Earlier in her career, when she focused mostly on poetry, Dunya Mikhail swore she would never write a novel. When others asked if she would ever consider it, she told them, “I can say all I want to say in one page.”

More recently, though, Mikhail, who was born in Iraq in 1965, has found a subject that has demanded not only more than one page but two separate full-length works. In 2018 she published The Beekeeper, a nonfiction book about the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and, in particular, the sexual slavery and forced labor endured by women at its hands. This December, she will follow with The Bird Tattoo (Pegasus), a novel that chronicles one Yazidi woman’s harrowing capture by ISIS and the efforts of her community to rescue her and other women.

“What happened in 2014,” Mikhail says via Zoom from her home in Sterling Heights, Mich., referring to the rise of ISIS, “was unbelievable. To me, it was a shock, a humiliation, it was an insult.” She tried to write poems about it, but “it was not enough. I needed more space.”

The Beekeeper, which Mikhail co-translated from the Arabic with Max D. Weiss, and which was nominated for the National Book Award for translated literature, centered on a Yazidi man who, along with a network of helpers and smugglers, undertook the rescue of female captives from ISIS. That man reappears in The Bird Tattoo, but the novel largely revolves around Helen, a young woman who is captured by ISIS and then repeatedly raped, sold, and shunted between various grim living quarters. She’s based on a real woman Mikhail met after she’d completed The Beekeeper.

The woman’s story “occupied my mind day and night,” Mikhail says. “I felt that was a call, for me as a writer.”

Mikhail comes to this subject matter with personal experience of state oppression. She began her writing career in Iraq, where she worked as a journalist and translator at the Baghdad Observer. She left the country in 1995, living for a year in Jordan and then settling in the U.S., when she came under the scrutiny of Saddam Hussein’s government.

Her coverage of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait conflicted with the state’s preferred jingoistic narrative. “I didn’t like how everything was us and them, enemy and victory,” she recalls. She felt the government’s supposed enemies “were created to make people busy enough not to think of the problems inside themselves and inside their country.”

Mikhail employed oblique antiestablishment irony in her commentary, at one point writing, “I wonder if there will ever be a post-war poetry in Iraq and not only war poetry.” And she dared to challenge the country’s militaristic, hypermasculine self-image. “I tried to show our soldiers as human beings,” she says. “They have fear, they’re not heroes, they’re like everybody else.” She was later included on a list of traitors for leaving the country without permission.

After arriving in the States, Mikhail received a master’s in Near Eastern studies from Wayne State University. In the years since, she has published several collections of poetry as well as a memoir, Diary of the Wave Outside the Sea (co-translated with Elizabeth Winslow), that touch on themes of exile, gender, and Iraqi politics and history. She currently teaches as a special lecturer in poetry and Arabic language at Oakland University in Michigan.

If Mikhail’s experience as a journalist served her in the writing of The Beekeeper, her background as a poet informed the writing of The Bird Tattoo. She wanted to capture the suffering of women under ISIS in nonfiction first, she says, because “the reality was stranger than fiction.” She needed readers to know “this actually happened.”

But revisiting the material in fiction opened up new imaginative possibilities. She was able to employ patterns of imagery, such as birds (in Kurdish, helen means “bird’s nest”), and to develop the kind of rich interior lives for her characters that a journalist can’t always develop for interview subjects.

“I wanted to liberate the captives artistically,” Mikhail says. “I felt my poetry more present in it.”

Indeed, one of the most striking things about The Bird Tattoo is that, for all the brutality of the tale it tells, it includes so much affection. A large portion of the novel is devoted to backstory detailing Helen’s upbringing in her Yazidi village, an Arcadian mountain community abounding with fig trees and sheep; her courtship with her future husband, Elias; and the early days of their marriage in Mosul.

“It was very important to try to create some balance,” Mikhail says. “Not only for the reader but even maybe for me, for the characters themselves.”

When the story moves back to the present, and ISIS destroys the way of life Helen and her loved ones have known, the reader’s horror is absolute. Walking down a street in newly occupied Mosul, Helen observes the desolation: “Gone were the scents of tea, spices, and perfume. The sellers who displayed their items on the sidewalks, street vendors, and café-goers—all disappeared.”

Mikhail published the novel in Arabic in 2020—it was released simultaneously in Iraq and Lebanon by Dar al-Rafidain—and decided to translate it into English herself, partly because she missed the characters. She wanted to write the story once more. “I was nostalgic,” she says.

And she continues to see reminders of the story today, notably in the ongoing Mahsa Amini protests in Iran, named for a woman who died after being detained by police for not wearing her hijab in accordance with government standards. The Persian translator of The Bird Tattoo, Mikhail says, told her that Amini was the “Helen of Iran.”

Mikhail sees much common ground between Iran today and Iraq under ISIS. “They have one singular story,” she says, “and they don’t accept any alternative.” When authoritarian governments succeed in imposing their story, she adds, those “who represent the other side of the story—they will die after the passage of time, and their collective memory disappears with them.”

For Mikhail, this is “what makes literature so important.” Art transfers the memory of those oppositional voices, she says, “from the past to the future.”

In both The Beekeeper and The Bird Tattoo, Mikhail saw it as her duty to speak for women whose stories might otherwise be lost. They “had no voice, they had no names, they had only numbers on bodies,” she says. “My hope was to help them bring back that voice as much as I could.”

Mikhail is committed to doing this work through a range of artistic approaches—she says she feels a mandate to respond in “all genres” to the atrocities she’s observed. But after writing The Bird Tattoo she has warmed to the “seductive” possibilities of fiction, to the liberties that it affords and that real life so often denies.

“In a novel,” she says, “you are free.”

Daniel Lefferts is a writer living in New York. His debut novel, Ways and Means, is forthcoming from Abrams/Overlook.