Monday, June 15, 2009

Is it (merely) autobiographical?--Part V

Alexsandar Hemon was interviewed recently on The New Yorker's book blog and had this to say about the customary "is it autobiographical" question.

Here’s how it works: Last night, on my way to give a reading, I hurt a ligament in my right hand while putting my shoe on. As I was driving this morning and talking on the phone with my sister in London, I lost my grip and sideswept my neighbor’s car. Being honest, I went to their house to tell them what I had done. When I rang the bell nobody answered. I knocked and went in anyway, thinking they might be in the backyard. The house was empty, and as I walked through I noticed a vase in the shape of a monkey head. The light angle made it somehow seem that the monkey was winking at me, so I picked the head up to examine it, but then, dropped it, what with the weak hand ligament, and it shattered in a thousand pieces. For a moment, I considered cleaning up or waiting for my neighbors to show up, but then decided to sneak out. Now I dread hearing the door bell.

I could go on and turn this into a story. I did hurt my hand last night and I did get into the car this morning, but I did not cause any damage, nor did I trespass. I did not talk to my sister yesterday, but she does live in London. And I’ve never seen a monkey head like that. So, how much of this putative story is autobiographical?

Similarly, I did spend a few weeks in Africa some time in the eighties, just like the narrator in the story “Stairway to Heaven.” But my father was not a diplomat, there was no Spinelli, no Natalie, and most of the things that happened in the story did not happen to me. For some reason or another, I compulsively imagine scenarios alternative to what happens to me. To my mind, my stories are not autobiographical; they are antibiographical, they are the antimatter to the matter of my life. They contain what did not happen to me.

That idea of the antibiography partly explains what's going on with mine. In a sense, I'm telling a preferable version of my story--what I wish had happened. What might have happened with more luck and a stronger character and if different butterflies had flapped their wings at different times to create different kinds of storms.

Another (mixed) metaphor: The story started with the seed of something that really happened but became something strange. It has the trace of a mannerism from my life, like how I can see that my wife and her father cock their heads in the same way sometimes when they're thinking. Of course, they are totally different people with different experiences and characters. Similarly, a familiar mannerism makes itself apparent in my novel here and there, but it's not the story of my life.

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