"Essential Transgression": New Fiction Writers In Afghanistan

by Kate Angus

The Gifts of the State and Other Stories: New Writing from Afghanistan is available by any means in which you might prefer to receive books.

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McNally Jackson

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Adam Klein has the kind of life that many of us, chained to our desks, might envy. A wanderer and frequent expatriate, he has lived and taught in places as disparate as Bangladesh, India, Beirut and Kabul. He is the singer and co-songwriter for San Francisco-based band The Size Queens, as well as the author of the Lambda Book Award-nominated short story collection The Medicine Burns, the novel Tiny Ladies, and coauthor of the artist monograph Jerome: After the Pageant about mixed-media artist Jerome Caja. Most recently, he edited The Gifts of The State, an anthology of stories by Afghan writers. Adam has read some of these stories aloud to me during his occasional stopovers in New York in the past two years. During his most recent visit, we sat down for lunch at Cafe Mogador in the East Village and, despite his exhaustion, I grilled him about the genesis of this anthology and his experiences teaching at The American University of Afghanistan.

How did you end up in Afghanistan?

I worked midnight shift at a call center in Bangalore during the first dot com boom with a gentleman named Bruce. Years later, I got a job teaching at The American University of Beirut. Bruce contacted me after a year and sent a very close-cropped picture of his rooftop and the surrounding snowcapped mountains of Kabul, inquiring whether I’d be interested in teaching there. I’d travelled many times over those mountains and wondered about the city. Within two weeks of my arriving, Bruce left for Africa.

I know the stories in this anthology originated in a class you taught at the university, but I’m curious why you focused on fiction rather than nonfiction.

Initially I taught composition and the first modality of that was narrative, which was always the most compelling for me. I encouraged them to write fiction because I was interested in specificity, dialogue and description and there wasn’t precisely a reticence about doing this in nonfiction but one could sense they were putting words into mouths they’d never heard open. Refugee history is frequently full of how Errol Morris uses “anosognosia” — a lack of ability to understand one’s own lack of incompetence, i.e. “you don’t know what you don’t know” or, as Donald Rumsfeld says, “our unknown unknowns.”

Americans cannot measure the success of the past 11 years of this country by looking at whether the Taliban still exists, that’s as hopeless as the war on drugs; the Taliban will always exist. What we have done is created space for dialogue between the ethnicities that were at civil war with each other prior to our arrival and that could enable Afghan writers to become cultural players in the world of fiction. Imagination is central for post-conflict cultures: they have to change the narrative. This is never done by agreeing on one national hero or one specific aspect of the history, but by providing a voice for the many local and ethnic perceptions.

How was the workshop structured?

The workshops were not like creative writing workshops here. Students didn’t have the sense of themselves as writers, the critical language to approach each other’s work, nor even the respect necessary to give valuable feedback: there’s still a very strong idea of “the teacher teaches; everyone else is dispensable.” So we read global authors and we looked at what the form could contain — the possibility for great breaks in reason, elliptical qualities; ways in which stories could be complete and complex at the same time.

You mention in your introduction that students felt greater freedom writing in English about things they would not write in Dari or Pashto.

Let me amend that; that is what I believed. Since then, in a Skype conversation with two of the contributors, I discovered that they did not actually know how to write Dari or Pashto — they only knew those languages as spoken languages. Of course not all my students had the same problem, but these particular students were raised writing in Urdu in Pakistan. If you wanted to trace a literary tradition in Afghanistan, you might have to look more regionally at the impact of Farsi in Iran and Urdu in Pakistan.

What was the dynamic inside the class like; were the genders mixed?

They were. Your question brings me to Žižek’s “Tolerance as an Ideological Principle.” On return to the U.S., I’ve found if not an outright Islamaphobia, a kind of predetermined language to discuss gender in Islamic counties. Žižek points out that, no matter what the liberal person asks of the veiled Afghan woman, if she responds that her family has asked her to veil, they will say, “poor thing; she’s a victim of patriarchy”; if she answers, “I come from a liberal family. My sister is never veiled; I chose the veil for religious purposes” they again say, “poor thing; victim of patriarchy.” The liberal is not happy unless the Muslim woman is exactly like that.

Sure, but that doesn’t mean the patriarchy doesn’t exist.

