Aleksandar Hemon, a fiction and nonfiction writer, is the 2020 winner of the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature—a premier literary award given annually by Longwood University.
Hemon is known for his short stories and novels that explore issues of exile, identity and home through characters drawn from his own experience with displacement. His works often deal with the Yugoslav Wars, his native Bosnia or Chicago, which became his adopted hometown when war broke out in his home country and he was granted status as a political refugee in the United States.
His writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, hasn’t merely stuck with me; it has changed me, challenged me to see the world anew.Brandon Haffner, assistant professor of English at Longwood and chair of the Dos Passos Prize committee Tweet This
Hemon’s best-known novels are Nowhere Man (2002) and The Lazarus Project (2008). More recently, he published My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You, his second work of nonfiction, in 2019. He also co-wrote the script, alongside David Mitchell and Lana Wachowski, for the upcoming The Matrix 4 movie, which is slated to be released in late 2021.
The John Dos Passos Prize for Literature is the oldest literary award given by a Virginia college or university. It honors an underappreciated writer whose work offers incisive, original commentary on American themes, experiments with form and encompasses a range of human experiences.
“To read Hemon is to survive a strike of lightning,” said Brandon Haffner, assistant professor of English at Longwood and chair of the Dos Passos Prize committee. “It is to be devastated and remade. His writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, hasn’t merely stuck with me; it has changed me, challenged me to see the world anew.”
Hemon, currently a professor of creative writing at Princeton University, was chosen from a shortlist of six finalists nominated by members of the Dos Passos Prize jury. The winner receives an honorarium and traditionally gives a reading on Longwood’s campus in the spring. The prize presentation and reading will be held virtually this spring at a date to be announced later.
He writes about the outsider, about exile, both physical and psychological, yet his deft touch and sense of humor never allow his writing to become bleak.Rabih Alameddine, the 2019 winner of the Dos Passos Prize and a 2020 Dos Passos Prize juror Tweet This
Rabih Alameddine, the 2019 winner of the Dos Passos Prize and a 2020 Dos Passos Prize juror, called Hemon a master stylist of exquisite prose.
“What he does with language is delightful and mind-boggling,” Alameddine said. “His novels and stories deal with the mundane and the sublime. In his work he transforms the ugliness of the human condition into divine pulchritude. He writes about the outsider, about exile, both physical and psychological, yet his deft touch and sense of humor never allow his writing to become bleak.”
Hemon infuses his work with elements of his personal life. He grew up in Sarajevo and first came to the United States in 1992 on what was expected to be a short visit. He ended up becoming a permanent resident when war and mass extermination engulfed Yugoslavia.
Hemon publishes frequently in The New Yorker, and he has also written for Esquire, The Paris Review and the op-ed page of The New York Times. One of his noteworthy, yet heart-wrenching, essays for The New Yorker, “The Aquarium,” is about the death of his 1-year-old daughter, Isabel, who died of complications associated with a brain tumor in 2010.
The Lazarus Project was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award and Nowhere Man was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Hemon was the recipient of a 2003 Guggenheim Fellowship and a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation.
“Beautifully written and filled with energy and power, Hemon’s novels move like fire, blazing a path from first page to last,” said Christina Chiu, an award-winning author and member of the prize selection jury. “Hemon’s work is proof of that. He masterfully holds up that glass by sharing deeply meaningful and resonant stories, undoubtedly some of the most relevant in our day.”
Hemon is the 39th recipient of the Dos Passos Prize. Distinguished past recipients such as Paul Beatty, the 2015 winner, have gone on to garner further acclaim after their Dos Passos Prize selection. Beatty won the prestigious Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2016 for his novel The Sellout.
Previous Dos Passos Prize winners include American literature icons such as Annie Proulx (1997), Ernest J. Gaines (1993), Shelby Foote (1988) and Tom Wolfe (1984), as well as Colson Whitehead (2012), winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, and Ruth Ozeki (2014), winner of the Yasnaya Polyana Literary Award for Foreign Literature.