10 Years of Comma Press: 5 Recommended Reads

Today marks 10 years of Comma Press. In celebration, we have five recommended reads:

Iraq + 100, ed. Hassan Blasim and Ra Page

From a review in In These TimesWhat might Iraq look like a century from now? That question is the organizing premise of Iraq + 100, a new short-story collection edited by award-winning Iraqi writer and filmmaker Hassan Blasim. As Blasim notes in his introduction, futuristic fiction isn’t a standard form for Iraqi prose—typically, it tends toward grim contemporary realism, historical fiction or what translates as “political fantasy”: political fiction with elements of magical realism. Even Ahmed Saadawi’s boundary-breaking Frankenstein in Baghdad, forthcoming in English next year, is firmly grounded in the present.

As such, Iraq + 100 won’t tell American readers much about the broader trends in Iraqi literature. But it might well stretch the imaginations of those accustomed to seeing Iraq as a place of endless violence. An avowed literary outlier, Blasim has long been interested in new possibilities of form and literary cross-pollination. In 2013, he and Comma Press began commissioning stories for Iraq + 100, set 100 years after George W. Bush’s declaration of “mission accomplished.” Though futuristic, the resulting works can’t all be called science fiction; some are noir, romance or satire.

Refugee Tales, ed. David Herd and Anna Pincus

From an interview with Herd: “The original idea was simply to try to communicate the stories of people who have been held in indefinite immigration detention. The two charities involved in the project – Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group and Kent Refugee Help – have long experience of working with people detained in Immigration Removal Centres, at Gatwick (Brook House and Tinsley House) and at the Dover Immigration Removal Centre. As the ‘Afterword’ to the book details, the UK is the only country in the EU that detains people indefinitely, sometimes for many years, with 30,000 people being detained every year. … The model of The Canterbury Tales worked partly because of the conjunction of story-telling and traveling, but partly also because by walking along the North Downs Way, from Dover to Crawley, the project passed through Canterbury.”

The Iraqi Christ, Hassan Blasim, tr. Jonathan Wright

This book won the 2014 International Foreign Fiction Prize. Blasim’s work has gone on to win prizes in many other languages.

The Madman of Freedom Square, Hassan Blasim, tr. Jonathan Wright

This book, which introduced Blasim’s work to English readership, was longlisted for the International Foreign Fiction Prize in 2010.

The Drone Eats with Me, Atef Abu Saif

From a review that ran in Qantara: “War is among literature’s most constant companions. Violent conflict has shaped and shaded the epic poetics of Homer and Antarah, the dark memoirs of WWII death camps and the recursive novels of Lebanon’s civil war. Each new face of war has inspired, or perhaps demanded, a new sort of literary engagement. War’s newest face – impersonal drone attacks –is a tale still undertold, particularly from the non-combatant’s perspective. But civilian life during drone war has found a great new literary chronicler in Gazan novelist Atef Abu Saif.

“Abu Saif’s ‘The Drone Eats with Me: Diaries from a City Under Fire’ tells the story of invasion from the point of view of a non-combatant. In it, we hear less about soldiers and tactics than we do about the faceless metal warriors whirring overhead. This is the story of an invasion that is low-contact, low-casualty for the invader and high-contact, high-casualty for the invaded – the story of ‘anti-terrorist’ warfare. In particular, this is war in the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014.

“‘The Drone Eats with Me” is structured diary-style, from the beginning of the war to its end, although both are unstable moments. As the narrative opens, we are unsure if war is beginning, will begin, or has already begun. Throughout, we are equally unsure if war is ending, and how we might recognise this ‘ending’ when it comes. Abu Saif’s older children are constantly asking if the war is over. Even Abu Saif’s emphatic declaration of survival after a treaty is signed is overshadowed by the afterword, which admits that ‘the war goes on.'”