In “The Haunting of Hajji Hotak,” your story in this week’s issue, someone—presumably an F.B.I. agent—is surveilling the home of an Afghan family in West Sacramento, California. How did this scenario come to you?

Photograph by Jalil Kochai

Like many of my stories, “The Haunting” was inspired by a joke. I had read an Onion article titled “FBI Counterterrorism Agent Wistfully Recalls Watching 20-Year-Old Muslim-American Grow Up,” which I found hilarious but also oddly plausible. I could imagine an F.B.I. agent growing to feel a disturbing sense of affection for some Muslim family he was surveilling. This figure sort of fascinated me. I wasn’t totally unfamiliar with federal agents myself. When I was in fourth grade, a few weeks after 9/11, I opened the door one day to find two F.B.I. agents standing on our front porch. I remember they spoke with my father for a short time and, fortunately, seemed to disappear afterward. And yet their presence still sort of lingered in our home. In our daily lives. We became very careful about what we discussed on the phone or online or at school. We lived with an odd sense of paranoia, which we often joked about in group chats, but this feeling of being surveilled did weigh on me. The agents had left, but they continued to exist in our lives like spectres. We felt haunted. We still feel haunted. But now, at least, I can write about the ghosts.

Why not tell the family’s story directly? Why see it through the eyes of a spying outsider?

The story started with the agent. I figured out his voice and perspective before I actually knew whom he would be surveilling. It was only after I began watching this family through the eyes of the agent that their characters and relationships and conflicts became apparent to me. I discovered this version of this family through the outsider himself. He was absolutely essential.

The grandmother in the family left Afghanistan forty years ago; Hajji, the father, is semi-disabled; and, presumably, the children were born in the U.S. Why would this family be perceived as a security threat?

The same reason, I think, that Muslim students in New York were perceived as a security threat. And Muslim families all across the U.S. Or pine-nut farmers in Jalalabad. Or a taxi driver. The U.S. (its government, its military, its policing institutions, and, to be honest, much of its population) developed a pathological fear not only of Muslims but of Islam itself. But, hey, if you don’t believe me, I’ll let a former F.B.I. agent speak for himself: “It was made very clear from day one that the enemy was not just a tiny group of disaffected Muslims. Islam itself was the enemy.”

Hajji and his eldest son, Mo, both spend a lot of time obsessively watching footage, on television or online, of atrocities committed against Islamic people around the world. Why do they do this? How would you qualify their feelings about the U.S.?

Part of it, I think, is rooted in guilt. By living in the U.S. as American citizens and benefitting from the fruits of empire, Hajji and Mo may feel complicit in the many atrocities that the U.S. (its government, its military, its corporations) commits around the world, oftentimes against the most impoverished and brutalized people on the planet—including, of course, the very people whom Mo and Hajji identify as their own. I think they feel conflicted about both their dependence upon the U.S. and the revulsion they feel for it, and maybe they are punishing themselves by watching those videos, by never allowing themselves to forget the violence of which, in a sense, they are a part.

The story is told in the second person—with the “you” being the person who is doing the surveillance. Why didn’t you use the first or the third person for this story?

The first person would’ve felt too confessional. The third person would’ve been too distant. What I wanted was for the reader (and, perhaps, for myself) to feel implicated in the act of spying, surveilling, delving into the secret life of this family. I think I wanted to explore the more devious side of always needing to unravel fictional characters, always needing to know their daily habits, their darkest secrets, which, I think, can be a natural part of reading (or writing) in general, but which also makes me feel uncomfortable.

You don’t tell us anything directly about the “you” in the story. Do you have a sense of who this person is?

Yes, I have a sense. But as much as the “you” has his own personality and psychological tendencies, I still wanted that character to feel a little amorphous, a little indefinable, so that it would be easy for almost anyone to inhabit the role of the “you.”

The title of the story refers to Hajji’s sense that he’s being watched, and also to the fact that he is haunted by having survived the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan when many of his relatives and friends died. I believe this story will also provide the title of your new collection, which comes out next summer. Do you feel it captures the themes of the book?

Yes, it does capture many of the themes of my new collection, “The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories.” My characters tend to be immigrants and refugees haunted by the spectres of war and exile and violence. These spectres may be conjured up by different objects (a severed finger, a tattered flag, a “green parrot” mine), and they may appear in different forms, but what remains constant for many of my characters is the guilt of having lived. I promise the book is not as sombre as I make it sound. What I have always loved about the Afghans in my life is their indomitable sense of humor in the face of great tragedy, and I hope that some of this humor has made its way into the book.


More New Yorker Conversations

Source link

Review Overview

Summary

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *