In an article in this week’s The National, Saul Austerlitz observes that there are “Plenty of factual books on the invasion of Iraq, but surprisingly few novels.”
We’ll take “factual,” here, with a grain of post-modern salt. In any case, with an invasion only 10 years young, this state of affairs isn’t too surprising. War usually takes time to sink into the authorial consciousness: It wasn’t until 1991 that Vietnamese writer Bao Ninh published his The Sorrow of War; Lebanese authors Rabee Jaber and Jabbour Douaihy are just now writing about their country’s civil war (1975-1990); Khaled Khalifa’s acclaimed novel In Praise of Hatred (2008 / 2012, trans. Leri Price) is not about the current battle for Syria’s soul, but the one in the early 1980s.
Conventional wisdom is that while poetry can speak with some immediacy — and visual art — novels must take their time.
Indeed, several poetry collections of note, which in some way address the invasion and occupation of Iraq, have already been published. These include Saadi Youssef’s Nostalgia, My Enemy (trans. Sinan Antoon, Peter Money), Dunya Mikhail’s The War Works Hard (trans. Elizabeth Winslow), and the multi-author collection Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, which features work by Iraqis, Americans, Brits, and other poets from around the world.
Yet novels are not absent. In the last 10 years, there have been dozens of fictions set in post-2003 Iraq, written both by Iraqis and by Anglos. Many have a hasty feel to them, such as Inaam Kachachi’s The American Granddaughter (trans. Nariman Youssef), which relies too heavily on stereotyped characters and relationships. Others, like Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds — which I haven’t yet read — have been received with wide acclaim.
There are also a number of interesting Iraqi novels that came out last year. These have not yet been translated into English, but one hopes that Muhsin al-Ramli’s The President’s Gardens (2012), Abdul Hadi Sadoun’s The Diary of Iraqi Dog (2012), and Sinan Antoon’s Ave Maria (2012) will all find excellent translators. Antoon’s Corpse Washer will be out later this year from Yale University Press.
Short stories, a genre that can perhaps be “hastier” than novels, are also coming out, shaped and marked by the Iraq war. Many, like Mahmoud Saeed’s “Lizards’ Colony,” are difficult to read. Others, like Hassan Blasim’s, attempt to change and hack at the short form, adapting it to this new reality. Blaim’s collections have already been published in the UK; his The Corpse Exhibition is scheduled to come out from Penguin USA later this year (trans. Jonathan Wright).
The stories of Luay Hamza Abbas, from his 2008 collection Closing His Eyes, are also currently being translated by Yasmeen Hanoosh. The collection Iraq 2103, 10 stories about Iraq 100 years after the invasion, is scheduled to come out from Comma Press next year.
This is probably something of which we’ll see more. As both Muna Fadhil and Blasim have noted in their fictions, Iraqis suddenly have a thousand stories to tell, and a burning desire to get them off their tongues. From the American side, the novels will likely come, too. As Beau Beausoleil, founder of the “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here” project, noted, “I always emphasize that this is not a ‘healing project’; how can it be when we don’t even understand the wounds that we have left on the literal and metaphorical body of Iraq. It will be years before we understand what we have done.”