KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers.
The long list for the UK's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize has recently been announced. Of the 15 titles on that list, two of them are Iraqi, the up-and-coming writer Hassan Blasim and our guest Sinan Antoon.
Antoon left Iraq in the early '90s when he was young. Now, he's a professor at New York University. Much of his book traces a young man, Jawad, in the years after the author left Iraq, the sanctions years, the U.S. invasion and the sectarian war. I asked Antoon about the title "The Corpse Washer."
SINAN ANTOON: Well, actually, the original title of the Arabic is "The Pomegranate Alone," and it refers to an important theme in the book, in the novel. But the American publisher thought that "The Corpse Washer" would be a better title for marketing purposes. And I was reluctant at first. And maybe in the future I will change it back, but obviously, it speaks about the profession of the main protagonist in the novel who has artistic tendencies and wants to rebel and do something else but, you know, faith would have it otherwise and he is forced to go back and to practice the same profession that his ancestors did which is corpse washing.
MCEVERS: I think it's important, too, to just explain the custom of washing a corpse in the Iraqi and the Muslim culture.
ANTOON: Well, it's a very intricate rhythmic ritual of washing the body three times. And it's very intricate in that where one washes which side and what to do while also chanting or reciting certain phrases. And then the shrouding has to be done with cotton and then a branch of a pomegranate tree because it's believed to be sacred and is mentioned in the Quran. And a branch of a pomegranate is put with the shroud and then sent to the cemetery.
MCEVERS: And the religious significance is - the idea is that you want to be clean before you sort of meet your maker, right?
ANTOON: Yes. Well, because the body being God's creation and being created in the most perfect image, the body is supposed to be pure.
MCEVERS: This book is set in modern day Iraq. Its main character is a young boy during the Iran-Iraq war, the '80s, the sanctions era of the '90s. There's this really arresting scene. It's during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Jawad's father has died, and he and some neighbors are driving the body down to the holy city of Negev to bury it and they're stopped by American soldiers. You know, I feel like we've heard this story so many times from the American side. How did you write that scene knowing that you didn't live through that?
ANTOON: Well, the imagination is a really very important tool, you know? I mean, in earlier years, I had these qualms of, you know, how would I write about something that I've never lived through and I'm distant from. But then if we take that into consideration, then three-fourths of literature and art would be gone, because people write about lives that they did not live.
The problem is that in this country and in the "West" in general - and I put that under quotes - we get the American narrative. And in this country, we get the narrative of the vets, which is important of course, but we never see the world from the point of view of the civilians who are on the receiving end of tanks and drones and whatnot.
You know, and it's very tricky because it's very easy to write a scene where there's an encounter between civilians and soldiers, and the soldiers are demonized. But this encounter between an occupying military and civilians is going to be humiliating and horrible and traumatic, if not violent and deadly, irrespective of any of the slogans or of the intentions of the people carrying it out because this is what military occupation does. It humiliates people. It disrupts their lives, and it destroys them eventually.
MCEVERS: Yeah. You first wrote this book in Arabic, and then you translated it yourself into English.
ANTOON: Well, I - you know, every writer gets really invested in what they're writing. But the subject of this novel was so harrowing, but it's something that I was so invested in. And, you know, I remember when I was a teenager I read somewhere about how one day Marquez - Gabriel Garcia Marquez - came down and he was crying. And his wife told him, oh, so your character died.
And at the time, I laughed and I ridiculed at how could someone, you know, cry over a character that he or she created. But with this novel, I really felt a major void in my life after it was done in a way. So kind of translating was one way of going back to all of these events and all of these characters that I had lived with for almost two or three years.
And, you know, the outcome was not that great because I was even more drained and saddened when I finished the translation, which was kind of going back and living with Jawad again and seeing how he would say things in English. And that's why I did it. But I'm not sure I'm going to translate my novels again. It's too much.
MCEVERS: Sinan Antoon's book is "The Corpse Washer." It's just been nominated for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. (Foreign language spoken) Antoon, thank you very much.
ANTOON: You're welcome. (Foreign language spoken)
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