Masha Hamilton’s What Changes Everything

HamiltonThe plot of Masha Hamilton’s novel What Changes Everything contains many threads, the most important being the kidnapping of Todd Barbery, the head of a refugee relief organization in Afghanistan, by Afghan opportunists seeking to barter his life with whoever might pay the most for it. Todd’s wife Clarissa, a New York City college professor, refuses requests by the US government intermediaries to use force to rescue Todd and instead relies on Todd’s Afghan assistant Amin to obtain her husband’s relief. As Clarissa waits, she meets Danil, a Brooklyn graffiti artist whose brother has been killed in a friendly-fire incident while serving as a soldier in Afghanistan that the military tries to efface. Danil commiserates with Clarissa and advises her to retain faith in Amin, who eventually succeeds in effecting Todd’s release through his cultural and negotiating savvy.

In telling this story What Changes Everything begins to complicate understanding of what war in Afghanistan and novels about war in Afghanistan entail. Hamilton, who has served in Afghanistan as a cultural advisor to the US high command, eschews portraits of troops and battle and instead offers a compelling story about how war ensnares a wide range of characters other than those in uniform. These include Afghan noncombatants, American aid officials, and American family members touched by the war’s destruction. Besides Todd, Clarissa, Amin, and Danil, major characters include Danil’s mother Stela, who writes grief-stricken letters to politicians and celebrities seeking understanding of her son’s death and others to Danil that Danil refuses to even open, and Mandy, the mother of a young soldier injured in Afghanistan, who flies to Kabul in a Quixotic effort to lend her training as a nurse to war-stricken Afghans. Though the novel is short, several minor characters also figure so prominently that they might well be considered major: Todd’s daughter Ruby disagrees with her stepmother Clarissa’s decision to trust Amin, and Mandy encounters first a mercenary operator who knew her son well and then Zashfelt, a mysterious Afghan woman implicated first in Todd’s capture and then his release.

As if that all weren’t enough, Hamilton also includes imaginary letters written by Afghanistan’s last pre-Taliban president, Mohammad Najibullah, to his daughters in the days just prior to his murder at the hands of the Taliban in 1996. The imagined letters serve the plot in that they tell us that Amin as a young man had missed a chance to save Najibullah’s life, which now makes him determined to save Todd’s. But they also remind us of Afghanistan’s history, good and bad, pre-2001. Najibullah was not a saint—he was head of Afghanistan’s secret police under the Russians—but he comes across beautifully in the letters. In contrast to the spasmodic pleas for help written by Stela and the cluttered and confused thoughts of the other American characters, Najibullah’s letters portray a man who is absolutely composed, intelligent, cultured, full of affection for his daughters, gifted with words, and proud of his achievements as head of a country he loves.

Hamilton keeps all of this together very well. Clarissa’s skeptical resistance to military action pays off and in so doing dramatizes What Changes Everything’s most trenchant theme: the US military, addicted to violence and incapable of subtlety, would do well to pay more attention to what vastly more experienced and wiser Afghans try to tell them. I didn’t like the novel’s early scenes that show Mandy arriving on her solo mission to Kabul without sponsorship or much preparation at all, but subsequent events confirm that Hamilton intends to portray her as a bit of a self-important fool. Todd Barbery is even more of a self-important fool, and he has only himself to blame for the trouble he gets into. Hamilton’s point seems to be that Americans, even or especially those eager to help Afghanistan, tend to be both oblivious and arrogant. Among many other problems, they are bad listeners and poor communicators, qualities at which Afghans such as Amin excel, their skills honed by endless struggle for survival. But Amin is not perfect, either, and the novel’s story of trial and growth is his, too, as we see him desperately trying to reap the lessons wrought by past failure to successfully negotiate Todd’s release.