Patriarchy exists here in the U.S. to most of us in invisible or naturalized forms. Imagine the beautiful woman who goes in for a job interview and is followed by the shall we say less striking. Sadly, this kind of returns to Mary Gaitskill’s Gone Girl critique, which is in many ways about a kind of unrecognized patriarchy even practiced by women against women. I don’t disagree that there may be differences in scale. But I think it might be interesting to ask the question what happened here in the years between Gloria Steinem and Miley Cyrus.

I don’t believe this book will in any way stop the enormous East/West divide; it’s somehow crucial to most people’s comprehension of history, however my personal experience has forced me to move beyond those kinds of judgements. There’s a wonderful review of Richard Dawkins by Marilynne Robinson in an old issue of Harper’s where she destroys Dawkins’ radical atheism with nuance and the power of uncertainty that faith depends on. I’m not a religious person, but to underestimate what is beautiful about religious societies is a great failing of secular intellectuals.

Can you talk a bit more about the disconnect between Afghan society and how it’s perceived here?

It was a dusty night in Kabul. I had lived in Muslim countries for 8 years. I saw a man on his bicycle with a scarf wrapped around his face. My first thought was “if this was the cover of Time magazine, I would think ‘terrorist’”; in fact, it was a sand storm. Our relationship to face is unique and deep, but it is not universal. A transnational has the fortune of seeing the world break open in these unexpected ways. I could see my own weakness in being overly reliant on the face as the communicator of commonality. I remember as a gay adolescent there were always Phil Donahue shows where a gay person would be pitted against a priest and somehow this was supposed to represent the two ends of the dialogue as if gayness was outside the fold of religion; it automatically created a diametric opposition that was patently false.

I taught film theory in Afghanistan and there’s a wonderful scene in Picnic where Kim Novak’s mother is desperately encouraging her daughter to allow the wealthy man in town to take a little pleasure with her at the picnic for economic reasons. I don’t think we should forget that Americans have used their daughters to raise family status in similar ways to dowery-based cultures. And the truth is, everyone loved Kim Novak. Everyone in Afghanistan understood why she ran off with that worthless drifter for love.

There’s a line in a story called “Ice Cream” in the book where the narrator says “Gender is simply what you wear” that stays with me. I think most Americans have ideas of gender roles in Afghanistan as being not only fixed, but definitive in terms of identity and options, but this implies gender is more fluid there than we imagine.

The narrator in that piece is a woman wearing jeans. The idea is not simply of gender but of introducing “Western values” into Afghanistan. Of course she hasn’t come from the West; she’s come from Pakistan. There’s also a young boy who brings tea into the women’s park; at some point he will outgrow that allowance and become “predatory.” Parents under the Taliban would dress their daughters as boys; you also have the very old tradition of bacha bazi, which is basically training boys to be girl dancers for the amusement of men. To reference Žižek one last time, the idea of the “obscene underside of the law” suggests a kind of essential transgression that all societies partake in. The rules are there, but they’re intended to be broken.

This makes me think about how in many of the stories The Gifts of the State the authors chose to write in the voice of the opposite gender.

“Ten Shotguns” is based on a well-known story of a woman who became a warlord at the time of the Russians. Of course, she gives up her women’s clothes and only wears her husband’s. It might be too simple to say that gender is merely performative, however, like in Shakespeare, the idea of disguise always implies a willing suspension of disbelief by those who encounter it. “The Pleasure of Judgement” is much more wildly sci-fi; the narrator being not just a woman, but a lesbian who ends up having sex with the promised Koranic virgins on Air Force One.

As we all should be so blessed. Do you feel the authors of the book believe America has any responsibility to their country?

I think universally Afghans know most Americans are tired of the war and don’t support it. We operate under the assumption that Afghanistan is the Middle East and therefore are quick to ascribe terms such as “occupation” to what occurs there. I would argue that Afghanistan is actually South Asia. In three-and-a-half years I saw exactly one American troop on the street in Kabul. I want to be clear: Helmand might be quite different. And again these troops are essential to the maintenance of any stability in Kabul, however this is not a war to win — it’s not a war in any traditional sense. It’s both nation and capacity-building with a simultaneous military angle; we may never be able to comprehend war in the same terms at the end. That’s worrying, but it’s a reality.

