Leaving Iraq: An Interview with Refugee Dunya Mikhail — Part I

The Fall 2011 issue of Malpaís Review features a mini-anthology of Iraqi poets that I guest-edited. I took on the project because I am struggling for greater background about the culture and society of my father’s early years. Though there is plenty of talk in the media about Iraq, I chose to enlarge my world view by studying the country’s poets.

To better ready you for the remarkable poems you’ll find in this issue of Malpaís Review, I interviewed Dunya Mikhail, one of the writers I included in the anthology,

Dunya was born in Baghdad in 1965 and emigrated to the US in 1996 due to the difficult conditions she experienced in her country. In 2001, she was awarded the U.N. Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing. She has published five books in Arabic and two in English (translated by Elizabeth Winslow). The War Works Hard was the first contemporary poetry book by an Iraqi woman published in the U.S. Named one of the 25 best books of 2005 by the New York Public Library, it won the PEN Translation Award. Her latest book, Diary of A Wave Outside the Sea, won the Arab American Book Award.

Dunya’s first languages are Arabic and the ancient tongue of Aramaic. She responded to me in her third language, English.

In your poem “A Tombstone” (from The War Works Hard) you write, “please / destroy my memories completely.” Please talk about that.

DM: Sometimes I feel that the time I lived in Iraq (the first 30 years of my life) was not real, was a dream from which I woke up. I try to understand why I feel this way. Is it because the reality was so surrealistic? Both of my happy and sad moments were so deep. My parents were very open to my wishes, but the public life was so strict. My parents provided me with books, but never knew that I was writing until my first book came out (during my college time). I liked that they didn’t interfere in my writing, but the government did. It was watching us all the time and coming after us in every step.

Poetry made my life bearable and unbearable. Bearable and even beautiful despite the war, but unbearable because we could not write the way we wanted. We had to hide behind symbols and metaphors. It was because of poetry that I left my country, but poetry, in return, saved my life. Not in the metaphorical way, but it really did.

Part Two: Award-winning Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail talks about memories and truth.

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