With more than 180 storytellers from 30 countries, this year’s UWRF lineup is a treasure trove of discoveries. Each week in the lead-up to UWRF19, we speak to a writer whose work you may not have encountered yet, but who could well turn out to be your festival favorite. This week we hear from Afghani-American author Jamil Jan Kochai.
When and why did you start writing?
I took my first creative writing class during my senior year of high school. I’d always appreciated literature, but I wasn’t very studious and the idea of writing in my spare time seemed preposterous. In fact, if it wasn’t for my 11th grade English teacher, who convinced me that I had a knack for it, I might never have given fiction writing a shot. But I quickly found that I enjoyed writing stories. I got great feedback from my teachers and my fellow students, and from that point on, I more or less dedicated myself to the craft of fiction.
What’s the most extraordinary place your work has taken you?
New York was pretty incredible, but to be honest I think Bali is going to take the cake.
What’s your favorite part of the writing process, and least favorite?
Sometimes, when writing, I muster the courage to write these long, audacious sentences, the sort of sentences I love to read, and I allow my characters to go places I find dangerous and unexpected and scary, and that’s my favorite part of writing. When I allow myself to be afraid of what I’m writing and to still move forward. My least favorite part, on the other hand, is the paralyzing anxiety of having to do it again and again.
What issues and ideas are you hoping to explore during UWRF19?
The question of translation is always a primary concern in my writing. Specifically, as it relates to oral storytelling. So much of my writing is indebted to the oral tales of my parents and grandparents. But because they told all their stories in Pashto, I often wonder how much is lost or disfigured in the process of translating them into English. I also wonder about the ethical dimensions of translating stories that are very specific to a people living under occupation. I’m always trying to navigate the ambivalent space between being a storyteller and becoming a native informant.
My advice to aspiring writers is to listen. I think so much effort is spent on the act of writing or discovering Literature with a capital L, that writers can overlook all the beautiful tales being told all around them.
Who do you hope will be in the audience?
Fellow storytellers. Readers of Marquez and Kafka. Afghans. Muslims. Diasporic peoples. Fans!
What’s your advice for aspiring writers?
Listen. I think so much effort is spent on the act of writing or discovering Literature with a capital L, that writers can overlook all the beautiful tales being told all around them. I didn’t really hit my stride as writer until I took the time to really listen to the stories of my family members. If you wait and pay attention and ask careful questions, oftentimes, your loved ones, your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, can floor you with stories so tragic and funny and beautiful, it will feel like you’re uncovering treasure. Reading Literature, of course, is important. So is creating a daily practice of putting words on paper, but, by far, the best stories I’ve encountered have come from word of mouth.
For those unfamiliar with your work, what do you suggest they start with?
My debut novel 99 Nights in Logar!
What are you working on now? Where to next for your writing?
I’m currently working on a collection of short stories.
What are you most looking forward to at UWRF19?
The food, the sights, and the stories!
Jamil Jan Kochai is part of the Main Program panels, Walk the Thought and Word of Mouth. Get your 4-Day Pass or 1-Day Pass here. He’s also part of the Special Event Rhyme and Reason in the Region. You can also catch him at the Festival Club for On the Road Again, which is free! Check out his website, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.