Now Reading
Reality is Not that Simple: An Interview with Jamil Jan Kochai

Reality is Not that Simple: An Interview with Jamil Jan Kochai

  • Our interview with Jamil Jan Kochai about his short story collection, "The Haunting of Hajji Hotak."

Jamil Jan Kochai was sitting with his parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins on the second story of his aunt’s home in Logar, Afghanistan, sipping tea and taking in the evening breeze around sunset, when his phone buzzed, and he saw that he was tagged in a tweet by the National Book Foundation. But before he could click on the tweet, his phone lost signal. Abruptly, he jumped up without explanation and ran into the orchard in front of the home—which had been planted by his aunt’s husband’s family when they settled in Logar in the 1890s—and frantically moved around, searching for a connection. In the midst of this familial orchard, his phone caught a signal, came back to life, and he got the news: His debut short story collection, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories, was named a finalist for the National Book Award.  

“Once I clicked it, and it finally worked, and then I realized I got [nominated], it just felt like the perfect place to find out the news,” Kochai told me over Zoom, a few weeks after returning from Logar. “I love, love, love Logar so much, especially in the evenings around sunset because the sun starts setting on the land, and the breeze starts coming in and it’s just like the most beautiful place in the world.”

Back inside, he broke the news to his family and was welcomed by a long, collective prayer for his success. I recently had a chance to catch up with Kochai, and we discussed The Haunting of Hajji Hotak, and many of the sources and themes he was drawing from when creating his singularly unique, layered, and brilliant collection. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Farooq Chaudhry  

It’s easy for people to misread your work or come into it with strange expectations, and I was impressed by how authentic your voice felt in the stories. Was it hard to find your voice as a writer given that the literary community doesn’t have a lot of space for voices like yours?

Jamil Jan Kochai  

It was definitely a journey. I remember when I first started writing fiction in college, I was almost exclusively reading white dudes. I was reading a lot of Faulkner, Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy. I’ve read everything by Cormac McCarthy. I was obsessed with him in particular because of his sentences and his language. And so what I found was that when I look back on my very early writing, the voice itself was incredibly white. Like, it sounded like an imitation of Cormac McCarthy and Faulkner. And it was just kind of terrible, you know? I’d be writing these stories about Afghan families, but in this sort of neo-biblical Cormac McCarthy register, and it came off super phony to me. And even then I could tell there was an issue with the voice itself. And so it wasn’t until I started grad school, and I was reading writers like Junot Díaz and Sandra Cisneros and these writers who weren’t afraid to draw directly from the voices of their own communities. Like the voice that they grew up with, just how people talked in the neighborhood and community. And it was beautiful. The writing was absolutely beautiful. After I read that, a light bulb went off. And I was like, oh I can write these stories in a voice that I grew up with. I don’t have to imitate Cormac McCarthy, I don’t have to imitate Faulkner, like I could write in the voice that I speak to my family with. And once I did that, that’s when the stories really took off.

Farooq Chaudhry  

I want to ask about the form of the written story and the novel in particular, because you’ve  spoken about hearing stories from your grandmother growing up, the Qur’anic storytelling tradition, and the oral storytelling traditions that we come from. What challenges were presented by trying to translate that experience into the written word?

Jamil Jan Kochai  

When I was writing [99 Nights in Logar], I had been taught that a novel had to be propelled by character action and character agency. And so it opens up and it’s a very traditional sort of boys’ adventure tale. The boys go off on this journey in a land the protagonist isn’t familiar with and needs to find this particular object, and then he’s going to transform along the way. But what happened was my objectives for the novel itself weren’t coming through that particular form. I knew I wanted to incorporate all these oral stories that I had heard my entire life. I wanted to incorporate these different oral histories I’d grown up with about the Soviet occupation [of Afghanistan] and my family’s journey from Logar, to Peshawar, to Alabama, to California, and all these other stories. But that particular form wasn’t allowing for that. And so that’s when I hit this roadblock and I was completely flummoxed. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t write anything for like four months for that novel, which was one of the most terrifying writing experiences of my life. And that’s when I finally hit upon this idea that I would just have the characters within the novel tell their own stories. And that’s something I picked up from the Arabian Nights which I happened to read that summer. And that’s how, in terms of form, I figured out I’m literally just gonna allow the characters to tell their own stories. And then I allowed the characters within those stories to tell stories. And so the method of the stories within stories that I read in the Arabian Nights was super crucial for me. And it felt, even though it’s this old text, it felt super radical to me in this weird way. So that was crucial to figuring out the form of the novel and how to incorporate these oral narratives.

