The New York Times. What was the biggest surprise for you, editing the collection?
Aleksander Hemon. It was less of a surprise than a reminder: how unabashedly comfortable many of the writers are to engage with literary forms that would be perceived as experimental or avant-garde here. In turn, I was reminded how deeply conservative contemporary American literature is in terms of form. And that conservative bent is a recent development, I believe. The European form flexibility is not a consequence of some snotty, elitist aesthetic but rather of the fact that there are many stories to be told and many traditions to draw from.
Q. It would be hard from this anthology to characterize a particularly “European” style of writing, to say nothing of a particularly Irish or Albanian or Norwegian style. But in your introduction, you make a compelling case for the role of Europe’s geography and history in shaping the continent’s fiction. Could you, then, venture to define what makes a story particularly “European”? What about specific national characteristics?
A. Europe is fantastically dense, varied and small by American standards. Everything is within two hours by plane. It takes as long to drive from, say, Norway to Greece as it does from Chicago to Miami. And if you were to drive from Norway to Greece, you would pass through countless different landscapes, cultures, languages, histories. Yet each of these autonomous spaces is bound together by a common uberhistory — no country or language or people managed to escape the calamities of the 20th century, for example, or the vast migrations that have been taking place since World War II, peaking in the last couple of decades. It is impossible to retain an ethnically clean space in Europe, despite periodical genocide or the exclusionary policies of European governments. What is European, then, is that cultures and literatures always see themselves in relation to other cultures and languages — sometimes in opposition, sometimes in kinship, often both at the same time. An educated European — a reader of serious fiction — is likely to speak two or more languages.