At the American Comparative Literature Conference last week in Seattle, I participated in a seminar titled “What Does War Look Like? Visual Trauma and Representation.” Organized by Brenda Sanfilippo, a UC-Santa Cruz professor whose husband is a former paratrooper, the seminar explored the ethics and aesthetics of photographs, films, comic books, and graphic novels depicting war, conflict, and violence. My own contribution was a discussion of an Israeli theorist of photography named Ariella Azoulay. In The Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography (2012) and two previous works, Azoulay advances a concept called “the photographic situation.” Properly understood, “the photographic situation” expands our understanding of how we might interpret photographs, while suggesting that photography, as a visual medium, uniquely and importantly engages us with the modern world. Heady stuff for sure, but I’ll save the detailed explanation for another post.
Most of the other presentations focused more specifically on actual photographs or other popular culture artifacts. Two presentations that especially interested me were on comic book series, one by Spencer Chalifour on the Hellblazer series and the other by Najwa Al-Tabaa on DMZ. I didn’t know either Hellblazer or DMZ, each of which address war in Iraq or a generalized state of emergency post-9/11, or much really about comic books at all, but am perfectly willing to consider that comic books, graphic novels, cartoons, and comic culture directly or indirectly channel the zeitgeist that envelops the hearts and minds of soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. If we expand our definition of comic culture to include video gaming, role-playing games, and animated movies, I know it. Among a million other data points, I could point to Chris Kyle’s admission in American Sniper of his love for playing Command and Conquer, a shooter-killer video game, in-between real-world sniper missions in Iraq. He wasn’t the only soldier whose entertainment choices—more visual than textual—blurred and blended with his or her experience of combat.
As it happened, next door to the ACLA conference, the Emerald City ComiCon, or “ECCC,” was taking place at the Washington State Convention Center. Needless to say, ECCC’s attendance dwarfed ACLA’s, and its attendees looked like they were having a hell of a lot more fun. The Convention Center grounds swelled with thousands of comic culture nuts, costumed to the hilt, gathered to celebrate their favorite comic book, animé, cosplay, sci-fi, fantasy, and role-playing-game works, heroes, authors, and creators. It was impossible not to be jazzed by the explosion of imaginative energy and cheerful sociability. There was a critical edge, too, of a sort, to ECCC, though quite unlike the super-serious tone of ACLA. “How to Make Beer Money with Your Comic or Zine,” ran one panel title that caught my eye. Noticeably absent from the ECCC agenda, however, were testosterone-soaked shooter games such as Call of Duty and action-adventure games such as Grand Theft Auto, the likes of which soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan by the hundreds of thousands enjoyed. The ComiCon crowd is not shy about its fascination with darkness, perversity, evil, and violence, but it is a very stylized engagement—very girly and geeky and progressive–that eschews militarism and modern war, not that that’s a bad thing….
Meanwhile, back at ACLA, I was delighted to listen to a paper titled “The Spread of the Camp: Power, Law, and the ‘New Democracy’” given by a University of Delaware professor named Ikram Masmoudi at a panel on contemporary Arabic literature. Masmoudi, as if in answer to a question I never asked because I didn’t know who the heck to query, catalogued a number of novels published in Iraq since 2003 that portrayed “Operation Iraqi Freedom” from the perspective of Iraqis. Specifically, Masmoudi examined representations in recent Iraqi fiction of American “camps,” or what we might call more often a FOB: armed enclaves of foreigners that spread parasite-like across the country in the 2000s after the American invasion and, as these things happen, now are being replicated by Iraqi factions themselves as new-fangled communal living spaces organized to meet the demands of civil war.
Masmoudi’s presentation was very exciting to me. I know well the achievement of Hassan Blasim and am somewhat aware that Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer and Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad lurk out there waiting to be read. Now, thanks to Masmoudi, I know that other Iraqi fiction writers have been busy, too. A short list includes:
Madmen of Camp Bucca, by Shakir Noori
Green Zone, by Shakir Noori
The Freedom of the Bagged Heads, by Jassim al-Raseef
The American Granddaughter, by Inaam Kachachi
Beyond Love, by Hadiyya Hussein
A translated version of The American Granddaughter exists and is available for purchase on-line, while Masmoudi herself is translating Beyond Love. The first three await translation from Arabic, but based on Masmoudi’s account of them at ACLA, they have much to offer American readers interested in seeing what the war looked like from the other side. Masmoudi also has an academic study coming out later this year called War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction (Edinburgh University Press). Now who would have predicted a full-length scholarly study of Iraqi war fiction would appear in English before one examining war novels written by our own citizens? Let’s get busy, ye fellow American literature scholars.
Thanks to Brenda Sanfillipo and Najwa Al-Tabaa for organizing our ACLA seminar and inviting me to participate, and thanks to everyone who presented. I haven’t finished thinking about your papers yet.