The premise for 99 Nights in Logar came from one very vivid memory of a fearsome family guard dog. "He was this massive, beastly dog and he hated me for some reason," says author Jamil Jan Kochai.
Kochai was born in Pakistan and grew up in the U.S. As a kid, he traveled to Logar, Afghanistan, to visit with his family. One day, the guard dog got loose. "He was such a powerful dog that they were literally afraid he might kill someone," Kochai recalls.
As his cousins, uncles and father looked for the dog, Kochai and his brother sat under a mulberry tree. "I still remember the trees, and the winds, and watching the fields," he says. "The sun was setting at the time and it gave the land this like magical, overwhelming hue."
This memory inspired 99 Nights in Logar — a coming-of-age novel about a boy named Marwand who embarks on a quest to find a missing dog during a family visit to Afghanistan.
Kochai talks with NPR about how he constructed the novel's multi-layered stories, and about how he hopes the book will help counter some American misconceptions about the country.
On what inspired him to write stories within stories in his novel
I was about halfway through the novel, about 100 pages in ... and I was just stuck there. I was staring at the screen, I was staring at these blank pages, I didn't know where to go. And it was around that time that I read One Thousand and One Nights. ... It had been sitting on my shelf for years and years. ... I was just so blown away — by not only just the stories of the novel itself ... but of the stories within the stories, and the stories within those stories. ...
Stories were used not only for entertainment and digression, but also to save lives, to get out of executions, to fall in love, to get someone to fall in love with you ... there was such an elasticity to the storytelling in One Thousand and One Nights that I thought this is something I had to adopt in my own novel.
On capturing what everyday life is like in Afghanistan
I was really adamant about demonstrating the daily life of Afghans — the squabbles, the jokes ... what people are eating, what people are gossiping about. ... The war in Afghanistan ... not only affects the people there in these very dramatic manners, these outward forms of violence — bombings and shootings and the surveillance and such — but there are also all these ... subdued forms of violence that you see in Afghanistan, where the violence of the war becomes imbued in the language and the jokes and ... the way we think about time, and the way we think about movement and travel.
On the misconception that Afghanistan needs to be "saved"
[There's] this sense that Afghans need saving ... that some foreign force needs to come in, and we need to come together and help these people rise up out of this carnage that they've brought themselves into. I am very resistant to that sort of a mythology. ... Afghans are absolutely capable of lifting themselves up. But there's been so many years — so many centuries now — of foreign interruptions, of foreign domination, that really that's what's keeping us behind — not anything innate in ourselves as a people.
On American misunderstandings of Afghanistan
I was very much adamant about ... deconstructing that image, that understanding, of Afghanistan being exclusively this violent land, this land of warfare, this land of carnage. It was really important for me to demonstrate its incredible, incredible beauty, its complexity, its layers, its tradition of storytelling, and faith, and dance, and music. ... I do hope that if there are misunderstandings at least my story might be able to give a new outlook.
Karina Pauletti and Martha Ann Overland produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
A vicious dog on the loose, a harsh landscape and a ragtag group of kids on a forbidden adventure - Jamil Jan Kochai's debut novel "99 Nights In Logar" follows 12-year-old Marwand as he returns to the family's ancestral home in Afghanistan at the height of the war. Raised in America, the pre-teen fumbles to fit in with his Afghan cousins. His path is guided, in part, by family lore and magical storytelling, reminiscent of "1001 Arabian Nights." Jamil Jan Kochai joins us now from Iowa Public Radio.
Welcome to the program.
JAMIL JAN KOCHAI: Thank you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So this has been described as a coming-of-age journey. Young Marwand is visiting his family in Afghanistan in 2005 when the family guard dog goes missing. Marwand embarks on a series of adventures to get him back. And that sounds like a simple plot, right? But the book is about a lot more than his physical journey.
