Justin Sirois is the author of three books, Secondary Sound (2008), MLKNG SCKLS (2009), and most recently Falcons on the Floor, which launches tonight (March 27) with a reading at Metro Gallery in Baltimore. Falcons on the Floor tells the story of two young men fleeing their homes during the US siege of Fallujah in 2004. The book is the result of research and a collaboration with Haneen Alshujairy, an Iraqi refugee. After completing two literary projects together, Justin and Haneen have gone on to launch The Understanding Campaign, which “promotes empathy and understanding over conflict.”
In addition to writing, Sirois is an editor and designer for Narrow House, a publishing group “creating interdisciplinary language-based craziness,” and he is an active member of the vibrant Baltimore arts community. Interviewer Gina Myers first met him in 2005 through the literary scene, and in 2007 they co-hosted a Lame & Narrow House event at the Carriage House in Baltimore. They recently spoke over email about his new novel and current projects.
When did you first start working on Falcons on the Floor?
It would have been late 2007 when I first started drafting the novel. I remember having the rough outline — two young men from Fallujah travel up the Euphrates River to Ramadi to escape the siege. So that part was fairly simple. Research took up just as much time as writing during the first 2 years. I had to surround myself with material: photographs, documentaries, autobiographies, really anything I could get my hands on. Interviewing Iraqis also helped to dig out details that I would have otherwise missed. That’s how I met Haneen Alshujairy. She helped out a great deal.
Did you know it was going to be a novel from the start?
I did. Once the novel was outlined, once I had everything basically set, I knew it had to be novel-length. And I knew that the people of Fallujah deserved a novel about what happened over there in April and November of 2004.
How did you become interested in writing about Fallujah?
Initially it was the reports of white phosphorus being used by the Coalition that made me furious about the sieges. I started doing some research to find out more because there was so little news coming out about the battles. I know that Fallujah will become increasingly important in the next few decades; we just did too much damage over there to think people will just forgive and forget. With the surge in cancer rates and birth defects in Fallujah and Ramadi, seemingly from the use of either depleted or slightly enriched uranium, we might be paying for these mistakes for much longer than I can even imagine. Falcons on the Floor begins to address, at least within the world of literature, these issues.
I saw in another interview that you see this book as not having a political agenda, but it seems with this subject matter that many people will have a hard time not seeing it any other way. What do you hope readers take away from your novel?
First and foremost, this novel is about people — it’s about two young men struggling with their identities during a time of extreme violence. A lot of it has to do with how technologies change the way we interact with each other. Khalil is dealing with his new-found “celebrity” status via a photograph published by the Associated Press; Salim is dealing with his creativity and trying to maintain his voice when a group of people want to use his talents for their own cause. The two men have very different ways of dealing with the pressure put upon them, but together, even if they don’t want to admit it, they are stronger.
As tough as it was, I tried my hardest not to pass any judgements on the situation — the war and two sieges of Fallujah. Doing so would alienate a large group of readers, and that doesn’t interest me. Political art and writing, when it’s too preachy or overt, doesn’t have enough faith in the audience to allow them to make up their own mind or, more importantly, bring their own experiences to the work. If you’re going to speak to people, you have to let them approach the work and move around in it on their own terms. Otherwise, they will either be bored or insulted.
I think you do an excellent job with the characters Salim and Khalil–in fact, some readers will already know these characters from your previous collection of “deleted Word documents from the laptop of Salim Abid, April 2004,” MLKNG SCKLS. MLKNG SCKLS is presented as pieces that could have been included in Falcons on the Floor, but were not. Can you explain how that project came about?
After completing the novel, I felt like I still wanted to work with the characters, like they wouldn’t get out of my head. I went back to my notes and started pulling out ideas for scenes that weren’t fully developed. Sometimes they were sketches — literally just ink drawings — and I started to piece together short stories. The “uncooking” scene came from one sketch. Some of the writing turned out to be flash fiction; some of them were longer pieces.
When I had about 60 pages of material, I pieced it all together and gave it to Adam Robinson at Publishing Genius. He did some shuffling and made some smart suggestions and in the end we published this nice introduction to Salim and Khalil. That came out in 2009 so people have had a while to know these two guys. It was a cool way to introduce that world to people. Fallujah is as “foreign” as you can get, maybe.
