“Q & A” is an interview series featuring contemporary writers and illustrations by Alex Fine.
Last week, writer and filmmaker Hassan Blasim won the U.K.’s International Foreign Fiction Prize for his collection, The Iraqi Christ. As The Guardian reported, he’s the first Arabic writer to win the award—which he shares with his translator, Jonathan Wright—in its 24-year history. Earlier this year, The Guardian had called Blasim “perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive,” and his debut in English heralds the arrival of an indispensable literary voice.
The Corpse Exhibition, which combines pieces from The Iraqi Christ and a subsequent collection, The Madmen of Freedom Square, is Blasim’s first work published in the United States. In stories that feel both mythic and viscerally physical, Blasim inserts his own nightmarish brand of magical realism into a grisly, war-torn landscape. The effect is a white-knuckled fictional world where it feels like anything can happen. Here, soldiers assault each other and suicide bombs detonate—and a bureaucrat can speak beyond the grave, a secret society displays corpses as a harrowing form of high-concept art, and a hole in the ground seems to be a portal to a place beyond life.
Throughout, Blasim makes innovative use of frame stories, extended monologue, redacted documents, and tales that nest like A Thousand and One Nights, exploring the way we use narrative to hide our shame, face our fears, and make a case for who we are.
In 1998, when his films attracted the censure of Saddam Hussein’s government, Blasim fled Baghdad for Iraqi Kurdistan. He lived there until 2004, one year into the U.S. invasion, and currently lives in Finland. In his Q & A, Blasim discusses “nightmarish realism,” writing under Saddam Hussein, and how literature works against violence and oppression.
Translation by Jonathan Wright.
What do you love about the short story form–as opposed to the novel?
A novel is a journey that needs time, planning, maps and a compass. A novel is a challenge but a challenge with a touch of arrogance on many occasions. A short story is as wonderful as a parachute jump, a fleeting adventure.
Did you have a favorite short story, or story collection, as you wrote this book–or some other useful model?
There’s no story in particular. When I was writing my stories I was watching many feature films and documentaries about nature, the universe, Iraq, crimes, the Second World War and other subjects and events, and I was reading articles about violence , and novels and short stories, and watching many video clips on the Internet about violence in Iraq.
You had to flee Baghdad in 1998. Can you explain the circumstances?
I left my country after I was harassed by the Baath Party in the 1990s while I was studying cinema in the arts academy. They were annoyed by my activity making short films and documentaries. I had made some short films and the atmosphere was tense, so I decided to leave Baghdad because I felt severely restricted in all aspects of life under a harsh dictatorship. I wanted to talk freely about my life and the lives of others. I was also in constant fear of detention after they threatened me directly.
What was it like to write these stories, set in your home country, while in exile?
In the first years it was difficult in exile. Today it doesn’t make a difference whether I’m in my own country or in exile. Of course I miss family and places and friends. But as far as I am concerned the world is now like a hotel. Every country I have lived in is like a room in a hotel in this mysterious and surprising world. And in every room you can think and write and dream.
What was it like to be a literary writer under Saddam Hussein? How has your profession changed as Iraq has changed since then, as your life has changed since then?
In the time of the dictator it wasn’t possible to write freely. Today there’s relatively more space but the dangers are also greater. Before there was the dictator’s police and security agencies. Now there are the security agencies and the militias, and terrorism and mafias and intervention by neighbouring and distant countries in all parts of the country. In recent years Iraq has been like a maelstrom of horror and death. My life changed early, once I started writing, and it is constantly changing because of my restlessness, thinking, writing and hope in humanity.
You’ve said you’re more interested in writing about situations on the margins, not the big events that journalists write about. What does this book capture that you haven’t seen in writing or reportage before?
The media presents what is happening in Iraq in the form of fast food for the audience. Literature examines what is happening through imagination. Imagination does not provide fast food that is easy to digest. It is more thoughtful and it is not interested in profit at the expense of the truth.
This book blends gritty hyper-realism with a sense of heightened, almost magical possibility. Does fabulism help capture the horrors of combat, or life during war, in a way straightforward narratives or reportage can’t?
The violence that has taken place in Iraq has reached the most extreme peaks of insanity. It is not magical realism, it is nightmarish realism. Horrifying hallucination. There are writers who write realistically, in the form of reportage. Every writer is free to choose. As far as I am concerned, literature is a way to challenge reality, and the reality of Iraq needs a wild, confrontational imagination, not literature that is factual and cold.
Kafka, Borges, Bolano–these are the writers who come to mind as I read these stories. Are any of them important to you?
I’m an admirer of Kafka and Borges, but I hadn’t read Bolano before. I’ve started reading Bolano, after the Guardian compared my stories with his work.
Who are the Iraqi authors, or non-Iraqi authors writing in Arabic, that you especially admire?
In short stories there’s Adnan al-Mubarak and in novels Inaam Kachachi, Muhsin al-Ramli and Sinan Antoun.
What are the challenges of choosing a war-ravaged place as a setting or theme?
Throughout the history of literature we’ve been writing and talking about war and peace. For me, the challenge lies in the writing process, whether I’m sitting in the woods in Finland or in a poor part of Baghdad. What do we want to say and how? It’s the new old story.
If you could require soldiers–of any nationality–to read one work of literature, what would it be?
I’m not suggesting any book to any soldier in the world. I suggest that they don’t go and kill people, whatever happens. Let them enjoy reading, and love, and become anti-war activists and defenders of people’s right to live in peace. Perhaps I’m an idealist but wars are a disgrace to us as humans.