Whose Iraqi Stories, Whose ‘Human Cost of War’?

On December 25, the New York Times ran two long pieces — “Human Costs of Forever Wars, Enough to Fill a Bookshelf” and “A Reading List of Modern War Stories” — that have prompted this holiday re-run:

It’s true that, in the NY Times, lead critic Michiko Kakutani does make a nod to Iraqi writers (although not Afghanis), which George Packer neglected in his earlier New Yorker essay on “how soldiers write their wars.

In the Times, there is a paragraph on “Iraqi-born” writers, where we hear of two: Hassan Blasim and Ahmed Saadawi. The conclusion to this exceedingly short paragraph — a digression that feels prompted by an editor — is that these two writers are “gaining recognition in the West.” As if this, somehow, can describe their literary contribution.

Blasim’s short-story collection The Corpse Exhibition is the sole Iraqi book on the suggested NYT reading list. Saadawi’s book couldn’t be there because it hasn’t yet been published in translation. Only a handful have; dwarfed by the deluge of what author-translator Elliott Colla has called “embedded literature.”

Meanwhile, Colla’s debut novel (Baghdad Central), which tells its story not from an American perspective but from an Iraqi’s, is not on the reading list. Glaringly missing is work by “Iraqi-born” author Sinan Antoon, particularly Ya Maryam and The Corpse Washer. If untranslated works are acceptable, why not Duna Ghali’s 2013 novel Orbits of Loneliness, structured as a woman’s diary post-invasion. If the list is to mention forthcoming works — which it does — why not Iraq + 100?

US writers being obsessed with Iraq, and to a much lesser extent Afghanistan, is understandable. Human. Necessary. But the relentless US-focused vision (Eric Fair’s recent NYT essay on writing and teaching torture, for instance) keeps us locked inside a bottle, listening to an overwhelmingly loud story about ourselves.

Few have been willing to criticize this trend. However, award-winning Lebanese-American novelist Rabih Alameddine commented on Dec. 25 on Twitter that this echo chamber “drives me crazy. Can’t stand the ‘We kill you but we suffer too’ narrative. Ameliorates the guilt of the dominant culture.”

Tim Parks has ably argued that we need to know about our “own” literary context in order to be good writers, rather than endlessly roaming “world literature.” But there is little danger that we won’t hear enough US soldiers’ and journalists’ voices, contructions, metaphors, characters. Indeed, the culture of fear around criticizing US military seems to guarantee that we will hear and applaud plenty.

But if we are to know anything about the “cost of war,” and what it means for literature, then we will eventually need to read books by and about the people bearing the brunt of this cost.

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