Living in the United States, the word “Afghanistan” crackles in the air when uttered. There is no escaping the politics of the word and, more often than not, insulting Orientalist and racist language in the larger context of that conversation (malicious or unintentional).
For that reason alone, Kochai’s collection of stories set in contemporary Afghanistan is powerful and worth any reader’s time and attention. The narratives and characters in this collection humanize a subject that has too long been objectified and rendered inferior. The tales bring Afghans to life, force the reader — in the best of ways — to see and think of them as living, feeling, bleeding individuals, as tangible and as intimate with ourselves as our sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, parents, friends, lovers, husbands, wives, children. In these character’s voices we can hear our own. Our own desires and fears are mirrors of theirs.
The stories are embedded in Central Asian Islamic and Colonial culture and history, but they also revolve around universal principles: love, marriage, ambition, identity, belonging. Afghans in these stories are college students sharing the same interests and experiences of growing up and out like all college students — not merely tokenized international students who live on the periphery of campus life, transient and alien. In some of these stories there are young women seeking to understand their roles in society, in their families. They, like all of us, are torn by expectations imposed on us from within and without. The women in these stories are not foils to men or cutouts of the flattened, Orientalist idea of Islam; they are also not mindlessly rebellious, mimics of Western feminism. These women are accurate reflections of women everywhere and yet also unique in their Afghani-ness: contradictory, full of internal and external conflict, desirous and aware of obligation, selfish and selfless. The characters in Kochai’s fiction — women and men alike — do not need to trade their Afghani selves for a Western one or a vice versa, even if there is tension between these identities. It is a tension that enhances, rather than subverts the narratives here. Tradition and modernity are not at odds in the real, lived world anywhere; that false binary is the fiction here! Kochai’s nuanced depictions of women, youth, men, childhood, marriage, love, sex, and life-at-large made this a very satisfying read.
I also deeply appreciated that many stories depicted Afghans outside of Afghanistan in an authentic diasporic perspective. So frequently are Afghans (and other Asians and people of color in general) fixed into some faraway, non-Western, exotic location. In several of the stories Afghans are cosmopolitan, worldly figures, part of the global community in material ways beyond being an image on the television news. They are American, British, European in as much as they are Afghan. As with many other OwnVoice fiction, these stories make the poignant point that the hyphenated identity is true but simultaneously too simplistic of a label; national boundaries are not only porous, in cultural context they are fiction. (Of course, borders do exist in a material, political sense; passports are not obsolete artifacts!)
At the same time, there is a thread of distinctly Afghan experience threading through these tales, one that is grounded in global politics, colonial histories, Islam in its present forms, migration. That is its cohesion and its strength. The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories is a must-read collection, especially for those who seek to understand a misunderstood community and want to excavate their identities beyond its contemporary political history and presence.