Early in the book a scene in which Stela’s friend Yvette admonishes her, “You’ll do what you want in the end. But don’t do anything before tomorrow, Stela, promise me that much. We need to talk more, after you’ve found your tongue again.” Stela’s not ready to listen to Yvette, to Stela’s detriment, but later she will recognize the truth of her friend’s advice that communication is essential. Her plight is that of all What Changes Everything’s characters, and tips Hamilton’s hand. Obtaining freedom from murderous kidnappers is one thing, but learning to listen and trust, while slowing down enough to nourish family-and-friendship is what really matters, to answer the question implied by the novel’s title, when it comes to escaping the prison-house of self-absorption. And in contrast to stories about Afghanistan that portray American special operations daring-do or castigate a seemingly incorrigibly corrupt and backward Afghan society, What Changes Everything asks us to think that it is not like that at all.

Masha Hamilton, What Changes Everything. Unbridled Books, 2013.

The Afghan Women’s Writing Project

Washing the DustWashing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry and Prose from Writers of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project is, as far as I can tell, the second volume published by the organization named in its title. The first, The Sky is a Nest of Swallows, appeared in 2012, while Washing the Dust from Our Hearts is out just this year. The Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP), formed in 2009 by journalist and novelist Masha Hamilton, is a collective comprised of interested American writers and publishing world friends who facilitate via the Internet writing by women in Afghanistan. Most of the collective’s work is online, but Washing the Dust from Our Hearts and The Sky is a Nest of Swallows represent efforts–pretty substantial ones–to place in print female voices from a land often described as the worst place in the world to be a woman. Afghanistan is also said to be a land thick with poets, with a tradition dating back to the great 13th-century mystic Rumi, but it has been a male tradition never hospitable to women writers and now even less so under the pressure of the Taliban.

The Afghan poets who participate in AWWP do so at great risk—the hardship and danger of writing publicly, especially for Western audiences, is writ large in many Washing the Dust from Our Hearts poems. Women participate, they tell us, because they feel empowered by doing so and because they want the world to know their plight. They use the artistry of poetry to give shape to the suffering of women and the nation at large at the hands of the Taliban during an extended period of war. The beauty of poetry comes in the expression of loss, mixed with pride in their defiant survivors’ strength, and their ability to imagine a better Afghanistan that was and which might be again.

My favorite poem in Washing the Dust from Our Hearts is “My Beautiful and Lovely Kandahar” by a woman named Shogofa, the link to which is at the Afghan Women’s Writing Project website. Another favorite, a stanza from which I will quote here, is “My Wild Imagination” by “M”:

I am one of those women with a wild imagination
who yearns to see equality of Afghan men and women
in action and law. I want lovers to walk
in the streets of Kabul, Herat, Mazar,
holding hands, sharing hugs,
free of harassment and harsh looks aimed at them like bullets.

An interesting aspect of AWWP is that the women write in English; the poems in Washing the Dust from Our Hearts appear in their English original version and also in versions translated into Dari, the Afghan version of Persian, and then transcribed into Arabic script by a woman named Pari. This remarkable alchemy of poetic production and reproduction is made possible by the care and let us not forget resources of the American (and other international) members of the collective. I salute AWWP for their effort and achievement and encourage you to support them.

Afghan Women’s Writing Project homepage here.

A photo of a Kabul bridge, by Roya, from the AWWP website.
A photo of a Kabul bridge, by Roya, from the AWWP website.

Washing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry and Prose from Writers of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. Edited by Lori J.O. Noack; translated by Pari. Grayson Books, 2015.

