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.