Farooq Chaudhry  

In a lot of the reviews of The Haunting of Hajji Hotak, people focus on the magical realism, but nobody asks you about “Bakhtawara and Miriam.” It was so quiet and subtle, but one of the most powerful stories in the collection. What role do you think that story plays in the collection? 

Jamil Jan Kochai  

It’s funny you say that because I’m really proud of that story in particular. That, to me—I don’t mean to make these big comparisons—but to me that’s a story that comes from the tradition of Chekhov or the tradition of a writer like Yiyun Lee, who was a huge influence to me, and who was one of my mentors early on. I just wanted to tell the story of this friendship, and it didn’t need to have these big battles, these audacious movements in terms of form, these magical realist movements incorporated into the story. I was really proud of it because it was so character-centric, centered upon the relationship itself. That was a story that I wrote for my mentor, Yiyun Lee. Like I feel like she would have loved to have read it. It’s also drawing on those old love stories that you hear, like Layla and Majnun. So I just really wanted to write a story about love, but also friendship. But you know, you’re exactly right, that story holds a very tender spot in the collection because it’s doing something that none of the other stories are. And yeah, I’m particularly proud of that.

Farooq Chaudhry  

Another common theme in the collection is that bad things are always happening, but there’s a lot of tenderness as a whole. There’s not a lot of rage or reacting against circumstance. What were you trying to accomplish and convey about the role of tragedy? What has the normalcy of tragedy conveyed to you?

Jamil Jan Kochai  

Well, you know, that’s really a condition that I just encountered so much in my own life with, first of all, my own parents. They’d gone through, suffered so much during the Soviet war, and then afterwards, their attempts to flee the country. Like my father in particular lost so many family members. And he’d had such a difficult and tragic life leading up to my relationship with him that it always felt like I was living in the shadows of these great tragedies. But the thing about my father, and what I really admired about him, and my mother as well, my grandmother, and pretty much all of my relatives, is that they never allow those tragedies to weigh them down, and especially not weigh down their children. I don’t know if that’s always the case. Like, there are many instances where war trauma enters a household and then it can destroy a household. But for them, they never allowed that to happen. And then on top of that, the main thing I remember about my relatives is how funny they all are. Like my father’s a hilarious man. My mother is a very funny woman, my aunts and my grandmother are all big-time jokesters, you know. So a lot of the time when I was thinking about these moments of tenderness in light of these great tragedies, it always tended to revolve around humor. 

Like, even just last month when I was in Logar, I was traveling a lot with my cousin Hashmat, who’s 24 years old. He’s this big, handsome, really lovable, charming guy. Very cheerful guy, always has a smile on his face. And I was with him all the time and would ask him about his experiences of the war and he would tell me these absolutely horrifying stories. His compound was located right between an Afghan government militia post, and these regions where the Taliban would roam. So the Taliban would take a shot at this militia post and then the militia post would have an incredible amount of artillery and just go nuts and shoot in the general direction of where the shots came from. And they would hit all these houses, animals, orchards, and they would hit villagers. And his house was getting struck all the time to the point where they built this brick wall in their orchard in front of their home, so that when the firefights would happen, they had something to jump behind. Like, it just became, like a natural aspect of their life. And that’s the thing I kept seeing in their stories is that the way they would just sort of adapt to the circumstances of the war, and the way that they learn, almost intuitively, the logic of the war itself. That was just his daily existence. And that’s how he got through life. And he’s still just such a cheerful, lighthearted person, but he’d gone through absolutely nightmarish experiences. And so when I see something like that, and when I see a person like that, that’s what really inspires that mode of storytelling in my work, where it’s like, even as I’m writing these tragic, horrifying, traumatizing experiences, I try to maintain like this lighthearted way. Even despite all of those tragedies, there still has to be some tones of tenderness. There’s some tone of life that’s continuing on despite mass murder, or mass death, or war.

Farooq Chaudhry  

It’s a beautiful way to pay homage to something unique about the ability to be human, right? “Resilient” is a word that feels insufficient, but one is always coming to terms with how transient this life is. It’s like the veils are lifted.

