Should More U.S. Novelists Write About…Iraq?

In Guernica this month, Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie asks American writers, in “The Storytellers of Empire,” why, “Your soldiers will come to our lands, but your novelists won’t.”

A part of me wants to embrace her idea: That U.S. novelists should write more boldly about empire (and its aggressions). That U.S. novelists, who write so beautifully about domestic issues, fail us when they write only or primarily about the world inside the walled-in Green Zone of the U.S. A.

Another part of me, of course, flashes on John Updike’s Terrorist and gives a great good shiver. Shamsie mentions this book. She flinches from Terrorist, but then moves past it.

Still, I wonder: Is there a dearth of U.S. narratives “about” Iraq (for instance)? Reuters profiles soldier Benjamin Buchholz’s novel One Hundred and One Nights as does the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  Senator’s Son, by Luke Larson, also gets press and there’s Benjamin Zimmerman’s novel The Sand Box as well as numerous other fictional ebooks, memoirs, and nonfiction accounts: The Forever War, Ambush Alley, The Iraq War: A Military History, Ghosts of War, Naked in Baghdad, Fiasco, They Fought for Each Other, and so on, and so on, and so on. Not to mention the movies.

There are far fewer books written by Iraqis, post-2003, that are available in English: Inaam Kachachi’s The American Granddaughter, trans. Nariman Youssef was the first and perhaps flimsiest; Ali Bader’s worthy The Tobacco Keeper, trans. Amira Nowaira; Amal al-Jubouri’s compelling poetry collection Hagar Before the Occupation / Hagar After the Occupation, trans. Rebecca Gayle Howell with Husam Qaisi.

This against a veritable tsunami of Iraq narratives written by Anglos. 

Of course, these Iraq narratives are not (I don’t think) what Shamsie believes is missing. Just reading the blurbs of the Anglo novels/memoirs makes it sound as though they exist in a U.S.-manufactured Green Zone: The real characters here are U.S. soldiers and the U.S. public. See the image above.

To this, Shamsie asks: “So why is it, please explain, that you’re in our stories but we’re not in yours?”

I am reminded, here, of Joshua Mohr’s novel Damascus. Mohr appears to care deeply about the “Iraq issue,” and thus his novel foregrounds a battle between U.S. soldiers and U.S. anti-war activists. So “Iraq” is here, but Iraqis are not. I have not read The Sand Box, but Zimmerman said in an interview that, to write it, he  read numerous soldiers’ blogs and “watched countless YouTube videos shot by soldiers.” (By “soldiers,” I will assume he means “U.S. soldiers,” although perhaps I’m wrong.) Perhaps he also read numerous accounts by Iraqis, but they aren’t mentioned here.

So let’s say: Yes, U.S. novelists should widen their novels to include the humanity outside the Green Zone. Yes, why not. But it seems also urgent to clear shelf space for the Iraqis who have written about their country post-2003.


  1. I usually appreciate your efforts and insights and read your blog regularly, but I must comment this time: Amal Al-Jubouri is not an important voice in Iraqi poetry. She published an interesting collection back in the late 1980’s, but in the last few decades she’s known more for cultural PR than anything. But this is the common problem of disproportionate interest given in the “west” based on the whims of an editor here, or an academic there.
    Bader is quite talented, but did you read some of the reviews of The Tobacco Keeper in Arabic? Many of them pointed to the mistakes about historical facts and dates and confusion in the narrative. Or is what native critics write not important at all?

    1. Shams,

      Regardless of whether Amal al-Jubouri is an important voice in Iraqi poetry (I don’t say that she is, NOR do I suggest that only important voices should be translated), she is what’s available.

      Also, I would agree that “The Tobacco Keeper” is flawed, but I don’t think that means it isn’t worthy or doesn’t raise interesting issues.

      And of course what “native” critics say is important (in this case, what Arab critics say is the ONLY important thing, because Arab critics are the only ones discussing these books). I don’t mean to suggest that these books are the most important, just that they’re the only ones available in English. Except, as I lately remembered, Banipal 37, which has translated excerpts.

      What I mean to suggest is: It’s important for U.S. writers to really imagine Iraqis (and not just “Iraq” or “the experience of the U.S. soldier in Iraq), but it’s more important to hear Iraqi novelists and poets on Iraq. Thus far, these are the ONLY texts in translation (that I know of) that address a post-2003 reality. Or, well, Mahmoud Saeed sort of squints at it in the foreword to The World through the Eyes of Angels.

      Anyhow, thanks–of course–for your note! And if you ever want to use this space to express your own thoughts about literature or translation, please do let me know – mlynxqualey – at – gmail – dot – com.

  2. Many thanks for this. I’ve just finished reading The American Granddaughter for a book club and, as you suggest, it is a rather slender treatment of the subject, despite an intriguing initial premise and some interesting ideas. Once of my responses was that I wanted to read more from Iraqi novelists about post-invasion Iraq, so it’s disappointing to hear that there’s little out there that would be within my current abilities…

  3. I think it bad form to engage (bottom barreling) with readers once your article is posted. It makes for a point-counterpoint atmosphere and that is not what an article is about.

    1. I’m not familiar with the term “bottom barreling.” I’ll have to look it up.

  4. M,
    I pointed to the relative unimportance of Al-Juboury to highlight the skewed situation of what gets translated. While we still don’t have a book of poetry by al-Sayyab, Buland al-Haydari, or Nazik al-Mala’ikah, to name a few, a very minor Iraqi poet gets her book translated.
    As for the importance of native critics, I’m glad it’s the “only” thing that matters. If so, I would like to see their opinions and artucles included in the discussions so that we don’t jump to embrace whatever Bloomsbury Qatar, or other outlets, select for us.

    1. Shams,
      Well, I think there remains the temptation to embrace anything, since there is so little. So it’s a good reminder.

      Also, I think there are a number of factors to consider in addition to a poet’s importance in the canon. Ease of translation is probably the wrong way of putting it, but…considering what a US audience would and could enjoy/savor in translation. For instance, I think Sargon Boulus is easier to move across these boundaries (and also very worth translating) vs. al-Sayyab.

      I would love to hear more of your thoughts on the matter!

  5. But could Komanjah’s “shallow” treatment of the dynamics of the Iraqi conflict merely be a deliberate strategy meant to convey the ultimate arbitrariness of people’s conflicting identities?

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