The Significance of Ordinary Lives: An Interview with Daphne Kalotay

by Mandeliene Smith

Mandeliene Smith interviews Daphne Kalotay about her new novel Blue Hours, published in July 2019 by TriQuarterly Books (an imprint of Northwestern University Press).

Mandeliene Smith: Your novel Blue Hours begins with the insular existence of a bunch of recent college grads in New York City and then, surprisingly, expands to address the US’s foreign entanglements and the question of what we owe those less fortunate than us. How did the idea for this novel come to you? And how, in your mind, does the first part of the novel, which is a sort of coming-of-age story, connect with the rest of the book, which deals with the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan?

Daphne Kalotay: In terms of how the idea came to me, I was thinking about the unaffordability of New York City now versus the early 1990s, when I briefly lived there with my sister. That was right after the first Gulf War, and I remember meeting a guy who was ROTC and being aware that it was my class status that had protected me from having to engage with that war. As I shaped these recollections of a time and place into a story, I realized that my generation’s coming of age was bookended by two foreign policy decisions whose effects have continued to reverberate: the first Gulf War and our continuing war in Afghanistan.

At the most primal level, Blue Hours is about love that is powerful enough to pull the characters out of their insular existence—out of their bubbles—across class lines and international borders. The multiple loves in the book are established in part one, and the legacy of those loves propels the rest of the book forward. As for how the two parts connect, the characters trust in love enough that it tugs them out of the bubbles they live in. They follow where love leads them, and because our country is embroiled in Afghanistan, they end up there, too. So it’s a love story that’s part of the American story.

MS: What made you want to write about two women who fall in love with each other? Why was that important to the story you wanted to tell?

DK: It was important because, on a thematic level, the book is about self-determination and independence, of girls and women and nations. While it’s an old-fashioned love story, it’s also a story about how love can—in fact maybe has to—pull us across lines we never imagined crossing. For Mim, that line is, first, sexuality. Then, in part two, that line becomes an international border when she follows love into Afghanistan.

MS: The landscapes of Afghanistan are very precisely evoked, and yet you have never traveled there. How did you research that part of the novel?

DK: I read everything I could get my hands on—history, memoirs, cultural and political analysis. Also, as soon as I knew I’d be writing about Afghanistan, I reached out to everyone I knew who might know someone there or who might have lived or worked there. I met people from Afghanistan whom I could interview or ask specific questions. When I had a complete draft, I was able to find a woman who had moved here from a neighborhood near Jalalabad, and she read what I’d written. She was enormously helpful, not only as a fact-checker but because, after she read, she told me she was tired of seeing so many sad stories about Afghans and so many depictions of submissive Afghan women; she wanted to see some strong women, some happy couples. So I made sure to include those in my next draft, and it made me happy to see her reaction when she read it.

MS: Mim’s efforts to find Kyra in Afghanistan are beset with misunderstandings, confusion, and the obstacles of the rugged landscape, much as the US war itself was. How did you map out her journey? And how did you come to decide that it wouldn’t be successful?

DK: One of the things that impressed me about Afghanistan as I read and looked at photographs was its amazing landscape. On the one hand, I wanted to show American readers the beauty and range of the land in the eastern part of that country, as opposed to the typical images we see in the newspaper. I also realized it would be powerful to use the changing landscape to show how a person or a country can get further and further away from their original plan. I wanted Mim’s journey to mimic that of the US. She thinks she’s just popping over to Jalalabad to help take care of things. But with each step she finds herself farther away from the city, until she realizes she’s reached the point of no return. As for the ending, the more I read about our foreign policy and the situation there, the more impossible it seemed to have a happy, or successful, ending, much as I wanted to.

MS: James Baldwin once said, “Every writer has only one story to tell.” If you look back over the collection of books you’ve published, from Calamity to Russian Winter, Sight Reading, and now Blue Hours, what concerns or themes do you feel they have in common?

DK: What it takes to forge an artistic identity, finding one’s voice or one’s true self (particularly in Sight Reading and Blue Hours). The intersection between personality and political circumstance, and the global reverberations of individual actions, which often persist across generations (Russian Winter and Blue Hours). Regret over a mistake based on a misunderstanding, with consequences that sometimes aren’t understood until decades later (Russian Winter and Blue Hours). The significance in ordinary lives (all my books).

MS: Which of your characters have you loved the best and why?

DK: Hazel in Sight Reading, because she has the best character arc, from a seemingly confident yet inwardly insecure beauty who goes through an awful middle age of physical and personal struggle and ultimately is the better for it. I sort of put her through the wringer, but she handled it with such aplomb, and by the end is truly content.

Published on September 12, 2019