Jamil Jan Kochai  

And that’s the thing that always shocked me. Like horrible, horrible things happened in my home village in Logar. Like people were committing atrocities against each other. But the thing is, even my cousin, he’d been beaten by militiamen. He’d been shot at by militiamen. He’d had his car smashed and his tires punctured by an angry militiamen. But despite all that, he still maintains such an empathetic tone toward them, and toward the Taliban as well. He would just be like, you know, they were thrown into this war. They were kids from the village or from distant villages. They were given like 6000 Afghanis a month, like $20 roughly, to fight this war for other people. And it ruined them in these different ways. But he still maintains empathy for them. And it was like you mentioned earlier, there wasn’t this feeling of vengeance or of anger or rage. It was always understanding. And that always, always shocked me, but it also inspired me as well.

Farooq Chaudhry  

In light of all this, I’m wondering how you grew up hearing these stories? Because, the experience of suburban America is like crying over spilled milk all the time, you know? What did these stories do to you? 

Jamil Jan Kochai

From a very young age, I had a unique relationship [to] or understanding of violence, because I grew up in this household where almost every single story was to some degree about executions, or mass murder, or this horrifying bombing. But then I lived most of my life in suburban West Sacramento, which is a very nonviolent location. And I began to see that the peace that exists in America or in suburban neighborhoods in certain parts of America is directly tied to the violence that occurs in Afghanistan. I made that connection early on. There was a very pivotal understanding that I had from a young age that that the nonviolent isn’t actually nonviolent, like the nonviolence of America, of a police state, of this imperialist country. It’s all tied to these aggressive foreign policy maneuvers, and how they’re policing minority communities. So I understood from a young age that like the peace that I lived within wasn’t actually peace. 

Farooq Chaudhry  

Is it difficult to write about Muslim characters and to portray the religion? In one sense, you have the white gaze, but in the other, you’ve mentioned you’re a practicing Muslim, so there’s a sentiment that this is sacred and I want to do right by this. 

Jamil Jan Kochai  

Totally, man. Because the thing is, Islam is sacred to me. It’s incredibly dear to me. I shape my entire life around it. But at the same time, when I’m writing a story, I want to be very honest about the struggle that I’ve had with the religion, as well as struggles I’ve had in my relationship with Allah. And so writing that can be really difficult because I want to be honest, I want to be personal, and I want to be true to this struggle, which I think is at the heart of a lot of my characters and stories because it’s the heart of my own struggle as well. But at the same time, you also gotta worry about the white gaze. So that was one of the most profound struggles I had with the book because when it comes to warfare, Afghanistan, or to Sacramento or family relationships, I kind of have an idea of what I want to say about those things. But when it comes to Islam and God, I have no idea. Like people will ask me like, “What is this book saying about Islam?” And I’m like, I have no idea what it’s saying. Like, I’m trying to figure that out in the story itself. But yeah, man, ultimately, I would say that everything that I write is, on its deepest level, trying to get at something about God. And I fail a lot in that endeavor, but I think my stories that ring the most true to me or that seem the most beautiful to me are ones coming close to something regarding that truth in particular. So yeah, it’s been very difficult but it’s also the key of everything that I write.

See Also

Farooq Chaudhry  

I think your book is a sign of cultural maturity for Muslims in America. I want to put you in conversation not only with writers like Sahar Mustafah and G. Willow Wilson, but artists like Ramy Youssef or Bassam Tariq. I think we’re living in special time for Muslim artists. Do you see yourself as part of a larger ecosystem of Muslim artists working right now?

Jamil Jan Kochai  

Yeah, no, absolutely. You just named a couple of really fantastic artists that I’m very excited for. Bassam Tariq’s career, I think his films are just absolutely gorgeous. A Muslim filmmaker working on the level that he is, with the amount of artistry he has, it’s really beautiful. And then the poet that I try to recommend all the time is Aria Aber. She’s an Afghan poet. And that’s a book [Hard Damage] that I love. And that’s the thing. That’s a book I think a more hardcore Muslim reading it, they’d have a lot of issues with it. But I think, for me, like that book’s relationship to and understanding of God is so complicated, and it’s so profound, and it’s so beautiful. And so that’s the thing that’s troubling. Like I’m always like—and it’s funny to a certain degree—I want my books, my artwork to remain halal. But I also understand that pushing the boundaries of this place between the sacred and the profane, there’s something really beautiful in that space, as well. And I want to play around with that, without also, I don’t know, falling into kufr or something like that, you know. So for me, writing is not only a struggle in terms of the artistry, but also this weird, like, theological, ethical struggle as well. I mean, back to your original question, I think it’s beautiful. I’m really excited about the different directions it’s gonna go. And especially as we’re trying to, as a community, push back on all these different expectations for Muslim artists and all these different stereotypes that come with representing Islam. Like, as long as we’re pushing back against that in an honest, ethical way, I’m very excited for what’s happening in the artistic community in this country.

