Date and place of birth: Baghdad, 1973.
Place of residence: Kontula, Helsinki.
Education: BA in Cinema.
As a child I wanted to be... an entomologist.
I hope... personally, I hope to continue writing. The dearest thing for me is of course to have peace in Iraq.
I love... my son.
In five years I will...continue writing.
Iraqi author Hassan Blasim hasn’t had the easiest of lives, but in Finland he has found the peace to write about his experiences. The beginning has been promising, to say the least: Blasim’s first book, The Madman of Freedom Square, was long-listed for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
HASSAN BLASIM’S situation is rather peculiar: he is an Iraqi writer, living in Finland, writing in Arabic and being published in Britain. The publication of his collection of short stories The Madman of Freedom Square happened almost by accident and received little attention at first, but when the British newspaper The Independent long-listed it for its annual Foreign Fiction Prize, things started happening.
The media coverage of the Iraq War has been extensive, but the images from the warzone cannot fully convey the experience of everyday life in Iraq. According to Comma Press, the publisher of Blasim’s book, it is the first major literary work about the war from an Iraqi perspective. To empathise with foreign people, to get under their skin, there is no replacement for the written word.
SixDegrees met with the author to discuss the collection and the acclaim it has received.
How did the collaboration with the British publisher come about?
In 2008 Comma Press made a collection of short stories from the Middle East, and I was chosen to represent Iraq. I had published in the Arabic press and online so their agent knew me from that. After they read my story they asked me to write a whole collection.
How were the stories in The Madman of Freedom Square chosen?
I had been writing stories for the last four years. These particular stories were selected to have a collection with a common thread. They reflect the situation in Iraq from the Saddam period up until the present day. They are different stories but they share the theme of being trapped, being in a difficult situation that’s hard to get out of.
One can’t really read the collection without thinking of the political situation in Iraq. Did this affect you when writing the stories?
The stories are horror stories and they convey the kind of thrill one gets from horror movies for example. But whatever you write about Iraq is political. One of the stories is also a love story, but whatever you write about, in the West people will read it in a political way.
When I was in England, after the book came out, I was asked several times why there aren’t any American or British soldiers mentioned in the stories. I focused mainly on the humane side of Iraq, on its people. The soldiers are in the background, they are not a part of the stories but they exist in the setting. In the media there is already a great deal of stories about these soldiers and their role in the country but I wanted to present a different viewpoint.
Why do you think the book was long-listed by The Independent?
I don’t know! When I was invited to England last year to read some of the stories I saw that the reaction from the audience was positive. There had been book reviews in some magazines in England and I felt that there was some kind of appreciation for my work but I don’t know exactly what it is in the book that interests people.
If you look at some of the authors in the long-list, some of them have been writing for more than 50 years. It’s difficult to imagine how my name made the list! Just being on it is honour enough for me.
Has the nomination changed your life or your career?
Not much really. It didn’t really change my life but I was contacted by many publishers and agents immediately after the nomination. There have been many offers which is a good thing for me because it guarantees that my books will be published. As a writer you are also happy to know that your book is going to be published in other countries too. For example, my book will be published in Italy this year.
Will the book be published in Finland?
My friend has already translated one story which was published in Kulttuurivihkot magazine and he sent a copy of the book to WSOY, so they are considering it. Since I live here in Finland, it would be nice to have a book published here. In a way it’s a pity that I’ve been published in English before Finnish. But it’s a slow process. I feel that Finland is like Iraq in that respect. In Iraq, they wait until somebody is famous abroad, in the Western world, and then they appreciate him more.
Did you try sending your manuscripts to Finnish publishers before that?
Before this book, I wasn’t really keen on it but I looked into how the system works here and it seemed a bit difficult. I wasn’t really thinking of making money out of my texts anyway, I was more interested in writing and publishing for Arabic readers in magazines or newspapers or on online blogs. There is a new generation of Arab readers who have more freedom and a different attitude. I wasn’t really thinking of other languages other than Arabic and I was very satisfied with publishing online for this new generation.
You’re also a film director?
Yes, I studied cinema and I worked as a film director in Iraq. I directed some short films there and later on a long fiction film. When I came to Finland I tried to make some films here as well but later on I have concentrated on writing.
What can you tell us about the film Wounded Camera? That was the film that got you into trouble in Iraq, wasn’t it?
Yes, once I left Baghdad and went to northern Iraq to shoot the film I was already considered a danger by the regime. That’s because the north was kind of isolated and protected by the Americans. But after the film, I definitely couldn’t go back. It was actually a mistake that I made the film because it put my family in danger.
What kind of long-term ambitions do you have as a writer?
I have always been ambitious about writing – since I was a child I have had a love affair with it. It doesn’t matter if my work is going to be translated or not, nominated or not nominated – it doesn’t affect my ambition to write. I want to create something new in Arabic literature, something that hasn’t been done before.
What could it be?
I see Arabic literature as being a little frigid and lacking the ability of reflecting the reality of people – sort of afraid of expression – so I want to change that. I want to break taboos but not in the way that has already been done. The easiest way to be famous in the West is to write a book claiming that the prophet Mohammed was gay, and that’s it, you will be famous. But that’s not my aim. What I want is to be critical of my own culture as an insider, not as an outsider or for the outsiders. I want to be critical of it while being part of it and for the people who live within it.
As an immigrant writer, do you feel that you represent a group of people?
I don’t consider myself as an immigrant writer or representing immigrants because my philosophy of life is that wherever I live, it’s like a hotel room for me. Baghdad was like a hotel room on fire, and here it’s like a peaceful hotel room (Laughs). I don’t really belong anywhere, so I always feel like I’m travelling.
Do you see yourself belonging to any tradition as a writer?
Not exactly, I have been affected by different writers and different styles. The most important writer for me is Kafka, and I also like Jorge Luis Borges and Raymond Carver. I read a lot of different writers.
What inspires you?
I have had a really tough, tragic life. I hold enough inspiration from my own experiences that I could produce material for the next 20 years! It’s really funny – as a child I read that a writer needs life experience. I was then looking for just a few drops of it but I had a sea of experience raining down on me instead (Laughs)!
So my life inspires me but it’s also that I really need to write. It helps me in my life. It’s not exactly therapy but it’s something that helps me continue living. The second reason for me to write is my love for literature.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yes, as a child I did. Even when I was a teenager I used to design crossword puzzles for newspapers, and I still make them as a hobby.
How has living in Finland affected you as a writer?
There is no direct effect. But I have benefitted from the peaceful atmosphere here; it was like a gift for me. I could sit down and write about anything I wanted. Kiitos Suomi for the peace!
Are you planning to stay in Finland?
To be honest, I don’t think so. If there’s going to be peace in Iraq, and if they don’t kill me for my writing, I will go back (Laughs).
The only problems I have faced with living in Finland have to do with work. You get hired for only a short period of time and you always have to be on the lookout for the next job. But I don’t have the clichéd attitude that many foreigners have of Finns being depressed, antisocial and afraid of foreigners. I see it a little differently: if you talk to Finns, they will talk to you.
Recommended Iraqi writers:
What are you working on now?
I’m writing another short story collection for Comma Press and hopefully will hand in the final version in the summer of 2011. And there is an offer for a novel from another publisher but I will start doing research after finishing the collection.
What’s your take on the situation in Iraq? Are you optimistic?
I’m optimistic, especially after the recent election, but of course I’m a little bit worried about the future. If they manage to establish the government peacefully it’s a really good step, a small but a good one for the future, for more peace.
What would be the best way to get your book, as it hasn’t been published in Finland?
The best way is to get it directly from Comma Press, but it’s also on Amazon.