When Jamil Jan Kochai, M.A. ’17, was 12 years old, he visited his parents’ native village in the Logar province of Afghanistan. It was a transformative experience for Kochai, who tapped into his memories for his debut novel, 99 Nights in Logar (Viking, 2019). Part adventure tale, part coming-of-age journey, the book follows adolescent Marwand as he embarks on a trek to find the family guard dog who has escaped. He recently spoke with UC Davis Magazine editor Jocelyn Anderson about storytelling.
Jocelyn Anderson: How much of this story is based on true events?
Jamil Jan Kochai: A good deal of it. It came from this memory that haunted me for a long time. Back in Logar, I also had a contentious relationship with a guard dog named Budabash. One day he also somehow got out. We went out searching for him, but it got to this point when I got scared because we’d gotten so far away from the house. I stayed under a tree and waited for my cousins to come back. I ended up waiting for a couple hours. I remember the sun was setting, the village was darkening, the fields and the trees took on this beautiful hue that I can still see to this day. I kept wondering, what would have happened if I had kept going on the journey?
JA: Was it important to paint your own picture of Afghanistan with this book?
JJK: Definitely. My time in Logar was one of the happiest times of my life. Logar is in this river valley nestled between huge surrounding mountains. It’s very lush, with a lot of trees and fields and streams. It’s a side of Afghanistan that I thought really never got shown in media back home. So for a long time, my desire was to show another side of Afghanistan, a more complicated image and all the beauty that the country has to go along with the very real political issues that are still very present there.
JA: How did UC Davis play a part in the development of the novel?
JJK: I went into my very first workshop there and turned in the short story, which ended up being the beginning of the novel. I couldn’t really get ahold of it, and it kept getting longer. After the workshop, every single person [told me] it wasn’t a short story, it was the beginning of a novel. That was almost a really frightening experience for me, because I went into the program with the intention of writing a short story collection. So I thought about it and I ended up coming to the decision that it was in fact the beginning of a novel. And so the whole development happened through these workshops. I ended up having the first draft [of the novel] as my thesis for my M.A. at UC Davis.
JA: What’s next for you as a writer?
JJK: I was finally able to get to my short story collection that I was intending to write at Davis. I spent the past two years at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and while I was there, I’ve been able to write a bunch of stories. Most of my work, to some degree, ends up circulating back around this little village in Logar where my parents came from. But I tried to broaden the settings as well, so I have stories that are set in West Sacramento, in Kabul — and at UC Davis.