Monday, 26 July 2010

Adnan Mahmutović, the Scholar

So, we have reached the fourth and concluding instalment of Adnan Mahmutović month here at Thus Spake the Mighty Wha-keem. After having dealt with a general introduction, the script writer and the author, it is now time to have a brief introductory look at Adnan Mahmutović the Scholar.

Thus far, his scholarly work includes papers presented on various conferences and symposia between 2004 and 2009, in Norway, Sweden and Cyprus, dealing with subjects ranging from Tennyson's "The Voyage of Maeldun", to film maker Darren Aronofsky (with a focus on Pi and The Fountain), and the notion of Halal history in Salman Rushdie's early fiction (the latter of which is forthcoming later this year as an article in Textual Layering: Contact, Historicity, Critique under the title "Halal History and Existential Meaning in Salman Rushdie’s Early Fiction"). He has already published the articles "The Question of the Uncanny in 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'" in The Coleridge Bulletin (Summer, 2007) and "History and the Nervous Condition in The English Patient" in The Journal of Contemporary Literature (2009), and has another article, "The Nomadic Home in Tabish Khair’s Filming" forthcoming in an anthology on Tabish Khair due to be published next year.

On May 8, this year, Mahmutović successfully defended his dissertation Ways of Being Free: Authenticity and Community in Selected Works of Rushdie, Ondaatje and Okri (click on the title to read the abstract) and earned his doctorate in English at Stockholm University. The selected works in question are Rushdie's Midnight's Children, Ondaatje's The English Patient and Okri's The Famished Road, and his approach is one steeped in existential philosophy and postcolonial theory. As such, it is an interesting study, proposing new ways not only of looking at the subject of these novels but also at how these novels can make us look at identity, freedom and postcoloniality through notions of history and death, and authenticity (the latter of which is tied into the notions of community and identity). It reveals Mahmutović's concerns with postcolonial issues of migration and nation, and the condition of the migrant, all of which, to various degrees are concerns that stand revealed in his fiction too.

While I am not always convinced by all the elements in his readings (e.g. his claim, in passing, that Linda Hutcheon's version of postmodernism is ontological in nature rather than epistemological suggests a misreading, or at the very least a mislabelling, of Hutcheon's work), and while the citations sometimes leave a lot to be desired (e.g. there are works cited (in abbreviated form at that) that problematically do not appear on the works cited list at the end, and sometimes citations are rather unclear in general), the ideas and readings presented are both interesting and valuable. The theoretical framework of existential philosophy and postcolonial criticism (in the case of the latter, in particular the kind that ties in with existential philosophy) is nicely placed in a wider philosophical context, which is very beneficial to the work as a whole. If I have one (perhaps minor) complaint in this department, it is that Mahmutović's reliance on in particular Sartre, Camus and Heidegger do a slight injustice to his equal reliance on Frantz Fanon. Fanon's idea of a "nervous condition" (see The Wretched of the Earth) comes across as a purely philosophical concept alongside Sartre's, without accounting for Fanon's being a trained psychiatrist who discovered signs of psychological nervous conditions in his (post-)colonial patients in Algeria during the rising against the French. In that context, the lack of any references to Freud or psychoanalysis in Mahmutović's dissertation does seem to be a weak spot, especially given that its focus on the "nervous condition" and the existential angst or anguish that he works with would probably be problematised further with that additional contextualisation of Fanon. And I say that as someone not overly enthused about either Freud or psychoanalysis.

I will not dive deeper into the individual readings here. This is not the forum for it; there is simply not space to go into a deeper critical discussion. After all, I would not want to bore you, gentle reader, with a too detailed and nigh endless (perhaps even overly academic) account of this piece of academic work and literary criticism. Nor, in all honesty, do I have the time to do so. Still, if the questions of the dissertation interest you or if any or all three of these authors or novels interest you, this is a dissertation well worth reading, if nothing else for its rigorous use of existential philosophy in combination with postcolonial theory in a manner in which it has not really been applied to these work before.

