(from left: David Haglund, Aleksander Hemon, Velibor Božović)
Last night’s Apple-store-hosted conversation between Aleksander (Sasha) Hemon and Velibor (Veba) Božović might not’ve been billed like other Originals Series events, but I think it’s safe to call it one: it had that same sense of curiosity, of doing something interesting and different with an author event, that the series’ somewhat looser events have had in the past. It’s just that the “something interesting and different” this time included putting on the show (as it were) at the Apple Store in Soho. Which is, I think everyone would agree, a very “interesting and different” place to see an author and an artist.
But once we got through the slight strangeness of having what essentially felt like a busy mall behind us (and once the Apple employee was done with his shill at the start), we got down to business and welcomed Sasha, Veba, and David Haglund of The New Yorker to the stage. Haglund set the cozy tone early, explaining that Sasha and Veba are the names that pretty much everybody calls Hemon & Božović and the camaraderie between the two men was clear as soon as they stepped on stage. They just look like two guys who’ve been friends forever.
Sasha opened with an excerpt from the essay “My Prisoner”, which was the reason for the occasion last night – it can also be found in The Book of My Lives, but the Digital Original solo release is something special, as they would explain. The excerpt was beautiful and funny and a little… I think the word I’m searching for is “trembly”. There is a sense, throughout it, that sadness is looming and the author feels it but does not quite yet want to let it in. But he cannot hide from the shadow, even as he sits up late nights in London watching the 1994 World Cup – the absence of his friend Veba is too clear. And Veba, now sitting next to him, was absent because he’d been drafted into the Bosnia army. This was, of course, during the war and the two men had been separated by chance and choice. Sasha explained that, by being in Chicago, “I had agency, he didn’t.”
The story, of course, has a happy ending – they were reunited in 1997 in Chicago, Sasha telling the hilarious story of how they went shopping for maternity clothes for Veba’s wife as one of their first hangouts together. And their friendship remains – as does their artistic collaboration. I didn’t know this until last night, but Veba worked on The Lazarus Project with Sasha (a book long on my “I should read” list that, after reading Sasha’s new book The Making of Zombie Wars [review next week], has jumped to my “need to buy tomorrow” list).
The project they were here to discuss actually sprang from Veba, not Sasha. He explained that while he’d been in the war, his father had been arrested – by the Bosnian army, in fact, so his father was technically his prisoner. They had been given, through a series of strange and propagandic circumstances, an opportunity to reunite for approximately three minutes and the reunion was filmed (see again: propaganda). Veba, all these years later, told us that he’d never really had a chance to process/think about/reflect on the war – he’d come to Chicago, moved to Canada, worked in aerospace – until he’d started work on his MFA. He had a particular memory of the event with his father, being interviewed after the reunion by this man – but his father said, no no: it was a woman who interviewed us.
Fascinated by this break between reality and what he remembered reality to be, he tracked down the video – and then had it projected onto him, before he saw it. This art piece was projected behind them as they spoke and the video is immediately evocative. There are moments of coincidental overlap, where past Veba and present Veba are standing in roughly the same spot, and the mind boggles at the very many layers present there. And Veba himself acknowledged this, talking about the creation of the piece as well as the story of his own life. He’d told this story, this specific one about the meeting with his father, to Sasha many times and Sasha asked if he could write the story down – and he did and now here they are, having created these two pieces somewhat in tandem and now having them joined together.
The nature of the event meant that we had somewhat compressed time, so they moved to audience questions before the audience was quite ready to ask questions – and the pause gave me a moment to recognize the rather surreal juxtaposition, sitting in the Apple store and hearing commerce and capitalism buzzing on behind us while these two men spoke of a war that I’d wager very few people in my generation have much of a handle on (and that probably the generations who lived through it don’t know much about other than that Clinton and NATO engaged in a bombing campaign to help end it). There was something almost satirical about it, the way they were talking about a very serious moment in not only world history but their history and people ten paces away were completely oblivious.
The audience finally perked up with a few questions, two that I particularly enjoyed that asked them about cities: Sasha about Chicago and both of them about Sarajevo. Place is, of course, tremendously interesting when people take it into account and hearing Sasha first laugh at the idea of having moved instead to Miami (the questioner’s hypothetical suggestion) then describe the way Chicago exists as a city home to many refugees but also a band of individuals isolated together was something that could’ve, in other circumstances, spun out into a whole additional tangent. Same to hearing them both reflect on Sarajevo today: they both still go, they both feel deep affinity for it, but both made the point that it is a different place now than it was. That they have changed and so has it. Walking out into the rainy Soho night, I was struck by just how deep that was – and how, as Veba said, much can fit into one person’s life. Judging by those two, a whole lot is barely the surface of it.