Matt Rees Q+A with Ilene Prusher
The Iraq war novel we have been awaiting
On the whole, it’d better if there was no war. But war has given us some of the great novels of all time. Until now, the Iraq war has been written about mainly in macho with-the-troops memoirs by embedded journalists, dry-as-dust nonfiction, and bile-licious invective. Unless you’re macho, dry, or hateful, none of these are particularly fulfilling reading options. With “Baghdad Fixer,” we have the novel of the Iraq war we’ve been waiting for. Writer Ilene Prusher, who publishes “Baghdad Fixer” this week, has been a foreign correspondent around the Middle East and Asia for two decades, including on the ground in Iraq. Her novel is narrated by a foreign journalist’s ‘fixer’ – the person who translates and often sets up interviews – who is an Arab man named Nabil. The book centers around his relationship and understanding of his beautiful, mercurial boss, a female reporter from the U.S. named Samara. It takes them into the nasty underside of the Iraq conflict – and into danger. Before she embarked on a book tour of the UK, Ilene took time to answer some questions about how she wrote the book.
The book’s dedicated to “the Fixer who told me this story.” Tell us about that?
The capital F plays off on something Nabil says at the end of the book. In Islam, God has 99 names, and Nabil muses, “I should like to create the hundredth: the Fixer.” So the dedication is a reference to Nabil’s spirituality, and to my own personal experience that when my writing is on a roll, when the story is just flowing out of me, it’s somehow bigger than me and there’s a divine inspiration in it.The capital F plays off on something Nabil says at the end of the book. In Islam, God has 99 names, and Nabil muses, “I should like to create the hundredth: the Fixer.” So the dedication is a reference to Nabil’s spirituality, and to my own personal experience that when my writing is on a roll, when the story is just flowing out of me, it’s somehow bigger than me and there’s a divine inspiration in it.
You’re a journalist. Why did you write a novel, rather than a work of nonfiction?
Writing a novel was the only way I could step out of my journalistic shoes and truly enter into the world of my characters, or into what one of my teachers – quoting the American writer John Gardner – called the “fiction dream.” For years as a journalist, I’d interview people but feel that it wasn’t quite enough. I wanted to do more than spend an hour or two or three with them, and then move on. Once I was walking in Nabil’s shoes, I really felt I could see his Baghdad, and to see how Sam would look through his eyes. Although I still love journalism, for the past decade I’ve found myself tired of reading journalists’ books – and nonfiction in general – and increasingly drawn to fiction. I choose to tell the whole story from the fixer’s perspective, because if the foreign journalist had been the narrator, she’d have been too close to home and I wouldn’t have felt free to truly enter that fiction dream.
What do you see as the difference between writing this as fiction, as opposed to nonfiction?
I did experience some but not all of the events in the novel – I was never kidnapped but many of my friends were. Had I written nonfiction, I would need to purely stick to the facts. I became interested in what I only later realized is something that literary people call “allohistory” – imagining a different outcome of history through fictional narrative. What if the intense things I experienced had turned out in a radically different way? Also, I didn’t want be stuck within the confines of writing about Iraq exactly as it is during one particular point in time, but to have Iraq be a rich and fascinating backdrop for looking at how journalists and their “fixers” interact with each other.
Do you think readers will come to it looking for an entertaining story? Or will they expect to be informed about real events in Iraq?
There’s a bit of both, though I hope more of the former. I think a reader should want, as part of the story, to learn something unexpected about Iraq and about the Middle East. But I think the trajectory of the characters’ experience is the most compelling reason to read this book – or nearly any novel. Baghdad Fixer does expose the reader to some of the lunacy that surrounded the US-led invasion or Iraq in 2003. But it’s certainly not a guide to understanding all the nuances of Iraqi politics or the horrors of the post-invasion period, because there are so many other places to go for a factual account of that.
Is all the “real” explanation true? Or did you change events and elements of the Iraq conflict to fit your story?
Most of the “real” explanations are true. Real-life political leaders like George Bush and power-brokers like Muqtada al-Sadr had to figure into the larger backdrop. But, for example, one of the most despicable figures in the book – Technical Ali – is a complete fiction. There were, of course, many real-life forgers and thugs like him. His name was so believable because there was a real-life figure named Chemical Ali, a cousin of Saddam Hussein, who is famous for having gassed thousands of Kurds. He was convicted of crimes against humanity and hanged in 2010.
The title is quite thriller-like and one of the blurbs says it’s a thriller. But it’s really something quite different, I think. How would you classify it?
I agree; it’s not a classic thriller. I myself have a hard time classifying it, but if I had to, I’d say it could be filed under both historical fiction and contemporary fiction. The Jerusalem Post literary editor wrote that it was “a journey into Iraq’s psyche.” I think that’s more accurate. What makes the story more of a psychological novel is that we’re inside Nabil’s head. He’s a young man who loves the written word, is obsessed with it, so much that he sometimes types in the air when he walks around. He wants to connect through language, to fine-tune his English, to understand Samara’s slang. He has a UK connection – he lived in Birmingham for a while as a child – but the world of America is new to him and he tries to understand it through Samara. But his envy and desire is mixed with disdain, because she represents the occupier. So the book is also a celebration of words – of the challenges and art of translation –– because Nabil is constantly having to play moderator between East and West.
