The Gifts of the State and Other Stories: New Writing from Afghanistan

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On New Afghan Writing: An Interview with Adam Klein


Left to Right: Contributors: Helai Rahim; Hoshang Sulaimanzada; Fazilhaq Hashimi; Ali Shah Hasanzada; Adam Klein; Khalid Ahmad Atif
Fiction writer Adam Klein first conceived the story collection, The Gifts of the State: An Anthology of New Afghan Writing, while living in Kabul teaching writing workshops. He recognized a unique vantage point within his students’ stories, at least for a Western reader, as they provide a window into an Afghanistan that few of us know: the individual lives of the Afghan people, their suffering and desires and fantasy lives, and the unrest they’ve endured for many years. This material isn’t covered in the newsfeed, which at the time that I’m writing contains stories about the exodus of foreigners and the attacks on election offices before the Afghan elections next week. “Too often we disregard the individual experiences of Afghans for the historical narrative,” Klein states in his introduction to the resulting anthology. The Gifts of the State is one small remedy.

Poet and war correspondent Eliza Griswold calls the stories in The Gifts of the State, “some of the most essential written by young Afghans today.” The LA Review of Books seconds this, calling them, “Alternately terrifying and heartbreaking, these stories of love and loss transcend the deadening news cycle and give a voice to a lost generation.” Given the circumstances of the anthology’s inception, this is an astonishingly vital collection, offering a range of voices that deserve attention and demands to be read. I talked with Adam Klein at length about the need for this collection, his role as teacher and editor and analyst, the political forces at play in Afghanistan, what is at stake with the coming elections, collective national amnesia, and fiction’s ability to reconstruct memory and build toward new futures.

The Millions: The stories in Gifts of State were written by students who took writing workshops you taught in Kabul. Many of these students hadn’t written fiction before entering the class and English wasn’t their first, and often not even their second, language. And yet, despite these circumstances, this is a strong collection that represents a range of voices. What drew you to this project? What was it about these stories that compelled you to gather and publish them here?

Adam Klein: Not all were students, nor were these “writing workshops” in any conventional sense. I did teach creative writing in Kabul for over three years, but one can’t appropriate the same methods that have become orthodox in the U.S. The critical language, the student’s self-motivation, let alone any work completed in advance of the classes, were just not available to me. Many of these students had no idea of what a story could do, what shape it could take, what effects it could have. So we really were reading global fiction, discussing how certain choices by the authors were confounding to them, what kind of structure might undergird the story, how it either resolved or provided a possibility for less definitive, multiple readings.

Frequently the small details and the restraint in emotional tone drew me to specific work. This was certainly true of Hoshang Sulaimanzada’s stories, “The Walk” and “The Grape Tree.” The latter story is seemingly so simple, but the secrets buried in that family, its plaintive tone and the sense of relatedness between the photograph in the story and what the narrator identifies as fate — these struck me profoundly.

TM: As teacher and editor, you played a significant role both in culling these stories and acting as a sounding board. As a reader, I was surprised by the flow of language, as well as by the range of stories included here. Could you talk more about the process of working with these writers to develop their stories for the collection?

AK: When I saw the making of a story I was interested in, I would ask the writer if they would work with me individually. By the time I realized that this could be a book, if not just a record of this unique period in time during which writers in Kabul had the chance to explore fiction, I knew I would have to work with them on grammar. I had to help them with noun/verb agreement, pronouns — typical EFL stuff. Not every writer wanted to do the one on one work on their stories, and at least two very beautiful stories were lost simply because the writers didn’t see the point.

I’ve said in the introduction that I tried to step out of the way of their work, their decision-making, but in some cases I had to prompt, or give permission. “Apples and Mangoes” by Mohammad is just being republished in Himal Southasian, and I had to work with him to get him to first express to me that the nature of the relationship in his story was, indeed, homosexual. It was heavily implied, but not explicit. He needed to confront the relationship before he could write it. I know a teacher’s role is not to be an analyst. Actually, I don’t know this. I don’t know why it would be wrong to bring up where the energy of the text is, where the elisions are. To some degree, you move the writer before they can move their text. That’s what I mean by permission. It isn’t the silent listener at the end of a couch but it feels that way – waiting for a writer to face their anxieties, their resistances. “Apples and Mangoes” could not have survived with the kind of emotional ambiguity the writer initially brought to me.

