Rogers: Excited for Aspen Words prize finalist
I do have a favorite in the contest for the Aspen Words Literary Prize, a brilliant addition to the organization’s offerings.
I’m no judge, no critic, only a fan, and among this year’s entries I’ve only read this one. Still, I’m thrilled to see it break into the final five, at least as thrilled as watching the Lakers fight for a playoff spot down the stretch, the Broncos’ hopes flare with each new quarterback signing, each new coach, Mikaela’s historic countdown to Ingemar and beyond.
It is just that kind of thrill for Jamil Jan Kochai and his short story collection, “The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories.”
This is a little weird. Sports and literature normally fit in opposite corners for me — I take lit as a meditative art in the reading as well as the writing, and sports is all living out loud in the moment whether playing or watching. It’s all of this mixed up now cheering for Kochai. (The announcement from New York is scheduled for April 19. More information: http://www.aspenwords.org)
I’ve read previous winners, each great: “The Night Watchman,” “Exit West,” “An American Marriage.” “Haunting” matches up with them and fits the unabashed social contract in this annual prize for “an influential work of fiction that illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture.”
The short story collection and his novel before that, “99 Nights in Logar,” concern life in rural Afghanistan and the diaspora here during the Russian, American and Taliban occupancies. Kochai, 31, was born in a Pakistani refugee camp and grew up in northern California, mainly Sacramento, an hour from my home in the foothills when I began reading his work in The New Yorker.
The book is a stew of memoir and the fantastic, folk yarn and literary work with notes of journalism from lived experience. Some of the story structures are as interesting as the tales they frame. Meeting a martyred uncle and saving him in the context of a video war game. A harrowing family history between Afghanistan and America served as dry entries in a resume. The title story told in the perspective of an agent conducting surveillance on this West Sacramento family we know pretty well from the stories preceding this one.
Grit and grime and, well, shit, lots of shit, mix with grace and sometimes transcendence, especially in endings never on the nose and so there to linger over and feel as an unspoken finish like a glass of fine wine. But wine isn’t a great comparison beyond the sense of aftertaste because the stories are not intended to be enjoyed, exactly, and the experience often is painful, even brutal; savored but oh so bitter.
My reading is much rockier than most of the reviews make out, and no doubt they bring much more order and intention to the work than Kochai wrote, at least consciously. I suspect writing these stories was much more raw, and excusing the scholar who turns into a monkey, the American pilot becoming a goat (and living a better life) amid other surrealistic turns, dude is writing about real people and real, well, shit.
The New York Times reviewer panned some of the story structures as gimmicks and characters as caricature, though I believe he missed the point, especially with Americans rendered as cutouts — for a change. The effect for me deepened my impression of the protagonists in these stories, all the richer for the contrast.
The National Book Award judges appear to have agreed more with my take, as “Haunting” was one of five finalists in 2022. Also, the judges’ citation included this: “The power of Kochai’s writing is his insistence that readers witness the lives of people who too often have been defined through the eyes of others.”
I’m appreciating “Haunting” more in the second reading, and from having read “99 Nights in Logar” with essentially the same family and characters. Some stories you just have to read or watch again for fuller effect. This was one of those, and not only for looking up unfamiliar words and customs sprinkled throughout.
With his work, Kochai is also teaching me how to write, which fits, as we share at least one mentor. But my brush with Sam Chang, head of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop MFA program Kochai went through, was only a short if profound workshop experience. Well, maybe not that short. We participants turned a three-week summer class into two years of meeting and critiquing on our own.
So I was overly thrilled, I’m sure, to see her name pop up in the first line of his acknowledgments. Hey, we fans take our connections where we can find them.
Aspen Times Editor Don Rogers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org