My to-read list is miles deep, the order haphazard, determined in large part by when my holds come in at the library. On March 13th, Aleksander Hemon’s My Parents/This Does Not Belong to You arrived for me at my branch. I was busy that day: stocking up on groceries, looking after a kid at home with a minor cold that, in any other time, I would’ve sent to school. But this was not any other time. I’d been waiting for months for this book, though, so I squeezed in a stop at the library. Good thing I did: it was the last day the libraries would be open for months.
The book is split in two, with two covers, two titles, even the spine divided down the middle, a title on each half. I pick My Parents to read first. In those first strange weeks at home with the news unfurling in previously unthinkable headlines and statistics, Hemon’s sentences land with eerie resonance. Like this one, about his mom before the siege of Sarajevo upended her life: “Back before the war, she, like many, was protected by the unimaginability of the unimaginable–a comfortable, if false, assumption that what cannot be imagined cannot happen, or even be happening.” A later chapter about his father’s passion for beekeeping (“A secret of healthy life was at least a spoonful of honey a day.”) felt, in my moorless days, like urgent advice. I forced a daily spoonful on everyone in my house.
“In those first strange weeks at home with the news unfurling in previously unthinkable headlines and statistics, Hemon’s sentences land with eerie resonance.”
The divided structure of the book seemed tailor-made for reading in those first weeks of the pandemic. The engrossing narrative of his parents, enriched by the depth of thought Hemon applies to their complexities, was the perfect place for my mind during the anxious waiting of the beginning days. As the days wore on and some bizarre new form of everyday life emerged, my brain began to fizzle, attention turned this way and that by kids and the endless spool of numbers and each dawning realization of how terrible this pandemic would be in so many ways for so many people. By then, I was reading This Does Not Belong to You, a series of intense, tiny capsules of memory unhooked from narrative structure but floating with the story of his parents in the background. I read these in bursts, gulping them like air.
What luck that I picked up this book that day. My pandemic companion.