TM:  In Eliza Griswold’s introduction, she speaks of the barriers to publishing Afghan writing in English — “good translators are hard to find, and many of the finest writers don’t speak English.” These authors bypassed the translation barrier by writing in English, but these stories were not written to be read by their fellow countrymen. In fact, the students requested that their stories be published anywhere except for in Afghanistan. What possible repercussions could the students face if these stories were published in Afghanistan? How do these stories challenge and deviate from the current cultural milieu in Kabul?

AK: Any of these authors could face death, ostracism, or loss of their jobs. None of us know who will win the elections on April 5th, what forward movement in Afghanistan may be turned backward, how much openness will be tolerated, what protections will be in place for those who’ve worked closely with Americans, or were educated by them. That’s why you can’t be stupid. You have to weigh the cultural parameters without tacitly assuming or enforcing them. It’s wise to understand that any document, especially with writing as candid, and about subjects that take in such range — from atheism to sexual abuse suffered in Iranian jails — could be seen as “unflattering,” if not “ungodly.”

This — beside the fact that the stories are written in English by a younger generation — makes the collection deviate from the very small milieu of short stories read for pleasure. The anthology is free of agenda (as much as any art can be free of its ideological existence). I should say, it’s not hostile to any specific ethnicity or political affiliation. There’s both a boldness and tentativeness in two of the stories by women: “Ice Cream” casts a jaundiced glance at a sexually segregated society, and a society segregated in its adoption of what is believed to be “Western” values versus Afghan “tradition.” “The Second Sister,” on the other hand, depicts two sisters’ differing relationships to marriage proposals: one who runs away, the other, disabled, who desires to fit into the social fabric as a whole person. I don’t mean to give away plot lines, but in the case of young women, these are certainly prominent options — leaving or finding a way to fit — as one faces an uncertain future.

I am hopeful about Afghanistan, by the way. I think these elections, if not marred terribly by violence, can radically alter its future.

TM: The stories don’t seem burdened by an attempt to conform to tropes of  “workshop” fiction, for obvious reasons. There are conventional stories but there are also surprises. For example, “That Coward, Naseer!” offers a young boy’s perspective into the political forces and rivalries in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal, when he joins a gathering of his father’s guests discussing militia groups. The boy’s cousin Naseer only makes an appearance at the end, where he refuses to engage in war play and walks off. What literary and cultural influences shaped the authors’ writing (including local influences as well as class readings and discussions)? You’ve taught writing workshops in the States, too — could you talk more about the similarities and differences?

AK: “That Coward, Naseer!” Is almost a sketch, a flash fiction, though we didn’t study that form. It was Shakoor’s way of actually getting back at his cousin. Though the story reads as though it advocates pacifism, it’s ultimately a barb — the cousin’s (to my mind) intelligent decision not to play “war” is a weakness in the author’s mind. Of course, I only know that because I spoke with Shakoor about it. I think there are many stories that wouldn’t have “worked” in a conventional workshop; there would have been greater emphasis on showing more, on perhaps notching up the language, the verbs. But these suggestions would have ruined, in my mind, the fact that we are regarding an effort in writing. I attempt this in my music, as well: to get a performance recorded, as opposed to something airless and overworked. For those who naturally treat language with great care, I would obviously not have intervened to ask them to simplify what was beautifully articulated. I think we cut one clause in the opening paragraph of the collection’s title story, but you can see that “fog, thick as fur” was already a heavy metaphor. We didn’t need little feet or whatever was written initially. But many of these stories were much more direct.

