An Interview with Justin Sirois
Falcons on the Floor author Justin Sirois sat down via email to speak with The Los Angeles Review’s Nicolle Elizabeth about the book from his bunker in Baltimore, which coincided with a week-long blackout that produced Fallujah-like conditions amid the scorching mid-Atlantic summer.
NE: Justin what inspired you to write this book?
JS: Initially I was profoundly upset at the Coalition’s response to the Blackwater tragedy. The two sieges of Fallujah, one in April of 2004 and the other in November of the same year, were deplorable. We shot white phosphorus over the city and it has been reported that our ammunition was jacketed with depleted (or slightly enriched) uranium. Both were banned by the UN decades ago.
The level of civilian casualties was astounding. I’ve talked to Marines who were there and their accounts of the sieges are just as disturbing as what independent journalist Dahr Jamail (now with Al Jazeera English) reported and wrote about in his book Beyond the Green Zone.
The sieges were so underreported that I knew it was a subject I could dedicate a large part of my creative and political life to. No one was talking about the civilian population – the normal people who had to deal with the destruction of their city. As far as I know, Falcons on the Floor is the only novel written from an Iraqi’s perspective about Fallujah.
I figured, if I was going to write a novel, it should be a book the world needed and I think the world needs to know more about the people of Fallujah.
NE: Have you ever worked in journalism?
JS: I have so much respect for journalists, especially war correspondents and photojournalists. But no, I’ve never worked in the field. And I’ve never considered myself an activist in any way. I care deeply about the situation in Iraq, particularly Fallujah and Ramadi, for what we did and are still doing over there. Those stories are just too compelling not to tell. Making that part of my fiction was a tough decision at first, but I can’t imagine my life any other way now.
NE: How did you get to know Haneen Alshujairy and how crucial was her insight in the crafting of this story?
JS: In late 2007, I started interviewing Iraqis via an online pen pal site called mylanguageexhange.com. I solicited about 60 people and three got back to me, Haneen being the most articulate and interesting in sharing her experiences with relocating to Jordan and then Egypt. I was lucky that she is a big reader. After interviewing her for three months, I revealed I was working on a novel. She was instantly interested in helping. Haneen was absolutely vital in authenticating the story. She edited the entire manuscript, consulting on geography and cultural details, sometimes running questions by her father who grew up in Fallujah. Without her I would have been lost. I haven’t met her to this day. All of our work was over email and Facebook, which was fitting to the novel’s plot.
NE: How does this book compare to other books about war and war-torn countries?
JS: I approached the novel knowing I wanted to write about people first. What interested me most were these young men struggling to maintain their sense of identity in a time of extreme violence against their culture.
NE: Have you encountered difficulty from a sociological standpoint by publishing a book set in Fallujah without having been there?
JS: It was difficult. The research might have been the easy part – reading as much news and as many memoirs as I could, watching every documentary I could find. Speaking with Haneen regularly helped as well. I also started posting one photo from Iraq a day on my blog to keep my head constantly there. But surrounding myself with that pain and suffering was constantly frustrating. It’s worse now that reports of birth defects and cancer rates are skyrocketing in Fallujah as a result of the munitions we used. I know that we will be paying for the mistakes we made in Fallujah for years to come.
NE: In a world that has been made both larger and smaller via electronic communication, how do you think this book would have been different if it were written ten years ago? How has technology made our understanding of the world more possible?
JS: I’m glad you asked this because a lot of the book has to do with connectivity and the internet as well as how we relate to each other using these ever changing media. The catalyst for the novel is the Associated Press photo of the Blackwater mercenaries hanging from the bridge over highway 10 in Fallujah. Khalil, one of the main characters, is literally one of the young men in that photo. Once the photo is blasted across the internet, he becomes a local celebrity of sorts.
It would have been very difficult for me to write this book 10 years ago. I wouldn’t have seen the images of the Blackwater tragedy so quickly and then the photos of the sieges. Access to world news has changed so much. I think the Arab Spring is proof that Twitter, Facebook, and other social media have sped up and improved the way we empathize with one another. I think, once video capturing technology is cheap enough to be completely portable and streamable for everyone, our world might improve even more. I guess we’re really close to that.
NE: Are Khalil and Salim also metaphors for war torn countries themselves in addition to people who go through war and in addition to people who just go through life?
JS: I never considered Salim or Khalil metaphors. They are just too concrete to me. I’ve lived with them for too long.
NE: How did Salim and Khalil grow for you as you wrote and researched and how did you grow for them?
JS: Their relationship definitely evolved in ways I couldn’t predict. Khalil’s energy propelled a lot of the tension, and that was fun to exploit. He’s one of those rough bastards that you sometimes see at a bar and can’t take your eyes off of. You have no idea what this person might do, you just hope they don’t sit next to you.
I ended up finishing the first draft with no childhood backstory told from Salim’s perspective. The novel, for pacing and emotional reasons, needed some nonlinear exposition. It took about a week to write all of the backstory separately and then I wove it into the 2nd section of the novel.
Now I can’t think about Fallujah without thinking of Salim and Khalil. I never thought characters that I created could humanize a culture even more for me, but they have. All I hope is they do the same for my readers.
NE: What is going on in Fallujah now and where do you see it in 10 years?
JS: Fallujah is a total mess right now. Beyond the devastation, an average of three babies are born dead and more are born with crippling birth defects. Many scientists and activists blame the munitions we used there on the booming cancer rates and malformations. If you are a woman in Fallujah, you do not want to have a child. Imagine what young men think there? Imagine their frustration and where they might focus that energy.
If we are going to start addressing this potentially catastrophic issue, we need to talk about it. We need to relate to the people there. In 10 years, there might be 10,000 Khalils who only need a little push to become very dangerous people. I’d like to start talking about that.