Monday, March 26, 2012

Flights into War: An interview with Justin Sirois

Interview by Adam Shutz

Early last week I had a brief meeting with a colleague for reasons so boring that I won’t bother committing them to print, but we met outside the University of Baltimore where he briefly went to law school until he was drafted to Vietnam. Before we finally shook hands he left me with an antidote about his time at UB: “It was around 1964. I just started law school. My first lecture class had about 140 students in it. It was in a big room. Then someone went and started a war. By the time I was drafted there were only 30 of us left. The room was empty… It was a lot different back then.”

It’s hard not to compare such a story to the general effect the Iraq War had on our generation. I was in college throughout “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” and can’t say it affected my life much, save the slight trickle of disturbing statistics and images peppering the political hyperbole that we call news. I must admit, it took some effort to remain conscious that these numbers represented real things, people, and were not just quotes from the stat sheet of a professional Call Of Duty gamer.

And this is where Justin Sirois’ new novel, “Falcons on the Floor,” comes into play. It is another reminder that there were people on the other side of that TV, that there were people on the other side of those guns. People who did in fact have lives that got all fucked up cause someone went and started a war.

"Falcons on the Floor" (Publishing Genius Press), $12 from PGP's website. Justin will also be reading from his new book tomorrow, March 26th @ Worms (Metro Gallery).

Artichoke Haircut: Why don’t we start this off with a stock question… Why do you write?

Justin Sirois: That’s a tough question. I feel like I have so many motivations to write. If I didn’t have a creative outlet, I know I’d be in huge trouble – I’d either be doing something dangerous to myself or others. Writing expels a lot of my anxieties and energy. So yeah, it’s a healthy practice and without it I’d be absolutely lost. I also love creating stories and characters. It’s always happened naturally for me. As a kid, I’d make up weird characters – monsters and aliens and whatever – and I’d draw and act them out, talking out loud and probably making an ass of myself.

It’s also like a huge puzzle to outline and draft a novel or poem. Even though the process is tough, I believe you have to fall in love with the labor of craftsmanship. With writing, you get all the crap on the page and shift it around, throw out all the unnecessary or boring parts and hopefully create something that people can relate to. Nothing is more satisfying. Nailing a good sentence or scene. I can’t think of a better high. It also helps that I like to be alone in a room for hours at a time.

AH: The book seems to stem, at least in part, from the famous photo of the blown up and burnt Blackwater contractors who were hung from the bridge in Fallujah, while the citizens of the town appear to be dancing and celebrating in an almost primal passion. What was it about the young man with his hand raised that fascinated you and made you think: there is a story here, one which people might not expect?

JS: So that’s the famous Associate Press photo that really made the Blackwater/Fallujah tangible for everyone around the world. I stared at that photo for months wondering about the civilians and their motivations. After a while, what interested me wasn’t the mutilated corpses, but the witnesses to the massacre – how it affected their lives and what they saw that day. The young man in the foreground, the one raising his hand, just wouldn’t leave me alone. I wondered about him and how he was affected by the photo itself. Had he become a celebrity of sorts? How would he deal with that fame?

As a lot of the novel deals with technology and media and how people relate to each other using those modern forms of communication, the catalyst of the photo seemed like an appropriate layer. Salim and Khalil, the two main characters in "Falcons on the Floor," struggle to maintain their identities during a time of extreme violence, but they both have very different ways of dealing with that struggle. Salim is creative, he documents and preserves his experiences while Khalil turns to violence. And sometimes Khalil’s violence is more productive than Salim’s creativity.

AH: You mention that the novel deals with how people relate to each other using technology. Much of the novel is driven by a search for technology – a search for an internet signal, a cell phone signal, an outlet – as well as it is a novel about running away from technology and media presence. Khalil appears torn over his image in the Associated Press photo (at times he embraces it, other times he runs from the person that photo appears to represent), and Salim is extremely cautious of his image of graphic designer for the Mujaheddin. And while the Iraqis are cautious of technology, so are the Americans: cell phones can detonate bombs, laptops can hold secrets, etc. It's interesting how you deal with this in your book. How do you see the beneficial aspects of technology compared to their potential to become a negative, and how is this exacerbated in a war zone? 

