Guest post by GINNY PARKER WOODS:
I read Justin Sirois’s book MLKNG SCKLS (Publishing Genius) last week on the subway, and it’s amazing. The short book tells the story of an Iraqi guy named Salim and his traveling partner, Khalil, fleeing Fallujah, and it’s comprised of “deleted scenes” from Justin’s other, yet unpublished book, Falcons on the Floor. The books were written in collaboration with an Iraqi woman named Haneen Alshujairy. I was very curious about how this process took place so I sent Justin some questions which he very kindly answered.
A few thoughts on MLKNG SCKLS: I’d say this book is probably the best thing I’ve read about Iraq – which isn’t to suggest that I’ve read all that much about Iraq, I’m sorry to say. Sadly, I’ve become sort of dull and deaf to the whole of what’s going on there, and this book coaxed me out of that numbness. There’s so little in news stories of the war in Iraq that makes me feel anything. This book made me feel sympathy for the main character, Salim, mainly due to all that was familiar and at the same time strange about him, the way his experience is at once unfathomable and very mundane. During his exodus, Salim is deeply attached – as I am – to a personal computer, and the book is structured as a series of documents Salim has written on his laptop. Salim dreams of posting his homemade films on the Internet. And he’s angry at the man-eating birds circling the sky and annoyed at his traveling partner – like it’s traffic or some other quotidian annoyance we’re talking about here. Justin does a great job of capturing what it’s like to be a refugee in the modern age or rather what it’s like simply to be living in the modern age.
Throughout the book there’s the sense that Salim is being watched or potentially being watched, whether by some sort of ominous army in the dark with lasers or light beams or or by a Western housewife nursing her child and watching Salim’s Internet video. And yet, while he seems to be constantly on the verge of being spotted, you wonder if anyone can actually see him. Salim and Khalil seem desperately alone in the land through which they are traveling, the last living humans in a world that doesn’t care about them, ignores them, wants to devour them – I’m not sure which. Technology presses down, heavily. It’s a connector and a compressor but also a separator – offering the illusion of connection where it doesn’t really exist, ultimately leaving Salim isolated. What exactly are Salim and Khalil running from? It’s left unclear. This is not about politics or battles or states or boundaries or anything so clearly defined but about people moving through the world, looking, longing for something, wanting to be seen, wanting to be unique. The writing is spare, beautiful and descriptive. Vultures are hungry “turkeys” with ruffled rear-ends, suggesting the US or perhaps some other parasitic, opportunistic presence. A woman’s hair “glistens like frozen Coke.” Scary and lovely.
And the questions…
When did you start writing the book?
I started writing MLKNG SCKLS right after finishing the second edits on Falcons on the Floor. That was February ’09. I’d built up all this momentum and was in love with the characters and I just needed to keep going. After combing through the notes and sketches I took/made, routing through all these photos I’d collected online in preparation for the novel, I found ideas and scenes that didn’t make the final cut. These shorts stories in SCKLS came out of that wanting to expand the narrative.
Publishing the “deleted scenes” before the feature is a little backwards, but it’s been helpful in getting the word out about the larger project. Publishing Genius of Baltimore did a perfect job producing and promoting the book.
Can you tell me about the nature of your collaboration with Haneen Alshujairy? How did you meet her and how did this all work? Did you talk to her and then write your story? Or write your story and then talk to her? What was the process?
I found Haneen after soliciting about 60 Iraqis on a language exchange website. I was honest and said I speak no Arabic and really just wanted to interview people about their experiences in and around the war. Three people replied and Haneen was the most responsive and curious. Even though she had fled the country in 2003, she was from Baghdad and has extended family in Fallujah. Her father was born there. We instantly became friends. After interviewing her for a few months I got up the courage to ask her to take a look at the first draft of Falcons. Reading 30 pages at a time via email, she gave me feedback and criticism, made some suggestions, and all of a sudden we were collaborating.
We used the same process with MLKNG SCKLS.
