Oral traditions incredibly important: Afghan author Jamil Kochai

Zafri Mudasser Nofil

New Delhi, Jan 18 (PTI) Oral traditions are incredibly important for Afghan author Jamil Kochai, who says he depended heavily on them for his debut novel and they sparked a new life in his book.

'If there hadn't been for oral traditions I grew up listening to, I am not sure whether I would have finished my book in its present form. The oral traditions sparked a new life in my novel,' says Pakistan-born Kochai who grew up in the US.

His '99 Nights in Logar' blends the bravado and vulnerability of a boy's teenage years with an homage to familial oral tradition.

Kochai says his book is really rooted in this memory that kept coming back to him after he returned to the US from a trip to Afghanistan when he was 12 years old.

'Our family guard dog Budabash escaping from our compound in Logar (one of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan). He leapt over the wall and then ran away towards the village. My cousins and I set out to find him,' he recalls.

'I kept thinking about the resulting search through mazes, into floods and unexpected confrontations with American soldiers, who were then stationed in Afghanistan. I wanted to tell about these exuberant adventure tales across Logar and thus the idea of the novel came,' he says.

Questions cropped up in his mind about whether or not he knew enough of Afghanistan, has enough experience of Afghanistan or whether it was his right to write this novel.

'But these questions led me to focus a great deal on research, to focus on making sure that I have other people's narratives involved in my work,' Kochai told PTI in an interview.

'If there was this sort of fear that as an Afghan who grew up in the US, I didn't have the right perspective or knowledge to write this novel, I made sure that the stories and the perspectives of my parents, my uncles and aunts, and my cousins who grew up in Afghanistan are also told.' A good deal of Kochai's research focused on talking and recalling stories and events to his parents, brothers, cousins, uncles and aunts and a great deal of work that went into the novel was just him sitting down and listening.

'One important aspect about the development of the novel was me able to take the time to hear the stories before I ended up writing them down or take them into a new direction,' he says.

Kochai describes his novel, which took him two years to complete, as an adventure tale rooted heavily in oral traditions.

'99 Nights in Logar' was shortlisted for the 2019 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, which was bagged by Amitabha Bagchi last month for his post-colonial novel 'Half the Night is Gone'.

'My book really was a result of my experience in Logar when I went there as a child at the age of six when the Taliban were in control and again when I was 12 years old during American occupation when there was violence,' Kochai says.

Recounting those trips, he says they sort of lingered in the background of everything.

'I ended up having such a feeling of love and compassion and care from all of my family members. It was really one of the happiest times of my childhood. And it was from those feelings of joy and compassion that I started writing this novel,' he says.

Kochai has formulated a strategy for creating characters: 'look at people I know in my own life and try to fuse their characteristics together'.

For him, it is important to put the characters, the family and day-to-day life in the front and centre whereas the war and the violence exist in the background.

He also rues that often Afghans are projected in literature and media as savages and essentially fundamentally violent people.

'It was very important for me when I was writing this novel to demonstrate the complexity of the Afghan society and also make sure that people are sort of humanised in the process,' he says.

About his life in the US, he says, growing up there was difficult.

'When my family went to the US, I was a little less than two years old. We did not speak English at home. When I went to grade school for the first time, I knew no English at all. Learning the language was incredibly difficult for me just like trying to make friends was. When I was about seven years old, I picked up English for the first time,' he says.

Kochai was still a kid when 9/11 happened.

'After that, I faced a great deal of bullying, insults and discrimination from students and even friends and some teachers at times. Growing up in America was difficult so was to have a feeling that I belong to America,' he says.

Kochai, who has a master’s in English from University of California, Davis and a bachelor's degree in English from California State University, Sacramento, is currently working on his second book.

'It is a collection of stories and I have taken a broader approach by setting the stories beyond Logar,' he says. PTI ZMN MAH MAH