Modern Afghan Lives, Across Generations and Countries
Jamil Jan Kochai, author of "The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories," on the responsibility attached to writing Muslim characters
A finalist for the National Book Awards 2022, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories by Jamil Jan Kochai interrogates war and carnage in Afghanistan in the name of counterterrorism, and the ensuing trauma and grief that has reverberated through Afghan generations, across the homeland and the diaspora.
The collection, a blend of surreal, absurd and photorealist narratives, opens with “Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain”, a second-person narration that follows a young man who scrimps and saves for the latest video game, set during the 1980s Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, only to have his joy be short lived as his virtual avatar encounters his father and his martyred uncle, compelling him to contend with familial trauma. In “Return to Sender”, grief takes a new meaning as a young Afghan American couple, recently moved to Kabul, receive pieces of their missing son that they start stitching together. “The Tale of Dully’s Reversion” brings war and carnage into the forefront as Dully, a Ph.D. student transforms into a monkey and finds himself in Kabul leading a revolution while his mother fervently pursues the imam she traveled for, in the hopes he could spur Dully’s physical and spiritual reformation. Other narratives such as “Bakhtawara and Miriam” and “Saba’s Story” examine love and friendship in more direct light, juxtaposed against the warfare and its ghastly aftermath that thrums in the background. And yet others like “Hungry Ricky Daddy” and “Enough!” make overt statements, condemning the state of our humanity. Urgent and necessary, Kochai’s work offers a culturally rich lens of Afghans and their diaspora, deftly striving against stereotypes and monoliths borne out of the War on Terror narratives.
Jamil Jan Kochai is from Logar, Afghanistan—the place featured both in his current collection and debut novel, 99 Nights in Logar. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The New York Times, The Best American Short Stories and other places. Currently, he is a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University. Kochai and I spoke over Zoom about Muslim representation in writing, intergenerational trauma, privilege, power and more.
Bareerah Ghani: In Bakhtawara and Miriam, we watch Bakhtwara sacrifice herself thinking it’s her duty to save her family’s honor and reputation. Other narratives also depict this dynamic within the Afghan family where there’s an unspoken demand and expectation from children, especially sons who we see take on the role of providers. To what extent do you think this is a product of the history of war and conflict that has sapped the older generation’s capacity to return to normal life as they know it?
Jamil Jan Kochai: I think that’s exactly what it is. What I see often in a lot of families is this sort of dynamic and this is both in Afghanistan and abroad, in immigrant families, that children are tasked with becoming adults much more quickly and I think that does have exactly to do with that context of years of ongoing war, and oftentimes, intense poverty as well. So you have this situation, where from a very young age, children are attempting to negotiate their parents’ war trauma. It’s one of the things I referenced in “Playing Metal Gear Solid” as well, this feeling that the main character often feels like he’s more of a therapist than he is a son, and I think that’s a circumstance that can occur in many immigrant families, especially families where the parents or the grandparents have suffered war trauma. Your question is getting at a very important point that this isn’t necessarily something that’s sort of intrinsic to the fabric of Afghan culture, but that it does, in fact, have a lot to do with war trauma being passed down generations and with children then not being allowed to develop as children but instead, being tasked to take on these roles as providers, or even in some regards, especially if they have younger siblings, sort of being asked to become parents at a very young age. I really appreciate this question because one of the things I try to be pretty conscious about in my work is emphasizing that context of warfare. Any time I’m writing about an Afghan family, it’s important that I’m being very honest about a lot of the beautiful qualities of an Afghan family, like the love and the care but also sort of the negative aspects of that, whether that’s domestic abuse, child abuse, or whatever else, and that I’m contextualizing all that within this long history of warfare, imperialism and poverty.
BG: I think that’s one of the reasons why the collection spoke to me; at the center of every character, there’s a realness. I’m also enamored because before this, I’ve not interacted with a book or a Muslim writer who’s writing about Muslim characters in the way I perceive and experience Islam. I’d love for you to tell me any authors that have inspired you to write in this manner.
JJK: You know I had the exact same experience. I love the recent development of Pakistani literature. But a lot of it, for me, is intensely secular. Just as you mentioned, even when reading “writers from the Muslim world”, I very rarely see the grasping with the concerns of Islam in the way I view it. So often when I’m reading Muslim characters, they’re drinking beers, or are atheist and all these different things, which is totally fine. I’m not opposed to that. But it’s just different from my own experience.
So for me, in terms of thinking through how to write about Islam, or God, or theology in general, I found a lot of Christian writers helpful. Dostoyevsky, for example, some of his writings and his grappling with faith, in The Brothers Karamazov in particular, really spoke to me. Some of Graham Greene’s writing, both The Heart of the Matter, and The Power and the Glory, to different degrees are dealing with Catholic theology but again, it’s this idea of, how does one grapple with faith, suffering and with God, and religious institutions that can be exploitative, all of that really spoke to me. The book that handled this incredibly, beautifully, in regard to Islam in particular, is This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun. It’s about these political prisoners that attempt the assassination of a king and they’re held for twenty years in this underground prison that’s four feet high, so they can’t stand up for twenty years. It’s factually based. These men are routinely tortured, they’re constantly suffering immense pain and to grapple with that, they begin to pray, one individual does the azaan, they pray in unison, and it’s this method, and they meditate into this method to try to escape their bodies, and it leads to some of the most beautiful passages I’ve ever read about Islam, spirituality, and this idea of transcendence. This was immensely helpful to me in terms of figuring out how one writes in a complicated and beautiful way not just about Islam, but everything that Islam encapsulates, you know, existence, suffering and love.
BG: One of the strengths of your work is how it examines white privilege and association with it, especially in “Return To Sender” which highlights the social currency that comes with holding the American passport and by extension, being granted the privilege of having your life be more important than someone else’s. As a person of color with another nationality outside of being American, how do you navigate this dichotomy in privilege and access to safety based on citizenship and the feelings it engenders for those of us with loved ones living in places that don’t grant them the same privilege?
JJK: I do feel fortunate because I’m able to put a lot of those feelings, doubts, and guilt on the page. And that’s really the main way I grapple with it; I project it onto my characters a lot of the time. It’s very important to me that when I’m writing about Afghanistan, when I’m thinking through issues of privilege, power and positionality, it goes right on the page, that I don’t try to avoid it, that I struggle with it through my characters and through the stories themselves. And that’s what I tell my students as well, because I think it’s fairly common, this feeling of guilt and this understanding that growing up in this country, and holding that all-powerful American passport comes with an immense amount of power and privilege. There are all these ways that can become very problematic when you think about a writer’s position to their subject. And so one of the things I’m doing now is that I’m traveling back and forth between the US and Afghanistan, specifically for the purposes of my writing, specifically to interview family members, relatives and people from my home village, just to sort of understand what they’re going through, their own experiences, and then using that as material for my own writings. I try to be very frank about the fact that it can be a very troubling dynamic, and for me it’s a matter of trying to be very honest with yourself about where those issues can occur, and then working through that on the page.
BG: This makes me think of your story “Hungry Ricky Daddy” which directly talks about the war in Palestine, something people are not willing to talk about. How do you contend with the frustration, heartbreak and helplessness that comes with witnessing the war crimes in Palestine and the erasure Muslims are facing around the world in Kashmir, France, and China? What role does writing or fiction in general play, if any, in all this for you?
JJK: I’ve always felt like I’ve had a responsibility as a writer to make sure, as much as possible, if the circumstances allow, to shine a light upon these different war crimes, atrocities, the different erasures occurring throughout the world. It’s something I feel uneasy about sometimes like with Hungry Ricky Daddy, I’ve immense feelings of doubt and guilt. With Afghanistan, I’ve family members there, my parents grew up there, so I have more of an ability or a claim to be able to write about Afghanistan. But with Palestine that was much trickier because there aren’t those same associations. But at the same time, that was the story where I knew early on that there was going to be this Palestinian character and by having that, I knew I couldn’t then shy away from the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the war crimes and oppression going on there. I try to be as careful and honest as I can be about making sure that I’m shining a light on those issues, and that I’m doing it in a responsible, thoroughly researched way. So, one of the things I did with that story is that I made sure I sent it to some Palestinian friends, writers, and artists, and made sure that there wasn’t anything I was getting immensely wrong there.
If there’s a political objective to my writing, it’d be rooted in an anti-occupation, anti-war position. When I’m writing about Afghanistan, I try not to shy away from the fact that I was immensely anti-US occupation, anti-Soviet occupation when that was occurring, that I’m anti-Israeli occupation. I think fiction writing has to allow for a great deal of gray area and moral complexity. But for me that ends at occupation. For me, there’s no moral complexity about an invasion, about the Israeli occupation of Palestine. To me, that’s pure, unadulterated oppression. And when you do the research, look into what’s actually going on there, that seems immensely clear to me. I remember growing up, you’d read about atrocities being committed in Afghanistan, soldiers killing civilians, and similar things occurring in Palestine and different places, I’d feel so immensely helpless. It was rage inducing. Being able to now write about those things, it’s one of my ways to work through those feelings and sort of filter it onto the page.