I am glad you mentioned the “uncooking” scene–that was one of my favorites from MLKNG SCKLS. I also noticed some wonderful food descriptions in Falcons on the Floor, like Twizzlers that tasted like “strawberry candles,” which I had never thought about but seemed so spot on when I read it. Do you find writing about food particularly enjoyable, or is it just simply your attention to detail?
I guess I just love describing things. And I love food. I’ve also found that sharing food is a big part of my life. Cooking for people is important to me. Going out to eat (and drink) takes up a lot of my social time. So food, maybe in my work as well, has become a device to get closer to people, to relate to people. That’s obvious in the “uncooking” story.
It’s also easy to get visceral when writing about food. In Falcons and SCKLS, I was engaged on a very visceral level; I wanted the reader to smell and taste Iraq, the Euphrates, Fallujah as it subcombed to plumes of white phosphorus and possibly radioactive detonations.
In addition to writing, you’re involved in a number of other projects, such as the Understanding Campaign and Narrow House. Can you tell me a little about each of those?
Haneen and I started the Understanding Campaign. Originally our goal was to teach everyone in the world just one word of Arabic. The word is Fhm (fuh’hem’) which literally means “understanding.” We had a pretty successful Kickstarter campaign and donated a large portion of the profits to the Iraqi Student Project. In the past year, we’ve been blogging and posting Arab/American and Muslim news. We also offer support to Arab and Muslim/American related nonprofits.
Narrow House is a small press I co-direct with Jamie Gaughran-Perez and Mark Cugini with Lauren Bender on hiatus of sorts. We haven’t published too much in the past year, but we’re in the middle of correcting that. Look out!
The first book you published, Secondary Sound, was a book of poetry, but your last two books have been fiction. What drew you to fiction? Have you moved away from poetry completely?
I’ve always wanted to write fiction, but I just didn’t have the right tools. I majored in Printmaking of all things. I don’t have an MFA. So it took me along time to figure out how to organize a plot, how tension works, how to make dialogue do more than just “speak”. I really didn’t understand gesture, like how important physical gesture is, until a few years ago.
Poetry sort of came naturally to me, I guess. I just sat down and worked at it until it made me happy and eventually made other people happy when they read it. And I still write poems from time to time. I have a full length book of poems coming out this summer from Newlights Press. It’s called The Heads of My Family, My Friends, My Colleagues.
What do you have coming up next? New projects? Appearances?
A lot. I’ve got that book of poems coming out which is exciting because Aaron Cohick makes absolutely beautiful books.
I’m 45 pages through a manuscript titled The Last Book of Baghdad. It’s about Salim’s mother, Nisreen Abid. It takes place in 2004 – 2007, but centers around the bombing of Al Mutannabi Street in Baghdad. The novel is very different from Falcons. It’s more ambitious with time jumps and almost 20 characters. And it’s far more violent. I’m hoping to address some issue I didn’t get to in Falcons like the systematic murder of Iraqi Christians, the mistreatment of Iraqi interpreters by the Coalition, and, strangely enough, how unemployment sometimes creates communities. It’s also nice to have a strong female lead for once.
I also wrote this novel about metalhead teenagers growing up in New Hampshire in 1993. Dark Sky Books is interested in it. There’s a lot of D&D and death metal and abuse in it. About 65% of it is true. That is slated for 2013.
Is it 65% true in regards to your own life or someone else’s? Were you a metal head teenager?
65% true to my own life, and then maybe another 10% is true about other people’s lives. One of the characters is a blend of two pretty fucked up metal kids my brother and I knew, one in New Hampshire and one in Florida. And yeah, the first CD I ever bought was Carcass’s Necroticism – Descanting the Insalubrious. I still own it. I still love it.
Gina Myers is the author of A Model Year (Coconut Books, 2009) and an occasional contributor to Frontier Psychiatrist. Her last piece for the site was a review of Mayer Hawthorne’s How Do You Do. She lives in Atlanta.