| Interviews, Views

On Voice, Rhythm and Experimenting With the Short Story: An Interview With Jamil Jan Kochai

By Bareerah Y. Ghani

To say I’m obsessed with Jamil Jan Kochai’s latest collection, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories, would be quite the understatement. It’s a fantastic, character-driven work focused on interrogating the cost of America’s War on Terror borne by Afghans and their diaspora. The collection with its often-horrifying narratives offers a multifaceted look into intergenerational war trauma, and displacement that has fractured relationships and stolen childhoods across Afghan ancestry. Kochai serves the American reader with the hard truths about America’s legacy of imperialism and he does so with creative flair. Readers can expect sharp, distinct character voices, wildly experimental narrative structures (such as a story told through a resume) and bizarre, unexpected twists (such as monkeys leading a revolution).

I had the pleasure of first speaking with Jamil Jan Kochai for Electric Literature. When the opportunity arose to select a judge for our Spring Contest Issue, I knew there was no one better. This time around, I wanted to undertake a more craft-focused interview with Kochai to unravel his writing secrets on experimenting with narrative structures, capturing voice and rhythm, writing speculative fiction, and more.

Bareerah Ghani: My first question is about your journey as a writer. How would you describe your relationship to your craft?

JAMIL JAN KOCHAI: I would say definitely, arduous, complicated. It’s something that I think is the case for many writers, it starts off with a great deal of joy, and you know it’s rooted in the imagination. It’s rooted in play, in what is initially this pastime where we’re just reading these novels and taking in storytelling because we just love it. It’s entertaining, engrossing. But then you get to a certain point where you’re like well, I love listening to stories, and I love reading stories. Let me see if I can actually put a story together, and that’s when the relationship switches up a little bit, when the adversity becomes a part of it for the first time. Once you start figuring out how a story is put together structurally, this weird thing happens where, at least for me, stories sort of lose some of the magic. I remember I would be reading the old novels that I used to love, and when I could see structurally what the novelist was doing when they’re going from one paragraph to next, or setting up the scenes, there’s something about that that worried me a little bit, because it wasn’t the same sensation of awe I used to have when I was going into it completely fresh. And so, you know that’s just something that comes with it. You learn to love different aspects of writing and it continues to be this sort of a love affair. But it’s gotten much more complicated since I was a 10-year-old devouring every single Harry Potter novel.

BG: One thing I found really interesting in your current collection is that narrative structures are varied. So “Occupational Hazards,” for example, is written in the form of a resume. I would love for you to share how you envision experimental structures in particular and offer any advice you can to those who are looking to experiment with structure and style.

JJK: I think that’s one of the reasons why I love the short story as a form because there’s something about its shortened length that really lends to this freedom to experiment. For me when I’m going into a short story and I have this playful idea, the stakes for me at least, are so much lower than with a novel that I’m much more open to the idea of it  failing. So with “Occupational Hazards” for example, that’s a story that I was very, very anxious about from the very beginning, because it felt a little gimmicky to me, this idea of writing a story as a resume. I didn’t know if I could really get it to work, if I could actually turn that into a serious, character-driven story, or for it to be sort of this funny thing that I was working on, but because it was a short story, I was like what the hell, I’ll give it a shot! If it fails, then it fails and I’ll toss it, and work on the next story. You know, that’s one of the stories where from the beginning, I was like it’s not gonna work. And I wrote the first couple of lines, and I was like it’s still not working, the language sounds so stilted because it’s written in this resume format, and something about it kind of nagged at me, and I kept working at it, even though I didn’t really believe in it. And it was this odd thing where even when I finally put the story together, which I didn’t think I could do, even then I was just like I’m still not sure it works. Then I sent it to my agent, and she was the one who really convinced me to make it a part of the collection, and to then send it to the New Yorker. I totally didn’t expect The New Yorker to accept that story, and, in fact, I remember telling her, let’s send out different stories to them instead, that I thought were stronger.

So my advice would be to just continue to be playful. When I first began studying literature, I became very self-serious very quickly, and I was like literature has to be philosophical, has to be very somber, very serious. And that came through in my writing. I wrote a lot of very somber, boring, sort of stilted stories in the beginning of my writing education, and then I sort of had to teach myself that you can actually be as playful as you want with the story, you just have to leave yourself open to this idea that even if the experiment fails there’s still value in that process of trying to put it together. It’s just all about keeping an open mind, keeping your ears out for different ideas. And once you sort of latch on to an idea, just play with it and see where it goes, and you know, if it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work out, and then you just move on to the next story!

BG: I really like that! Especially what you said about being playful, it comes across in your collection especially in how every story has this distinct voice to it.  This is particularly evident in “Hungry Ricky Daddy,” and the title story, “The Haunting of Hajji Hotak.”  Can you speak to your process of capturing voice on the page and your inspirations for it and just how do you go about making it consistent throughout a piece?

