Bhaswati Ghosh

Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim came to me rather unremarkably. In the dead of Canada’s fierce winter in January 2017, I had a sudden desire to read and cook from conflict zones around the world. I say sudden, but given the blood-stained cloud that hangs over Syria, Yemen, Iraq and much of the Arab world and parts of Africa, this couldn’t have been all that abrupt a thirst. The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq, Blasim’s debut short story collection, was one of the first books I borrowed from the library for my quest.

I didn’t make much of the simple black cover of The Corpse Exhibition, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright. Nothing — not its blackness or even a statutory warning on the cover (had there been one) — could have prepared me for what lay inside. Such was the emotive force of Blasim’s words that despite the macabre scenarios they pressed between themselves, I kept turning the book’s pages with hypnotic urgency.

The sharpness of Blasim’s storytelling knife stabbed me with the very first story in the collection, titled The Corpse Exhibition. Written in the backdrop of the Iraq War, the story puts a chilling spin on the practice of displaying executed bodies in public. The narrator, evidently the leader of an organization involved with curating corpse exhibitions, speaks in a clinical tone to a prospective new hire. The emphasis on the aesthetics of the displays — the boss cites as a prime example the naked corpses of a breastfeeding mother and her child, placed under a dead palm tree with not a trace of wound on their bodies — layers the story with a degree of perversion that’s so disturbing it is riveting.

By Monica Arora

Exit WestTitle: Exit West

Author: Mohsin Hamid
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Pages: 229
Price: ₹ 599

To Buy

Mohsin Hamid weaves a compelling saga of love, loss, identity-crises, immigration, personal and worldly conflicts and much more in his latest book Exit West. Set in “a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war”, it could be an allegory of any nation such as Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan or another, perched precariously at the brink of civil war yet discovering pockets of peaceful life whilst turmoil lurks nearby. The story revolves around the protagonists Saeed and Nadia, and the reader gets instantly drawn into their world when they meet at “an evening class on corporate identity and product branding” and eventually end up having coffee followed by a Chinese dinner and start the process of getting to discover each other.

by Zafar Anjum

Isa Kamari

I had heard of Isa Kamari ever since I set foot in Singapore over a decade ago. Winner of many awards, Isa Kamari is a major Singapore Malay author. He has been a regularly featured author at the Singapore Writers Festival. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to read Malay and I did not know that Isa’s novels had been translated into English.

It was only recently that I got to know him in person. A few months ago, he sent me a copy of his novel, Intercession. I found it a bold work of fiction dealing with serious themes of science and religion, and yet it was so thrillingly narrated that I could barely stop reading it.  The book reminded me of Hermann Hesse’s masterpiece, Siddhartha.

Born in 1960 in Kampung Tawakal, Isa’s family moved to a Housing Development Board apartment in Ang Mo Kio while he was still in his teens. After studying at the elite Raffles Institution, he went on to take the degree of Bachelor of Architecture (with Honours) from the National University of Singapore in 1988. He now holds a senior position with the Land Transport Authority. Isa has also earned a Master of Philosophy degree in Malay Letters from the National University of Malaysia in 2007.

A prolific writer, Isa has so far published two volumes of short stories, eight novels, six volumes of poetry, one collection of stage plays, and several albums of contemporary spiritual music. He has been honoured with the SEA Write Award in 2006, the Singapore government’s Cultural Medallion in 2007 and the Singapore Malay literary award Anugerah Tun Seri Lanang in 2009.

Isa-quote2Isa’s novels are increasingly being translated from Malay for wider audiences. Satu Bumi (One Earth, 1998) was published in Mandarin in 1999 as Yi Pien Re Tu and in English in 2008, under the title of One Earth (translated by Sukmawati Sirat). Two other novels appeared in English translations in 2009: Intercession (Tawassul, 2002, translated by Sukmawati Sirat and edited by Alvin Pang); and Nadra (Atas Nama Cinta, In the Name of Love, 2006, translated by Sukmawati Sirat and edited by Aaron Lee Soon Yong). In 2013, four translations have been released: The Tower (Menara, 2002, translated by Alfian Sa’at); A Song of the Wind (Memeluk Gerhana, Embracing the Eclipse, 2007, “rendered in English from Malay” by Sukmawati Sirat and R. Krishnan); Rawa (Rawa: tragedi Pulau Batu Puteh, Rawa: The Tragedy of White Rock Island, 2009, “rendered in English from the original Malay” by Sukmawati Sirat and R. Krishnan); and 1819 (Duka Tuan Bertakhta, You Rule in Sorrow, 2011, “rendered in English from Malay by Sukmawati Sirat and R. Krishnan”).

Here is a two-part interview with Isa Kamari:

PART ONE: Becoming a Writer

IsaSmile

What set you on the road to being a writer? Do you ever regret the drive or passion that makes you keep writing?

I have always loved writing since my secondary school days but never took it seriously until my late teens. Something happened to me in 1979, the story of which I have told in my novel Memeluk Gerhana (A Song of the Wind).

That incident made me look at life in a more critical manner. It made me view writing not as a hobby but more of a calling. In any case, I begin to write only if an event or issue disturbs me deeply. I do research on the subject and try to find my own resolution/ take on the issue/predicament. Only when I understand and come to terms with the problem and form my own opinion or position do I begin to pen my thoughts on it in the form of a poem or fiction. Thus writing is like therapy to me. It is my way of finding meaning and peace with myself and the world.

Salman_RushdieAward-winning author Salman Rushdie, who once received death threats for portrayals of Islam in his work, expressed his support for the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo after an attack that killed at least 12 on Wednesday.

“I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity,” he wrote in a statement posted by the Guardian. Gunmen killed at least 12 people in the paper’s offices before fleeing the scene in France’s deadliest terrorist attack in recent memory.

The Islamic Roots Of Science Fiction

Top image: Cover detail of Hayy ibn Yaqdhan by Ibn Tufail

You probably already knew that Islam was having a scientific golden age during Europe’s middle ages, and making tons of scientific and medical discoveries. (Which is why we use words like “algebra.”) But you might not know that some of the earliest proto-science fiction came from the Islamic world.

Of course, Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein is widely recognized as the first real work of science fiction, because it’s a novel of speculation based on the scientific discoveries of her day. But there were a number of works before Frankenstein that feature a lot of what we’d consider the defining characteristics of SF.

The first of these is widely considered to be A True History by Lucian of Samosata, a Syrian author. This 2nd century novel follows a traveler who is transported via water spout to the Moon, where he encounters strange societies and bizarre life forms. But there are also a number of early claimants to the “proto science fiction” label coming out of the Islamic world. Notably:

The Nigerian Nobel laureate discusses Boko Haram, organised religion, and the current state of his country: Aljazeera

In a time when Nigeria is facing its toughest security crisis in decades, Wole Soyinka discusses the issues surrounding Boko Haram:

“Those who unleashed Boko Haram on the nation are not poverty stricken. They are politicians …. desperate for power, intelligent enough or perceptive enough to recognise that the cocktail of politics and religious fundamentalism can only yield them dividends. They think they have nothing to lose. But the foot soldiers have been indoctrinated for years, from childhood. And they believe that their religion [Islam] is in danger … But Islam is not in danger. It is the pervert followers who are being used and who use others and proclaim that they are fighting for Islam ….