I don’t believe any of the authors except Abdul Shakoor Jawad believe that the United States should leave the country. Recently almost all members of the Loya Jirga voted to maintain a U.S. presence; only Karzai is standing between the signing of the forces agreement. The geopolitical reality of Pakistan makes a U.S. footprint in Afghanistan a practical necessity. I know this makes people crazy. Too bad. As a staunch peacenik progressive liberal, I find some of these ideas surprising even to myself. Without the experience of Afghanistan, I would not have had an easy conversion.

I know you regularly went to Taverna du Liban and knew some of the victims of the Taliban’s attack there the other week. If it isn’t too difficult to talk about, I wonder if you had anything you wanted to say about this.

It’s not too difficult to talk about. Talking helps. I did not know my colleagues who were killed (one had only been in the country for four days). I knew very well the entire crew of waiters, all of whom have become anonymous in the reporting. But Aziz and Nurzai were two of my favorites, and of course, the young boys who were “guards” at the door, and of course, Kamal. I can only say that the record should be clear: Kabul doesn’t have a “green zone” like Iraq. Its “ring of steel” consists of a few guards, little more than that. The restaurant didn’t cater in any way exclusively to expats. I took my film students there — the whole class — on two different semesters. There were always Afghans. I want it to be clear that the depictions of wine pouring freely are highly exaggerated. You could, at times, have wine in teapots. It was a place respectful of Afghan culture, where I suspect many important meetings between foreign residents and Afghans were held. Also, it was a place to bring Afghan friends. I’m sorry to say that the doormen were kids, mostly. One, I know, didn’t outlive teenage acne. The idea that they were “trained” as “guards” is pushing it, as is the meme of the best chocolate cake in Kabul. I tire of these banal memorials. I guess I just want to say that no one ever thought it was a place that would be targeted. I hear that Karzai and crew are now suggesting that the Americans had a hand in it because Karzai hadn’t signed the status agreement. For any Afghans who would entertain this, I would just remind them that Karzai worked for Unocal (Dick Cheney’s old business) before he was ever tapped for President. [Ed. Note: For what it’s worth, Karzai denies this.] He’s about as reliable as a poisonous snake. While conspiracy theory makes it all seem easy — to make the U.S. both friend and foe — it is a fact that one’s neighbors are often their greatest enemies. The Taliban took responsibility for the attack; let them reap the consequences for it.

Over the years, you’ve expressed to me the desire to see more direct political writing by Americans. Are there writers who stand out to you at doing this?

I think Teju Cole’s Open City and Chris Kraus’ Summer of Hate were two of the best political novels that came out of the states in the last few years. They both addressed what’s on the mind of many Americans: the complexities of immigration, the lives of transnationals, the NSA and the prison industrial complex. While I would never tell people what they must write, I would encourage writers to attempt a greater global reach in their imaginations in the same way that I asked these Afghan authors to tell us why we shouldn’t understand them as collective victims or oppressors rather than as individual lives.

You were there for three and a half years; what did you find most unusual or challenging about life in Kabul?

Pollution is much more horrible than a coordinated attack. It takes more lives and it’s sadly the reality of most of South Asia. I would get on planes with security contractors who would literally shake with fear when I explained to them that I lived in an Afghan neighborhood, took cabs, and never had an armed guard. While I can’t give explicit details about the security at the university, I can say the “houses” were given unassuming names such as “Eagle,” “Patriot” and “White House.” Our personal vehicle teams were never given Islamic names, but rather things like “Vodka One” and “Tequila Four” — again, I’m exaggerating, but very slightly. It’s hard to believe that such identifications were used in a “dry” country. I might as well have tattooed an American flag on my face.

That is ridiculous. But those are physical and logistical challenges; what about emotional ones?

I’m frequently asked how I manage being alone in foreign countries. I remember in the Peace Corps hating every minute of having the local community knocking at my door; by the time I left Bangladesh, I thought, I will kill anyone who knocks on my door uninvited. I’ve grown to adapt to a life devoid of shared television programming, pop songs, historical references and instead to exist much more in the lives of others. You have to sacrifice your own life to live in the lives of others, in their realm of experience.

Kate Angus is an editor at Augury Books and more of her writing can be found in Indiana Review, Subtropics, Best New Poets 2010, and on The Awl, The Toast, The Rumpus and Verse Daily. This interview has been lightly edited.