Navigating the Space Between American Readers and Iraqi Writers

This piece originally appeared in the Egypt Independent’s print edition. You, too, can subscribe to EI print:

Banipal, of course, is a UK-based publication.
Banipal, of course, is a UK-based publication.

The book about Iraq most well-known to English readers is perhaps Chris Kyle’s best-selling “American Sniper,” a memoir told from behind the barrel of a gun. Other popular English books set in Iraq have been written either by US soldiers (Kevin Powers’ celebrated “The Yellow Birds”), by foreign correspondents (Michael Totten’s “On the Hunt in Baghdad”) or by academics (Charles Tripp’s “A History of Iraq”).

Generally, US bookstores and bestseller lists fail to include the stories, poems and academic work of Iraqi authors. Some Iraqi writing has been published in English, but most has remained at the distant periphery, known by only a few readers and academics.

There have been exceptions: Rebecca Gayle Howell’s translation of Amal al-Jubouri’s “Hagar Before the Occupation, Hagar After the Occupation” won a spot on the 2012 Best Translated Book Award poetry shortlist. Hassan Blasim’s “Madman of Freedom Square,” translated by Jonathan Wright, received attention when it was placed on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist in 2010.

Later this year, a collection of Blasim’s short stories will reach an even larger public when it receives its US debut via Penguin Books.

But most Iraqi writing has remained far from the core of English-language readers. Those collections that have broken through have either had a translator or a publisher who worked hard to promote the work.

Gayle Howell, who is also a poet, was a vocal proponent of her bilingual edition of Jubouri’s poetry, saying in an earlier interview, “I love how the Arabic and English poems seem to stand side-by-side, as if in solidarity. ‘The opposite of war.’ Exactly.”

Late last year, Peter Money and Sinan Antoon also succeeded in piercing the nearer orbits of English-language readership with a new translation and collection of Saadi Youssef’s poetry, “Nostalgia, My Enemy.”

That book is notable because it collects work by one of Iraq’s greatest living writers, most of it written during the post-2003 occupation era. But “Nostalgia, My Enemy” has also received attention because of its affiliation with two US-based translator-poets. Keep reading here.


    1. Thanks, Ayman. And YA, that’s interesting. I hadn’t even thought of depictions/translations in YA and MG literature (or picture books).

      Although I have seen some grade-school history books that give a schizophrenic depiction of Saddam Hussein (hero & friend of America who defeated the Iranians!) and then a few years later, in the same book (evil dictator toppled by Americans!).

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