Sophia M. Stewart: The World and All That It Holds
is your fourth novel and your eighth book. Does writing get easier with each publication, or is each new book a unique experience?
Aleksandar Hemon: For me, writing and publishing are congruent, but not directly related. I wrote this book over a period of twelve years, in the course of which I published four other books, worked on a number of scripts (produced and unproduced), wrote dozens of articles and opinion pieces etc. Each writing project has its own demands and challenges and rewards. While I believe in my ability to sustain and complete the writing process, since I’ve been doing it for decades, there is no way of telling whether any of it will work before it’s all done. It is always on the verge of catastrophe until it isn’t. Or, as I tell my students: It’s all shit until it isn’t.
SMS: English is your second language; you started writing in English less than a decade after you learned it. After all these years, is there anything about writing in English that still surprises or challenges you?
AH: I had taken English classes when I was a kid, but had never been in an English speaking country before I found myself in the States. I could communicate, but I couldn’t write in English, as that requires access to an entirely different register. English is large and has always changed by the exposure to all the other languages, because it’s been the language of global expansion, which is to say it is the second language to a lot of people. I believe that every language, other than those geographically isolated, is inherently macaronic—never pure, always containing and overlapping with other languages, always a combination of several linguistic and cultural experiences. Because of that, the English language is malleable, perpetually transformed. I am invested in that transformation.
SMS: You also make music under the name Cielo Hemon. What was your journey to music-making? Did it happen alongside your becoming a writer?
AH: I’ve never written anything in my life without listening to music. Even when I don’t write, music is on nonstop. I listen to music eight to 12 hours a day, sometimes while I sleep. When I was young, back in Sarajevo, I was in a band, wrote songs, performed. But then I sold my guitar and amp to have money while traveling in America. I spent it all here, and then had no money or time to get back into it, so I only listened to music. Once I had children, I would play Beatles songs for my kids ("Yellow Submarine," Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da etc.) And then, within a week of the pandemic being declared in March 2020, I acquired a guitar, amp, and Distortion, Loop, and Delay pedals. I abused the guitar in my bedroom for a while. Eventually, I started toying with Garage Band, graduated to Logic Pro, learning, with help from a Bosnian friend, to produce music from scratch. I spent much of the pandemic making loops and dancing in my office, in a totally vacant building, before the students returned to the university.
Early on in the Cielo project, I talked Goran Markovic into joining the Cielo project. We’ve been friends since first grade. He is a phenomenal guitar player and musician (incidentally also incredible with languages), and lives in California. Then I recruited some other people, including a few video artists, and started producing videos. Some of it I finance with academic research fund—as I’ve been writing a book about the project from its beginning—while also throwing my own money into it. It is phenomenally unprofitable, but it is really all I want to do. One learns so much about music by making it. I hear everything better now, and I love music more than ever. And I created a communal space—featuring mainly Bosnians—across the world in which we make joyous things together.
SMS: What moves you to make music? Is it the same impulse that moves you to write, or does it come from someplace else?
AH: Here’s my little theory: if the aliens are actually observing us, they obviously have no reason to be particularly impressed. If they appreciate or find anything interesting about humans, it’s three things: language, math, and music. While it is easy to see the evolutional value of language (social bonding, transmission of knowledge) and math (science), it is not all that clear what the music is for Yet every culture and group of people in the world and history had music. I think there are at least two reasons why:
rhythm is inscribed in the body (heartbeat, breathing etc);
music is essential to human ability to share joy (and other emotions).
SMS: Who are your musical influences? Who are some of your favorite musical artists right now?
AH: I’ve been obsessed with music for decades so I am pathologically eclectic. Everything interests me, except patriotic country and any kind of music that identifies itself as "smooth" or "lite." Some of my favorite musical artists have always been my favorite musical artists (The Beatles, David Bowie, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis). My all-time favorite is Fela Kuti. D’Angelo is a genius. Róisín Murphy is my queen, and I love Dua Lipa and Lizzo very much too. Presently, I listen to a lot of dance music. There are a few DJs-cum-producers I love: Floorplan (Robert Hood), Marcel Dettmann, DJ 3000, John Summit, Viken Arman, Duke Boara, etc.
But there are days, and not a few, when I just listen to Mozart sonatas and/or piano concertos (preferably played by Mitsuko Uchida), French film music (Michel Legrand, Georges Delerue), Italian pop (Adrian Celentano), Nina Simone, Dusty Springfield, etc. Music is endless.
I am also very devoted to sevdah, the traditional Bosnian music. So much so in fact, that my friend Damir Imamovic, one of sevdah’s greatest singers has recorded and album with the same title as my novel, featuring sevdah and Sephardic songs that my characters sing to each other as they cross the world.
SMS: You’ve previously said that if you weren’t a writer, you’d be doing music full time, either as a producer or a DJ. As of this writing, you’ve yet to permanently trade in Microsoft Word for Ableton. Do you think you’ll ever make the leap for good? What do you think keeps you coming back to the page?
AH: I’ve been writing and publishing for several decades now, but I am still a novice at making music, so I have a lot to learn. I can tell you that in the next year or so I plan to work primarily on music: wrangle Ableton Live and Logic Pro, prepare to perform live, expand the network of collaborators, and build my DJ mixes and somewhere, sometime, bring joy (I hope) to friends and/or strangers. But I’m also writing a book about Cielo’s musical journey.
SMS: In three words, how would you describe Cielo's music?
AH: ExDM—experimental dance music (with guitars). That’s five words, but fuck it, I got nothing to lose.