Remembering Afghanistan’s Wars: Jamil Jan Kochai on Shifting Storytellers and Forms
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Fiction writer Jamil Jan Kochai joins Fiction/Non/Fiction hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell almost a year after U.S. troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan to talk about how the wars there will be remembered. He reflects on how growing up with Western stereotypes of Afghans made him want to revise false narratives, and also discusses how fiction’s flexible forms allow him to reorient his own thinking about the stories of war-affected Afghans and diaspora. He reads from his new book, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories.
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From the episode:
V.V. Ganeshananthan: One thing that your stories do is make a ton of references and often quite fast. There are two ways to look at it: one, either you’re centering an audience that knows that lexicon, that has that vocabulary at its fingertips or, two, you are just really crediting us with being smart and being able to infer and figure out what that lexicon is and put all those pieces together, which I find to be really satisfying. Of course, you can be doing both of those things at once.
The examples that I can think of in “Occupational Hazards,” there’s this incredible kind of list making. Or in “Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain,” the father’s really painful backstory is, on first reference, very swiftly articulated. That had me wondering what you want your stories to teach us about the kinds of explanations we should expect as readers and the work that we should be doing?
Jamil Jan Kochai: I do think you’re right that I do have high expectations for my readers. At the same time, first and foremost, my goal in writing a story is to make sure that it’s a well-crafted story, and that the reader is going to enjoy the story and that they’re going to laugh and cry along with my characters. But at the same time, when I’m thinking about a story, and I’m thinking especially about this notion of an explanation, or of the way that I include history into my narratives, I’m thinking about it from the perspective of the narrator themselves.
So, if I’m writing a story that’s very close to a narrator like the one from “Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain,” this character who has grown up with these stories their entire lives, they know everything about the Soviet occupation, because that’s what they’ve grown up… Those are the first stories that they’ve ever told. For me, in terms of craft, it would just make sense that that would sort of be a given.
I try to reference it as much as possible, but, at the same time, I don’t want to bog down the story by delving into this, Let me now break down the history of the Soviet occupation for my reader, because they might not know. I’m going to reference it. I want my reader to get the understanding of the shadows of that occupation, to get an understanding of the aftereffects of that occupation. And then at the same time, continue the story with the hope that the reader then will do that work to see what else they can discover.
Whitney Terrell: I want to connect form and revision here, because we’re talking about not revision, not revising your work necessarily, but the way work is formed and the idea of revising history. I ended up writing my novel backwards, because I was fighting against the form of the American war story in which the soldier goes to war, experiences combat, proves whether they’re a man or not in the combat, and then is rewarded at the end. That’s the worst possible arc, right? It’s also the arc of A New Hope in Star Wars. It’s a very popular American arc. It’s a lie.
Combat’s never proven anything to anyone, especially not in Iraq. And so I had to find a way to deconstruct that. And one of the ways was that I couldn’t write in that form, because the form was partly forcing me to tell that kind of story. You’ve written a story called “Occupational Hazards,” that Sugi mentioned, that’s in the form of a resume, and you’re talking about putting historical documents into stories, which happens. Is that a way of deconstructing the Western form of story, pushing against it, which sort of tends to impose a kind of narrative on these things? Does that make sense?
JJK: Absolutely. I think that actually that gets at a lot of the intention behind many of my stories. I think when I’m experimenting with forms, it’s exactly this idea of trying to deconstruct or trying to revise many of these narratives that I had grown up with my entire life. So one of the things that I try to resist in my work, to varying degrees of success, is the trauma narrative. That’s one of the things that’s a huge topic in my story, because it’s a huge subject in my own life, and it’s one of the things that my parents carried with them their entire lives.
It’s one of the things that from a very young age, I understood that my parents had this war trauma inside of themselves, and they carried it with them in everything they did, and in their stories, especially. And so when trying to navigate those stories, that’s when the form… I actually really appreciate fiction writing because of its ability, because of the possibility it allows to explore the stories in different ways.
So if I want to tell a story about a father’s trauma of war, and the way that it creates this distance between himself and his son, I can now do that through a video game. Or if I want to explore subjects, the entire narrative of their lives and their relationship to labor and war, well, then I can do that in the form of a resume; it reorients how I’m thinking about these stories, and it allows me to see these characters in these narratives in totally new ways that I wouldn’t have even begun to think about when I first started writing those stories.
VVG: At the beginning of this episode, before you joined us, Whitney and I were talking about Afghan refugees and the burden of proof that they face as they’re trying to exit the country and enter, perhaps, the United States. Can you show that you will be in danger, etc, etc? And one of the things that’s so interesting about what you’re saying is that, through fiction, you are really underlining certain facts. These are ways of actually emphasizing histories, and that’s fascinating considering that your work oftentimes isn’t realistic.
