Growing up in West Sacramento, author Jamil Jan Kochai remembers biking in the summers to play basketball in Summerfield Park. “One of the things I’ve always loved about Sacramento and West Sacramento is what a diverse place it is,” he says. “It would be us Afghan kids and then we would play against the Hmong kids, and the Cambodian kids. Of course, there’s a large Hispanic community in West Sacramento, so the Hispanic kids would be there as well.”
The Islamophobia that swept the United States after 9/11 altered this feeling of belonging for Kochai and his family. His parents faced verbal abuse, he was bullied at school, and government agents visited his house to question his father about his time as a rebel fighter after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Some of these experiences are explored in Kochai’s award-winning fiction, including his recently released book, “The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories” (Viking).
He was born in an Afghan refugee camp in 1992. In late ’93, his family moved to the Bay Area. When he was 6, his family relocated to West Sacramento and eventually settled in the Bridgeway neighborhood, where he returned after grad school and now lives with his wife.
Kochai credits an English teacher at River City High School with sparking his inspiration to write. She assigned lengthy readings and weekly essays, and he got an A—he laughingly notes it may have been the only A of his high school career. The next year, he planned to embrace senioritis, but she “ordered” him to take her creative writing class, and he “fell in love with it almost immediately.” At Sacramento State, he continued to seek out creative writing classes and was mentored by professor Doug Rice, then head of the creative writing program. As he entered a master’s program at UC Davis, he told himself if he was unable to publish his first book by the time he graduated, he would default to a “reliable career.” He started the piece that would become his debut novel, “99 Nights in Logar,” in his first writing workshop at Davis, finished it as his thesis, and sold it during the summer of his last year in grad school. In 2019, it was shortlisted for a PEN/Hemingway award.
He gained another mentor as his thesis adviser at UCD: then-professor Yiyun Li, an acclaimed novelist and MacArthur Fellow. “When Jamil applied to the writing program at Davis,” says Li, “his application was partial, but the moment I read his writing sample, I knew that he was one of the best students we ever encountered at an early stage of his career. I worked closely with him on his first novel, and once I took a picture of a page to send to my friend, (literary editor) Brigid Hughes, who right away published the excerpt in A Public Space, including that page—which was Jamil’s first publication. I have been following Jamil’s career with thrill.”