I like the process this reveals, the difficulty of creating, and not necessarily trying for verisimilitude or emotional coercion. In contrast to workshops in the U.S., I found it refreshing that students did not have any preconceived rules, nor did they have a sense of market forces, locally or globally. On the other hand, it’s sometimes fantastic to teach American students who are well read and ambitious, and want to grow in their craft. Whether in America or Afghanistan, it’s often what’s innate in the stories, not the students’ cultural framework, that determines a successful workshop or writer/editor relationship. That being said, I disagree with Mohsin Hamid’s assertion that there isn’t an Afghan, or Pakistani, or American writing. That is true only for those at liberty to leave their countries as anything but refugees. Explaining that most Americans had never entered an Afghan home was one of the first points I had to make — what did these writers believe exemplified an interior? How does a village operate if it has no stores? R.K. Narayan, I believe, wrote about having to see Malgudi from untutored eyes; he had to think of what needed to be described and could not be taken for granted. If you asked me how American and British literature has changed in the last fifty to sixty years, I would say it has finally begun to see itself as “global,” but there is nothing natural about “thinking globally.”

TM: You write in your introduction: “Stories keep silence and amnesia from rising like dust and obliterating life as we know it.” Reading this anthology made me realize anew how we as a nation can remain so ignorant of another culture’s narratives despite its constant presence in our newsfeed and our military presence on their soil. Given this desire to carry these voices across cultures, what was the impulse to tell fictional stories as opposed to memoir or personal accounts? Is there a greater freedom that fiction allows?

AK: Well, of course we’ve lost our own narrative, or greatly perverted it. I find American amnesia a dangerous tragedy. Guantanamo, Vietnam, our own history of slavery and systemic racism and inequality, our relationship to immigrants, to the Islamic world, and to our own aggression — these often-dishonest military interventions disappoint me. I don’t mean this as a purely liberal critique of American injustice. To me, it signifies a loss of constituent voices under the mechanics of purchased politics, the military and industrial prison complexes, and the oil economy. There is no nuance in any position any longer, and only jingoistic passion. I’m deeply concerned by the loss of authentic voices, investigatory voices in our leadership. Rather than voices, we’ve cultivated a culture of surveillance, of eavesdropping, because the conversation — regarding human rights and liberties — has dropped so low it’s inaudible. It’s what we call “chatter.”

I don’t think Afghanistan is the only country that must use fiction to reconstruct both memory and future. Every country has a responsibility to counter the extremes of its ideological spectrum. So why did I collect fiction? It allows for the speculative, it encourages empathy, and it doesn’t limit a writer exclusively to what they believe they know. I love memoir and creative nonfiction, but in a country that has been riven by war, the narratives might not just need to be recalled, but recast, and re-imagined. I have tremendous faith in fiction and significantly less faith in memory.

TM: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that Westerners assumed that life in Kabul was tense, fraught with bomb scares and like living in a military state, and yet you found in everyday life this was the exception rather than the rule. (Although there were risks, and, sadly, in January two of your colleagues died in a restaurant bombing.) Would you talk more about the insight you gained while living in Afghanistan, and specifically how these fictions illuminate and defy the Western assumptions and stereotypes?

AK: The story, “The Village Radio,” has a scene where people gather around a tree on 9/11 and listen to an old, Russian radio. They are absolutely convinced the Russians perpetrated this act against the U.S. How many agrarian Afghans, I wonder, could not conceive of those Al Qaeda training camps, and were far more convinced of the old cold war divisions they had been directly subject to? It seems naïve at first, but it is absolutely rational to see the world this way. And we see it now with Ukraine, the old division of spoils, the relitigation of great powers, redrawing the maps.

“Hardboiled” likely undercuts an American preconception of Afghans. After the Islamic Revolution in Iran, all these Mickey Spillane novels translated into Farsi came rolling over the border. The Afghans swept them up, started bookstores. “Hardboiled” is wildly funny, to my mind, in that the narrator imagines himself a Mike Hammer character in Herat, where the Taliban exert control. His fantasy world is completely informed and translated onto the sexual and social conventions of Afghanistan. When he meets a member of the Ministry of Corrections and Virtue, there is a description of hooks with rubber whips — enforcement tools — and yet these bizarre instruments are almost reminiscent of S/M gear, which is a part of the story that doesn’t quite translate, and is therefore a more compelling interstitial detail.

