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'Planet of Clay' describes the brutal toll of the Syrian civil war on a young girl

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Hundreds of thousands of people are thought to have been killed in the past decade in Syria's civil war. Millions more have either left the country or been internally displaced. The new novel "Planet Of Clay" gives a haunting and unflinching look at the horrors of war - the bombing, the starvation, the fear - all seen through the eyes of Rima, a young girl with a vibrant imagination.

"Planet Of Clay" is a novel written by Syrian journalist and author Samar Yazbek, who's been writing in exile. And it was just recently named a National Book Award finalist. When I spoke to Yazbek through an interpreter, I asked her why she imagined the main character, Rima, as quiet, nearly silent and often physically tied up to keep her from constantly moving.

SAMAR YAZBEK: (Through interpreter) She's objecting violence in the war by silence because in front of this violence, there's no words that can express this. She's also resorting to the imagination and literature and stories to hide from the violence of the reality.

So that is my idea.

(Through interpreter) This is my vision of literature, that literature can represent violence as opposite to the documentary books.

It's the opposite of all my documentary books about the revolution. It was my grand challenge to write the literature during the war.

KHALID: But as much as it is a work of fiction. It also feels like a commentary. You know, it does not feel exclusively like the story of Rima but a commentary on the brutality of war.

YAZBEK: Yes, it's the story of us, the story of the humanity and...

(Through interpreter) The violence is not just the story of the Syrian war. It's the survival of us as human beings. The name of the story is Macha (ph), and Macha is very important to translate. The Macha'un (ph) are - those are the students of Aristotle and the students who...

KHALID: These are the disciples of Aristotle, you're saying.

YAZBEK: Yes. So Rima tried to say we have a mind as you. As a woman, we don't want to stay in our prison and our home as mother, as sister. That is my idea to tell Rima and Macha.

KHALID: So it sounds like Aristotle, the disciples of Aristotle, believed that you learned, that you philosophized through walking. And this is why we see Rima constantly needing to walk, because her mind is very active, and she refuses to be tied with the ropes.

YAZBEK: Yes, because all the time, we say in Arab world, we need our freedom in sex life, work life. No, we need freedom for our thinking and produce and write and change our society. I will give you an example from my novel.

(Through interpreter) In chemical war, when the women are affected, the men will decide if they need to take off the clothes to save them. So they will not take off their clothes because it's haram. And many women die because of that.

KHALID: You know, you mention in your book this chemical attack that Rima survives. The details in there are rather specific and horrific.

YAZBEK: (Through interpreter) I had a contact with an attorney for human rights. She documented this, and she looked into this. And her name is Razan Zaitouneh. And Razan Zaitouneh, who was kidnapped by the military, she's still - until now, she is there. And I cannot speak with her. That's why I dedicated this story for her. If you see at the beginning of the novel, the dedication actually for her.

KHALID: You know, Samar, what do you want people to take away when they read your book? What do you want them to take away from Rima's story?

YAZBEK: It's difficult question, huh (laughter). To tell our story...

(Through interpreter) And they take away something very, very important, which is literature, art, imagination is always able to save us from the hell of war, violence and reality. It's our role as writers, is to look for higher human values and justice.

Ask for justice, also. Ask for the victim.

KHALID: That was Samar Yazbek. Her new novel is called "Planet Of Clay," and it's just been named a National Book Award finalist. Our interpreter was Basma Najjar. Thank you both very much.

BASMA NAJJAR: Thank you.

YAZBEK: Thank you.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This interview quotes Samar Yazbek as saying, through an interpreter, that she holds ‘the military’ responsible for the kidnapping of Razan Zaitouneh. In fact, Yazbek believes the rebel group Army of Islam carried out the abduction. The group has repeatedly denied that allegation.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: October 31, 2021 at 10:00 PM MDT
This interview quotes Samar Yazbek as saying, through an interpreter, that she holds "the military" responsible for the kidnapping of Razan Zaitouneh. In fact, Yazbek believes the rebel group Army of Islam carried out the abduction. The group has repeatedly denied that allegation.