‘I WANTED THE READER TO EXPERIENCE THE IMMENSITY OF ALL THAT CAN BE LOST TO WAR, PARTICULARLY ONE’S CHILDHOOD’ — JAMIL JAN KOCHAI
Jamil Jan Kochai was born in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1992, but his family hails from Logar, Afghanistan. Kochai speaks to Eos about 99 Nights in Logar, his singularly captivating debut novel partly inspired by his own childhood and which pushes the boundaries of previous Afghan-American literary narratives. Similar to One Thousand and One Nights, the narrative intertwines tales within tales which are at once mystical and poignant
You mention remembering Logar as a place of awe and frightening beauty. When you came back to the United States where you grew up, you became very nostalgic for Logar. Is this nostalgia the primary inspiration behind your story?
I think it is. I’ve been haunted by these childhood memories of Logar for many years now. Growing up, I had to watch as my parents’ home village slowly succumbed to the war, and so I think it was out of this sense of nostalgia and loss that I began to write this story, to revisit the last days of my childhood in Logar.
The story is told through the eyes of the 12-year-old narrator Marwand. How does this portrayal differ from the portrayal of an adult?
For a kid, there was so much to love about Logar. The streams, the trees, the mulberries, the games, and all of this, I remember, almost sort of eclipsed the war. But amid all the fun and play, the war was still present. As a child, I remember it being so oddly exhilarating in its joy and the fear. It was only through the eyes of a child that I could really capture this sense of innocence and horror and loss. Through Marwand’s narration, I wanted the reader to experience the immensity of all that can be lost to war, particularly one’s childhood.
It is obvious from the narration that the art of storytelling is deeply embedded in our eastern culture. How did that aid you as a writer?
It was really pivotal to the development of this novel. Throughout 99 Nights in Logar, I reference Islamic hadith, Irani literature, Pakhtun folklore and stories from the Holy Quran — without these stories, I’m not sure if I would have been able to finish my novel. Once I realised that there were these long and beautiful traditions of storytelling that I could draw from and reference and retell, the writing of my novel became so much more pleasurable and exciting. I found that whenever I was stuck at a certain point in the plot, I just had to seek out the story within the story and all of a sudden, the narrative was given a new life.
All the meta-stories are packed with cultural nuances. How does that function as a collective memory of a country which is too often reduced to headlines and stereotypes?
Well, it was important for me to demonstrate the complexity, nuance and depth of life in Afghanistan. Although the lives of Afghans have been dominated by war for many years, I wanted to show the different ways that people still joke and talk and dance and eat and pray within the circumstances of the occupation. Instead of reducing Afghans to a series of stereotypical images, I wanted to broaden and complicate the way one understands life in Afghanistan.
There is a certain inevitability in the way you have shown the American occupation of Afghanistan. Was it a conscious decision to avoid giving commentary on the situation and tell it like it is?
Yes, I think this is one of the benefits of having a child narrator who is too young to develop a complex political commentary on the war. Although the war is always present in the background of the story, Marwand is much more focused on his relationships with his brothers and his cousins and with Budabash. The war is there. Marwand sees it and hears it and feels its tremors in the earth, but it is only toward the end of the novel that he begins to understand how insidious the American occupation truly is.
The book features bilingual narration and you frequently make use of vernacular in your writing. Is that a natural expression of your bilingual upbringing?
Absolutely. Although the bilingualism in the narrative has certain political stakes, I wrote the narration in this manner because it felt natural to the way that I think and speak and observe the world. My family and I, here in America, are constantly switching back and forth between Pashto and Farsi and English, but even when we speak English amongst ourselves, it’s often sprinkled with Pashto and Farsi. There are certain terms in Pashto that you can’t really translate. Calling a pakol a hat, for example, would be dishonest to me. Bilingualism is a deeply important part of how I view the world and so I made this apparent in the narration by Marwand who — like me — is always existing between languages.
The story of Watak is told at the end in untranslated Pashto. What was the thought behind that?
A very generous reviewer referred to this chapter as a “bulwark against exoticism” and in a certain respect I think that is true. With this story, I was attempting to resist the ways that my writing may have been pandering to a white American (or English) audience. I wanted to upset this notion that, in order for this story to have value, it needed to be made consumable for an English readership. Here, the English reader is asked to work in order to understand the Pashto narrative. For these few pages, Pashto becomes essential and English is made secondary. That was really important for me because Pashto is my first language and it is the language through which I knew all of my family’s stories, including the story of Watak, which is a true story that is very precious to my family. So, it only seemed natural to have it written in their language. It had to be in Pashto. And that’s how I left it.
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 7th, 2019