Looking at the Longlist: Sinan Antoon on Writing ‘Ave Maria’

Sinan Antoon’s (@sinanantoon) third novel, Ave Maria (2012) has been longlisted for the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF).

Ave-Maria-by-Sinan-Antoon (1) It followed quickly on the heels of his previous novel, The Pomegranate Alone, which is forthcoming in English in 2013 from Yale University Press.

Antoon, born in 1967 in Baghdad, is a poet, translator, novelist, academic, and filmmaker. He has published two previous novels: I’jaam (2003), which was translated into English by Rebecca C. Johnson and published in 2006, and The Pomegranate Alone (2011), forthcoming in English next year as The Corpse Washer (trans. the author).

His translation of Mahmoud Darwish’s last prose book, In the Presence of Absence, was published by Archipelago Books in 2011 and won the 2012 National Translation Award. His co-translation, with Peter Money, of a selection of Saadi Youssef’s late poetry was published by Graywolf in late 2012.

Antoon has also been an active commentator on world events, co-founding Jadaliyya and writing for the New York Times, The Nation, and Al Akhbar, among other publications. He told interviewer Asli Iğsız:

d8bad984d8a7d981d8a3d8b5d98ad8bad8b1As to the intersection of arts and politics, it is a thorny, but extremely important issue. I have written academic articles about this examining the work of Mahmud Darwish, the great late Palestinian poet. I am always fascinated and intrigued by writers and artists whose work maintains the highest aesthetic standards, but simultaneously has political import and relevance. Ideally, there shouldn’t be a contradiction. There are, of course, many instances in which art and writing become merely a platform for propaganda and politics and that is unfortunate. Good writers should not fall into that trap. Charles Simic, one of the greatest poets in the US and in the world, in my opinion, writes beautiful and aesthetically pleasing poetry that is always relevant politically. So there are many examples of how to do it. The problem those of us who happen to be a minority or are “others” in one sense or another is that our work is always overpoliticized by journalists or critics, because art from the middle east or “other” parts of the world is not always dealt with as “our” art is dealt with. So the lines between art and anthropology are always blurred.

He also spoke with Iğsız about translating his own work: 

129302When I translate my own material I give myself some more freedom. Meaning since I am the author, I can change a few things if need be. I go through two phases in translation in general. The second one of which I focus on the poem in the target language and try to make sure that it does not sound foreign. I have been translating a lot of Charles Simic into Arabic and the responses I receive from readers are fantastic!

As for Ave Maria, Antoon told IPAF organizers that he began working on it in the spring of 2011. “I wrote half of it in Berlin where I was living temporarily, in the Spring of 2011, but I finished it in New York where I live and work. The real writing took two years but thinking about it and my silent dialogues with the characters to find out more about them and their past took another year, since we write even when we are not writing!”

The events of Ave Maria take place in a single day, with two different visions of life. One of the core characters, Youssef, is an elderly man who refuses to emigrate and leave the house he built, where he has lived for half a century. Antoon told IPAF organizers that, “He is a lot like one of my relatives. He remains alone in the family house which he built in Baghdad after everyone emigrates because of wars and the blockade.”

Antoon also said, “In the Autumn of that year (2010), a well-known church in Baghdad, called ‘Our Lady of Salvation,’ was attacked and many people were killed and the worshippers were held hostage for hours. This event had a big impact on me personally and on the events in the last part of the novel.”


Excerpt of The Pomegranate Alone on Jadaliyya

Introduction and first 18 pages from I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody


Six poems

To an Iraqi infant

Wars I

A Prism: Wet with Wars


Excerpt from Antoon’s translation of Mahmoud Darwish’s In the Presence of Absence

Three peoms by Saadi Youssef, trans. Antoon and Peter Money 

Poems by Sargon Boulus, trans. Antoon


About Baghdad


“Mowing the Lawn in Gaza”

“The Barbarian Has to Keep It Real”