PEN Atlas editor Tasja Dorkofikis interviews Hassan Blasim about his new collection of short stories, The Iraqi Christ, winner of a 2012 Writers in Translation award, his experience of censorship, and the importance of cinema for his work
Translated from the Arabic by Max Weiss
Both Madman of Freedom Square and The Iraqi Christ books are short story collections. What do you enjoy about that form? How does it fit with what you want to do in your writing?
As far as I’m concerned there is nothing particularly special about the form of the short story. I am just as interested in the short story as I am in other forms of writing; I write poetry and articles, I write short films and I even tried to write some plays. All those forms are appropriate and interesting to me, and each one has its own challenges. They can all be a vehicle for expression in good or bad ways. After these two collections, I have started thinking seriously about spending some time writing screenplays.
Were your stories published in Iraq and what was the reaction there?
My collection The Madman of Freedom Square was printed and published in Lebanon after the censor had already cut out a lot of text. Despite this, the book was banned in Jordan, and whenever my publisher participated in a book fair in an Arab country, the book was forbidden from being displayed. I published most of my stories and poems online and I have started thinking about publishing everything I write on the net in order to be done with the matter of censorship. Among the young generation in Iraq and throughout the Arab world there has been a large positive and excited response to my writing. On the other hand, there have been various criticisms because of what has been called ‘foul language and derision against religion and sect’ in my stories.
Your stories mix realism and hyper-realism and have almost hallucinatory effects. Do you believe that the reality of what happened in Iraq is impossible to describe in any other way?
Truthfully I don’t know what the appropriate form or style is for writing about what happened and what is happening in Iraq. In general I am not drawn to what many Iraqi writers are writing, about the situation in Iraq, a poetic and mournful language about the tragedy of blood! Violence is an experience at once nightmarish, horrifying and unreal. In Iraq violence has been practiced over the past fifty years with severity and savagery; it has been a chain of painful and peculiar nightmares.
The war has clearly changed Iraq’s entire society. People’s behaviour in your stories is illogical and irrational. How does writing help us to comprehend the events of the past?
It isn’t easy to tear hope out of a human being. Iraqi society needs more time, but first of all the political circumstances have to be stabilised, which means the capitalist West and Iraq’s neighbors need to quit fighting their own battles inside the country.
‘The Song of a Goats’ gives its characters an opportunity to tell their own personal stories. Do you think that the process of narration helps people to heal?
Perhaps it helps people. What most impresses me when people tell their own stories is the sarcastic commentaries they make on those tales, no matter how painful or horrific. In Iraq we say that every Iraqi has at least five good horror stories, and there are nearly 30 million people in Iraq. It was from here that the idea for the story, ‘The Song of a Goat’ first emerged.
Your stories are about the act of storytelling itself. How do you see the role of a writer in times of war?
I believe that the role of the writer today, whether in times of war or peace, is to not let what is going on all around us become a cheap and easy target for the media, for politicians or for our own forgetfulness.
Writing for me is an important piece of Jalal al-Din al-Rumi’s mirror fragments, as when he says, more or less, that, ‘The truth is like a mirror that has fallen from the sky and shattered into tiny shards. Every human being is capable of holding onto a piece of the truth.’ I think the fragment of ‘imagination’ for example, contributes somehow to our understanding of the past.
Which writers do you admire? What do you think about other books about the war?
I read whatever falls into my hands, but reading is not my first source of inspiration. Rather, that comes from watching movies. Lately, though, I have been into Haruki Murakami, for example.
How does your film-making influence your writing?
I started writing at an early age. When I wanted to go to college, I asked a poet friend of mine, whose opinions I deeply respect, ‘What kind of university education is going to make me a better writer?’ My friend said, ‘Don’t study Arabic or Arabic literature. Go and study film.’ That was fantastic advice. A lot of times I feel as though all the stories I write are merely postponed film scripts. Although up until now I’ve not worked in a serious way in the movies because of my anxiety and nervousness about working in a group. Nevertheless, film has a big impact on my writing.
About the author
Hassan Blasim (born 1973) is an Iraqi-born writer and film director who lives in Finland. Blasim went to Finland as a refugee in 2004 after getting in trouble when making the film The Wounded Camera in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq. He made four short films for the Finnish broadcasting company Yle. His first short story collection The Madman of Freedom Square was on the long-list for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2010.
About the editor
Tasja Dorkofikis is the editor of the PEN Atlas as well as a freelance editor and publicist. She used to work as Publicity Director at Random House and most recently at Portobello Books as Associate Publisher and Commissioning Editor. Tasja shares her time between London and a small village in Vaud in Switzerland.
About the translator
Max Weiss is the author of In the Shadow of Sectarianism: Law, Shi’ism and the Making of Modern Lebanon (2012). He is also a noted translator of contemporary Arabic literature into English. His translation of Abbas Beydoun’s novel Blood Test won the Arkansas Arabic Translation Award. He joined the faculty of Princeton University in 2010.
In December, English PEN supports the promotion of The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim (winner of a 2012 English PEN Award), a unique collection of short stories that explore Iraq’s recent past – an incredibly timely collection as the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq approaches in 2013. Translated by Jonathan Wright and published by Comma Press.
Hassan Blasim will visit the UK in December. He will appear in Newcastle on 10th December, in Manchester on 11th and in London at The Mosaic Rooms on 12th December, where he will appear with his translator Jonathan Wright. For full tour details follow this link.