And with that, it is time to close the door on this four-parter, our Adnan Mahmutović month. I hope you have enjoyed it and that you maybe feel inclined to delve deeper into things Mahmutović; whether you opt for his blog, his film work, his fiction or his academic work (or why not combinations thereof). I am certain I will have reasons to discuss his work more in the future, but for now, in the undying words of Porky Pig, "That's all, folks!"

I will see you again next week, with all new topics to muse on.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Adnan Mahmutović, the Author

Welcome to this week's stop in the Adnan Mahmutović Thinner than a Hair Blog Tour here at Thus Spake the Mighty Wha-keem, which is also (as my faithful readers know) the third instalment of Mahmutović month over here. This time, the focus is upon Mahmutović the Author, which is arguably his most substantial role (his academic work notwithstanding), if nothing else because it is thus far the role in which he has been most productive.

Mahmutović has published assorted short fiction, poetry and essays in anthologies and (on-line) magazines. Most recently, he won second prize in Biscuit Publishing's short story competition with his story "First Day of Night". Still, his most substantial contribution to date are three published books: [REFUGE]E, a miscellany of short fiction, poetry and essayistic writings from 2005 (see my full review), Illegitimate, a novella published as an e-book by Cantarabooks in 2009 (see my full review), and finally, this year, Thinner than a Hair, a novel published by Cinnamon Press (see my full review).

[REFUGE]E pretty much lays the foundation for Mahmutović's authorship and oeuvre thus far. It draws upon his experiences as a Bosnian-Swede and, perhaps more importantly, a Bosnian refugee from the war in Bosnia following the breaking apart of the old Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia a decade after the death of Josip Broz Tito, its President for Life since the early 60s and, according to many, its single unifying national force. While much of the former nation, or (perhaps more accurately) many of the new (or older depending on how one views it in an historical perspective) nation states that arose in the aftermath of its passing, went through a period of wars and violence, and while it is fair to say that the Balkan region as a whole was in a state of severe turmoil, there is no denying that Bosnia was one of the areas of the former Yugoslavia where the war turned particularly ugly (consider, for instance, the Srebrenica Massacre or Genocide of July 1995, where more than 8,000 Muslim Bosniak men and boys were exterminated).

Like so many other refugee and migrant writers, Mahmutović writes from his own experience of displacement, but like the best of them, he does not succumb to simple autobiography, but produces more general insights into these conditions through well-crafted characters, whom he sometimes allows to narrate their own stories. The latter is certainly true of Almasa, the character who (almost) holds [REFUGE]E together, and who is also the narrator of some of the texts in that book; but it is even more true of Fatima Begovic.

Fatima is Mahmutović's creation par excellence thus far in his oeuvre. She is the narrator of both Illegitimate and Thinner than a Hair, two books that were initially intended as one. While the two books are certainly joined at the hip (much like Siamese twins), and as such deserves to be published together in an omnibus at some point in the future, I think both the novella and the novel (and by extension Mahmutović himself) is better off this way. Fate may have conspired against the original tome with alternating chapters between past and present (or at least a more present moment), but this works in the texts' favour, and in Fatima's. Her narrative voice gets to present two narratives, connected by the fact that they are stories from her own life, yet separated both logically and literally by being two different entities.

After having read both of them, I would strongly urge future readers (if possible) to read them in chronological order of publication (i.e. Illegitimate first and then Thinner than a Hair) as this strikes me as the most rewarding sequence to read them in (naturally after having read them in the entirely opposite manner).

Illegitimate opens up at just as 1999 turns to 2000 and follows Fatima's travails as a Bosnian refugee, prostitute and illegal immigrant in Munich, Germany, up until the fall of the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11, 2001. Thinner than a Hair, on the other hand, is narrated from within this period in Munich, 2001 (yet presumably at least ending after it, if my interpretation of certain passages is correct), but deals with Fatima's past – her birth in the summer of 1974, a few snapshots from her growing up in Bosnia (spring 1986 and autumn 1989), some abbreviated notes on her arrival and early years in Germany (winter 1994 to spring 1998), but mainly about the period between autumn 1991 and winter 1993, when she finally fled her war-torn homeland. This period, covered in nine of the novel's thirteen chapters (not counting the prologue and epilogue), is central not only in the novel's structure, but in Fatima's life and in her fractured narrative of identity.

