Memory Found and Memory Loss: reviewing My Heart by Semezdin Mehmedinović5 min read
Mehmedinović is a Bosnian writer, well known for his breakout novel Sarajevo Blues, published just two years after he emigrated to the United States. He lived in the Washington D.C. area for over twenty years. Much of this book takes place in various parts of the US, with an authentic curiosity and understated observation about American life. What resonated with me was his raw honesty about events surrounding his wife’s and his own deteriorating health. My Heart is a heartfelt letter to his wife, son, and himself.
His prose is simple, his stories conversational. I picked up immediately on his earnest voice. The frankness of the opening line captures me right away: “Today, it seems, was the day I was meant to die.” Being able to age comfortably with his wife and son is treated as a light-hearted, often mundane, chore.
Since Mehmedinović is a refugee writer, one would think the pages of his memoir would be filled with violence and repressed memories. Instead, they are more about the openness to recognize triggers and the realization that memories are not linear. For example, events that trigger Mehmedinović rarely bring him back to war or violence. They bring him back to his time as a student, his childhood in the countryside, meeting his wife for the first time, and ongoing questions about ethnic self-identification.
Being Bosnian abroad
Mehmedinović writes, “on every continent, I am an endangered minority. For Europeans, I’m Muslim. For Asians, I’m European. For Americans…I’ve been told several times here, ‘go back to Russia!’ and that’s the mildest form of identity rebuke. Why am I forever being punished for other people’s sins?…I carry with me the remnants of all the shells that have fallen on the houses where I have lived, like a confirmation of survival, and as a warning.” While he is very clear about who he is, others’ perpetual need to place him in a box annoy him.
His memoir is filled with interactions with strangers, whether it’s the author ethnically profiling others, or others dictating his role. He’s fond of Muslim nurses at the hospital. He finds kinship with a group of German bikers in Death Valley. He is offended by a rude comment from an American poet friend demanding that Mehmedinović translate his works to English. This experience does not color his relationship with the rest of the literary community negatively, but is just a singular instance from the stream of nonlinear memories.
The persistence of memories
His memories are also tied to geography. In the memoir, Mehmedinović returns to his first home in the United States – an apartment complex in Phoenix. Phoenix is an “artificial city,” as Mehmedinović writes. It’s a barren landscape that requires automatic sprinklers, melting cars, heat so overbearing that it even destroys VHS tapes in the same way Dali’s watches melt in The Persistence of Memory. Expecting some kind of emotional confrontation, “convinced that we don’t in fact ever entirely leave the places where we’ve lived, some trace of us remains, our enduring presence, the way hotel mirrors retain the faces of all the people who have passed through the room”, Mehmedinović realizes, “it’s never like that. We remember the place where we once lived, but it doesn’t remember us.” These observations are sobering. As Mehmedinović remembers just how small he is, the reader is led through the same journey. Places may press into our memories in profound ways, but sometimes a place remains untouched.
His memories are also pegged to certain everyday events. While Mehmedinović is hospitalized, a nearby patient suffering from Alzheimer’s responds “1939!” to a nurse’s check-up question about what year it is. That brings Mehmedinović to his special year – 1992. Even certain foods and flowers are triggers for him. However, Mehmedinović keeps asking himself the same questions: “Does our obsessive preoccupation with specific topics mean that we influence events ourselves, or do we unconsciously recall our near future, so that the memory expresses a deeper interest in problems we have yet to encounter?”
A memoir for us, but a love letter to his family
Both Mehmedinović and his son experience what he describes as “frequent attacks of melancholy”, something that only refugees could understand. It is also clear that he has a very different relationship with his wife, unlike the traditional husband-and-wife dynamic. They are thought partners and bring out the best in one another. When Sanja begins to suffer from Alzheimer’s, it is unbearably sad. She forgets what year it is, what month, where she is. But when a doctor asks Sanja, while pointing at Mehmedinović, who he is – “for a moment she settled her gaze, she appeared to be looking right through me, and I felt a chill run through my whole body. And I thought: She’s forgotten me. But then her face experienced a total transformation, she looked at me as though she had saved me from nonexistence, or as though she had just given birth to me, and with an expression of the purest love she said: ‘Semezdin, my Semezdin.’ And that was the moment when my name filled with meaning. I was her Semezdin. That is my love story, and my whole life.”
Mehmedinović writes about how his wife nursed him as he was ill, and his loving responsibility to care for her after her stroke. Regardless, his tone is sweet and his observations are acute. My Heart is a wonderful, heartfelt memoir. It is filled with reminders to enjoy every moment with the ones we love.
Book details: Mehmedinović, Semezdin. My Heart. Catapult, 2021. It is available to buy here.