In his new book, Jamil Jan Kochai writes of war, displacement and haunting memories
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Years ago, the author Jamil Jan Kochai saw a satirical headline in The Onion. It read, "FBI Counterterrorism Agent Wistfully Recalls Watching 20-Year-Old Muslim-American Grow Up."
JAMIL JAN KOCHAI: I thought it was totally funny, but also, like, oddly endearing.
SHAPIRO: That joke gave him the premise for the title story in his new book, "The Haunting Of Hajji Hotak And Other Stories."
KOCHAI: I was thinking about this character. And as I was sort of watching him watch the family, that's where sort of the central relationship of the story sort of builds up, as this narrator begins to also feel a very real bond to this family.
SHAPIRO: This family comes up again and again throughout Jamil Jan Kochai's short stories.
KOCHAI: It's largely autobiographical. My own family - we left Afghanistan. Both my mother and my father's side came from a small village in Logar. They experienced, like, tremendous warfare during - in the early 1980s because of the Soviet invasion. There was really horrific bombings and violence there, and so they were forced to flee to Pakistan. From Pakistan, they eventually made it to Alabama, and then from Alabama all the way here to Sacramento, Calif. And so many of the stories in the collection do draw from our personal experiences.
SHAPIRO: You say the details of this family's experience are largely autobiographical, but also the stories include fantastical elements in which, you know, humans turn into animals, or somebody tries to rewrite their family history in a video game. How does fiction allow you to explore some of the experiences your family has had that maybe writing about these people in a more direct, literal way might not?
KOCHAI: Well, you know, it's funny because I've always found fiction to be sort of this very comforting space for me to be able to explore these memories. You know, if I were to face them head on in sort of, like, a personal essay or in a memoir or something like that - I don't know - I feel like that would almost be - it would make me too vulnerable. That would be very difficult for me in a lot of ways. And so being able to have sort of the ability to come at these stories and to think deep through these stories in different ways - whether that's, you know, through a video game or through a resume or through, you know, magical realism - it allows me to sort of reexplore these stories and these characters in new ways.
SHAPIRO: You mentioned a resume. And so I want to talk about a story that is basically written as a series of resume entries, which in the many short stories I've read in my life, is not something that I have ever seen before. Tell us about "Occupational Hazards."
KOCHAI: Yeah, so basically it's written in the format of a resume. And so it's this character's life given to you over the course of a series of job occupations. And so there's - you know, it lists the job, the time period. And then underneath, it says duties included, and then it basically tells you, you know, what they did throughout this occupation.
SHAPIRO: Over the course of this story, the reader comes to realize that the character is, in a way, your father. And duties that begin with shepherd - these jobs over the course of the lifetime go on to include merchant, refugee, newspaper delivery man, and then it has this incredibly poignant ending. How did you think about the arc of this story?
KOCHAI: Well, you know, I talked to my father before, and so I'd had sort of this vague idea about all these different jobs he'd had throughout his life just through conversations. And when I finally wrote it down, the scope of it was so - it was surprising to me. And what I'd realized over the course of actually writing was that I understood how this character - how much they sort of rooted their identity in their relationship to their labor and how, you know, towards the end of the story - when the main character is no longer able to make money through their labor, is no longer able to identify through their labor - it's not only, like, this financial or, you know, this circumstantial crisis, but for the character, it's this existential crisis because their identity was always rooted in their ability to labor. And so that's where - that's when I finally understood that, like, this story can work - like, that's where the heart of the story is.
SHAPIRO: Wow. There's a character who comes up in many of these stories named Watak. Will you tell us about who he was? And I say was in the past tense because he's mostly represented by his absence.
KOCHAI: That's right. You know, Watak was my father's younger brother. They were very close. He was only two years younger than him. And they grew up in Logar, Afghanistan, together. And, you know, his best friend in the whole world. And he was someone who, you know - God rest his soul - he was murdered during the Soviet occupation. He was killed in 1982, and it was a loss that lingered in our household for decades afterward.
I remember, you know, growing up, we always had a photograph of Watak. There was only two photographs of him in existence, and one of them always hung in our prayer room at our house. And so whenever I would pray, he'd just be there watching me. And so he was sort of this specter, this figure in our household that had just always been there. And his story was always given to us, like, in bits and pieces because it was so difficult for them to be able to tell this particular story.
SHAPIRO: There are so many different kinds of hauntings in this book. There is the presence of Watak, which you describe as a kind of haunting. There is the title story, "The Haunting Of Hajji Hotak." But also, it feels like in some ways the role of the Americans and the Soviets before them in Afghanistan is a bit of a haunting. You know, like, U.S. troops never take center stage, but Afghan characters refer to killer robots in the sky, or they say that Kabul still belongs to America. How did you think of the role that these invading countries play in the story of Afghanistan that you're telling?
KOCHAI: The thing is I didn't want my stories - or my writing in general - to be sort of overcome by these invading forces. Right? I always - I wanted to focus on the characters first and foremost. The Afghan characters - I wanted to focus on their lives and their relationships. But, of course, there's always that context of the occupation itself, whether that's the American occupation or the Soviet occupation before that.
And so, you know, they are sort of these lingering presences, these ghosts in their lives. And so even as they're, you know, eating dinner or having a fight or whatever else it is in terms of the plot of the story, in terms of these different relationships between the characters, I always try to make sure that the looming presence of the occupation is always there as well. I don't want that to be forgotten, but I also don't want it to overwhelm the story.
SHAPIRO: And so whether it is a beloved friend who was killed at an early age or an invading, occupying force, how do you think about the idea of haunting in your life, in understanding your family's history that you wrestle with in these stories?
KOCHAI: When I first began to conceptualize what a story was, it was - oftentimes it was rooted in these stories of loss. It was rooted in these stories of death and these stories of of warfare, but then also these stories of, like, you know, profound joy and happiness in this village before the war. And so it was these two separate kinds of hauntings - this land and this time lost to war, and then - but then it was also the war itself. Those two forms of hauntings were always there for me. And so I just sort of had to reach back and grab it and put it on the page.
SHAPIRO: Jamil Jan Kochai's new book is "The Haunting Of Hajji Hotak And Other Stories." Thank you for talking with us about it.
KOCHAI: Thank you so much for having me. It's an honor.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANDERSON .PAAK SONG, "FIRE IN THE SKY")
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