This month, Comma Press publishes Iraqi author Hassan Blasim’s second short story collection, The Iraqi Christ.
Blasim’s a refugee, currently living in Finland, writing in Arabic. He’s an unusually good short story writer and his stories are, themselves, unusual—he writes beautiful, horrifying, phantasmagorical stories about life under the Saddam regime, the US/UK-led invasion and occupation, the sectarian violence that ensued and the life of the refugee. You feel that you’re reading something fresh and transgressive.
It’s an unusual book because contemporary Iraqi writers are all but invisible in English translation. On the ten-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, much of the UK press coverage has vectored on how the invasion altered our own political dynamic, with titles about Iraq often written by occupying soldiers or embedded correspondents such as Chris Kyle’s American Sniper or Michael Totten’s On the Hunt in Baghdad. We’re telling stories to ourselves. Language is one reason, of course. If you don’t read Arabic, you need help to find authors like Blasim, and we’ll always be grateful to the Lebanese writer and editor Joumana Haddad for leading us to him. Even then, translation takes an unusual amount of time and care, and risk, and investment.
The Iraqi Christ is also an unusual book because it commits what Boyd Tonkin recently described as ‘double suicide’, in commercial terms—being a book of short stories in translation. Undoubtedly, the support of both Arts Council England and English PEN helps us take risks with authors who, like Blasim, aren’t just telling us stories about ourselves.
There are no safe bets in literary fiction, but I’d venture that the safest book you can commission is the novel in the image of the reader, the novel that tells us what we want to hear—the usual. Even translated books risk participation in a kind of service economy for western orientalism, if they’re commissioned to pander to readers’ preconceptions of what a country’s about. Depressing if that’s the best publishers can do. Can’t literature shake us a bit? Destabilise us?
As John M Harrison wrote of Blasim's first collection: “At first, you receive Blasim with the kind of shocked applause you’d award a fairly transgressive stand-up. You're quite elated." He adds: “Then you stop reading it at bedtime.”
Blasim’s turned out to be one of our most successful authors (we sold the rights to his first book into eight languages, and there’s a forthcoming Penguin US edition of his collected stories—which adds up to a success for a tiny independent like Comma Press). It pleases me to know he’s reaching more and more readers, all over the world, because he’s an extraordinary writer, re-invigorating the short story form (and a funny, modest, deserving man).
It also gives me hope that unusualness can work here; that UK readers will turn away from the mirror and look out of the window.
Jim Hinks is the translation and new writing editor at Comma Press. Hassan Blasim’s The Iraqi Christ, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright, is published by Comma Press on 14th March.
Blasim is visiting the UK in late March, with reading events in London, Edinburgh and Glasgow. More info at: http://www.commapress.co.uk/?section=events