Jamil Jan Kochai on Résumés as Stories

Occupational Hazards” is one in a series of stories that revolve around the same family of Afghan Americans living in Sacramento—two of which were previously published in The New Yorker. In this story, we follow the life of the father, which is narrated in the form of a résumé. What made you decide to tell the story in this way?

Part of it was circumstantial. At the time, I was on my second year in a row of applying to an unending series of fellowships and job positions. And so I was inundated by the résumé format, and I found it oddly intriguing as a storytelling form or as a tool for characterization. Essentially, I was attempting to tell the story of my work life to a potential employer. A résumé is a story, but it’s also a plea. “Please select me,” it says. “Look at all I’ve accomplished. I’m worthy of you!” This concept of a résumé as a story became even more compelling to me when I applied it to the life of someone like my father, who was born in rural Afghanistan, lived through war and exile and abject poverty, worked backbreaking jobs in multiple countries, only to wind up severely injured and unemployed in Northern California. But it wasn’t until I read Annie Proulx’s “Job History” (which functions very differently from my story, but was still inspirational) that I worked up the nerve to tell a story through a character’s résumé.

Do you intend the formal structure to, in a sense, protect the reader from the emotion of the story or to make that emotion more powerful?

Both, I think. In a way, I wanted the résumé format to reflect the protagonist’s own sense of himself, which, essentially, would be rooted in his ability to labor, to sell his labor, and to be of value to his family and loved ones through his labor. But what’s lost in all that emphasis on work and action and propulsive momentum is the internal life of the protagonist: his emotional well-being, his thoughts and worries, his psychological suffering. My hope was that, by the end of the story, the emotional core of the character would seep through all the physical laboring. So I guess I wanted to protect readers at first, in order to hurt them more later on.

The character whose résumé this is (who is never named) faces challenge after challenge, from fighting for his own education, to coping with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, losing his brother and sister, getting the rest of his family to safety in a refugee camp in Pakistan, and then re-starting life in the U.S., where he works a series of menial jobs in order to support his wife and children. Would you say that his trajectory is unusual or typical for an Afghan man of his generation?

I’m not sure if it’s typical, exactly, but many Afghans from that generation faced incredible and oftentimes horrific obstacles just to live and look after their families. If you took part in a gathering of Afghans my parents’ age, you probably wouldn’t have to wait very long to hear an absurd or devastating story of survival. Our family friends and relatives endured torture and bombings. They buried loved ones or watched them disappear into government dungeons. They crossed mountains, took on false identities, and made unthinkable sacrifices to make it through the war. In fact, in some ways, my character’s long, hard life might be considered fortunate compared with the lives of other Afghans of his generation. At least my protagonist managed to “escape” the wars that followed the Soviet occupation; the Afghans who stayed had to live through one war after another (the civil wars in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, and then, of course, the American occupation). And so I suppose the trajectory of this character’s life is typical in that it reflects the immensity of all that was suffered by his generation, though the reflection is incomplete.

As in your novel, “99 Nights in Logar,” a lot of the narrative echoes your own family’s—and specifically your father’s—experience. How much did you fictionalize, and why?

This story may be one of the most autobiographical pieces I’ve written. Much of my research for it consisted of me asking my father about the different jobs he’d held in his life. That was my jumping-off point for most of the sections. From there, I fictionalized many of the specific details and actions, and the responses to the different forms of labor. What’s funny is that my father’s work history is actually more harrowing and incredible than what’s depicted in this story. I had to cut stuff out just to make it more plausible.

Do all of the stories in your forthcoming collection, “The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories,” relate to this family? Is it liberating for you as a writer to be able to approach a subject from so many different directions?

Not all of the stories are about this one family. There’s a story about a pair of doctors who lose their only son in Kabul, and there’s another about an American soldier who crash-lands in a village in Logar. But, admittedly, most of the stories are related to this family. In a way, I suppose it is liberating. I’ve always been astounded by how many different stories and how many different versions of one story can exist in a single household. My grandmother (may Allah have mercy on her) and my father and my aunts all lived in the same compound during the Soviet occupation. They’re all haunted by the same ghosts, more or less. And yet their true stories of the war differed immensely, which, to me, only illustrates how many different historical (and even physical) realities can coexist at once. I’ve put this poor family through a lot. I’ve turned them into video-game characters and surveillance subjects and monkeys and résumés. But, whenever I approach a story from some new, absurd dimension, it’s always with the goal of understanding the characters on another level, or of learning something new about the family as a whole.

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