JJK: Voice is so essential to how I construct and envision stories in general that it’s very difficult for me to think about stories outside of voice. For me, it’s very rare that a story actually doesn’t start with the voice. In fact, it’s when I figured out the voice, the rhythm of the sentences, the perspective of the narrator, who the narrator is telling the story to, or who the narrator thinks they’re telling the story to – that’s when the story really begins to come together. I can have what I think is a great idea for a story, or character, but if I can’t figure out that character’s voice on the page fairly quickly, then that spells trouble for me. So a lot of the time, the story either begins with a voice, and then it works from there, or it starts somewhere else, and I have to work at finding the voice which can be an arduous process sometimes. “Hungry Ricky Daddy’s” voice came together fairly quickly as this sort of funny, ironic, but at the same time a quasi philosophical college senior. And then with the “Haunting of Hajji Hotak,” that’s another story where I figured out who’s the narrator, and who the narrator was speaking to so quickly that the rest of the story came together. And the decisions in terms of diction and what details to focus on– all that comes out of the voice itself. So I’m now looking at this Afghan family from the perspective of this white surveillance agent, and that makes it so much easier because I’m like, okay, what’s this white guy going to be interested in? What details is he going to want to draw out of this family in order to turn them into these suspects, or to criminalize them in these different ways? What details is he not going to want to pay attention to, but that are still going to draw him away? I understood that the entire narrative was essentially going to be about one person watching a family. The problem that sort of occurred to me then was: where does the plot come out of that? Three-fourths of the story is just him seeing the family go about their daily lives, and essentially there’s no plot in the beginning of the story. And then all of a sudden the plot gets going when the father figure falls from the attic, and the narrator has to make this choice about whether to give them help or not. That’s when the actual plot starts, and then it ends literally two pages later.  It wasn’t until I got the story to another reader, and they were like, oh, this actually works, that was when I was like, okay, this actually makes sense as a story, and it’s funny how each story can be sort of like that, like it’s on its own journey, it has its own pathway to discovery.

BG: Outside of what you just said, that a character’s voice dictates diction and rhythm, are there any other techniques you use to exact rhythm in your work? Are you conscious of rhythm when writing?

JJK: Yeah, I would say so. When writing, I’m constantly reading it out loud, not only to figure out what’s happening on the page but specifically, to get a sense of the rhythm of the language, the flow of the sentences like the musicality of the prose, overall. It’s something that I have sort of become attuned to. You know, there’s language surrounding this, that’s called prosody– it’s the study of the rhythm and the sound of language specifically in verse and poetry, and it pays attention to syllables, breath, and how all these things relate to one another. And that’s all very important to me. I’ve read books about these things before, but I’ve gotten to the point where because I understand what I want to accomplish with my sentences, my narrative voice, there’s something about the rhythm of my sentences where the pace, the sound and the musicality of it sort of comes naturally to me. I’ve sort of developed an ear for it. So when I’m writing a sentence, and I’m reading it back to myself, if the rhythm of the sentence feels off to me, I almost can’t continue with the story as a whole. It’s something that can be incredibly maddening. It’s one of those things where I think reading aloud to yourself helps. You have to take into consideration what you want to accomplish with the prose in terms of character revelation, and the tone of the story and and the emotional elements of the story. You know when I first started really falling in love with fiction and prose it was for the sound and the rhythm of the language itself, and that’s something I continue to carry into my work.

BG: So you were just talking about how every story kind of tells you what it needs. And the more you write, the more you’ll get the hang of finding that voice on the page on its own. Given this and the fact that writing is a craft best learned through practice, what’s the most valuable lesson you’ve acquired during or after writing any of your projects?

JJK: I think one of the main lessons is to try to figure out the relationship in the story with the highest stakes. I’ll often see with my students’ stories and, to be honest, my own stories, this problem that they’ll begin writing the story, and then either the character is by themselves too often, or the character is dealing with other characters that don’t really matter to them. And so one of the things that I look for in my own stories now is that if I’m starting off with this very voice-driven narrative and the character’s in their own head a lot, I think okay, who does this character love or hate the most? Or who has the most power over this character, or most influence? Let me figure out who that is, and then let me throw a wrench into their relationship, and then let’s see what happens. So the father-son relationship at the heart of “Playing Metal Gear Solid” – that story started off with this silly idea of a kid finding his village in a video game. As soon as I started writing out that idea, one of my instincts was to think: now, where do I find the relationship at the heart of the story? Then it became very clear to me fairly quickly that oh, it’s not a story about a video game but about this son trying to connect back to this father who he’s sort of lost, or feels disconnected from because of his war trauma and then the whole video game journey becomes about the attempt to repair that relationship. So, look for the key relationship in your story as quickly as possible, no matter where that story is starting off.