BG: How do you write Muslim characters who are complex individuals without worrying about them being reduced to their faith, or without worrying about portraying an untrue image of Islam in how your characters struggle with their faith?
JJK: My strategy is that I start with trying to figure out the character, their main struggles, their background. So it begins on this very personal level, and for me that makes all those other heavier, conceptual, political questions much easier to grapple with. So I’m just thinking about what this particular individual’s relationship is to Islam and I find that for most people, that question can get very complicated once you start to peel back the layers of their character. Once I sort of get the story going, that’s when I’m beginning to think about Islam on a larger level, a global level, on a more political level. And then that’s when I think it’s really important that Muslim writers, or whoever’s writing Muslim characters is very careful about the ways that varying forms of media, varying narratives have been used to demonize, dehumanize and to justify violence against Muslims, occurring across the globe. So it’s sort of this balancing act where I want to make sure that I’m staying true to the views and beliefs of the characters but as the story gets bigger and bigger, it’s also important that I’m maintaining sort of that earlier idea we were talking about, of making sure that we always have this framework of a historical context. So when I’m writing about Islam and about Muslims, I have to have the War on Terror, and the rampant demonization and violence against Muslims across the world. I have to keep that in mind, and it’s one of my issues with some of the writing that’s sort of occurred by “writers coming out of the Muslim world”. Someone, for example, like Khaled Hosseini, and his representation of Islam, of devout Muslims, it’s been used time and again to demonize, to justify violence against Muslims. Writing that sort of work is incredibly irresponsible. And it’s something I try to avoid as much as possible in my own work.
BG: I agree there’s a responsibility attached to writing about Muslim characters, but I do worry about the white gaze. Did you ever worry about that, how it would be perceived?
JJK: Yeah, absolutely. That’s something I’ve struggled with a lot throughout my development as a writer. It’s something I continue to struggle with, especially when I sold my first book, and I began to realize that the majority of my reading audience is going to be white. There’s always going to be this immense pressure just from the market itself, just the way that it’s set up to write to them, coddle them, to guide them through a country, to translate terminology for them, because everything has to be written for them. And one of the realizations that I had is that that type of writing is poor, because you have to keep making these sacrifices within the narrative. At a certain point, you get tired of it, and you’re like, I’m going to write these stories how I want to write them, my audience is going to be my family or my community, and I’m not going to have to explain things to them. At the same time, though, I do think it’s always important for writers of color, and in particular, Muslim writers to understand that as much as you can resist pandering in different ways, in the end the American audience is gonna be white readers. The entire industry is built to serve them and to sell them your work, you have to keep that in mind and understand that your writing can have a real effect upon the larger perception of the subjects you’re writing about.
When I’m writing about the American War and Afghanistan, I know a lot of Americans are going to read this book, so it’s important I don’t shy away from things that can make an American readership uncomfortable. In fact, it’s actually very important for me that I continuously challenge my American readers to question, and ponder upon the crimes that their government and military institutions have committed in these different countries, and that largely, the media wants to ignore, and that they’re gonna want to valorize soldiers and justify these wars. And they’re not gonna want to look at the dead bodies on the ground, the dead children, and for me it’s then very important to make sure you don’t get to look away from that in my work.
BG: In Saba’s Story, we see how Mor faces judgment from Kabuli women for wearing the chador which, to me, is a product of the colonized mindset. I find that it speaks to how sometimes, it can be relatively easy to disregard the white gaze and Institution, but the hardest fight is with your own people. How do you grapple with this issue of internalized racism and how do you think we can dismantle it within our communities?
JJK: Well, one of the first steps is just being honest about its existence. When we look at the ways that Islam is talked about in Western cultures, and the way there’s this constant association between the more devout someone seems, the more backwards they are, that’s rooted in colonization, in these imperial fears of the mujahid figure, or the crazy mullah. I think it’s important we begin to bring light to it because often someone can be incredibly progressive and they’re rooting their critique of Islam in varying forms of progressivism, thinking like I’m progressive because I don’t wear the chador, because I’ve rejected religion. But at the same time, they’re belittling, dehumanizing and demonizing people who are devout. And people who are devout oftentimes are people coming from some of the most impoverished, war ridden areas of the world. You see this happening within the Afghan community in particular, there’s this urban rule divide that occurs with people from Kabul looking down upon people from the countryside, and then it gets even more complex because there’s ethnic, religious and sectarian tensions. So, it’s a matter of being honest about the ways that these things exist in our society and beginning to think through them, to write about them, shine a light upon them. If we don’t pay enough attention to it, at a certain point it is gonna come to a head within our cultural or literary discussions about Islam, and about how Muslims are depicted and painted within varying forms of cultural production.