Mahmutović has managed to draw upon his own experiences and give them a voice through a fictional character's voice and life, and it is certainly not wrong to claim that Fatima has a life. She lives and breathes on every page of these two texts, and her textual birth is a literary feat on Mahmutović's part. Fatima's fictional life captures the life experiences of the Bosnian refugees and gives them a textual identity with which to face the reader, without ever becoming stereotypical or fleshless. Her voice annihilates Mahmutović's own, and he in part allows this to happen. He gives his character absolute precedence over any false sense of textual authority on his own part, and it breathes a sense of life into his fiction which might not otherwise have been possible.

In short, Mahmutović is an author both to be read and to keep an eye on. As I have already stated and repeated in my reviews of his work, he is quite likely one of the up and coming authors of his generation.

Next week, 26 July, the Thinner than a Hair Blog Tour will move on to Tania Hershman's blog TaniaWrites. Be sure to check that out. Meanwhile, we will turn to the fourth and last instalment of Mahmutović month over here and have a look at Mahmutović the Scholar (with the focus on his dissertation on authenticity and community in the writing of Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondaatje and Ben Okri). Until then, gentle readers, take care!

Monday, 12 July 2010

Adnan Mahmutović, the Scriptwriter

As stated last week, this is Adnan Mahmutović month here at Thus Spake the Mighty Wha-keem, and this week we will take a look at Mahmutović the Scriptwriter. This seems especially fitting today, since his short film Gusul (Eng. Washing, 2010) was shown yesterday at a memorial to mark that fifteen years have passed since the massacre at Srebrenica, Bosnia. Swedish news program Rapport showed a brief segment on this event (the segment starts at about the 14 minute mark, and the clip will be available till 18 July) and included interview snippets (in Swedish) with Mahmutović, who had a hand in organising the event.

Washing is written by Mahmutović (who is also credited as set and costume designer) and directed by Armin Osmancevic (who is also credited as production designer, production manager, storyboard and the telephone voice part of the imam Atif) with whom Mahmutović previously worked on his first book, the miscellany [REFUGE]E (which Osmancevic designed). The film is not outright about Srebrenica, nor an overt comment upon the subject, but Mahmutović has expressed that remembering the horrors of Srebrenica is not only about the horrors themselves, but also about the daily moments in the lives of the survivors. It is this, at least in some part, which Washing is about.

The film is centred around Emina Begovic (played by Aida Gordon) and her mother (played by Sena Mahmutović, i.e. Adnan's grandmother), Bosnian refugees in Sweden, and it opens on a longish monologue (more or less). Emina is talking to her mother, who is old and bedridden. She talks about the atrocities of the Bosnian war, of the loss of her father. While it certainly introduces a lot of these matters to the viewer, this is actually the weak part of the film. The dramaturgy lacks a beat in some sense and the acting never really takes off but rather becomes too much like a theatrical stage performance. This is because Mahmutović and Osmancevic too obviously want to inform the viewer about these things. They do not show us, but instead tell us things (by many often considered a cardinal sin in a visual narrative medium); and the visual dimension does not offer any form of shielding against this problem here.

This might come across as a harsh judgement (and perhaps it is, on some level), but importantly it is not my final judgement. After a quick pie baking scene (which to my mind lacks a certain sense of verisimilitude – it may be that my skills in baking are lacking, but merely throwing some sugar and flower on plums, and pouring some oil over it, does not strike me as a functional way of making a pie; nor does putting said dish into a cold oven to bake – but these are nagging details), Emina's mother passes away, and this is where the film takes off. If Gordon's performance in the opening "monologue" fails to impress, convince or properly pull me into the film, she certainly captures my attention during the telephone conversation with the imam Atif. Still, the core of the film is the act of the washing itself, a Muslim funeral rite. Emina tears a towel into strips and cleans her mother's dead body in a ritual manner. The imagery here is visually strong and convincing. This part of the film is wordless, but absolutely not lacking in either emotion or expression. Also, the previously introduced and repeated idea that the living should not shed tears over the dead, lest they burn the souls of the latter with these tears, is felt throughout.