JAN KOCHAI: Yeah, absolutely. I really wanted it to start off on sort of this - you know, sort of an adventure tale premise. But from that point, I did want the novel to both sort of deepen in its storytelling and then also expand as well. Just as Marwand is going on his own journey, these other stories that he's hearing, I wanted them to also impact him in different ways historically, religiously, in all these different manners.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The book takes us into the villages of Afghanistan - the family meals, you know, the squabbles, the discussions. Why is that important to just sort of open a window into sort of the mundane aspects of life?
JAN KOCHAI: Well, I think part of it was to sort of demonstrate the ways that, you know, the occupation of Afghanistan, the war in Afghanistan is not only bombings and shootings and the surveillance and such. But there are also all these, like, minor forms imbued in the language and the jokes and, you know, in the way we think about time and the way we think about movement and travel and how you're going to go about planning a wedding. I think that was important for me to demonstrate just another facet of how the war exists in Afghanistan.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. We should mention at this point that you were born in Pakistan. But your family is from Logar. And you grew up in the United States. So how many...
JAN KOCHAI: Yes.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How many of these stories are from your memories? - and how much from your imagination?
JAN KOCHAI: Yeah. I mean, like, a great deal of these stories are from my own memories, from memories of my family members, my grandmother, especially. The most important memory that sort of started the whole premise of the novel itself was when I was 12 years old, I - we - my family and I, we were visiting Logar, Afghanistan. And we, actually, did have a guard dog named Budabash, who one day - you know, he was this massive, beastly dog. And he hated me for some reason. He'd growl at me viciously whenever I got near him. And one day, he actually did get loose out on the village. And, of course, my uncles and my father, they all went out searching for him because he was such a powerful dog that they were literally afraid he might, you know, kill someone.
They told all younger guys in the in the compound to stay home. And, of course, as soon as they left, we also went out. And I remember going out with my cousins but at a certain point, becoming sort of afraid of the journey. And they all went on forward. And I decided to stay back with my brother underneath this mulberry tree. And that memory had stuck with me for such a long time. I remember just sitting beneath that mulberry tree not knowing whether I should continue the journey or head back home. And it was so vivid. I still remember, you know, the trees and the winds and watching the fields. And the sun was setting at the time. And it gave the land sort of this, like, magical, overwhelming hue to it. And it was from that memory that I sort of started the whole novel. I was like, this is where the story starts. And then after that, I was like, OK. Now I just got to figure out what happens on the adventure.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Afghanistan is the scene - the setting of America's longest running war. It's also a place that has been at the nexus of so many conflicts for so long. And I'm wondering if you think Americans understand Afghanistan.
JAN KOCHAI: The people, they sort of - this - we have this - sort of this stereotype attached to us now that we are violent people, that we are a war-hungry people. And that's something, I think, that I was very much adamant about taking apart, deconstructing that image, that understanding of Afghanistan being exclusively (laughter) this violent land, this land of warfare. And it was really important for me to demonstrate its incredible, incredible beauty, its tradition of storytelling and faith and dance and music. And so I do hope that if there are misunderstandings, at least my story might be able to give a new outlook.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm thinking of a final scene in the book when Marwand is leaving the country. And he's stopped by an American soldier who sees that he's injured. And he's, of course, been bitten by the dog. And the soldier immediately assumes that he's been abused by someone in his family. And it seemed to speak to this wider misconception - right? - this wider lack of understanding.
JAN KOCHAI: Absolutely. I think what that scene was trying to get at a little bit was this sort of - sense of that Afghans need saving. And - which is something that I'm pretty resistant to, this idea that - especially that Afghanistan and Afghans as a people need saving from the outside and that some, you know, foreign force needs to come together and help these people rise up out of this carnage that they've brought themselves into. And so I am very resistant to that sort of a mythology. That's something that in that scene and, I hope, throughout the entirety of the novel, I wanted to demonstrate that Afghans are - they're absolutely capable of lifting themselves up. But there's been so many years, so many centuries now of foreign domination that, really, that's what's keeping us behind, not anything innate in ourselves as a people.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jamil Jan Kochai's novel is "99 Nights In Logar." Thank you so much.
JAN KOCHAI: Thank you so much for having me. This was an absolute pleasure.
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