"The imam said that the Americans were like the lion who had stepped on a thorn, and then went about making a great noise, roaring at the world from his pain. But it would soon pass, he said, when the thorn dried up and fell out, when the pain ebbed, and then tranquility would be restored" (The Book of Jonas). For Mediapart, the novelist Stephen Dau talks about his first novel.
The Book of Jonas is your first novel. What was its inspiration?
Like most novels, inspiration came from many places. Part of it is that, for a little while, I worked with people who had lived through a war. So I had an interest in what that does to people, and how people respond to it. One specific incident I would recall was a press conference that George Bush gave in 2003, right after the invasion of Iraq. One of the reporters asked him how many innocent civilians had been killed up to that point. He looked at the man who had asked the question and said, "Oh, I think it's around 30,000," as if he was reciting the score of some sporting event. I remember thinking to myself at that time, "Someone has got to tell one of those stories." Since then, it's gone far beyond that. But his response to that question triggered a visceral reaction in me. It wasn't just against that comment. It was against the lack of understanding of what war costs in human terms — not just on his part, but at that time, it seemed, on the part of most Americans. Having had this tiny bit of experience with people who had lived through that, in a different context, I thought, this needs to be explored and talked about. When you make the decision to go off to war, you're making a decision that's going to affect, in this case, literally millions of lives. You don't take it lightly. And I felt he was taking it very lightly at that point.
You may know many books published last year were about war in Iraq (Yellow birds, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, Fobbit, The End of Major Combat Operation). How do you explain this interest?
Over the past decade there have been many non-fiction books about the recent wars, and several years ago there was a great book of poetry, Here, Bullet by Brian Turner, but there hasn't really been much fiction until now. There was The Submission by Amy Waldman, and a number of very good books by Pakistani authors, The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam and The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohshin Hamid. But not too many, and not too many from American authors. I suspect it simply has to do with the amount of time it takes to write a novel. But I think now that the first batch has arrived, it will continue to come. America has not even begun to address what it has been doing for the past decade. Emotionally, the country has so far not engaged with it. But we will be dealing with the aftermath of this for a long time. Tree of Smoke which was about Vietnam, came out five years ago, almost thirty five years after that war ended. The war in Afghanistan is now the longest-running war in American history, and the war in Iraq killed—well, who knows exactly how many non-Americans have been killed, because America doesn't keep statistics about how many non-Americans it's killed. I've seen estimates ranging from one hundred and twenty thousand to nearly a million. We'll be dealing with this for years, probably generations, both within America and outside of it, and our fiction will continue to reflect that.
Your novel takes place in a nameless country. It may be Iraq — you mention the word « hajji » used during the Iraq war — but it’s also the land of any war. Why this ambiguity ? Is it a way to make your novel more allegorical ?
There are probably two reasons for leaving Jonas's home country vague. One of them is very practical: I didn't feel like I knew any one place well enough to stick a flag in the ground and say, "This is where Jonas is from." Unless you know a place very well, everyone who's been there, and everyone who lives there currently, will inevitably have more information about that place than you do, especially if it's some place you've just visited. You have to get it exactly, absolutely right, and I didn't feel like I knew any plausible place well enough to be able to get it that right. The second, and probably more important, reason for leaving it vague is the fact that this is a story that could have happened in lots of different places, and so not specifically saying where it happens allows it to have happened in many places. It allows for a certain universality.
JG Ballard wrote that today « the writer's role is almost superfluous. He does not need to invent the fiction because it is already there ». Do you agree with this idea?
I think that what Ballard was talking about specifically was the way so much of public life has been taken over by advertising and mass media which try, purely for economic purposes, to create their own narrative reality, their own fiction, and then get us to buy into it. We are therefore surrounded constantly by these invented stories, all of which have been created with ulterior motives. Within that narrow frame of reference, I probably agree, although I'm not sure (having just now read the interview from which that quote was taken) that he meant it to be taken literally. But maybe he did.
