Readers have the schizophrenic tendency to hear voices in their heads — they invent the cool drawl of the adulterous mother or the deep, rich Slavic accent of the exiled Bosnian man. They use their imaginations to create tones and inflections, to give life to the lines of dialogue they see on the page.
On October 27, readers traded literary characters’ imaginary sounds for the real voices of New Yorker fiction writers Antonya Nelson and Aleksander Hemon, who read from their work as part of the New Yorker College Tour. Audience members traveled from their world of make-believe to Nelson and Hemon’s, hearing their own versions of their characters’ speech.
The recipient of such prestigious accolades as the Rea Award for the Short Story and placement on the New Yorker’s list of 20 young American writers for the 21st century, Nelson read from her collection of short stories, “Female Trouble,” an insightful exploration of womanhood through the lenses of wives, mothers and daughters. New Yorker Fiction Editor Cressida Leyshon commented that Nelson’s “empathy” allows her to “embody a character’s voice and life.” Indeed, honesty and clarity are the key ingredients in Nelson’s fictional mix, rendering the women in “Female Trouble” so real that readers feel they have actually known them. Despite her characters’ diverse backgrounds, they all teeter between the realms of virtue and moral ambiguity.
Nelson read “Stitches,” in which a mother recalls almost longingly her former liaison, as her college-age daughter recounts her first sexual experience. However, while Nelson alludes to the mother’s alcoholism and infidelity, the fact that she does not cast definitive moral judgments reflects her keen understanding of human nature. Nelson recognizes that individuals are multi-faceted and cannot be categorized as purely good or bad.
Because Nelson is supremely interested in people — the passions and sorrows, the strengths and the imperfections — “Stitches” is chiefly about character rather than plot; in fact, the main characters are virtually stationary, as the entire story revolves around a phone conversation between a mother and daughter. Despite the story’s static plot, Nelson successfully relies on what she calls “the shapeliness of fiction” — the richness of language and character — to create a sense of time.
In contrast, Aleksander Hemon uses a circular narrative structure to evoke the passage of time in his novel, “Nowhere Man.” The novel follows Josef Pronek, a Bosnian man who moves to the United States in 1992, just before the outbreak of war in his country. “Josef’s life was on a continuum and then war broke it apart,” Hemon explained during the discussion following his reading. “That trauma was irreversible and therefore, I couldn’t use the linear form.” Stranded in America, Josef becomes the novel’s title character; he is “the nowhere man,” physically present in the United States, yet severed from the home he knows. To a certain extent, Hemon’s novel is autobiographical. Like Josef, Hemon grew up in the former Yugoslavia and found himself stuck in America during the Bosnian War.
Although English is not Hemon’s first language, he adopted it when he arrived in 1992. In her introduction, Cressida Leyshon quoted Hemon as remarking that he “enjoyed the perpetual discomfort” of the English language and the excitement of discovering “a lovely new word, or a loose article coming around the corner to smash me in the bemused face.” Indeed, Hemon’s unique word combinations and images reflect a certain playfulness with language that most native speakers do not possess. In the selection he read from “Nowhere Man,” for instance, he described the streets of Kiev on a humid evening as “covered with a dark, oily placenta.” A versatile writer, Hemon’s prose ranges from harsh, succinct sentences to lyrical imagery. Wit and humor, set against the backdrop of war and displacement, also characterize Hemon’s writing style. Hemon read another selection of “Nowhere Man” in which he describes a funny, yet ironic situation when Josef encounters the former President Bush in Kiev. Hemon received shouts of laughter from the audience as he tried to imitate a Texan’s voice, yet did not quite succeed in getting Bush’s intonations. Through humor, Hemon elucidates the feelings of an outsider caught between two places, between his own conscientiousness and others’ lack of awareness.
Despite their different choices of subject matter, both Nelson and Hemon bear witness to the struggles of ordinary people. Nelson’s “Female Trouble” is a kind of witness to domestic conflict and the anguish and uncertainty of middle class life. Similarly, Hemon explores the absurd battle to remain human in the midst of a historical force, the grief of exile, and the humor interspersed with pain. These similarities became clear in the unique setting of The New Yorker College Tour, where Nelson and Hemon had the opportunity to respond to each other about the nature of fiction. Nelson remarked that New Yorker has given her “the gift” of an immediate audience, while Hemon described his excitement “to be part of a visual cultural context.”
To Hemon, publication in The New Yorker was “the impossible coming true.” While aspiring writers rarely reach Antonya Nelson and Aleksander Hemon’s level of accomplishment, they suggested that perhaps “the impossible” is not entirely out of reach.