After the washing, Emina goes out into the hallway outside the flat, sits down on the stairs and awaits the ambulance personnel who have been sent to collect her mother's body. She has brought the plum pie which she made her mother and some coarse, dark bread to go with it, and she eats it forcefully where she sits. This is perhaps the strongest image of the film; this image of Emina forcefully eating her own grief, as it were, not crying because of the traditional prohibition against that, but swallowing her own tears and grief together with that coarse, dark bread and that plum pie; forcing down every single bite. It is strong, memorable, and I dare say an image that will stay with me.

As such, despite its initial shortcomings, Washing comes through as an interesting short film with a definite value, and I would recommend you all to watch it if you get the chance.

For a very moving and enjoyable behind-the-scenes account of the making of the film, I recommend you to read Mahmutović's blog post "Grandma and Death", which talks about the casting of his own grandmother in the role of Emina's mother in very tender and caring words.

Also, do not miss to check out Tom J. Vowler's blog How to Write a Novel where Mahmutović's ongoing blog tour stops by today. Next stop on that tour will be right here, next week, when "Adnan Mahmutović, the Author" (part three of four in my in-depth study of Mahmutović) will be posted. I hope to see you again then.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Adnan Mahmutović: An Introduction

I first met Adnan Mahmutović in 2006 as a fellow Ph.D. student at the Karlkrona Summer School for Literature and Literary Theory at Blekinge Tekniska Högskola (Eng. Blekinge Institute of Technology). At the time, I did not really know anything about his writing (apart from a few odd poems he showed me, all of which, I shamefully admit, have fled my memory since), but we nevertheless connected over a mutual love of comics, and have kept in touch.

Mahmutović was born in 1974 in Banja Luka in northern Bosnia and migrated to Sweden as a refugee in 1993. He has a dual citizenship as a Bosnian Swede, and currently teaches immigrant literature and a course on Love and its Discontents at Stockholm University during the day, while working with people with mental disorders at night.

As I write this, he is no longer a Ph.D. student but has earned his full-fledged doctorate in English literature with his dissertation Ways of Being Free: Authenticity and Community in Selected Works of Rushdie, Ondaatje and Okri, and he has by now three books of fiction to his name: [Refuge]e (a miscellany published via Konstfack University in 2005), Illegitimate (a novella published as an e-text by Cantarabooks in 2009) and Thinner than a Hair (a full-fledged novel published by Cinnamon Press earlier this spring). In addition to this, he has also written the script to a short film, Gusul (Eng. Washing), which has now been filmed. The experience of the shoot, which involved his own grandmother in one of the central parts, is beautifully discussed by him in a blog post from January this year, over at Under the Midnight Sun.

At any rate, I have decided to spend July taking a closer look at Mahmutović: the Scriptwriter (12 July), the Author (19 July) and the Scholar (26 July) respectively. It is also worth mentioning that Mahmutović is currently out on a Thinner than a Hair Blog Tour and that my own upcoming post of 19 July will be part of this tour.

The full Thinner than a Hair Blog Tour is as follows:
21 June, PaulaZone by Paula Phillips.
28 June, "The Graces" Sagas by Kathryn Magendie.
5 July (i.e. today), Advancing Poetry by Caroline M Davis.
12 July, How to Write a Novel by Tom J. Vowler.
19 July, this very space by yours truly.
26 July, TaniaWrites by Tania Hershman.
2 August, Nik's Blog by Nik Perring.
9 August, Snow like Thought by Rachel Fenton.
16 August, Not Exactly True by Valerie O’Riordan.
23 August, Vanessa Gebbie's News by Vanessa Gebbie.