In this week’s Senior Thesis column, the Concordiensis interviewed English major, writer and filmmaker Jamaluddin Aram ’17 on his creative process and inspiration in developing his stories.
Jenna Salisbury: Congratulations on your fiction “The Boy and the Dog” being published in Numero Cinq Magazine. It is well known that much of your creative work, both in producing films and short stories, is drawn from your own life experiences growing up in Kabul, Afghanistan. Will your senior thesis also include influences from your life in Afghanistan or other important areas in your life? Can you tell us a little bit about your senior thesis?
Jamaluddin Aram: Thanks Jenna. I’m writing a creative thesis, and it consists of three short stories. The first story, “Namak Haram,” is about two documentary filmmakers traveling to a remote village in central Afghanistan on an assignment. Mohsen, one of the filmmakers, develops a hard-to-name feeling for a married woman in the village, and things get more complicated from there.
“The Boy and The Dog,” the second story, which was recently published in Numero Cinq, is a depiction of an ordinary afternoon for a young boy in Kabul during the civil war. The third story, “The Children Who Turned Men Overnight,” like its title, is still a work in progress. It is an unconventional love story, which is set in Kabul in 1991 – immediately before the outbreak of the civil war. A well-off family move into Char Qala, an impoverished neighborhood in northern part of the city; they have a daughter, Fatima Amin – a girl of unearthly beauty.
Soon, every man, old and young, falls in love with her. The three kids, the main protagonists of the story despite the big age difference, uncontrollably find themselves in love with Fatima Amin too. For them to have any chance with her, if they could overcome all the other social class obstacles, they have to rival the most notorious gangster in town who like every man in the neighborhood, nurtures an unrequited love for Fatima Amin.
These stories build a reverse chronology of the recent political systems in Afghanistan: Karzai administration, the civil war, and pre-civil war era. My family and I did not leave the country until recently, so we lived through it all, and these stories, in one way or another, have bits and pieces of my memories and some very personal secrets that I dearly guard even now. One of the beauties of writing fiction is that it enables me to share my secrets with readers without giving them the pleasure to differentiate which one is the real secret and which is an invented one. So yes, my life and my experiences form the kernel of almost all my works.
Jenna Salisbury: Your most recently published story, “The Boy and the Dog,” depicts a rather grave and solemn moment with a lot of vivid imagery and authenticism. How do you go about crafting an organic, but fictional story?
Jamaluddin Aram: One of the reasons that I started writing was because I have so many stories cluttered in my head that they were driving me insane. I had to put them on paper, so I could go on about my life. “The Boy and The Dog” is one such story. When I was a kid, my mother baked bread in the oven at home. It was more economical than buying it from a bakery. One late afternoon, four guests showed up unannounced – a very Afghan thing. They were there to stay the night. The bread we had was not enough; my mother sent me to buy bread from the bakery around the corner.
When I got there, I couldn’t cross the street because there was a gun fight underway. I had to wait until it was over. Some of the imageries in the story directly come from that experience. For the rest, I rely on my memory, my current understanding of the past, my relentless passion for storytelling and language. What makes the “The Boy and The Dog” feel organic, if anything, and I hope it is true, is the fact that the situation and the characters connect with the reader at a deeper level. It speaks about the common values and desires we share as human beings.
I believe we all like to live in peace, and be happy; we are all equally scared of death and uncertainty. So when we realize that people in some parts of the world due to unwanted circumstances, have not necessarily found solace in chaos, but have at least gotten used to the ugly realities of war, it makes us uncomfortable in our core. And it is that common, authentic pain which fully transports us into the fictional world of the characters, and helps us see things more clearly.
Jenna Salisbury: Do you have any authors or works of literature that inspire you and your own writings? How do these idols influence your own writing and are there any authors that are specifically influencing your senior thesis?
Jamaluddin Aram: I read a lot and I come across many amazing writers. The authors that I feel have had a more direct impact on my work are Tim O’Brien, Orhan Pamuk, Enrest Hemingway, Mario Vargas Llosa, Khaled Hosseini and Abraham Vereghese, just to name a few. Not to forget Chekhov and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, of course. Depending on the kind of story I’m working on, I read Chekhov and Marquez every day. People who know me, know my obsession with these two authors, particularly with Marquez. I always find Marquez’s passion for the craft and his boundless talent for storytelling beyond imagination. “The Children Who Turned Men Overnight” is influenced by Marquez’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera – as far as the structure of the story and the texture of the language go.
Jenna Salisbury: What do you hope you learn from developing your thesis? What do you hope your readers will get out of your thesis?
Jmaluddin Aram: I’m using this opportunity to learn how to write better, how to craft more engaging stories, but more importantly, I’m hoping to learn about myself, and to revisit the fond memories of a past which already seems so distant. Every morning, when I sit at my desk to write, I go back to the neighborhood I grew up in, the school I attended as a kid, the field we used to play soccer and all the intense juvenile love affairs that at times pushed me to the edge of madness. You know those one-sided affairs that only years later, when you have moved on, you find out that the girl didn’t even know you existed.
So in a way, by rehashing my memories, I’m recreating my childhood that was interrupted by the civil war, the Taliban regime and the daily struggle for survival. This time around I have full control over what to allow and what not to allow to be part of my fictional world. It’s almost like Tony Scott’s Déjà Vu. I’m back fixing things that shouldn’t have occurred, and elevating the nice things that did.
For the readers, I hope these stories provide the same escape as they do for me. And I hope this escape will not only give them the opportunity to take a break from their own lives, leave behind their worries and concerns, but also to see the world through the eyes of people that they have never met. And by the end of the story, I hope they return to their world feeling more excited and prepared to embrace life, and happiness. Just the way one feels when they see the first sight of home at the end of a long trip.