NYT taps ex-Marine to review Jamil Jan Kochai’s short story collection
Author Jamil Jan Kochai released his second book on Tuesday: a collection of short stories titled The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories. The dozen stories, many of which have already appeared in outlets like the New Yorker and Plow sharesecho certain aspects of his first novel, 99 nights in Logar: deploy a narrative framework, revisit several characters, and sometimes dive into the fantastic, like in a video game in which the player interacts with his father in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
As in his novel, many of the protagonists in Kochai’s new version are Afghan or Afghan American; he presents the book as a “living story that moves between modern Afghanistan and the Afghan diaspora”. Kochai, who was born in an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan amid the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, is also of Afghan descent himself. Presumably aware of this fact, the New York Times The natural choice for the book section reviewer was someone with intimate knowledge of Afghanistan and the conflict: a former member of the US armed forces and a veteran of Forever Wars.
What does reviewer Elliot Ackerman think of Kochai’s book? Well, there’s not much room to expand on his thoughts in the review – which was published Tuesday under the title ‘Echoes and Echoes and Echoes of War’ – because it consists of only five short paragraphs (one of which is devoted to describing Kochai’s background). The rest of the 600-word review is largely devoted to Kochai’s characterization of second lieutenants (emphasis ours):
At times, Kochai relies disappointingly on caricature. The Taliban, or “T” as he calls them, are barely described fanatics. Americans are widely portrayed as imperialists. In the story “The Parable of the Goats”, the protagonist is Second Lieutenant Billy Casteel, a fighter pilot shot down in Afghanistan. Who is Billy Casteel? We don’t learn much about him. Part of Kochai’s work is hampered by poor research – a real fighter pilot coaching takes at least two years, so it would be impossible for Billy to be a second lieutenant, which is a rank held for less time than it takes to complete this training.
This critical fact-check would seem less out of place if Ackerman, who is described in one of the two (?) author biographies attached to the article as a “former naval and intelligence officer who served five missions in Iraq and Afghanistan,” had included context about his own experience serving in Afghanistan. Oddly, that never happens. It might also have helped explain his concern that “Americans are being widely portrayed as imperialists” by Kochai And perhaps he would have contextualized the sentence that immediately follows:
Kochai also has a distracting fixation on whiteness. When he wants to point out that the characters are generically evil, he describes them as white; all of the characters in the U.S. military—a remarkably diverse institution in reality—are described as “a little clan of white boys.”
In other news, it looks like Ackerman himself has a book coming out about the war in Afghanistan, titled The Fifth Act: The End of America in Afghanistan. We’ll have California rep Barbara Lee review it.