Q & A with Jawad Arash and Trent Reedy

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Afghanistan war veteran and author Trent Reedy (l.) is best known for his novel Words into Dust, about an Afghan teen girl. His new novel, Enduring Freedom, co-written with Afghan English teacher Jawad Arash (who uses a pseudonym), is based on the aftermath of 9/11 and Reedy’s deployment in Afghanistan; it’s also inspired by the unlikely friendship the two struck up when the Army stationed Reedy in Arash’s town when Arash was a teen. PW spoke with the authors about how they met, what prompted them to write together, and how they crafted the narrative’s dual perspectives.

What inspired you both to write this book based on your actual friendship in time for the anniversary of 9/11 and Operation Freedom?

Reedy: I’ve been back for 16 years and I thought I was done writing about the war, but Afghanistan keeps luring me back [as a subject]. It amazes me how much time has passed and how quickly. It’s been 20 years and I am still struck by how strongly 9/11 and the Afghan people stick with me. It’s a huge part of my life, so writing this book was very personal—particularly to write it with Jawad and to bring our friendship to life against the backdrop of that time.

Arash: For me it was also very personal. And it felt like the right thing to do, to bring this cooperation to life and tell a story based on our story. To be honest, for us [in Afghanistan], 9/11 was a great tragedy that we watched at home later on VHS tapes that we smuggled in and had to keep secret from the Taliban. We had no idea what would be next for us as a country. And for all of us who were kids at the time, my generation, though this was something horrifying and it brought a terrible war, later on it also brought us opportunities for a better future.

How did you originally meet?

Arash: In my town, me and the other boys, we were all desperate to practice our English. We heard that there was an American soldier who would talk to people. And I tried to meet him and started to talk to him. Our friendship started from there.

Reedy: The real story mirrors what we wrote in the book. When our unit first arrived, we rented a compound right next to Jawad’s home. On one intensely hot day, I was stationed on a tower up high on a concrete platform above a dusty street and an Afghan teen started to talk to me. I am ashamed now to remember what I thought then. The Army trained us to think we were in a constant fight and to treat all the Afghan people as potential enemies. So, when Jawad came up to me and spoke, I feared this kid might be a suicide bomber or want to hurt me in some way. We [the Americans] had so many mistaken ideas. I was on edge all the time in the beginning. But when I finally talked to Jawad it turned out that all he wanted was to meet me, to practice his English, and it was a hot day so he wanted to get into the shade. I can laugh now, because I was overreacting. I would like to take a moment to thank the Afghan people for bearing with us [the Army] as we bumbled along in those early tours.

Arash: I would just like to add that for kids like me in Afghanistan who knew a bit of English and wanted to learn more, we were so enthusiastic to talk to this particular guy, Trent. We all knew about him and funnily enough, this incident that really happened gave us more connection eventually. It benefited the friendship rather than harming it. Other units who came later also helped us. After Trent, a group of soldiers from Texas arrived, and they helped us learn English, too. And later when we finally learned about the internet, I found Trent’s email and we reconnected. I hope he never shares that first email I sent, which shows the level of English I had then.

Reedy: And when we started writing [the book] we relied on old journals, photos, and emails to help us develop the voice of each of these characters.

How did the book come to be?

Arash: It was all Trent’s idea. I will always be thankful that he took a chance on me, a first-time writer. He gave me so much support. Our timing was tricky, as my days were his evenings. Trent sacrificed a lot of opportunities to work on this with me. We started with a small question for each other, “How was 9/11 for you?” And the entire story began with that simple question. And for me, parts of the book come straight from my experience. I did live right next to a Talib’s house. Trent asked me to explain what that was like, and I told him about how we had to hide our TV and disguise the sound so that none of [the sound] would leak into the other house. We talked about it and went into more detail and realized right there is a story. But it was a lot of hard work.

Reedy: I think what becomes clear as you listen to Jawad is that it all comes from him. And when we talked about that smuggled VHS tape of 9/11, rolled up in a rug, and how they were so terrified of the Talib next door, it just all fell together. We worked on that particular scene a lot. When Americans see that footage, they react with fear, sorrow, and anger. At least for me after 9/11, I also had a desire for vengeance. But for the Afghan people, their fear was a little different. Just like in our book, when the grandfather is sad and terrified: he knows that the U.S. might blame them, and his family and people are already so tired of war after the ravages of the Soviet invasion. We really tried to zero in on the Afghan perspective. And if you think about it, they were more victims in this scenario. They didn’t do it [the attacks on 9/11].

One of the most engrossing elements of this book is how the dual third-person narrative perspectives unfold. How did you come up with this structure?

Reedy: As I started to write, there was so much I had forgotten. To trigger my memory, as I said, I relied on scenes from photos and my old journals. And Jarad did the same. As we discussed scenes and how we each felt at the time, we decided to frame the novel around our own unlikely friendship and how it evolved.