How does a guy in Baltimore decide to write a book on Iraq, from the perspective of an Iraqi?
That’s the big question. Who the hell am I to write a story like this? I was definitely motivated by the lack of news coverage in the US told from the Iraqi perspective. After learning more about the events in Fallujah in April of 2004, I was completely absorbed with the conflict and drama, the people and the places (Fallujah and Ramadi). If I could have traveled there, I would have, but it still isn’t safe for Westerners and working from the Green Zone would have been like working in any city in America. Isolated and detached from the reality.
When I was doing my research – reading as much as I could, watching every documentary I could find, and talking to Iraqis on the net – the thought of an American writing from an Iraqi perspective became more and more reasonable. SCKLS and Falcons is more of a story about people and friendships rather than a “foreign war” story. The more I realized how similar Americans are to the Iraqi people the more confidence I had in starting the project.
Haneen obviously adds an authenticity to the project that is vital. I wouldn’t have completed it without her.
Who do you most want to read this book?
I guess I can’t say everyone. But yeah, everyone. The media has done a horrible job featuring the civilians’ struggles in Iraq and very little has been said about the two vicious sieges of Fallujah. We used white phosphorus and Flechettes* which are banned by the Geneva conventions for good reason. Dahr Jamail’s Beyond the Green Zone is an important book; his unembedded journalism is absolutely heroic. A few movies have tackled similar subjects, but nothing has been produced primarily from an Iraqi’s perspective.
Falcons and SCKLS aims to fill that void.
How do you think Americans feel about the people in Iraq?
It’s hard to gauge. I think it varies from state to state and along class lines. In communities where more young men and women are joining the military, getting wounded by IEDs or not coming back home at all, maybe there are different opinions about the Iraqi people. I can’t assume.
It’s safe to say that there’s always room for more understanding and empathy. The reality is, there’s a whole generation of Iraqis who grew up with this seven year war, nearly every family has lost someone they loved, and the conflict is long from over. It’s our responsibility, as global citizens, to open a dialog and begin understanding each other.
What’s the connection between MLKNG SCKLS and Falcons on the Floor? Why did these scenes get deleted? What’s Falcons on the Floor like?
Falcons is a bit different from SCKLS. It’s darker in some ways. The threats are more concrete and violence is everywhere. The reader sees exactly why Salim and Khalil are fleeing Fallujah, why their relationship is strained, and how desperate and confused they are. The landscape in the novel becomes a character in a way. That’s one large difference between the two books. There’s also perspective shifts in the novel that you can’t get in SCKLS as SCKLS are sections picked from a section in Falcons that is written on Salim’s laptop. The rest of the novel is told from a third person perspective.
Some of the scenes or ideas weren’t included because they distracted from the rhythm of the narrative. A few of the shorts were written after the novel was completed, but were based on themes or ideas that were edited early in the drafting process.
I love the scene in which Salim uncooks the meal. It’s very strange but not overtly so. Where did this come from? Have you attempted uncooking yourself? After reading this sad, tense, romantic scene, I kind of wish my husband would uncook for me.
Oh, if only I could uncook for someone I love. Sadly, I’m not that skilled. It takes years of careful practice and a strong stomach for reanimation. I simply don’t have it. I wish I could have used a less commonly known dish, but the story is so exaggerated I thought it would be easier for the reader if the recipe was familiar. I think it unworks well enough.
The idea came out of wanting to taking a common act and reverse it, but still keeping it endearing and loving. Cooking made sense. I think everyone can relate to either Salim or Rana; i.e. cooking or being cooked for.
What does “milking sickles” mean?
I really don’t know. I love the sound of it – the rhythm – the icky-ness.
Imagine idle men, unemployed men in the Jolan (a market in Fallujah) gripping the blades of sharpened sickles and milking them, expecting sustenance, but producing only blood.
I also hate cliché titles of books and wanted to name the collection something anti-informative… much like the stories themselves.
© Dahr Jamail
Thank you Ginny and John!