f you think of Afghan American literature, chances are good that Khaled Hosseini's bestselling novels "The Kite Runner" and "A Thousand Splendid Suns" will come to mind.
And your associations might not go much beyond that. Afghan American writing has been growing in depth and richness, though, a fact proven by a new book, "One Story, Thirty Stories."
It's an anthology from the University of Arkansas Press that collects pieces of poetry, fiction, essay and, yes, blogging, by contemporary Afghan American writers.
Zohra Saed and Sahar Muradi both left Afghanistan when they were young. Muradi's family moved to the US when she was three, Saed's left Afghanistan when she was one, moving first to Saudi Arabia and then to the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY.
So for both of them, their early impressions of Afghanistan came from their parents' stories. Muradi's father would tell her legends from the country's past, or stories about working in his father's knitting factory in Kabul.
Saed's father would illustrate his stories with photographs and post cards he'd brought with him from Afghanistan.
A Responsibility to Share
These images were a counterpoint to the Afghanistan Saed saw elsewhere.
"For me it was trying to compare these post cards of movie theaters and hotels and a city that didn't match with the rugged mountain images that I was seeing in the 80s on the evening news with Dan Rather going into the mountains and hanging out with the Mujahadeen," Saed said.
She said that a lot of the writing in the collection comes from an impulse to provide a sort of counterpoint, particularly after 9-11 and the US invasion of Afghanistan.
Saed said that Afghan-Americans felt a responsibility to share what they knew.
"What kind of answers do we present, when there are so many questions directed at us about Afghanistan; about being Afghan-American?" Saed said. "About living here. Because we were being held accountable for our identities, I think that is when we started answering, and in that answering came a lot of this writing."
The anthology's contributors include professional writers, musicians, filmmakers, academics, former ambassadors and doctors. Much of the work deals with how families are stretched and strained by the process of relocating to the US.
Zohra Saed's poem "Neptune Avenue" speaks of her childhood gang of siblings and cousins in Brooklyn who find their own strangeness both alienating, and exhilarating:
We'd rather stretch our weekends and wrap it across the belly of the year. We'd rather dangle out every day on the fire escapes of the second-floor mosque, spill the Khutba onto the sweating concrete by opening the windows wide. Then jump onto the sidewalk, align our velvet prayer mats next to parked cars and play Imam and Ummah as passerbys gawk at the magic of our 'flying carpets' and at one five-year-old brother serious faced, hand over ear, singing out the call to prayer with a sugar-sweet throat.
War "Back Home"
And, of course, war is a constant presence in the collection. It's the reason families flee Afghanistan, it's why many are now traveling back there to do humanitarian work.
A poem by Sahar Muradi called, "Of My Mother," tackles the loss of homeland. In this passage, her family is leaving Afghanistan on a bus bound for Pakistan:
I think of my little bag, my khalta-gac, the pillowcase that I keep all my treasures in – apple seeds and lost buttons and little webs of lint. Your mother said she will keep it safe, for when we come back from the trip, with new treasures. But you, you have so many more things that we do, so your missing is so much bigger. It takes up all the room on our seat. It splits the vinyl, fogs the windows, and spreads to either end of the bus. It's already hard to be comfortable with the rocks under the tires and the dust in our eyes and our lips sealed tight around the cane, but now your missing is coming off your face like steam, and none of us can breathe.
Zohra Saed said that war has given many of the writers in the anthology a sense of guilt and obligation to succeed because so many of their relatives weren't as fortunate as they were. She said that it also affects the style of the writing.
"War, you know, of course affects narrative – how we write, the bits and pieces, the fragmented way that some of the writers are writing here is about the fragmented way we've grown up," Saed said.
For all its heaviness, the collection does have plenty of moments of wit and happiness.
For Sahar Muradi, one of the joys of poring through all the work was finding other writers talking about bits of everyday life that were so familiar to her.
"I was just so thrilled to read things that resonated with me – of course all great literature does – but there's something really profound about reading a story about a mother who goes to 99 cent store and buys the Brucci lipstick for her daughter, and gives them home perms, and all these things that were so particular to my childhood as well," Muradi said.
In fact it's the everyday rituals like this – lipstick and home perms and playing with siblings in the street – that seem to make the harder stuff here bearable.
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