JS: There’s so many variables to globalization that it’s tough, and probably unhelpful, to generalize, but I’m going to do it anyway. Before modern forms of electronic communication – telephone, satellite, Internet – cultures and countries were divided by geography. It sounds simple, but that’s what made cultures and religions so different; we were divided by land and sea. We had thousands of years to develop in isolation.

Throughout the industrial revolution, globalization sped up. People around the world began knowing more about each other, our similarities and differences. Again, I am really generalizing here. Digital communication has allowed globalization to speed up so fast that cultures are literally shocked at one another. A young girl in Afghanistan can watch satellite TV and see a home makeover in Wichita. She can think, “Why don’t I have those luxuries?” Terrorists use this shock tactic to great effect; the "The Spirit of Terrorism" is probably the best essay I’ve ever read on that.

The majority, the civil people, are exposed to videos and literature created by a small minority of extremists and that material is compelling and sensational enough to drown out so much of the normal, everyday good that is happening in the world. Luckily, for all the evil and vile stuff in the world and on the Internet, there’s a lot more beautiful and helpful stuff out there. And I’m a true believer in the good stuff.

So to answer your question, communication technologies speed up global tension – they connect us to each other and cultural/religious conflicts are bound to occur. The stories inside those billions of conflicts are the most interesting part for me. I can’t elaborate on specific war technologies because this interview would go on and on and no one reads that much on the net. Everyone should check out the insane advances in night-vision though; this technology is frightening. Thermal hand and foot prints left on objects? Amazing.

AH: Innocence plays a large part in this novel, both Salim and Khalil's innocence, as well as in the life of the American soldier (I couldn't find his name in the book). How do you see innocence as a cause of and a contrast to war?

JS: Firstly, I intentionally didn’t name the solider so I’m glad you pointed that out. Keeping him anonymous hopefully made the perspective shifts more emotional for the reader.

And I also kept Salim and Khalil’s ages a bit of the mystery. I do hint at how old they are towards the end of the novel, but it was important to me to allow the reader to create their identities much like the reader assumes the identity of the nameless soldier. I think this might add to the sense of innocence in the book as well.

I really don’t think innocence is a cause of war. Wars are conflicts between corporate, religious, and government powers but also, when you boil it all down, they are over identity and ego. Millions of innocent people’s lives are affected or ruined by these conflicts, and I’m most interested in those people. My relationship with Haneen Alshujairy, the woman who edited and advised on Falcons, began with my need to relate to the civilians in Iraq.

AH: I'm glad you brought up Haneen Alshujairy. How did the two of you meet? In what ways did she help you research the book and empathize with the Iraqis... the sworn enemies of the US, chewing through hydraulics lines to bring down airplanes... or, no, maybe I have that wrong, maybe they're the delicate and ancient culture we're trying to protect... that's not quite right either... anyway, you see what I mean.

JS: Haneen and I met online when I was searching for Iraqis to interview. She was one of 60 people I solicited. Her most important role, beyond editing and consulting on the novel, was giving me the courage to continue this work. I feel like I was always empathetic towards the people of Fallujah. After the reports came in about the use of white phosphorus and photos of vulcanized corpses started flooding the Internet (here’s our aforementioned eGlobalization happening), I was furious. Google “siege of Fallujah” or “Fallujah uranium” and you’ll get a good picture of what I’m talking about.

But yeah, the kicker is Haneen and I never met face-to-face. I had plans to travel to Cairo to visit her last spring, but the Arab Spring postponed that trip. I really don’t mind. It’s worth the wait.

Does she plan on, or want to go back to Iraq?

JS: If Baghdad were to return to a state of civility, Haneen and her family would go back. They even have family in Fallujah. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Haneen’s entire adult life has been the war. She left Baghdad when she was thirteen. She had to reinvent her life in a foreign country. She’s doing the best she can.

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