The 12 stories in ‘The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories’ explores father figures, displacement, war, and family lineage.
Alternating between realist and magical, between novellas and flash-prose, Afghan-American writer Jamil Jan Kochai’s latest work shuttles the reader between two polar opposite worlds: Northern California and Eastern Afghanistan.
‘The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories’ sees Afghans contending with violent histories of diaspora and war, traveling back and forth from Davis, Sacramento and Fremont to Kabul and back to the Afghan province of Logar in the Black Mountains.
Exhibiting all the storytelling skills that made his debut 2019 novel 99 Nights in Logar so popular, Kochai comes to terms with his past, which is embedded in his memory.
Originally from Logar, Afghanistan, Kochai was born in a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan. He says the military occupation in the country has infected almost all aspects of his family’s existence: from where they could go and who they could see to what they could become.
And his stories in the latest book include imaginative elements to those experiences; for example, a character tries to rewrite their family history in a video game.
The opening story, ‘Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain,’ told in the second person, follows an Afghan-American teenager, Mirwais, who buys a newly released first-person shooter video game which happens to be set in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
In the game, Mirwais wanders the digital landscape and reaches a village in Logar where his father was based back in the 80s.
Inside the game, he sees his father and uncle (his father’s brother).
And in that instance, the game is no longer a game.
It becomes a chance to save his uncle from being killed by Russian soldiers, which is what happened to Mirwais’s real life in the story.
It also happened to Kochai’s father in real life.
“During the Soviet Occupation, their village suffered intense violence and terrible bombings. Many of their relatives, friends, and neighbours were killed. Eventually, the violence became so terrible that they fled to Peshawar, Pakistan,” Kochai, an Afghan-American writer and an assistant professor at California State University, told TRT World.
Another story in the book, also inspired by his father’s life, called ‘Occupational Hazards’, is written as a series of resume entries. It tells the story of the main character’s life through a series of job occupations. Over the course of this story, the reader realises that the character is, in fact, Kochai’s father.
“My father was born in rural Logar to a large farming family. He started working on his farm from a very young age, beginning a lifelong relationship with manual labour that is described in “Occupational Hazards”, which is heavily based on my father’s life,” Kochai told TRT World.
“He [Kochai’s father] lost many loved ones during the Soviet Occupation and eventually had to flee his beloved home village in order to escape the massacres in Logar.
“He fled to Pakistan, made his way to the US and eventually wound up in West Sacramento, California, where he raised a family that loves him very much.”
So whether its a student who turns into a monkey or a captured American soldier who transforms into a goat, this book, studded with memorable characters, is riveting, as it distinguishes from the imperialist account of Afghans – a narrative run by the western media throughout the US invasion of Afghanistan and after the withdrawal of foreign troops.
In general, the response to ‘The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other stories’ has been incredibly positive, except for Elliot Ackerman’s review in the New York Times Book Review.
It was a review that Kochai said he had been waiting for all year. But when he read it, Kochai described his shock over the “odd assumptions” the former US marine and intelligence officer had made.
“At one point, for example, he completely misidentifies a narrator of one of my stories. But the most troubling claim was that I had a “distracting fixation on whiteness”,” he told TRT World.
“There are very few white characters in my book. White people appear prominently in only two of my twelve stories. So it was a mystifying claim. A repetition of a narrative that I have seen my entire life: to use Afghanistan to refocus on White characters, to refocus on White soldiers, to refocus and recenter Whiteness itself.”
Ultimately, after receiving a lot of support from literary communities and people from across the world, Kochai hopes the NYT review, and the conversation surrounding the review, can lead to a larger discussion regarding how power and race continue to determine literary worth.