Agri Ismail

Tell us a little about yourself – how long have you been writing? Any publications?

I currently live in Stockholm, Sweden, where I was born, but for over twenty years I moved around quite a bit: Paris, Baghdad, Iraqi Kurdistan, London, and Dubai. The first thing I wrote was when I was about ten and my teacher gave us an assignment to write a fairy tale. I had just seen John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, so essentially cribbed the entire plot of that film and shoehorned it into a fantasy setting. I wrote constantly after that: gory nihilistic horror stories, awful teenage poetry, trite magical realist stuff with on-the-nose metaphors. Since I had no idea what you’re supposed to do once you’ve actually finished writing something, I submitted stories and poems to the two or three places I’d actually heard of. They were considerate enough to send hand-written rejection notes kindly explaining I should perhaps in the future try to have a better idea of what kind of stuff they published. Turns out the New Yorker isn’t in the market for a lovelorn fifteen-year-old’s love poems that rhyme “heart” with “apart”, who knew. Then one day after twenty years or so I finally wrote a story that wasn’t terrible and on a whim, I sent it to The White Review, which I’d bought an issue of in London and admired immensely, and nine months later I received an e-mail that said that they wanted to publish it in an online issue. I was so shocked I had received something other than a rejection, I had to re-read the e-mail at least a dozen times to make sure I understood it correctly, slowly beginning to hope that maybe I could do this writing thing after all.

Specifically, tell us a bit more about your longlisted story – the inspiration behind it, the writing of it…

I keep returning to short fiction (even though I am supposed to be writing on a book – as Sarah Manguso says: I’ve written whole books in order to avoid writing other books) because they’re a good space in which you can try little narrative experiments. Can you write a story about the entire history of a single apartment’s inhabitants entirely comprised of that apartment’s rental ads? (You might be able to; I was not.) Is it possible to write a story about Middle Eastern geopolitics that takes place during a corporate conference call? (As it turns out, yeah, that can work.) So with this, I was interested to see whether it would be possible to somehow write around a topic, to write a story in which the event it alluded to was like this black hole in the middle of the narrative. I was in Iraq when I started thinking about this, over four years ago now (it has been rejected at least twenty times, the story has, but surprisingly often with a personal note stating the editors really liked it, it just wasn’t a good fit, which stopped me from dragging the story into the folder where homeless or unfinished stories go to die on my computer) and some news channel was showing an interview with the neighbour of someone who had just murdered lots and lots of people in the US. And the neighbour was performing the ritual of looking bewildered and saying how this was totally unexpected, how the mass-murderer had always seemed like such a kind person. I began to wonder if you could construct a biography of a person comprised entirely of outside accounts. Does it matter, then, that the murderer in the story had the film Zodiac, about the famous serial killer, on his laptop when he was arrested? What about the fact that Netflix was recommending that he watch Hot Tub Time Machine? Does any of the stuff that’s in the story actually give you any insight into the person? We tend to seek out foreshadowing clues when a person has done horrible things, as though the signs were always there, if only we had known where to look. And so we start reading things into what books they read, what music they listened to, offhand comments they made to friends. The mundane becomes portentous, and yet none of it needs to necessarily mean much of anything, not really.  That was what I found to be an interesting thing to investigate in story-form, as was the possibility to portray a multitude of unreliable narrators slightly contradicting one-another. Then, when I had decided on the formal constraints, inspired by Raymond Queneau’s Exercises de style, of course there’s great fun to be had in (perhaps not always successfully) mimicking International Art English, tabloid journalism, the New Yorker’s quaint insistence to keep using diacritics…

Name three short story writers you especially admire – why?

1. Hassan Blasim. An Iraqi author who lives in Finland, his collections Madman of Freedom Square, The Iraqi Christ, and The Corpse Exhibition have been translated from Arabic into English by Jonathan Wright. I love Blasim’s command of tone, how he can veer from stone-cold seriousness to outright absurdity via the oppressive or nightmarish. It’s extremely hard to write about something as over-reported on as the contemporary chaos in Iraq without it becoming maudlin or trite, Blasim makes it look easy.

2. Brian Evenson. His collections Altmann's Tongue and The Wavering Knife are just some of the weirdest, most inventive short stories I have ever read. The story White Square in particular is astonishing in the way that it takes a police interrogation, that we have seen myriad times on various procedurals, and turns it into a meditation on symbols, language, and the power of fiction itself. I was surprised to see that Deleuze, of all people, blurbed Altmann's Tongue, but after reading White Square it somehow made all the sense in the world.

3. Flannery O’Connor, whose collection A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories I picked up after a friend recommended it. For some reason I thought it would be some pretty pastoral stuff with a slight religious tinge to them, somewhat like Marilynne Robinson maybe, or Alice Munro. I had no idea what I was getting into, and the shock of reading the title story has still not worn off, a decade later. Nobody can find humanity and beauty in darkness quite like O’Connor.

(To choose only three is an impossible task, however, and I could just as easily have mentioned Barthelme, Claire-Louise Bennett, Octavia Butler, Lydia Davis, Nicole Flattery, Mary Gaitskill, Janice Galloway, Sherzad Hassan, David Hayden, A.M. Homes, Shirley Jackson, Kafka, Peter Kihlgård, Lorrie Moore, Nabokov, Cynthia Ozick, George Saunders, Hjalmar Söderberg, David Foster Wallace, Eley Williams, etc etc etc.)

  • Agri Ismaïl’s 2017/18 GBP Short Story Prize longlisted story, ‘Exhaustive portrait of Alan Ellis-Thompson, who murdered four children’, is available to read here.