BG: Interesting that you brought up “Playing Metal Gear Solid” because I was thinking about that story and a couple of others in the collection which take an absurd turn at different points. How do you make sure your reader feels grounded in your scenes and in the world you’ve built? What advice would you give to people, especially those writing magical realism & speculative fiction, about suspending the reader’s disbelief?

JJK: It’s something I think about quite a lot. One of the things I learned from Kafka, and also Marquez, is that if you’re going to have your reader fall into this realm outside of the real, you want to establish that sense of unreality, or magical realism, very quickly. So with Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,”  he doesn’t play coy with the reader, or make the fact of the magic of the story appear halfway through the story. From the first sentence, the reader knows the world that they’re going to be encountering. The rules of the world have been established, and from there Kafka does the important work of okay, now let me engage your different senses in all these wonderful ways. So he spends the next couple sentences vividly describing the body of the bug, then he brings in this unique conflict of Gregory trying to figure out a way to get his body out of the bed, but he can’t do it because he doesn’t know how to use his limbs. So it’s really fantastic physical details. And then from there Kafka transitions into more of the character’s mindset. And then you’re finding out more about the character’s psychology, the character’s background – he’s slowly pulling you into the story through these different details.

Another thing, which I read from Marquez in one of his interviews with The Paris Review, is that the more details you can provide, the more convincing you’re gonna be. So, he said if you walk up to someone, and you tell them that an elephant was flying in the sky, they’re probably not going to believe you. But if you tell them that there were eight polka-dotted elephants flying through the sky with these massive, majestic angels’ wings then they still might not believe you, but at least they can begin to visualize it. And that’s sort of the first step to actually convincing them of the reality of this absurd situation.

The final thing that I will say – and this doesn’t have to be the case for every writer – at no point I’m writing absurdist or surrealist fiction, or magical realist fiction just for the sake of doing it. For me, it’s essential that the absurdity needs to engage with the thematic complexities of the story itself. I tell my students: you can’t just toss ghosts and monsters into your story for no reason. I mean you can, but it won’t work in in the same effective way that the cockroach works in “Metamorphosis” because there, he’s not just turning into a cockroach because it’s some funny thing Kafka wanted to do, but it’s sort of this commentary upon the psychological state of the character and his exploitation under capitalism. And so, whenever I’m dabbling with the absurd or the unreal, it’s important for me to figure out fairly quickly, why am I doing this? And what does it have to do with the themes of my story?

BG: I’m curious– at what point in your drafting does the theme illuminate itself to you?

JJK: I know certain themes are going to constantly revolve in my work, like war, intergenerational trauma, displacement, and migration. In certain instances – although it really does depend from project to project – the theme becomes apparent to me very quickly, for example with “The Haunting of Hajji Hotak,” I knew from the get-go it was going to be about surveillance, this idea of the voyeur. What does it mean to be seen or unseen? What does it mean to know or not know a people? What does it mean to love someone through these violent and sort of authoritarian mechanisms? From the get-go I know what I’m dealing with, and then it becomes this process of, well, what do I actually need to figure out about this theme that I think I’m dealing with. And that’s the thing, even if you’re going into a story with a fairly firm idea of what you want the story to be about, it’s really important that you’re still being very open minded about where the story can go. Even if I know to a certain degree that the story’s going to be about war or surveillance, or trauma, I’m always trying to keep an open mind and see what other direction the story can go. How can the story actually surprise me and in that way? What can the story begin to teach me about it itself? It does become this kind of mystical process. Sometimes I almost feel like I’m trying to interpret my own work as I’m writing. It’s this really weird process, but I think it’s important to sort of maintain that sense of mystery. There are certain times, I think, where a story can really challenge you as the writer, and you have to be open to that challenge, to that mystery, and then the story can take you off in this completely different direction.

BG: That’s really helpful! Now since you’re the fiction judge for phoebe’s Spring Contest Issue, I want to know what draws you as a reader. What are you looking for, or what tends to pull you into a story?

JJK: It’s funny because I think we’ve been talking about all the different things in this interview. Voice is one of the main things. If a story has this vibrant, rhythmic, stirring voice – that’s something I love immediately. After the voice, oftentimes I’m looking for things that will surprise me in the narrative, in terms of its sentence writing, its form, in terms of the complexity, and the particularity of its characters. That’s what keeps me going because I’m always looking for new ways to think about stories. The other thing is character. I think it’s one of the single most essential and unique features of prose writing that you can get at a character, you can understand a character, or you can be enthralled and left completely confused by a character, but in a very purposeful way that can’t really be accomplished in other forms of art. It’s really the short story and the novel that give you that space and time to develop a character over years and decades. And with all these varying relationships, and figuring out all the intricacies to like, how crazy and complicated, and sometimes upsetting and disturbing just any human being can be.

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