Carolyn Marsden: On The White Zone

Carolyn Marsden’s internationally acclaimed The White Zone was published by Duckbill recently in the Not Our War series.

In January 2008 I read a newspaper article about an unusual snowfall in Baghdad. Because snow was so rare, people didn’t know what to call it. I was immediately intrigued. In spite of my many ongoing writing projects, I set about plotting a story involving two boys. I knew that I wanted the book to end with the snow, but that was all I knew.

Reading about the side effects of the war, I’d always been saddened at how it pitted Sunni against Shiite. Even those who’d been friends and neighbors found themselves suddenly seeing each other as the enemy. Entire neighborhoods were affected. I decided to make my two characters on opposite sides of this complex conflict.

I was also interested in Mutanabi Street, which had always been a vibrant center of culture in Baghdad. People congregated there to get away from the constant feeling of being at war. When that was bombed, it destroyed more than the buildings, more than the books and art itself. It destroyed the feeling of refuge for a large number of people. I decided to make Mutanabi Street one of the main settings of the novel.

In order to learn more, I read books about Iraq and watched Iraqi movies. But I knew that wasn’t enough. I Googled: Iraqi San Diego and came across the name of Shak Hanish, a political science professor at National University. Shak generously offered his time and expertise, as well as his personal anecdotes. Without such a gatekeeper I wouldn’t have the confidence in the cultural authenticity of the material.

Although the war is over for the Americans, for the Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, it continues. I hope that in some small way, The White Zone can contribute to the possibility of peace, both in Iraq and in countries throughout the world.


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