The characters of the journalist and the fixer are very profoundly drawn. How much of you is in the journalist Samara? And was the fixer based on any one person?
Samara doesn’t look like me and act like me, except perhaps in my basest journalistic moments, when all I cared about is the story – not moments I’m necessarily proud of. She’s much more aggressive than I am. Samara’s character was inspired by me and probably 20 other female foreign correspondents I’ve worked with over the years. In fact, I wanted to make Sam like some of the reporters I met, male and female, who were a little arrogant and insensitive, exactly the kind of reporters who seemed likely to exploit their fixers. Apparently I so succeeded in making Sam manipulative – serving the story above all else – that I’ve had several people tell me that they didn’t really like her. But they love Nabil, and to me that’s an achievement. Nabil is similarly part composite, part fiction. He’s a combination of people I’ve worked with in Iraq, Afghanistan, the West Bank and Gaza. After I began writing in his voice for a while, he seemed to be a real person to me. I felt I could conjure him. I would try out walking around the room like him – when no one else was looking – and sometimes asking, okay, what would Nabil do? I’d hear a song and think, “Oh, Nabil would love this song.” And then on several occasions, I cried when I made Nabil or Samara suffer. For a while I thought I was losing my mind. And then I realized no, I’m just writing fiction. These characters are alive now.
Did you experience a lot of the cross-cultural misunderstandings which afflict the journalist and the fixer in the story?
The cultural gaps are at times enormous. Going back to the question of language, I on many occasions worked with people who’d learned all of their English at the local British Council office in Pakistan, for example, and had never stepped foot in a Western country, much less an English-speaking country. Some fixers I worked with were fluent in English, but virtually ignorant of Western culture, which made it uncomfortable at times. For example, I worked with a fixer who kept telling me that he regrettably had to beat his much younger wife, because she kept contradicting him in front of his family. He said this with a flawless Manchester accent and without shame – it didn’t occur to him how outrageous it sounded in my ears. I worked with many fixers over the years – most of them male. I did on occasion, particularly if it was an attractive man, feel a sexual tension, a clash of cultures, a desire on the fixer’s part to know me, to push the boundaries, to “protect” me beyond what I felt was necessary, to know what American women are like. I was once asked by a fixer – in a Muslim country other than Iraq – if I would marry a man who already had a wife. It was a thinly veiled marriage proposal; he had a wife and wanted a second one, which Islam allows. I found this flattering…but I also realized that he had probably been interpreting my friendliness as a sign of my interest in him.
The narrator of the book is an Arab and a man. Was it difficult to enter that head, as it were? You’re not an Arab man. What’s your background?
I don’t know what was more outrageous on my part – writing as a man, an Iraqi, or as Muslim. I’m an American Jewish woman from the other side of the world. Who am I to write this character? I ask myself that question many times. And yet, writing as Nabil felt like the most natural thing in the world. I have no direct familial ties to Iraq, and yet, there was something that felt familial and familiar to me from the moment I arrived. Jews have a rich history in Iraq, and it seemed to me, in an odd way, that there was something natural about being a Jew in Iraq. And by the time I got to Iraq, I’d already spent a lot of time in the Middle East, had learned some Arabic, felt like I was where I needed to be – if not quite belonged. I didn’t feel entirely foreign in Iraq, odd as it sounds. And because I don’t look foreign in the Arab world, I’ve “passed” on many occasions and been a proverbial fly on the wall. This ultimately made it easier for me to imagine Iraqi characters. Also, I visited with one family many, many times. A member of the family, a woman who is my age, is a lecturer in literature at Mustansirriyah University in Baghdad. We maintain a close long-distance friendship. She read the book in its early stages and gave me important feedback, which helped in “getting” certain things about Iraq. When I was writing, I would play music Nabil likes, close my eyes and imagine his shoes, pretend to feel stubble on my face or a receding hairline, and as time went on, Nabil came to me quite easily.
You write in the present tense. Why did you decide to do that?
It just kept coming out that way. In the present tense, I could feel myself walking in Nabil’s shoes through Baghdad. The present tense carries an immediacy that you can almost taste. It lets the reader walk through Nabil’s life and experience it close up. I took a few chapters of this book to a wonderful summer course at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop a few years ago. My teacher there, Wayne Johnson, explained that this voice I’d chosen – first person, present tense – is powerful in its immediacy, but also challenging. “It collapses the psychic distance,” was how he put it. It’s a bit like “Being John Malkovich.” Today, you’re being Nabil al-Amari. That fascinates me.
Q+A by author Matt Rees, published on his website www.mattrees.net