An Interview with Saad Hossain
Saad Hossain is the author of Escape from Baghdad!, an engrossing cross between Zero Dark Thirty and Raiders of the Lost Ark that takes a sobering look at America's troubled legacy in Iraq. It's easily one of the best (and strangest, and most badass) books I've read in 2015, so I asked Saad a few questions about writing a funny, genre-bending story that takes place in such grim circumstances.
As a citizen of Bangladesh, what drew you to the story of the Iraq War?
It started as a short story exercise for my writers' group, I didn't really set out with a goal in mind. I kept going because I wanted to write a war story, and the Iraq War is the defining conflict of our generation. The aftermath was a kind of precursor to the collapse of the entire region, and it is clear in hindsight that the conflict was oversimplified from the very beginning, from the stated aims of the war, to the premature declaration of victory, right down to the effort required to rebuild the place.
Other than the war though, Baghdad itself is a deeply romantic and historical city, a place rooted in mythology, from the ancient cultures on the banks of the Tigris to the golden city of Harun ur Rashid. One of my favorite stories from Neil Gaiman's Sandman is the vignette on Baghdad, where the Caliph asks Dream to preserve the city in a bubble because he fears that times will not always be as good. I wanted to flesh out this depth and mythical quality in a city that is so much more than just burning buildings and oilfields.
Escape! is certainly hard to classify. How much were you influenced by science fiction and pulp adventure novels?
I didn't set out to address a particular genre. I am particularly fond of genre fiction, from historical romances to sci-fi to travel books to straight up thrillers and murder mysteries. When I was a kid the only English books I had at home were my mother's, so I ended up reading a lot of historical romances, murder mysteries, and travel books. Later on I got addicted to fantasy and sci-fi, so I've run the gamut of genre fiction, and I'm a big fan of anything that is well written and entertaining.
As a writer I don't believe in literary books. I mean that I don't think a writer should set out to write something high blown and dense, or that any work should be dismissed out of hand because of genre. I've been writing for a long time, I've got some very bad fantasy novels stacked up in floppy drives. I think it takes those early efforts to actually develop the craft of writing, from sentence structures to plot points to overcoming the fear of writing. I'm not that concerned any more about categories or marketability, because it's just too hard to write with those kinds of restrictions. There are certain elements of fantasy and black humor which will be present in all my work, regardless of which genre the work is published in, because that is an integral part of my writing style.
Critics are calling it the Slaughterhouse-Five or Catch-22 of the Iraq War. Are you comfortable with those comparisons? Does that kind of framing take away from the fact that it's primarily about Iraqis instead of American soldiers?
First of all, it is extremely flattering to put Escape! anywhere near those books. Those novels are masterpieces of war satire and their focus is tightly centered on that commentary. My interest in the Iraq war was not a straightforward condemnation of the occupation, but rather an exploration of the collateral damage. I wanted to show a fantasy world where the foreign occupation is simply the top layer, below which there are thousands of years of history and conflict and mythology that have to be dealt with. By removing the lid, you unwittingly allow all of these secret histories to bubble to the surface, and everything becomes much more interesting.
I also prefer working with the characters more than trying to present a set point of view. This is part of the reason why the story just follows them randomly through different genres, in an unpredictable fashion, because, honestly, as I was writing it I had no idea what would happen next. Kinza and Dagr are the chief vehicles in the story, and I'm heavily invested in them, which I think comes across. I tried to make them as believable as possible, and obviously they are deeply flawed, but I hope they are sufficiently human as well, so that their fears and motivations are relatable. A story can mean different things to different readers, and that's perfectly natural I think, so if someone takes one aspect of the book and leaves the rest, I'm okay with that. It is on the reader to relate to whatever strikes them, to accept or reject the arguments being made. Our job is simply to create a world that is habitable enough to occupy their minds for a little while.
Despite its serious subject matter, Escape! is often hilarious. Is humor a natural reaction to tragedies we feel powerless to stop?
I think that is a perfectly logical reaction to senseless violence, and part of the charm of humanity; that, when all else fails, some people are bound to sit around making off-color jokes. There are all the great stories where the hero wins against all odds and good triumphs over evil, and the principal virtue is unflinching courage. I'm not interested in that. I would rather explore the quality of courage when it is clear you will lose, when no rational victory is ever going to be available to you. In that situation, when any effort or action is futile, the only reason to do anything at all is simply to satisfy some inner urge, to show a little defiance before the end. This is the edge of gallows humor, where style is more important than substance, because style is really all you have left.
Laughing at ridiculous situations is also something that is universally attractive. The world is so divisive with race, gender, and wealth, but humor is a trait that transcends a lot of situations. I think the direr the predicament, the better opportunities there are to find something funny.
Will the novel be published in Iraq?
There are no plans to publish the book in Iraq, and I'm a bit apprehensive on how they would receive it, what they would feel about the liberties I've taken. I have tried to make it clear that this is not a factual account of the war, nor is it meant to be a catalogue of offences by the various parties, but rather a sort of mythology centered around my characters.
How was it received in Bangladesh?
The novel was published first in Bangladesh, in English. I think it was well received, but I am not really sure because, although Bengalis are voracious readers, the English-reading population is small and there aren't too many books being published in English either, so the metrics aren't really in place to make that judgment.
Right now in my country we've had a lot of incidents of bloggers and writers being attacked, so I wish that actually more people were allowed to speak and write freely and ask questions without fear, not specifically about my book, but about history and religion in general, the role of fundamentalism in our religion, and the historical connections between certain different philosophies in Islam, and possibly about where moderate Islam can go from here.
Do those fundamentalists care about the portrayal of Islam in fiction, or is it too far removed from reality for them?
To be honest, I'm not high profile enough to merit their attentions. I'm also not overtly writing about politics or religion, so I think I'm not really on the radar as a commentator on these issues. Fundamentalism in our country is tied deeply to politics as there is a very well-organized Islamic party called the Jamaat. A lot of the reactions are flavored with political considerations, so I think the situation is a bit more nuanced than simply a violent reaction to offensive content.
I think we've seen, unfortunately, that the portrayal of Islam in any kind of art form can create a fuss. I think sometimes people will exploit this to gain sudden fame, which is insensitive and dangerous, and detrimental to scholars trying to have a serious conversation. I am of course not in either bracket, so I believe that I will not really be affected.
What kind of research did you do for the novel?
I did very little research. I love making things up. The research I did was on specific details, because I hate getting those wrong, and I think we owe our readers that much respect, even in a work of fantasy. For example, if I'm talking about a particular gun like the Makarov, I will try to get those details right by looking at pictures and visiting gun enthusiast websites. Other than that, I looked at a lot of Google maps to get a sense of the street geography, and some research into the Druze, who are a very old sect of Islam. To get a feeling for the atmosphere of the war, I looked at some Iraqi blogs, like Baghdad Burning, as well as American soldiers' blogs, plus whatever articles I could find that went beyond simple facts and figures. I remember a long article in The New Yorker that was helpful.
Are you working on any other fiction at the moment?
I'm writing a story set in Bangladesh about djinns. It should be two novels, one set in the present, and one in a kind of semi-dystopian future. I'm about halfway done with the first one. The djinns are a hidden race of superior creatures with their own politics, culture, and traditions, who basically share our infrastructure. The starting premise is that the djinns are worried about the proliferation of humanity, our effect on the environment and other species, and one of the factions proposes to set off some super-tsunamis to effectively wipe out most of Bengal and neighboring nations, a feat that, if successful, will be replicated in other high-density areas. The human characters are based on an emissary family, who are essentially ambassadors to the djinn, and their job is to try and negotiate peace.