Who (Doesn’t) Speak: On Book Fairs and False Equivalencies

On Sunday, Syrian-American author Alia Malek (The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syriaspun out a thread on Anne Barnard’s NYT review of Elliot Ackerman’s latest book:

One of the more intellectually dishonest aspects of Ackerman’s project — as it’s reported in the NYT review — is one that Barnard calls out.

This was not, apparently, the first time Ackerman had made this comparison between himself (as warrior for justice) and his Syrian fixer and democracy activist, Abed.

Malek goes on to write, in the thread, that she appeared with Ackerman at US book festivals in 2017, since her The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria came out at roughly the same time as his “Syria novel.” In Novemveber 2017, she writes, “he told our audience in Portland the same thing – that he was like his Syrian translator: for each of them, their respective ‘wars’ gave them the best and worst days of their lives.”

If Ackerman indeed believes that accepting a job as a US soldier is equivalent to being part of a civilian grassroots uprising against an autocratic regime (one which, as Malek notes, was a long-standing ally of the US), he is supported in this folly by many US literary critics and book-fair organizers. When book pages make “Iraq” book lists, they generally have 90% books by US soldiers or journalists and one or two by anti-war Iraqi civilians. Yet more troubling are book events where the appearance of an Iraqi or Syrian seemingly needs to be accompanied by a US war vet.

When Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition finally arrived in the US, in a 2014 Penguin Random edition translated by Jonathan Wright, Blasim was invited to the US for several book events. Yet Blasim was not to appear with Wright, nor, for instance, with other genre-breaking short-story authors such as Mazen Maarouf of Irenosen Okojie. Instead, he was put into public conversation with US Marine veteran Phil Klay. In these public conversations, Blasim’s work was promoted as the “Iraqi version” of Klay’s, although Blasim was not a gun-slinging Iraqi soldier, but a citizen living in Finland at the time he wrote the stories collected in The Corpse Exhibition.

It is not only Blasim and Klay. Although some collaborations (such as Dunya Mikhail and Brian Turner) are agreed-on by both parties, other poets report having been pressed into panels with veterans or poetry of war.

These juxtapositions further cement our view of the equivalency of the US war veteran and the (generally anti-war) Iraqi or Syrian civilian, creating an implicit suggestion that the US military cause is just and even democratic. After all, we are not pairing the anti-war Iraqi civilian with, for instance, the anti-war US civilian or the US border activist.

In all these events, the US military veteran is thought to have gained some special insight into the countries where they worked as a soldier. Although I have never worked for a military, I can certainly vouch for the fact that simply living in a country gives, in and of itself, precious little insight.

As I googled recent examples of Iraqi literary artist + US war vet literary events, I was relieved to find that no one, it seemed, had been partnered with Eric Fair, author of Consequence, about his time as a torturer. Yet perhaps my relief should be tempered. For while Malek is certainly not calling for more civilian-soldier book events, she does make another important point. When she appeared at events with Ackerman, “I was the only Syrian or Arab ever on our book fests panels together[.]” She also notes it was Ackerman who wrote the NYT review of Khaled Khalifa’s Death is Hard Work, translated into a beautiful English by Leri Price, rather than a reviewer with any particular knowledge of the context: a Syrian author, perhaps.

Be sure to read the whole thread, as well as Elliott Colla and Sinan Antoon on how US institutions (and individuals) privilege embedded soldier-literature.