The Gifts of the State: New Afghan Writing, ed. Adam Klein, (Dzanc Books)
The Gifts of the State was released in early December, but I just received my digital review copy a week ago. From the moment I began reading, I knew I’d been lucky enough to come upon a unique, engaging title that I was eager to share with others.
The editor, Adam Klein, ran English-language writing groups in Kabul for Afghans over a period of several years, and the short stories in this collection come out of that workshop. He undertook this project “to gather from a few aspiring writers the larger possibility for voices in a country too easily collectivized by frontline reports, historians who make Afghans seem like undefeatable warriors incapable of love, humor, heresy, let alone creating peaceful homes of democratic assembly.”
Most Afghans who speak English speak it as a third (or fourth or…) language, and Klein admits to spending a great deal of one-on-one time with the authors editing for grammar and wrestling with style. I was worried at first that this might affect the quality and variety of the finished pieces, but I was delighted to find that the voices varied significantly from one story to the next.
Given the recent history of Afghanistan, most of these stories have war as a background, but the number and complexities of these wars will be unfamiliar to many English-language readers: the revolution that ended the Afghan monarchy, the Soviet invasion, the battles between socialists and mujahadin, the triumph of the Taliban, and the more recent U.S. invasion. For the past half-century, Afghan life has demanded an ability to fit in among the current power group without developing a place in that group that would make death inevitable with the next change in political fortunes. We see many different characters negotiating this difficult “being, but not being”—and sometimes paying a high price when their efforts are unsuccessful. While all the pieces in this collection are fiction, they have the ring of painful truth.
Interestingly, many of the writers—both male and female—chose to write from the perspective of the other gender. From my outside perspective, I would have anticipated that this would appeal to women writers, but I lacked the imagination to see how important it might be to male writers to attempt to see the world through female experience. This is only one of the many ways in which this collection both confirms and confounds expectations. American readers will find situations and characters that seem familiar, but even more that break open our assumptions about life in the region.
This book is available through bookstores in paperback. It’s also available in electronic format directly from the publisher (use the link above). You can read this collection in an evening, but the stories will stay with you for much longer.