But the writing itself was technically very difficult. The structure is surprisingly complex. It’s not as simple as I hope it reads, nor was crafting it as smooth. We developed two concurrent and very different timelines from when 9/11 happened until the end of the book. We worked hard on the pacing and timing. As we alternated back and forth between the two characters’ perspective, our editor at Algonquin, Krestyna Lypen, urged us not to hold too tightly to the back and forth. If we needed to focus more on the Afghan perspective she recommended we stay on that focus, and vice versa, rather than sticking too tightly to equal time and words. That freed us up a lot to make the story, at least I hope, both more compelling and more true.

And we were also 12 1/2 hours apart. We joked that we were always saying goodnight to the other. So, when Jawad was asleep I was writing, and when I sent him my drafts to review he was just waking up.

Arash: One of the things that helped as we were writing is that I am always connected to my phone. And my wife and I had a new baby at the time, so sometimes Trent would ask me a translation question or want to clarify a point about Afghan culture, and because I was awake with the baby I could often answer him right away.

Reedy: I love that kid.

Arash: Trent made a chapter list that was really helpful. We also had an incident list with all the events we wanted to include, so that as we were writing and reviewing we could make sure they were there and where we wanted them to occur. Those tools really helped me as a first-time writer.

Jawad, how did you craft your character Baheer? Can you share more about how you developed his perspective and chose to portray Afghan life?

Arash: To be honest, there is just so much of myself in Baheer. There is a scene in the very beginning with the students, all boys, lined up for inspection before school. The Taliban inspected the length of our hair, and whether or not we shaved properly, among other things. This is something I have seen every day. And I saw the kids who were older, teens over 13 or so who needed to shave, hide from the inspectors because they shaved incorrectly, or wanted to have a more fashionable hairstyle. That fear was all around us, all the time.

Reedy: There are key turns of phrase in the book that are all Jawad. He wrote “his eye jumped out of his knuckles,” and that was so vivid. When I asked him about it he said, “Don’t you have this same saying in America?” For this and so many other reasons it wasn’t as important that we have a sensitivity reader familiar with Afghan customs (of course we still had one), because we had Jawad himself.

Trent, your character—white high school senior Joe Killian—initially resents his unit’s peace mission to Baheer’s town. Does this reflect your own feelings during your experience?

Reedy: Though I’m not a big fan of disclaimer apologies, I feel a bit of that coming on in this instance. I am ashamed of how I felt then about the Afghan people. I am a veteran who writes war books for young adults, and I feel morally and personally compelled to be as honest as I can. So, yes, initially I wanted vengeance like my character does. And I wished I were assigned active duty rather than a peace mission in Afghanistan. Though the U.S. is currently preparing to bring back our troops [from Afghanistan], I wouldn’t bet that we’ll never be at war anywhere ever again, so I want to share my honest perspective with young people even though I’m now deeply ashamed of my attitudes then. I address this in the author’s notes, about how I was still so angry about 9/11 and yet we were still clearing the wreckage from the war in 2004.

When I went to Afghanistan I had never even been to Canada. I was taken from my wife, my friends. And I was fed some lies by the military. Enduring Freedom tries to refute those lies. Afghanistan is a beautiful country. It was a prized vacation destination until the Soviet bombings set them back.

And I wanted my character Joe’s experience to indict the Army training we received. It took me halfway through my tour to realize a lot of it was just a waste of time and dead wrong. Most of us in the Army went into the war expecting a firefight every day and blaming the Afghans and maybe all Muslims for 9/11. I had a profound and total conversion, just as Joe does in the book. I have never in my life changed my mind so completely. I watched one day as a group of Afghan kids played with a little shoebox, dragging it up and down the street. It was their only toy. Now I grew up poor, but even I had better than a shoebox. You just can’t keep the anger up that long when faced with the reality of these kind people. Time and time again the Afghans rescued us, often risking their own lives to do so. And all of them were Muslim. I remember one instance when an old man came running out in front of us waving his arms. He could have been shot by the Taliban or us or both. We thought it was an ambush but all he wanted was to warn us about a mine. He saved our lives. Joe Killian, as I did, naively thinks he wants to fight, until he realizes that reconstruction is the real mission. And that it is a real honor. I’ve done some work at the VA on the emotions of this, and that helped in writing Joe’s perspective.

What do you most hope readers will take away from your novel?

Reedy: There are so many American readers who lost someone in this war: a parent, a relative, a friend who didn’t come back. I want readers to know their sacrifices were not in vain. There was high cost, a monumental cost, to their service, but we did good there in that peace mission. And I am frankly amazed at how much changed in such a short amount of time. Jawad asked me to come speak to his class online and I was so shocked to see how many girls now study at school rather than at home. That happened so quickly. When I was there I couldn’t even compliment an Afghan friend’s sister’s cooking without raising alarm. Back then a comment on a girl by a man outside the family was a major blunder with potentially terrifying consequences. And now Jawad’s class is full of girls studying alongside boys.

Arash: This is a huge step we have all taken together. I hope readers can see that. And this, I hope, will lead to a better life for the Afghan people.

Enduring Freedom by Jawad Arash and Trent Reedy. Algonquin, $18.95 May ISBN 978-1-64375-040-8

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