Aspen Words Literary Prize finalist Jamil Jan Kochai combines humor, loss in short story collection
Editor's Note: Author Jamil Jan Kochai has won this year's Aspen Words Literary Prize. You can read the latest story here.
Through 12 distinctive short stories in his latest collection, author Jamil Jan Kochai explores themes of displacement, family and a search for home in the wake of violence in Afghanistan.
His book, titled “The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories,” was a finalist for the National Book Award. And now, it has landed Kochai on the shortlist for this year’s Aspen Words Literary Prize, which awards $35,000 for a work of fiction with a social impact.
Aspen Words, a local literary hub with programs tied to the Aspen Institute, will announce the winner at an award ceremony in New York City on April 19. The Pitkin County Library will livestream the ceremony at a watch party that night from 4 to 6 p.m.
The award is open to authors of any nationality and is one of the largest literary prizes in the United States. A three-person selection committee selected the longlist, announced in December, and a five-person jury selected the shortlist. The jury will also select the winner; it includes scholars, authors and others with literary expertise.
Kochai spoke with Aspen Public Radio about his book and the prize earlier this month; interviews with all five Aspen Words Literary Prize finalists are posted at aspenpublicradio.org.
Kaya Williams: Even looking back to when they released the [Aspen Words Literary Prize] longlist, were you expecting this, hoping for this, was it a surprise?
Jamil Jan Kochai: Getting on the longlist itself was a huge honor for me. I've sort of had this award on my radar just because it's one of these things where it is sort of politically oriented, and I think my work does engage with politics quite a bit. And so when I saw the longlist, it was a terrific surprise, and then the shortlist was an even bigger surprise. It was really fantastic.
Williams: And as you just mentioned, your work engages with politics a lot. Are you going in with the intent of a social impact, or is it incidental to the stories that you're just trying to tell based on characters?
Kochai: To a certain degree, I would say it is incidental, just because I write about my family much of the time, but they've gone through all these different wars that have occurred in Afghanistan. For me, my entire life, I was growing up with stories of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and then the subsequent civil wars. And then, even as an adult, I saw my family members struggling through and dealing with the American occupation of Afghanistan as well.
To a certain degree, it almost feels like it wasn't a choice for me to have my work be sort of politically oriented, or to have something to say about global politics. But it was just — the war was forced upon us, and so I felt sort of compelled to write about it.
Williams: Did you learn anything, either about yourself or about your family, as you were going through this creative process through a fictional lens?
Kochai: Yeah, absolutely. I did a lot of research for this book. A lot of that was straight-up historical research: I was going into the library, I was borrowing books on Afghan history, on the Soviet occupation, the civil wars, the early years of the American occupation as well.
But then I was also doing a lot of face-to-face interviews with my family members, I was doing a lot of reporting. I was doing these interviews. And it was sort of gathering — as opposed to the textual history I was diving into — with my family, I was sort of gathering this oral history. And yes, I learned a lot about my family.
One of the things that happens, I think, when people go through an incredibly traumatic experience, like a war, is some people can tend to close up, and they become silent. And they keep these sorts of secrets and these traumas within themselves for years, and for decades. I was really blessed in that my family members were willing to tell me these stories that they hadn't told anyone, sometimes in, you know, 40, 50 years. And so yeah, I ended up learning a lot about my family and about Afghan history in general.
Williams: Did you find it emotionally challenging or heavy to be exploring these traumatic themes that, as you say, can cause some people to really retreat into themselves?
Rigney: At times, it can be really, really difficult with my father, especially. He's a very stoic individual. He's the toughest, strongest man that I've ever known. And so with him, especially, it's very, very difficult for him to open up. A number of times during our interviews, he would become very emotional, which I know, it’s very difficult for him to experience, it's very difficult for me to see.
It could get very heavy and that was the case with many of my family members. And that was the case with even the things that weren't directly related to my family — reading about the war crimes and the massacres and these different things that occurred in Afghanistan.
Oftentimes, you can have this feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. But I found that oftentimes, I was able to channel that into the writing, and I don't know if it was cathartic, but it was something like that, it allowed me to process it through the writing itself.
Williams: You've described this development process in a way that strikes me as very reporterly, almost as if you were going to write a work of nonfiction or an oral history. So for you, why choose fiction? What stories do you think you're able to tell that you wouldn't be able to with nonfiction?
Kochai: You know, I've dabbled in nonfiction in the past. It's incredibly difficult for me to write. There's something about fiction writing — that there's this safety I feel in the categorization itself, that this is ostensibly not true, that this is a thing that has not happened, that it's a work of imagination. It creates a sort of barrier around me that I think I find really, really comforting.
And the other thing is that there are certain things that happened during these 40 years or so now of almost ceaseless warfare, that when I would read about it, it seemed to almost border on the absurd or something unreal. The things that have occurred in Afghanistan — the intensity, the immensity of the violence there — when you read it, it seems utterly unbelievable.
There was something about that, where it felt like delving into some of these more fictional genres — things like magical realism, things like surrealism — it actually felt more appropriate to an honest understanding of the impact of the war than something strictly nonfictional.
Williams: Do you think it also might make it more digestible or receivable to audiences to look at this through the lens of fiction?
Kochai: I think so. There's something about that — fiction really allows me to play with tone a lot more than nonfiction. Just personally, when I write nonfiction, it's really, really heavy. I'm writing about things that I know have happened. I've met face to face with people that have witnessed and suffered war crimes. It's heavy, it's somber.
But with my fiction, I find that oftentimes I can really start in a place that's a lot lighter in tone, that can actually be very, very comedic in a sense. Some of my stories, they start out as jokes or they start out as these really silly scenarios, and then from there, through the fictional narrative itself, then I'm able to sort of weave in things that I think might be considered more traumatic, more somber.
I almost feel like I kind of trick my reader into reading these stories with a joke or with something light, or something fantastical, or a really propulsive narrative. And then that's when I slip in a little, ‘Now, let me tell you a little bit about the horrible things that have happened in this country.’ I think fiction does feel more appropriate for that sort of a technique.
Williams: Now, I'm curious, given that you are telling family stories, and both funny stories but also very weighty stories, how does it feel that these are the kinds of stories that are being recognized by honors like the Literary Prize shortlist and other acclaim that you've gotten?
Kochai: You know, I never would have expected for it to have gone this far, but I have found that from the beginning, there's something about writing stories that feel honest to your natural voice or to the voices that you grew up with — there's something about that, that readers find very compelling, and it continues to be the case, and I just feel very fortunate. It's such an honor to be nominated for the prize.
This interview has been edited and condensed.