Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I have just finished two novels about living under authoritarianism, one set in Yugoslavia during the Communist takeover just after World War Two, the other set in Iraq under Saddam Hussein.Learn more about Helen Benedict and her work at her official website.
Shadow Partisan by Nadja Tesich is a lyrical, compelling memoir-disguised-as-novel about growing up in Yugoslavia in the aftermath of World War Two. Anna, the child protagonist, lives with her hardened, brutish mother and indulged baby brother in a rural town, surrounded by peasants and their ancient superstitions. An intelligent, observant girl, Anna is totally different from everyone in her family and school, an outsider, so even as she doesn't understand everything she sees -- the end of the Nazis, the rise and fall of Communism -- she observes it all with uncanny insight. The voice of this young girl is beautiful, and it is fascinating to read of this area of the world before the Balkan Wars pulled it apart. The book doesn't read like a novel -- it simply follows the years of Anna growing up chronological order -- which is why I suspect it's really a memoir. But the writing is so lovely it doesn't matter. It was published by New Rivers Press in 1989, so is probably hard to find. It should be revived.
The second book, I'jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody by Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi novelist and film maker who now lives in the U.S., was published by City Lights Books in 2007. All things Iraqi fascinate me now, as I have just finished a nonfiction book about the Iraq War and am now writing a novel set in Iraq, too. Iraqi literature has a totally different tone and approach to Western literature, and often seems both experimental and ancient at the same time. This book plays with language and explores politics, but indirectly, as it is told through the voice of a man imprisoned under Saddam for writing an objectionable poem. It feels like reading a fever dream, one that is both meandering and bizarre yet strikingly clear at the same time. At times I was reminded of the formality and floridness of ancient Turkish poetry; at other times of Kafka. But either way, the novel gives you a clear sense of what it is like to seethe and squirm under the brutal hand of oppression.