I think the first thing—if you want to be a writer—the first thing you need to do is write. Which sounds like an obvious piece of advice. But so many people have this feeling they want to be a writer and they love to read but they don’t actually write very much. The main part of being a writer, though, is being profoundly alone for hours on end, uninterrupted by email or friends or children or romantic partners and really sinking into the work and writing. That’s how I write. That’s how writing gets done.
Nothing More to Lose, Najwan Darwish’s lyrical poetry collection published by New York Review of Books and translated by the half-American and half-Egyptian Kareem James Abu-Zeid, exemplifies everything we hope for from a poetry translation. Abu-Zeid has carefully considered every word and linguistic detail, examined the tone, rhythm and music of each poem. The result is poetry that holds the same haunting intelligence in English as in Arabic, a book that cleverly incites readers to ponder the meaning behind its title in every poem.
Kareem James Abu-Zeid: A Search for Justice and Expansive Identities - Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics
Illustration by Annelise Capossela.
There was this very deliberate move to just overlay an American reality in Iraq. I’ve never actually seen the map, but apparently Americans thought the names of places were just too complicated so they got decent maps of Baghdad and just renamed everything with familiar names. This neighborhood would be Hollywood, that neighborhood would be Manhattan, and that one’s Madison, you’re going to drive down Oak and take a left on Main Street. That’s all fine if everyone was reading off the same map. But then they would have to deal with the translators, and the translators at first were not allowed to see the map because the maps were classified. So the Americans would say, “Right now we’re going to ‘Dallas,’ what’s the best way to get to Dallas from here? Should we take Main Street or Roosevelt Avenue?” And the translators would look at them bewildered!
So finally the translators are brought into the system and they learn how to use the names—they won’t say Khark, they’ll say Manhattan. That’s so they can talk to the Americans. But then the translators are at a checkpoint, and they’re told to explain to pedestrians: “You need to do a U-turn, turn left, and head over to Dallas.” The Americans would be yelling this at pedestrians and then insisting that the translators had to translate. So there are literally two maps these guys would have to deal with and they would have to learn and translate between these maps. That for me is a great metaphor for the kind of project that we’re talking about. In the Green Zone you have your radio, you have your food, you have your own electricity, your own toilets. Everything is a sealed American reality overlaid on top of an infrastructure that is crumbling.
Back at Northwestern, I was fortunate enough to meet the excellent writer Dan Chaon, who came and talked to our writing class. I remember turning in a story to him that was way too long, some twenty-two-page mess about a lady who had a huge starfish and could see the future. I think the character was abducted by these two brothers—I don’t know, I’ve repressed the rest of it.
But Dan was so kind to me about this story, and he told me I should be reading Kelly Link, George Saunders, Kevin Brockmeier. He alerted me to these contemporary writers who were writing weird, inventive stuff. They were New Wave Fabulists, he said.
And I owe them a huge debt; I went on to become a blood-sworn fan of those writers. I felt a sort of tail-wagging joy, you know, reading these story collections. A recognition. It was like Dan rode through town and handed me a literary family tree.
- Guernica: Did your understanding of Iraqi poetry help you develop these characters?
- Elliott Colla: It does not take much to imagine the humanity of people you don’t know. An American author does not need to know a word of Arabic to write a book like the one I wrote. All of this material is there in English. That’s part of the reason why I put the notes at the end; if you want to read the poetry, all the translations are there.
The way this book came about was very strange. I stumbled on a book in a used bookstore called “Creating Beauty To Cure The Soul.” And it’s a history of the origins of plastic surgery in the West. And it came to me just while I was leafing through the book. What if there was a procedure that went way beyond these sorts of relatively small modifications and was a kind of racial reassignment surgery like gender reassignment surgery where a person, believing that they were of a different race inside, could be completely transformed?
When I teach Another Country to my undergraduate students—who were born in the 1990s and came of age around the same time as The L Word and the 2008 Obama campaign—I’m always surprised that they shrink at reading Baldwin’s descriptions of interracial and gay desire out loud. Something about seeing these relationships all at once, on the page, where they can’t be ironized or taken back, is bewildering to them. The word that comes up most often in our discussions is “raw”: raw like a scab picked off, raw like the worst insult, like the conversation you never want to have. That this book is more than 50 years old hardly seems to matter: they speak of the characters in the present tense, sharing their sense of newness, friction, even alarm. And every time one or two of them turn to me and ask: Why aren’t there more novels like this? This book changed my life. Why doesn’t everybody read it? How come I’ve never heard of it before?
The Unfinished, by D. Nurkse
For Joe Haldeman
We mounted a force against Alpha Centauri,
cruising past Io, vanadium mist, the comet mines,
but when we arrived, a thousand years had passed,
no one remembered how negotiations broke down
over a garbled pronoun, how the engine of syntax
sealed shut and began to hum.
So we reduced a few villages,
slaughtered cattle, salted a field.
When we returned by a pinprick in darkness
we found ourselves in childhood,
creeping on the lino under stinging diapers.
In the dim window that star blazed
insidious as your missing pupil—
was it you we meant to conquer,
white page, you against whom
we raise our tower of blocks?
Originally published at Guernica.
My mother called to me but I stopped my ears with my fingers so I couldn’t hear her. I took one step forward, waited, and then kept going. The blood was pumping in my ears against my fingertips like I was under water. The mill floor had been swept and I could see the broom marks and where they piled and scooped up the dust. It was cool and silent inside and crammed with machinery. I’d heard the mill sounds for as long as I could remember. It was strange, it being so quiet. I thought: I’m a little machine and when I go silent I’ll be silent and I’ll be dead.
"When I read Flannery O’Connor, she really took the lid off my skull. Her blending of the grotesque and the comic as well as her reverence for mystery really affected me."
Night Vision, Geoff Mak interviews Karen Russell - Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics
Have you read our new issue? Featuring this interview with Karen Russell, dispatches from Gaza and reflections on service in Iraq, a novel excerpt from Brian Hart, and more!