Guest Blog from Comma Publishers on The Iraqi Christ
Posted on August 18, 2014 by Eric Lane
1. How did Comma find Hassan Blasim?
The short story is a very portable form, culturally. It translates well, and it’s an intrinsically international form – so translation was always going to be key to what Comma did. It’s also a very political form. It gives voice to what Frank O’Connor called ‘submerged population groups’, people on the margins. So add these two qualities together and you get a recipe for a potentially via powerful political medium. (It has many other qualities of course).
We launched a translation imprint back when we first incorporated in 2007, and from the start I always wanted to see what was really going on with the short story in the Middle East. You hear a lot about ‘the great Arab novel’ and the role of poetry in Arabic literature, but not about the short story. So in 2008 we commissioned a Lebanese poet and journalist, Joumana Haddad to put together an anthology of stories for us from ten different cities from the region, called Madinah – many of them brand new commissions. For a lot of the cities, she selected very well established authors. But for Baghdad she knew we would need something different, a new commission by a new writer. She was aware of Hassan because he’d submitted poems to the newspaper she worked for in Beirut. So she went for him. Hence we get the most circuitous route to a new author ever – an Iraqi refugee, based in Finland, found by a poet in Lebanon, translated by a former journalist based in Cairo, and commissioned by a tiny little press in Manchester!
The moment I read the translation of that story, I knew instantly I needed to commission a whole book. I didn’t have any funding for it, the translation costs, or anything. I’d have to just find the money. But I didn’t have a second’s doubt about it. And in less than 9 months we had the book written and translated.
2. Why is Hassan Blasim Important?
How many thousands of articles and news reports have we all read or seen on the Iraq War? How many miles of column-inches? By the time I read Hassan’s first story in 2008, we had all become inured to it. But when I read that first story – the one Joumana Haddad commissioned – it was like I’d never read a single word about this war.
You instantly realise two things when you read Hassan’s work:
Firstly, how self-facing and self-regarding our own war journalism and ‘war art’ (for want of a better word) is. We only want to hear what our journalists have to say, what our own comfortably familiar columnists have to say on it. Not others. It’s the same with film, art, fiction. How many dozens of Vietnam War films have you seen, and how many of them give a moment to the Vietnamese perspective? The same has been the case with the Iraq War, sadly. The West’s news and arts machine loves War because it gives us a chance to roll up and stare hard at itself in the mirror, War is a really good way of staring hard at the our own warts and wrinkles, those things we don’t like about ourselves. But it’s still narcissism. When you read Hassan’s stories you realise instantly, with a sudden, cold chill, everything you’ve read up to this point has just been narcissism. You don’t actually know a single thing about this war.
The second thing you realise when you read Hassan is how upside-down truth has become. We no longer expect to get the truth from journalism anymore, from non-fiction reports, or independent enquiries. Our sense of truth has to come from ‘all the wrong sources’, if you like: from illegal hacks, from spies and defectors, even from fiction. Of all places. Fiction!!
Take the reality of what was said between Bush and Blair, or what happened to their correspondence. It’s been confirmed that is something the Chilcott Inquiry, or any other government inquiry in our lifetime, won’t be sharing with us. We have to reject those sources of truth – public inquiries, government reports – just as we have to question everything the British media gives us.
Hassan’s prose is explosive; it takes no prisoners, it points the camera at a pile of bodies, and then it makes a joke; then it asks you why you think that joke’s funny, then it turns it into a ghost story.
Structurally Hassan’s a really interesting writer as well; he’ll start to tell you the story of someone giving a testimony, then it will lead you into that testimony…..
3. Does Being a Small Press Help?
Absolutely, it’s only by being small that we were able to find Hassan in the first place. The smaller you are the less risk you take financially – and therefore the greater the risk you can take editorially or artistically. When I found Hassan, Comma didn’t even have an office. Jim Hinks and I were working from our respective flats. We had very few overheads, very few financial risks. So the risks I took could be editorial ones – looking for writers in all the least likely places (avoiding the usual suspects – or the usual types of suspect). Comma continues to invest in translators and commission ‘exploratory’ anthologies into new territories – not know what’s there – or in small, unusual commissions. And it’s only because we’re small that we’re able to do this. There is great value in being small. Hence the name by the way.