As a diasporic writer, I’ve been really interested in revision and plot lately and was teaching a class about this in the fall. And in reading your stories, I was so interested in the way that revision is sometimes built right in, that there is a preexisting story that the story is revising. In the opening story, for example, the video game that you refer to, the protagonist is attempting to use it to revise history to alter the course of events, and there are events in the stories that are revisited over and over. I’m curious about what you think about the relationship between diaspora and revision and whether, as diasporic writers, we’re always kind of beginning at a point of revision?
JJK: I would agree with that in a lot of different ways, especially with the Afghan diasporic community. Living in this country from a very young age, I was so inundated with false narratives about Afghanistan and about Afghans, and there’s so much American military propaganda and just straight up racism about Afghanistan, that when I first started, I did feel this intense impulse to be like, Okay, the first thing I need to do with my stories, is I need to revise these false narratives. In some instances, that led to really fruitful stories, because, I think, my entire life, when I would think about stories about Afghanistan, especially ones that were created or written or filmed in America, and that were released in America, Afghans were either barbarians or they were victims.
And so even like the act of conceptualizing or visualizing an Afghan character as a hero or an Afghan character as being capable of saving themselves or being capable of saving their own family members, to me that was a revisionist narrative to begin with. It’s also a thing that, in certain instances, can be a little bit limiting for me as well, because I’m starting from this point of like, it’s almost reactionary. I want to resist these narratives so badly, that at times, I’m starting from a place where I’m always responding instead of creating anew.
That’s something, as I develop and progress as a writer, I want to be able to break out of this mold of always reacting to narratives of always feeling like I need to revise narratives, and hopefully to write something utterly new and radical. I think that also might be rooted in my impulse to explore these different narrative forms as well, because I’m just so tired of the same stories being told, and I want to… Let me see if I can do something new here.
WT: I also think that trauma is another thing, in addition to trying to change narratives that are incorrect, that trauma is the thing that forces you to play with chronology and form, because it’s the only way to get that across. You’re at Stanford, and Adam Johnson, who’s a friend of mine, teaches there. He talks a lot about trauma in his writing and taught me a lot of ways to think about using form to express that. I also think increasingly highly of this story by Donald Barthelme called “Indian Uprising,” which is a story that’s really about repeated colonialism and violence perpetrated by America, by France, by multiple countries.
And it’s a story that’s told extremely experimentally, that is in multiple timeframes, that doesn’t have any sort of real plot to it, but it really does a great job of trying to talk about the factual history of how colonialism has happened and how these things repeat over time. And so they’re happening in the same timeframe, rather than trying to be historically done, as you would in a long tome. Eventually, these kinds of repeating crimes force you into experiments, I think. That’s not a question, I’m just talking to you about it, and I wonder what you think about that.
JJK: I think that’s exactly on point. I think the other thing I would add to that is that one of the things that I’ve experienced and had to come to terms with growing up my entire life, is the surreal nature of war trauma as well. The things that my parents had experienced in their lives were oftentimes so horrific that it bordered on the realm of the surreal, like these underground dungeons filled with starving prisoners, and these incredible war crimes that were committed in Kabul and other places.
I wouldn’t even know how to begin to describe it. It borders on unreality, borders on the epic, the nature of the violence that was inflicted upon them during this war by a superpower. And so especially when I’m trying to think about writing about war trauma, or writing about how one begins to conceptualize war trauma, I often find myself having to delve into the realms of the surreal or magical realism, or these experimental modes of fiction, just because the incidents themselves seem so unreal, and in certain ways, I think I’m trying to, I’m trying to reflect that sense of unreality and how it takes years and decades to even come to terms with what had actually happened to them before their eyes, and how they can even consume that or begin to think through that decades and years later.
The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories • 99 Nights in Logar • Jamil Jan Kochai Reads “The Haunting of Hajji Hotak” | The New Yorker” • Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain,” by Jamil Jan Kochai | The New Yorker • Jamil Jan Kochai Reads “Occupational Hazards” | The New Yorker • Jamil Jan Kochai on Résumés as Stories | The New Yorker
• U.S. is rejecting over 90% of Afghans seeking to enter the country on humanitarian grounds – CBS News • S4 Ep. 26: Bullshit Saviors: Helen Benedict and Nadia Hashimi on Depictions of the American Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq • “Love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice…” – by Nam Le Prospect Magazine • “The Indian Uprising” by Donald Barthelme | The New Yorker
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Anne Kniggendorf.