It is the unfortunate fate of war-torn countries like Afghanistan that heartbreaking headlines – of bloody battles, senseless deaths, corruption, crises, collapse – obliterate any real understanding of the individual experiences of Afghans’ everyday lives.
When we think of Afghanistan, we think of war, of the Taliban, of burqas and beards. It’s tough for an outsider to penetrate the stereotype.
That’s where literature comes in.
In the case of Afghanistan, a shining ambassador has emerged in the form of an anthology of young Afghan writers, “The Gifts of the State: New Writing from Afghanistan.” Edited by Adam Klein, the collection of 18 short stories is a sort of window into the lives and minds of ordinary Afghans, one that bypasses the stories told by the news media and politicians.
As publisher Disquiet put it, the collection “gives voice to a generation clamoring to be heard under the simplifying headlines and collectivized identity that thirty years of war have brought upon the country.”
It is, in other words, a rare treat for readers.
Klein’s creative writing workshops in Kabul yielded these stories, the authors of which speak English as a second or even third language. Yet for this collection, they wrote in English, providing readers direct access, unencumbered by clunky translations, to the imaginings of Afghans under 30.
So what do young Afghans dream and write about?
Judging from the stories, experiencing life in the shoes (or burqa) of the opposite sex, indulging in forbidden fascinations for books or music, hatching elaborate plans for romantic rendezvous, and confronting loss in every way possible – via the Taliban, the Russians, the Americans, or simply one’s own neighbor or brother.
“Hardboiled” presents the story of an underground bookseller (who takes cues from Mickey Spillane novels to inform his romantic endeavors) who falls in love with a customer with whom he plans a complex scheme to murder his lover’s husband.
“Ten Shotguns” presents the story of a matriarch looking back on her life and the traumatic situation that compelled her to dress in men’s clothing and become a fighter against the KHAD, or the secret police formed during the Russian occupation.
“The Sea Floor” is a “tense, gruesome piece about a massacre in a remote, tribal region” that the LA Review of Books calls “easily the most accomplished work in the anthology.
In the collection’s title story, a young man finds himself in a post-apocalyptic ghost city in Russia searching for his dead parents in a shelled Russian high-rise.
“Whistling, too, was the wind from the vast hole in the wall where a rocket had smashed its way through twenty-one years earlier. It whistled like a rotten tooth. It seemed like we had been drinking tea and eating candy our whole lives.”
The stories are at once poignant and plainspoken, horrific and hilarious, mysterious and straightforward. And for these fiction writers writing in their second or third language, the stories are remarkably visceral, candid, and forthright, with “little affect in the telling,” as Klein put it.
And while the stories are often filled with the realities of everyday life – ethnic violence, the Taliban and mujaheeen, countless checkpoints, and the burden of suffocating tradition – this collection presents something different. For audiences used only to accounts of Afghanistan involving war, terrorism, oppression, or politics, the stories are refreshingly original, unlike anything most readers will have ever associated with that war-torn land.
“Twenty-somethings who have faced death, walked across mountains to live in refugee camps, would likely not make a great adventure story for a country measuring out what to forget and what must not be forgotten,” writes Klein in his introduction. “Americans exploit and frame and sell these stories; Afghans merely live them, and put them behind them.”
Klein writes his goal was collecting individual voices “in a country too easily collectivized by frontline reports, historians who make Afghans seem like undefeatable warriors incapable of love, humor, heresy, let alone creating peaceful homes or democratic assembly.”
“Too often we disregard the individual experiences of Afghans for the historical narrative.”
“The Gifts of the State” is a celebration of a lost generation of Afghan voices.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.