Farooq Chaudhry  

People describe your stories as magical realism. But I think about the third verse of Surah Baqarah being about those “who believe in the unseen.” It’s just a part of who we are. And the story your grandmother would tell you about walking across a janamaaz turning people into monkeys actually having an impact on you. So when you include fantastical elements, do you think of it as magical realism? Or is it just a part of the world that you exist in?

Jamil Jan Kochai  

As much as possible, I think it is part of the world that I exist in. That’s the thing about [“The Tale of Dully’s Reversion”]. I literally believed if I crossed the janamaaz I would turn into a monkey. Like that was a firm belief that shaped how I was understanding my world, so those are some elements I try to capture in the story itself. But at the same time, it can also come from different places. Like with “Return to Sender,” when that first box comes to the mother and she opens it up, I didn’t know the finger was going to start wriggling until I started writing that it was going to start wriggling. And that moment is so separate from my own experience, right? Like, I didn’t understand how this mother was going to react to this moment of discovering her son’s figure like that. It must have been such a disassociated, profoundly horrifying moment for her. It was only after sitting in that scene with her for a while when the finger began wriggling. And that’s where the more surreal elements came organically out of the story itself. And then with “Playing Metal Gear Solid V,” that just came out of a joke. I was just thinking through, you know, wouldn’t it be funny if this thing happened? And then it just gets deeper and deeper as you begin exploring the idea.

But you know, it’s funny, man, I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship with the idea of magical realism. When I was in Logar I was driving around with Hashmat—and again, I owe him so much. He was with me the entire time, he told me so many beautiful stories—and we were going to visit the markers of where two of my uncles had died to say a dua for them. And my cousin started telling me a story about this time my uncle encountered a jinn on the road. He said late at night, my uncle was riding on his bike with a bag of pomegranates, and something landed on his head, and then jumped off. And when he turned around, he saw it was a jinn, and it was standing there, and it was demanding something from him. I think it wanted to kill him. It was asking for his life. And instead of giving him his life, he was like, well why don’t you take these pomegranates, they’re ripe. And the jinn looked at the pomegranate, and then my uncle opened one up, and he offered it to jinn and the jinn ate the pomegranate, and he liked it. And then he took the whole bag, and he left. And so he tells me that story. It’s like completely, absolute truth to him, right? And I’m sitting there as a writer, and as a Muslim, and I don’t know, what do I do with this story? On a certain level, the pragmatist in me is like that didn’t happen. Like he must have gotten hit in the head by a raccoon or something, and maybe he was dazed and then he thought this thing happened. But the other side of me is like, why? Why don’t you think that happened? Like, what is it about that story that you think that that couldn’t have happened? Why is that doubt lingering in you? And then another part of me is like, well, why couldn’t it be both things at the same time? Like, why couldn’t it be a true story, but also just like this thing that he thought? And so those are the things that I’m constantly struggling with in my writing itself. I just don’t know what to do about reality, about truth, because I get all these different features, and I don’t want to just be like, here is how the world is, and that’s it. Or on the other hand, being this jinn absolutist, jinn can hit you in the head and take your pomegranates, right? I don’t know which it is, right? Because, I mean, I’ve never encountered a jinn in my life. And so for me, it’s not as simple. People are like, you’re influenced by the magical realist movement. And I’m like, yeah, Gabriel García Márquez is super important to me like that, totally. But at the same time, it’s also just my own lived experience. Like, I don’t know what to do about how reality is, and how it exists for different people. And so I just tried to put it on the page.

And so those are the things that I’m constantly struggling with in my writing itself. I just don’t know what to do about reality, about truth, because I get all these different features, and I don’t want to just be like, here is how the world is, and that’s it.

Farooq Chaudhry  

That’s beautiful, man. The older I get, I’m at this point where I just look around at the world, at life, and ask, man, what’s going on? I’m like okay, I believe that God exists, but everything else is kind of up for grabs, you know? Anytime somebody is too certain of something, I’m kind of turned off. 

Jamil Jan Kochai

Me too, man. I feel the exact same way. Like, if there was a philosophical underpinning to all of my writing, it’s literally what you just said: what’s going on? Like, that’s it. I’m just trying to figure it out.

FICTION
The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories
By Jamil Jan Kochai
Viking
Published July 19, 2022

View Comment (1)

Leave a Reply


© 2021 All Rights Reserved.