As regards living in a war zone, everything is fluid, though it doesn’t always feel so when you live there. You can’t always be vigilant. Vigilance won’t save you from a suicide bomber crashing into your car. That being said, most of my time in Kabul was fairly predictable, and in that way, relaxed. I wasn’t a journalist running into the line of fire. I lived in an Afghan neighborhood, had little to no contact with diplomats or UN staff. I was a teacher, dealing almost exclusively with young Afghans and other Afghan, Iranian, and American faculty. I didn’t feel in a bubble, never travelled in an armored car or with an armed guard, and frequently took cabs. It’s inappropriate to call the U.S. presence in Kabul an occupation. In three and a half years, I saw one troop on the street. Life is conducted as Afghans would conduct it, albeit, in a strange political limbo. The Taliban attacks were tragic and unsettling, but too far apart to consider a daily concern.

TM: Brutality and violence are also common throughout many of the stories — it seems that no one is left unscathed, and yet it’s the everyday. This seems in part to be a reflection of Afghanistan’s violent and unsettled past and present, from the Soviet invasion to the Taliban’s rule, to the presence of U.S. military forces for the past ten years. How does this past upheaval shape the author’s narratives of the present and possible future?

AK: Poverty seems to me to be the first, most obvious violence. And yet, the poverty in rural villages is handled in some of the stories with a kind of appreciation for other things: for birds that sing like popular Afghan singers, or the taste of bread dipped in a river, for a family member — oftentimes one not related by blood — who brings joy to the family. I don’t know how such experiences will shape the writers’ narratives in the future, but I do believe that hindsight, which is a limited kind of insight, can provide either a sense of tenacity or remorse or some blend of the two. If Afghan writers find themselves writing about the nature of struggle, they’ll merely be asking the same questions writers have asked for centuries. Even I have to ask myself whether I want to risk not earning money while I write a book, or whether I want security. This isn’t a “first-world problem” though it’s not the same as starvation, I understand. Everyone must pay for time — to think, to create, to mourn, to do nothing. Not everyone will choose to return to a meager life if they experienced lean times in their youth. But in order to write, one must break from the past, prioritize it, and very likely lose income in its pursuit. Perhaps the years of hunger in Afghanistan will make it less likely for people to want to sacrifice to write fiction if they can earn large salaries as bankers or engineers. But surely some will feel compelled to write regardless of how much they were deprived in their youth.

TM: The American military appears in a few of these stories — in one, there’s a lesbian orgy with a female god aboard Air Force One. In another, American forces who travel a long distance to give aid are turned away and then on the road encounter the aftermath of a gruesome killing by renegades. What is the general sentiment towards the American military presence in Afghanistan? It seems complicated. And with the upcoming elections and the planned withdrawal of American troops by 2015, what in the Afghan present and future is at stake?

AK: I’ll try to be brief here, though this is a big subject. I can only speak for myself and the people I encountered in one city in Afghanistan. But we must first look at the complex idea of what we call war today. It is no longer merely a military strike. There’s a complex web of “nation and capacity building” that follows on the heels of war and is frequently the point of it. There are aid organizations, universities, and institutions developed to advocate democratic elections, “free trade,” legal teams and scholars attempting to address what may be draconian failures to support the most rudimentary levels of human rights, banking institutions, trainers of all stripes. This is war now. The war is peripheral, a security cordon, while all the other elements enter in: the IMF, NATO, the UN — the large global machinations.

From what I saw, Afghans do not want to be left out of the ongoing, strategic development that has been put in place over the last decade. I think they want the military to advise, but not to fight for them, or break down their doors at night. On the other hand, without security, how can the country function? This, I believe, is utmost on everyone’s mind: can we continue to have your (American) support and recognition and move into an affiliation or allied position with the United States, rather than continue this venture in the traditional sense of what we imagine war is — which is death, combat, madness. I think this is a fair estimation of the many people I spoke with: a desire not to be forgotten, not to have the gains turned back. It seems reasonable to me. In fact, it seems essential if this engagement wasn’t merely the pissing away of lives, Afghan and American. I don’t believe it was.

Photo Credit: P. Revere

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