I think the writer's role, broadly defined, is to tell good stories, to create for the reader an experience through which the reader can pass and emerge transformed in some way. Because human beings are storytellers by nature, I doubt that role will disappear. I think (or at least hope) that Ballard would have agreed with that.
You never describe directly the war. We read it through Christopher’s diary, Jonas’ memories or press dispatches. How would you explain this choice ?
This gets to the difficulty of pinning down external reality. Everyone filters reality through his or her own lens, and this is particularly true of traumatic or difficult events. Police detectives in America say that if you interview twenty witnesses to the same murder, you will get twenty different stories. The book's alternating points of view was an effort to reflect that. Objective reality shifts and bends depending upon how it is approached, and who is approaching it. No two people ever have exactly the same remembrance of the same event, and they tend to have their own justifications for the things they do.
The three main characters of your book are a foreign boy, Younis/Jonas, an American soldier, Christopher, and his mother, Rose. Was it important for you to show each side of one war ?
It was absolutely vital to me that the main point of view was not American. We know the American point of view. We can say many things about the wars America has fought over the past ten years, but one thing we cannot say is that we somehow lack an American perspective on them. One thing that sticks out at me about the list of fiction you mentioned previously is that each of those books approaches the wars from an American point of view. These are wars that have been fought mostly in countries other than America, and ninety nine percent of their casualties have been non-American. (Actually that's one of the things that is so chilling to me: the fact that we have all of these soldiers from Western countries who have been killed and wounded, and then realize that they don't account for more than a percent or two of the total number of victims of these wars.) So I felt I had to tell it from a predominantly non-American perspective. But it is also a fundamentally American story, the losses and long-term consequences of which will echo through the American landscape for years to come. So not incorporating the American perspective would be an injustice as well. I was trying to tell a story that honored all sides.
A charity sends Jonas to live with the Martins, an evangelical family in Pennsylvania. Many passages of the book — showing the reactions of the Americans — are very critical. Why ?
I don't think it's exclusively critical. There are many Americans in the book who try to help Jonas, and there a some who are pretty good about it. But they can't possibly know what he has been through, so they try to help in whatever way they can. I suppose you could say they act without understanding. And I suppose you could make the case that this also tells part of the larger story.
Your novel is very fragmented. We read a story (following Jonas’ memories or Rose trying to understand what happened to her son), Christopher’s diary, etc. Was it a way to tell how difficult it is to have one point of view, or one truth about something so complex ? Is it also why you don't tell the story linearly?
Once again this is something that comes from both a practical and an aesthetic consideration. Trauma is a fragmenting experience, and those who experience it often divide their lives, their consciousnesses, their psyches into different compartments as a way of dealing with it. It's a coping mechanism, a way of walling off the source of the trauma so it's easier to handle, or easier to ignore. Telling the story that way felt like an effective way of illustrating that.
From a practical standpoint, I'm pretty good at writing beginnings, and pretty good at writing endings, but I'm really not very good at writing middles. So I wrote a whole book of little sections of beginnings and endings, and this had the effect of creating a fragmented narrative structure. (I am only half joking about this.)
Your novel is deliberately very ambiguous but also very critical of the way the USA considered the war : you speak about its « expansionist thirst », say that the whole attack on the village was a mistake. Would you define yourself as a politically engaged writer ?
I don't consider myself a particularly political person. I'm not involved in partisan politics, either in Europe or in America. And I think if you are writing fiction with the explicit purpose of furthering some political agenda, your fiction is probably not going to be very good. But I do think that if you are as honest in your writing as you can possibly be, it can sometimes have the effect of making a point that might be considered political.
You also analyze the way the USA wants to understand and categorize everything. Is fiction the way to escape from this cold rationality ?
