This is my third Aspen Words Literary Prize 2023 longlist read. And honestly so far this longlist is next level. All three (this, How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water and The Town of Babylon) so far have been 5-star reads. I wasn’t planning to read the whole longlist this year, but I may yet go for it, if what I am reading remains of this quality!
The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories by Jamil Jan Kochai
“For I have not heard one of you interfere to stop the loud wail of death and the quiet torture of our dark bodies.”
As this is a short story collection, I will do my customary short reaction-blurb about each story individually, and then end the review with final and comprehensive thoughts.
Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain – Whoa. This story melds the weight of familial history and intergenerational trauma with a video game set in vaguely familiar environs in a sort of interconnected and disconnected dream state, with an imagined attempt to change the past in proxy (as impossible and fruitless as it sounds, but understandably emotionally worth the effort), that is powerful and intense. What an opening story. This sets the stage for a collection that promises to hit hard.
Return to Sender – A sort of Frankenstein parable situation, with metaphors and messages abounding that, while in specifics were maybe beyond me, in general message about the lost youth resulting from war, the childhoods cut short with finality in ways both physical and psychological, was cuttingly clear. Real life and metaphorical body horror combine profoundly in this one. “Do you understand that if we did a search for every missing child reported to us, that the search would never end, that all workings of this country would stop as they were, and that there would be no one left to protect the city from insurgents. No. Listen. Do you understand that if every single policeman in this city was to search day and night, search every apartment room, every alley, that the missing children would still never be found?”
Enough! – What a way to use stream of conscious/run-on sentence stylistically to convey the absolutely overwhelming build-up of emotions and tragedies and memories and grief that have built up over a life of wartime and refugee-life and ex-patriotism from one’s homeland from the MC to the reader. A story that makes the reader’s heart beat faster.
Bakhtawara and Miriam – A sort of mirror of possible paths, a woman wanting marriage though it ends in horror and a woman uncaring about marriage who seems to find a safe and solid match, the ways that life does not go as planned in any direction, and how sometimes that is for the better and sometimes for the worse. Understated and more quietly powerful, as a story.
Hungry Ricky Daddy – Phew. These stories just don’t let up. This story of hunger striking was the tragic sort of inspiring. The way a single person (or two people) can start something bigger. And yet, it is also a stark commentary on the way that that kind of momentum or movement doesn’t currently matter for anything, in the eyes of the world powers, unless the “right” (read: white) people are involved…and how they do not ever get involved in time or with enough effort to make a real difference. And yet, and yet, even in those world circumstances and without a traditional “leader” of the world to lend support, the faith and power of people can still create a movement. Inspiring and hopeful and absolutely, guttingly tragic, at the same time. *quote from this story highlighted above*
Saba’s Story – A touching, and a bit quirky, story about trying to control things even when we know they are out of our control, and about our best attempts to make amends for the past. “And why must we always ruin what is beautiful with what is true?”
Occupational Hazards – An incredibly creative portrait of a life told through the occupations a person has, the responsibilities and hazards of each. The structure allowed for such a strong distillation of the most noteworthy aspects of each “chapter” of life, no frills or flowers; very poignant.
A Premonition; Recollected – Phew. For a flash fiction style length, this story leaves you cold, freezing over with the sorrow of senseless tragedy.
Waiting for Gulbuddin – I cannot decide what was meant to have happened in the story: was it real, or not? However, I think the message about the deep tragedy that is children being indoctrinated into and accustomed to violence as “normal” is strong.
The Parable of the Goats – This definitely read like a parable, though I am not sure I followed all the lessons it wanted to impart (pretty typical parable then, I suppose). Not one of my favorite stories of the collection. But really, I think the overall cycle of human cruelty and reprisal, its never-ending hurt, takes center stage.
The Tale of Dully’s Reversion – Whoa. This was another “transformation into an animal” tale, like the last, and I was anticipating being lukewarm on it too. But wow, I was wrong. This was an incredibly powerful metaphor on a number of levels. It exemplifies the way that the powerful only see what they want in the exterior of an “inferior,” and thus any interior knowledge or potential or individuality one has withers and wastes away. And there is an impressive portrayal of the cycle of violence and oppression: how a group of “saviors” ends up just perpetuating oppression, if in a marginally different enough way that it’s not immediately recognized, creating further groups like those they used to be trying to free people from oppression, and those groups in turn become the next iteration of oppression. Just…oh my goodness. “Often, he stared at his hands, touched his skin, and attempted to make sense of all the atrocities that could be committed against flesh, and this contemplation left him sleepless and depressed and afraid. He wondered why God had made humans so malleable, so soft, only to be torn apart on highways or systematically mutilated in dark chambers and black sites, at the hands of beloved men, until the mind could no longer comprehend the suffering of the body and destroyed itself.” / “The violence of erasure is perpetuated onto infinity in each instance of its denial.”
The Haunting of Hajji Hotak – A haunting final story, title-accurate in both literal and figurative senses. The invasion of privacy that is governmental surveillance juxtaposed with the way that it just shows each family has the woes and tribulations of any other, regardless of beliefs or past or nationality or connections. As emotionally affecting as it is intrusive – and after all, is that not what great literature is? Phenomenal final story.
Well, that was, overall, an absolutely stunning story collection. Honestly, with just one story that I was so-so on, I think this is now one of my favorite ever short story compilations. It took me some time to figure this out, and even when I finally clocked it, I cannot say that I could draw a map or picture of it, but all the stories of this collection are connected, creating a full portrait of a family’s intergenerational experiences with life in Logar, the onset/never-endingness of war in Afghanistan, the subsequent refugee experiences in escaping and immigrating, and life both in America and back and forth between there and Logar, the inundation of violence and violation in all stages and locations. It spans time and place, yet does so in an unclear timeline, which allows the reader to get a sense of this family’s story and a familiarity and comfort with the characters, yet in a way that leaves them feeling untethered/adrift because they cannot find a steady footing or place in the narration. What an incredibly well-used literary device to convey both the feelings of family belonging and sense of homeland-cultural displacement that are central to the realities this collection is bringing to the attention of the reader.
Kochai’s writing is a perfect mix of the illusory and mystical with a unrelenting view of harsh reality. The topics covered are complex and traumatic, but with an underpinning of hope, familial connection, and satire that marginally soften the blows. It’s both artistic and candid, which is a fine line to walk. I was flooded with emotion and investment with each narrative of Afghanistan and the Afghan diaspora, balanced with a more objective admiration for the writing itself. What a collection.