [My Parents] incorporates the complicated histories of Bosnia and Yugoslavia, studded with cultural touchstones, in his ardently precise and analytical portraits of his parents, while in This Does Not Belong to You he deepens the art of the vignette with sensuous and emotional veracity as he shares scorching moments from his Sarajevo childhood . . . Bracing candor, gruff tenderness, righteous anger, and political astuteness, [are] all conveyed with Hemon’s signature intensity, mordant wit, and creative bite."

    Donna Seaman, Booklist
  • "My Parents follows his father and mother as they rose from impoverished rural backgrounds to enjoy the communist 'Yugoslav Dream' . . . This Does Not Belong to You is an impressionistic, darker-edged sheaf of Hemon’s boyhood memories . . . Sometimes lively and sensual, sometimes bleakly ruminative, Hemon’s recollections unite his dazzling prose style with a captivating personal narrative.”

    Publishers Weekly
  • “Two very different memoirs within the same cover address memory, identity, history, and mortality from different perspectives . . . [My Parents is] a memoir of mortality, of memory, of what endures. This Does Not Belong to You is more of a series of coming-of-age fragments, some rapturously poetic . . . An incisive combination of literature that addresses the function of literature and memories that explore the meaning of memory”

    Kirkus Reviews
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