It is a culture that is extraordinarily good at categorizing people. Soldier. Mother. Terrorist. In the context of public discourse, these labels are applied and we are then expected to stop thinking. We are led to believe that if we can categorize someone, we immediately know the core of that person's existence. The category becomes a kind of shorthand, and this process is its own form of dehumanization. To tell this story, it seemed important to try to humanize all sides of it, to break through those labels, and using multiple points of view seemed to be the best way to do that.
You write : « This story is different. Each story is different. But all of them share a need to be told, to be heard, and Rose knows how to hear them. She knows that these gaps are important, that they mean something. She knows that often the gaps are nearly as important as the story itself ». Would you agree with the idea this sentences define the entire project and art of writing of The Book of Jonas ?
The fundamental importance of the reader—or, in this case, Rose, the listener—to the story, I think defines the project of any piece of writing. When you write something, you are literally using the reader's mind as your canvas. The gaps in the story, what is left unsaid, allows the reader to fill in from his or her own experience. To a greater extent than any of the visual or performing arts, writing depends on its audience. A film is still a film if the theater is empty, and a painting can be displayed in an empty gallery. But a book is just a pile of paper until a reader decides to engage with it. The experience is created in the mind of the audience.
You worked in postwar reconstruction. Is fiction a way to extend this ?
Working in development certainly influenced my fiction, mostly by giving me access to the practical, immediate effects of war on real people. After going to Sarajevo, I could no longer see people on the news reports as abstractions. It's probably only natural that I started writing about them. But I wouldn't call my fiction an extension of that work, other than the fact that my interests and outlook now are similar to what they were then. Fiction is more creative, reflective, and documentary. It tries to mold reality, alter it, fit it into a manageable shape, and present it back to the reader. In contrast, reconstruction or development seeks to deal with a specific situation to achieve a specific goal. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive endeavors, but they are not at all the same.
Why did you choose to leave the USA and live in Bruxelles?
There were a number of personal reasons, but beyond those, September 11th, and specifically the response to September 11th, forced me to fundamentally reconsider my relationship with my country. I know that sounds a little melodramatic, and I don't like to think that I was naïve beforehand. I certainly had a conception that the US, like many countries, had done things which lacked a noble purpose. But it's one thing to know it intellectually and another to live through it. What affected me so much wasn't necessarily that we started two wars, authorized torture, authorized the kidnapping of anyone, anywhere in the world, eroded personal freedoms at home, etc. It was the fact that there was so much support for it. Let's not forget that the invasion of Iraq was supported by seventy percent of Americans. I found it very difficult to live in a country that had supported the fundamental negation of so much of what I believed in.
Beyond that, I like living in Europe. I like the overall quality of life. Ironically, perhaps, Europeans enjoy slightly more personal freedom than Americans, and far more privacy. The healthcare is far better here, as is the quality of the food—you don't realize how fundamental food quality is, but my wife, who grew up in Europe, gets sick on the food in America every time we go back. I don't know what they do with the food there, but for her it's like visiting a developing country, nutritionally, and lots of other Europeans who visit there say the same thing. Political corruption exists in Europe, but it's nothing like in the U.S., where politicians are openly bought and sold and corporations have such a prevalent role in both legislative process and in everyday life. I always feel like a walking dollar sign when I'm in America.
But there are lots of things I still love and miss about my country. I miss the friendliness, the way you chat with people in public. If I ever make the mistake of trying to chat with someone in a grocery store in Belgium they look at me like I'm insane. Compared with Europe, class distinctions are almost non-existent in the US. The casual racism in Europe is absolutely shocking for an American, but Europe doesn't have the same sort of history of race-consciousness that America has. America's acceptance of newcomers is a real strength. If you live in the US for five years, your neighbors will basically consider you an American with an accent. That doesn't happen as much here, where you have third and fourth generation immigrants who feel cut off and excluded from society.
But I'm not entirely comfortable in America anymore. I have changed, or it has changed, or maybe both. Visiting home often feels like visiting a foreign country. It's okay, though. I've gotten used to feeling a little caught in the middle.
(Thanks to Stephen Dau for answering my questions by email).