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"...there was a here that belonged to us..."

One last excerpt from In My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You. Hemon describes returning to his family’s apartment in Sarajevo as a child, after being away on holiday.

In the hallway of our building, which would always be cool because it never saw the sun, I’d inhale the smells of our neighbors’ lives: their cooking, their sweat, whatever was used to wash the hallway stairs. At the top of the third-floor staircase leading to our home there would be a stain cascading down the stairs, a consequence of my dropping a bottle of milk when I was five or six. Nearly fifty years later, the stain is still there. I see it every time I return to Sarajevo and stay in the apartment my sister and I grew up in. And when we’d enter the apartment, everything would be exactly as we had left it, except for the pungent scent of our absence. Without us there, there was no life: no one cooked, no one went to the bathroom, no one washed hands, no one made coffee, no one turned on the lights, no one lived there, and all the windows and doors to the balconies were closed, so that only walls, carpets, furniture, and old magazines and newspapers stacked on the radio or the coffee table exuded existence. I loved that emptiness, because, each and every time, we’d refill it with ourselves. Before we returned there would be nothing, and then, within a moment, there would be everything, because we were there, and there was a here that belonged to us, that was us.

That final line is especially touching. Though his family eventually regrouped in Canada and the United States, it seems like they never really got over what they lost when Yugoslavia collapsed into ethnic war. “That was us”: that was our lives, that was who we were, that was everything we’ll never quite get back.

October 4, 2019 in Books | Permalink