Sinaan Antoon on the West’s ‘Forensic Interest’ in Arabic Lit

As part of the book-fair coverage in Abu Dhabi, The National has interviewed Sinaan Antoon. The U.S.-based Iraqi writer discusses his next novel project (No. 2) and the West’s new-found interest in Arabic literature.

Antoon’s seeing the light at the end of the second-novel tunnel, and:

“It’s about a person who inherits from his father the position of washing and shrouding the dead in Iraq. Most of the novel has to do with post-2003, whereby the business of death has been booming.”

Too bad, for Antoon’s pocketbook, that it’s not more exotic! He says—for the displaced Arab writer—life is potentially very profitable. If you self-orientalize, he says, you’ll find loads of readers. But, for himself:

“I don’t want to be the native informant,” he says. “There is increased interest in the Arab world. But I call it forensic interest. For the most part it’s bad, because it’s assumed that novels and poems are going to explain September 11 to you.”

Indeed, Claudia Roth Pierpont’s New Yorker piece on contemporary Arabic fiction, which mentioned Antoon, was full of this forensic interest. What information do “we need” from the Arabs? How to best dissect and understand “them”? (God forbid that literature should help us understand ourselves.)

And this is just plain funny:

“For example, I got a phone call from someone who says, ‘I want you to speak about agriculture in Iraq’. I was like, ‘Why would I know anything about agriculture in Iraq?’ But it’s assumed that as an oriental subject I would just know everything about my culture and civilisation.”

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