Interview with shortlisted author Dunya Mikhail
Where were you when the shortlist was announced? What was your reaction?
It was at dawn here in the US, and I usually wake up late because I stay up late at night. But that morning I was woken on time thanks to a call from my publisher Dar al-Rafidain. His voice was elated when he told me the news. After that messages from friends lit up my phone with congratulatory words one after the other. All this filled my heart with joy and gratitude and drove the sleepiness away.
You mentioned in a previous interview that you wrote about the experience of Yazidi women in narrative and non-fiction form, but that “there was still a creative urge within me to write an imaginative work” which became this novel. Did The Bird Tattoo fulfil this urge, or can we expect further writing about the Yazidi minority?
I had to come up with a great deal of beauty to strike a balance with the dark, nightmarish world that controls the novel’s events which are also the facts of contemporary history. Amidst the confusing questions which overwhelmed me in the face of such a humanitarian catastrophe, I did not have definitive answers but responses. The Bird Tattoo is a response which required me to enter a cocoon and emerge with a butterfly. Art is a butterfly that has an enormous impact on the world despite its fragility. Only pure art can enable us to change a catastrophic reality to an aesthetic reality. When we succeed in this, our characters also succeed in garnering the world’s attention. When characters are marginalized, art becomes doubly important in raising awareness. As Constantin Virgil Gheorghiu said, “those living on the margins, the margins of the world, the margins of civilization, the margins of society, are the ones who can see the world’s bitter facts.”
Helen and Elias’ relationship is a deeply romantic one, particularly when they decide to get tattoos instead of wedding rings to avoid any chance of separation. Yet, they do separate. Does the novel imbue such a cross-identity relationship with romance only to condemn it with expulsion?
It is not an expulsion of romance but to establish a paradox. There are paradoxes and metaphors in this novel. The permanence of the tattoo and the separation of the two lovers is one of them. The celebratory rituals of the freedom of the bird and the burning of the cage are also a metaphor, when those celebrating fall prisoners to human cages. The cracks in the ceramic plates are another metaphor for the falsity of perfect beauty, and that pain is a defining marker in a person’s soul.
How do you see the role of mythology in a novel that describes a painfully realistic catastrophe such as that of the Yazidis?
I used myths as a vital part of the plot to add another layer to the events; to add depth and pleasure to what mythology represents in terms of symbolic, folkloric and historical dimensions in people’s emotions. For example, the whale that swallows the moon has an important semantic significance in the novel on at least two or three levels: revealing the contexts that foreshadow what will happen, which invites the reader to infer interpretations of the incident, creating parallels between reality and illusion, in addition to forming perspectives about cultural and popular concepts in the region.
Were you surprised by any reviews of the novel? How would you like the novel to be read?
A good review is one that answers the question “why” someone loved the novel rather than explain the story as if to make it easier for the reader. I was pleased with the reviews that paid attention to the way I worked on the novel as a literary text, for example, how I placed the scenes before the reader as objectively as possible, with the purpose of leaving enough space for the reader to test his/her own feelings and reactions to events in a spontaneous and genuine way.
Which authors influenced you as a novelist?
I don’t exactly know. I read poetry and philosophy and sometimes scientific theory, not only fiction. I think my experience in journalism has to a certain extent affected my writing. I worked at The Baghdad Observer before leaving Iraq and this was an important experience for me as a writer. We read pieces by Reuters and learned from them the techniques for writing reports. Some of the takeaways for example are capturing the reader’s attention from the first sentence and steering clear of subjectivity when addressing a story or news piece. A journalist stands behind his writing and not in front of it, and that is also what a fiction writer should do.
What are you reading now? Has your reading list been influenced by the Coronavirus stay at home recommendations?
I reread some books in my home library such as The Plague by Albert Camus and poetry by American poet W.S. Merwin and On Photography, a collection of amazing articles by Susan Sontag whose way of philosophizing things I love. I mostly read in English because that is what is more available here than Arabic books, and also to improve my second language.