Debut novelist lets Afghans speak for themselves

Jamil Jan Kochai is the O Henry Prize-winning author of the novel 99 Nights in Logar, which was shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. Nepali Times sat down with him at the Nepal Literature Festival in Pokhara on 15 December. Excerpts of interview:

Nepali Times: An entire chapter in your English novel is in Pashto. What was your motivation?

Jamil Jan Kochai: Initially, it started out as a craft issue more than anything else. I had been trying to write that chapter for a long time. The entire novel leads up to that story within the story, and it is a story that is actually based on real life events: this tragedy that occurred in my own family. It is a very sensitive, tender story and it haunted my whole childhood and my entire family. I knew it was going to be very difficult to write, but I did not anticipate that I would not be able to write it. I tried quite a few times and I would get a few sentences in, maybe a page in and it would just fall apart.

Whenever I heard this story, it was always in bits and pieces and it was always in Pashto, because it was only meant for us and it was our story. That chapter ended up being directly from my father. He told the story as he remembered it. It is the story of the murder of his younger brother during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. I recorded him telling it. He was very picky about who could write the story down because he wanted it to be told in a very specific way and he wanted it written in a very specific way. We ended up finding someone who met his standards in his village in Logar.

Initially there was some, not necessarily resistance, but certainly questions. My agent had questions about it, my editor had questions about it, other editors had questions about it, but when I discussed the intention of it and how I was having so much trouble telling that story, ultimately, my agent, my editor, my publisher – everyone was very supportive of it.

It did take on its own sort of political ideological message. What happens to stories when they are translated? Who is the book meant for? For me, it is a story that is very precious to our family, told to me over and over again in Pashto. Finally I decided, ‘I am going to allow it to remain in this state instead of translating it and risk ruining it.’

You also have all these non-English words in the novel.

There is this sad thing where our entire second generation of immigrants in America that is coming up right now, we are losing touch with our language, but at the same time it still has a way of almost infecting our English and that is the way we talk. I always wanted to write in a voice that was true to the voice that belongs to my household. I think there are also certain words that are untranslatable.

Could we talk a little bit about how you insert oral narratives and traditional stories in the novel?

It became a central element of the novel, but just like the chapter in Pashto it initially had just been a craft issue. I had got to a point in the novel where, like 100 pages in, I had been writing a very traditional ‘boy’s adventure’ tale based on Huckleberry Finn and Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and all these novels I grew up reading. I did not know what the characters were going to do next.

Up until then, I was watching the characters, seeing what choices they were going to make, seeing how they were interacting with each other, interacting with the land. Then the group split apart. Two of the characters were underneath a tree and they were stuck there and did not know how to leave because they did not know how to get back and they did not want to leave – I was like “What do I do here?”

I ended up putting the novel away and going to my bookshelf and picking up a copy of The Arabian Nights, which I had purchased a long time ago, but it had been just sitting on my shelf for years and years. I opened up and I started reading it and I was just blown away by the beauty of these tales, the magic and also the radical form, almost experimental by today’s standards. I read the stories within the stories and I was looking at the way that the book was handling time and was able to play with tension and danger through the storytelling itself: it just felt so true to the way that we tell stories in our own house ... often lead into other stories, end halfway through, for whatever reason.

So, I went back to that spot where I was stuck and instead of making the characters do something, I just let them tell stories and then the stories ended up leading to other events and other stories and it just completely changed the way I was writing the novel itself. Before, I was looking at action, choice, movement and event. Then I was searching out narratives – I was looking at who needs to tell the next story, who wanted to tell the next story.

You have a lot of religious elements, almost underlying the novel – how intentional is it?

I do not know how intentional it is. What I was trying to capture with the novel was how this boy from America in Afghanistan experienced the world. In a way, a central aspect of how he experienced the world was through Islam and specifically how it functioned in a small village in Logar province in Afghanistan, where you wake up to the sound of the adhan for prayer and then you work until the adhan for afternoon prayer and then you take a break. Time there is organised according to the Islamic prayers and then the narratives there circulate around the Quran, the hadith, and so in a way it felt very natural to the way I wanted to tell the story. It felt very natural to my own experience as a Muslim.

I was conscious of the ways Islam was represented in America and how Muslims are represented in America. In particularly, this whole idea of the good Muslim versus the bad Muslim, which is a rhetoric I find really troubling where certain populations of Muslims become bomb-able and destroy-able because of how they are portrayed in the media. But then you have these good peaceful Muslims who need to be saved, need to be protected from their own people. I was very conscious of that, certainly. 

You even put one, or a mixture, of stories from the Quran. Was that deliberate?

That took a lot of deliberation because I was actually worried about like, if my imam read that book and read that section, what he would think about it. Or if my father – he has not read the book, I have explained the book to him – but if he somehow heard that, “Oh, your son went and retold a story from the Quran.” I was a little nervous about it.

Your book is semi-autobiographical – how real is the story?

I would say a lot of elements are heavily autobiographical. When I was 12 years old, I went back to my parents’ home village in Logar and I had adventures with my cousins and so, certainly, it begins with my memories. People that I knew, people that I loved. What I ended up doing with the novel was that I allowed these memories to go off in their own directions and become what they wanted to become within the narrative.

Budabash is a real dog. He was our guard dog in our compound in Afghanistan. He absolutely hated me, that was true, but he never did bite off the tip of my finger. He did get loose out onto the village and we had to go after him, but I did not actually take part in the chase. My cousins did and it was something I would often think about. So the first time it really started with this idea, “What if I hadn’t been afraid of going on this chase with my cousins, what would have happened?”

Are there any Afghan Americans you are excited about?

Aria Aber. Her poetry collection came out recently and she had a poem published in The New Yorker as well. Very talented, I want to give her a shout out.

Fragmented Futures. It was set up by an Afghan American art organisation in California and they put together this incredible magazine of just Afghan artists and it was photography, paintings, poetry and fiction as well. Incredible work. I was overwhelmed by how talented they were -- it got me very emotional. I’m very excited about this next generation of writers who are coming out of these communities in the States.

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