Interviews

The State Department Report That Became an Award-Winning Story

Frank Light on Afghanistan and writing about place.

Frank Light (pictured above, right, in 1972) is the winner of Arcturus magazine’s inaugural award for creative nonfiction. His story, “Land of Light” — based on a State Department report he filed during President George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” — explores the impact of US policy on the remote, mountainous Nuristan region of Afghanistan over the course of 30 years. As a member of the Peace Corps in the early ’70s, and later in the ’00s as a representative of the US government, Light’s first-hand, on-the-ground experience is a powerful reminder of the cost of war.

Now retired, Light holds an MFA  from the University of California at Irvine. “Land of Light” is actually an adaptation of an excerpt from his memoir-in-progress, Adjust to Dust: On the Backroads of Southern Afghanistan. He donated his prize money to Friends of Afghanistan, whose mission is to “sustain an information exchange about Afghanistan and its people and to network for their peace and prosperity.”

I recently spoke with Light via email about Afghanistan, the State Department, and writing narrative nonfiction.

Sophie Amado: Your piece thrives on toggling back and forth between time periods and places. Did you ever initially think about sticking to one time or place? What do you think are the benefits of essays written in multiple times?

Frank Light: The initial write-up in 2003 was directed at officials too busy for provincial or personal histories. They’d want some context, of course, so it included the little I knew about recent events in Nuristan. Now that the report no longer has any operational value (if it ever did), readers of choice look instead for resonance that comes with engagement and background. Our minds operate at diverse levels and speeds. The writer has to find the levers, the gears.

Sophie Amado: Could you talk a little bit more about your background other than what’s in your bio? How did you come to work for the state department? What drives you to write?

Frank Light: As intellectual property, the Vietnam novel I submitted for my MFA thesis is a tear-down despite subsequent attempts to rehab it between stints as a river guide and forest firefighter. Though I enjoyed those jobs every bit as much as I did writing, none of them were preparing me for a future, so I left to teach English in Iran. My income improved but not my prospects—Khomeini was on the horizon. The U.S. State Department offered a way out.

The career that followed brought me into contact with so many interesting people and places, and there was always a demand for information and its interpretation. In overseas assignments, we explained the local situation to the policy makers at home and our own country’s positions to our foreign hosts.

Usually I write better than I talk. Writing permits wordsmithing and reflection. Not so much when you’re working to deadline, but as much as necessary when you’re doing it with a longer perspective in mind.

Sophie Amado: While reading your essay, I felt an incredible sense of urgency through the topic. Who was your intended audience for this piece? Do you think about audience when you write?

Frank Light: I thought the initial write-up important because as far as I could tell nobody in our government (including me) had a clue as to what was going on in that mountainous, ungoverned space close to the Pakistan border. You can never tell who reads what you send from the field or if it exerts any influence. Very little, I’d say, based on what I’ve seen from the other end. The nonfiction writer, like the fiction reader, needs to suspend disbelief—yes, there will be readers, and they will care.

Later, when I reconsidered the trip for this essay, I had no particular audience in mind. I still don’t. Call it a failure of imagination. I’m pleased anybody might look at it because I still think it’s important.

Sophie Amado: I noticed when you start a new section in this piece, you usually start with a description of the environment. Could you talk a little bit about your writing process? Would you say you think of form before words or the other way around?

Frank Light: What comes first to me are settings, their inhabitants, and how they play off each other. Feelings come next. By then the words are bubbling up. Form comes hard. I can’t conceptualize. When passages become tangible or at least visible on a page, I test various approaches. The one I settled on tries to build coherence while also reflecting the astonishment of a former Peace Corps volunteer’s return, with the U.S. military more than three decades hence to a location that seemed so far from American cognizance.

Sophie Amado: Finally, from what authors, if any, do you draw inspiration?

Frank Light: The essay itself cites “A Short Walk In the Hindu Kush” by Eric Newby, which stirred the imagination and tickled the funny bone of this reader then in the nearby lowlands. “The Places In Between” by Rory Stewart covers another slog across Afghanistan. The spareness of his account provokes the reader into supplying emotion and frames of reference. Somehow his footsteps lead us from the pedestrian to the sublime. Michael Herr’s Dispatches, in contrast, is appropriately overwrought. It feels true to mood, mission, experience, and characters, and his language captured what was out there but had not been communicated so vividly until then.

All three are better writers than me, and they had an even greater advantage. They risked their lives on adventures far more arduous and dangerous than the two day trips covered in “Land of Light.”  One big difference, though, and it cuts multiple ways—their travel was optional. You could say mine was, too, although both times my employment for the government and ultimately the American people brought with it a sense of obligation. I felt I had to go. Of course, like Newby, Stewart, and Herr, I also very much wanted to go.

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1 comment on “The State Department Report That Became an Award-Winning Story

  1. Terrific review and interview. I’m adding it to my “to read” list. And I think I have the Stewart book he mentions . . . somewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

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