Words After War: The NYC War Lit Machine-slash-Scene

AMERICA-AFTER-9-11-flyer-806x1024This past Sunday I attended “Danger Close: America After 9/11,” an event hosted by Words After War, a New York City-based veterans writers collective I’ve had my eye on for some time. The event featured three authors of fiction who also served the government’s war apparatus in some capacity. Ex-Marine Phil Klay, the author of Redeployment, needs little introduction, but the other two authors brought not-so-obvious experiences and perspectives to bear on the discussion. Masha Hamilton is an author and journalist who also served as a civilian member of the Army command staff in Afghanistan specializing in public affairs and women’s advocacy. Her recent novel What Changes Everything features both American and Afghan characters whose lives have been ravaged by war. Maxwell Neely-Cohen is the author of Echo the Boom, a novel featuring young protagonists born “after the fall of the wall and before the fall of the towers.” Neely-Cohen could boast no military or in-theater experience, but he worked as a DOD-contracted intelligence analyst for a while after college, which is one of the more interesting perches within the military machinery I’ve come across lately. Moderating the panel was Words After War co-founder and executive director Brandon Willitts, a Navy vet of Afghanistan who has also spent a tour as an intelligence analyst working for the Joint Chief of Staffs.

Left to right, Brandon Willetts, Masha Hamilton, Phil Klay, and Maxwell Neely-Cohen
Left to right, Brandon Willetts, Masha Hamilton, Phil Klay, and Maxwell Neely-Cohen

The authors all had interesting things to say about how their lives took shape after 9/11, though each was slow to emphasize the overarching importance of the day in their individual biographies. For Klay, Hamilton, and Neely-Cohen, 9/11 co-exists with a slew of other determinants that took them towards war. Hesitant to make grandiose pronouncements, the panelists instead offered anecdotes and observations that commented obliquely on global politics and history.

Klay: “On the day we celebrated the killing of Osama Bin Laden, I learned that one of my former NCO’s war injuries would leave him permanently blinded.”

Hamilton: “I had a desire to have an impact and help make a difference. I knew I had to be cautious, but not so cautious that I didn’t follow my dreams.”

Neely-Cohen: “I grew up obsessed by the Cold War and the chance of nuclear catastrophe. It always seemed odd that we would risk or even sacrifice millions then, while after the fall of the Twin Towers we measured the cost of war in the low thousands. But even as they fell, I spent the day skateboarding with my friends.”

Often the remarks segued from cultural critique to literary process and technique:

Klay: “I always pay attention my most ‘urgent memories,’ but the stories you tell about yourself are always self-serving and simplistic…”

Hamilton: “Writing in third person (about created characters) allows you to judge them much more harshly…. fiction allows you to ‘write into the gray.’”

Neely-Cohen: “As I created my characters I depended on empathy and imagination…. I did not want to belittle them.”

And so the conversation went on a Sunday afternoon in a Brooklyn, New York performance space transformed into laboratory for ideas and argument. While Klay’s work explains how war felt to those who fought, Hamilton and Neely-Cohen register its reverberations beyond the battlefield and across cultures and generations. The subject was a little large for resolution in the time provided, but the panelists’ offerings were suggestive. Collectively and individually, we all went crazy as if plagued by hornets after 9/11, even as we had to make huge decisions with gigantic costs, and we’re not through yet. Thanks as always to our writers and artists, who observe these things best and on whom we depend to help us understand better.

Thanks also to Words After War for infusing the New York City vet writing community with a collective, sociable, and supportive vibe. Impresario Willetts is passionate about helping vets and obsessed by the idea that literature matters, and he shines at staging events that showcase veteran and war-related writing. Also on the Words After War board of directors is Matt Gallagher, the author of the memoir Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War. First published as blog postings from Iraq, where Gallagher served as an Army cavalry officer, Kaboom more than any other memoir I’ve read pays attention to the nuances of soldiers’ emotional lives, which bodes well for the fiction we are sure to see from Gallagher in the future. Gallagher’s writer and warrior cred nicely complement Willett’s vision and organizing ability, and so we look forward to what Words After War brings us next.

Phil Klay, Redeployment. Penguin, 2014.

Masha Hamilton, What Changes Everything. Unbridled Books, 2013.

Maxwell Neely-Cohen, Echo the Boom. Rare Bird Books, 2014.

Matt Gallagher, Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War. Da Capo Press, 2011.

%d bloggers like this: