Masha Hamilton

The Rumpus Interview with Masha Hamilton

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Masha Hamilton, a journalist and novelist and, until recently, the Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, excels at charting conflict, from the dizzying landscape of combat to the more familiar but no less uncertain terrain of intimate relationships. In war zones, in bookstores and brownstones, and on the streets of Brooklyn, her characters’ misunderstandings flare up naturally and unexpectedly. These are the very ways human beings really do create distance from one another.

Her latest novel, What Changes Everything, straddles Afghanistan, Brooklyn, and Cleveland, weaving together the predicaments of a large cast of characters including the director of a humanitarian organization, a graffiti artist, a bookseller, kidnappers, warlords, and Mohammed Najibullah, the former president of Afghanistan. It’s also a stealth weeper, which I unfortunately discovered while reading the final pages after work one night on the F train.

In one of the most moving plotlines, a graffiti artist, Danil, and his mother, Stela, have become estranged following the death of his brother, a decorated soldier. Danil believes—and was in fact told by his brother’s superior—that his brother was killed by friendly fire, whereas their mother believes the official story: that the brother was killed in some sort of official military exercise. Neither can accept the other’s perspective, so their relationship is incredibly fraught, possibly irreparable. Each of them grieves in a way that furthers their separation and their dysfunction.

Hamilton is the author of four other novels—Staircase of a Thousand Steps, The Distance Between Us, The Camel Bookmobile, and 31 Hours—and the founder of both the Camel Book Drive and the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. As a journalist, she spent five years in the Middle East working as a foreign correspondent and news editor for The Associated Press, witnessing the first Intifada and the partial withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon. She has also reported from Moscow, Kenya, and Afghanistan, and has covered a wide range of stories, from Kremlin politics, to street kids in Nairobi, to child brides and war widows.

This past summer, Hamilton, in town briefly from Kabul, answered my questions about craft, the influences behind What Changes Everything, and her experiences writing about family, culture, and politics more generally. The conversation below is edited from a public interview we had at Community Bookstore in Park Slope, Brooklyn in June.

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The Rumpus:  As you can already tell, my favorite characters are Danil and Stela. In lesser hands, they would be caricatures, but they’re both fully-formed and true. Danil is a talented graffiti artist who also paints houses. His mother, out in Cleveland, has a bookstore called Bulgakov’s Book Shelf, where she drinks her tea and writes letters to various famous people, trying to get them to intervene, to find out how her other son died. She also sends a constant stream of missives to Danil, who doesn’t open them. I know you were planning to read a bit about him for us, and I’m excited to hear that.

Masha Hamilton: I’ll read a very small section. Really, just one paragraph that takes place here in Brooklyn:

High clouds, a distant rumble. A shout-out from a storm on the approach tonight, a summer storm pushing its way into the crowded Brooklyn streets from beyond some border, like an audacious illegal immigrant or a country girl thumbing her noise at the pretensions of civilization. Danil had maybe half an hour before it broke, and he planned to use the minutes well. His right arm blurred as he shook the can so energetically it made his whole body bounce. If some half sleeper a few stories above the street in the Albany House II projects were to pause on the way to the toilet, bladder full, eyes bleary, and glance out his apartment window to the empty lot below, Danil would seem an unlikely dancer responding to absent music, a drunk or whack job ripe for the Kingsboro Psychiatric Center. The can’s rattling seemed magnified in the night air, resounding off the concrete around him. The corner of Bergen and Albany remained sunk in postmidnight somnolence, the darkness gobbling up noise and movement and regurgitating them as indistinct fragments of dreams. In this space of relative obscurity, he began.

Rumpus: Do you tend to think in terms of universals when you’re writing about conflict? Meaning, that in a conflict there are often people who behave this way and that way, and who have these issues or that, whatever the specific conflict that’s unfolding. Or do you tend to think more in terms of specific characters? Specific people?

Hamilton: I’m really character-led. So I think that each of these conflicts is different. I think Afghanistan is very different. The conflicts also bear some similarities, and you see the similarities and the differences the more you see of the conflicts. You become more discerning about what exactly it is that makes Afghanistan, for example, different from what’s happening in the Middle East.

What Changes EverythingRumpus: And what do you think makes it different?

Hamilton: Well, in Afghanistan, for us right now, there’s the international community involvement and that puts a different kind of pressure on that environment. In the Middle East, there’s not the same level of poverty. There’s more education, and a lot of the conflict is based more on the intellectual ideas, if you will. You know, more on, Mohammed was here, or Jesus was here, or Christ was here, and how does that all work? How does my background fit into this? And in Afghanistan, it’s more of a conflict that is less literate; it’s based on ideas of clan and loyalties. And it’s more easily influenced, if you will.

Rumpus: And how did this novel start? What was the first germ of it?

Hamilton: I felt that the war in Afghanistan was going on for a long time—if you’re twenty, it’s been going on for half your life—and that still there was a big remove from people who were aware of that and felt it, and the rest of us. I mean, even as someone being aware of it, I would forget it. And yet people were dying every day; Americans were dying every day.

So I was interested in the people here who would feel it profoundly, and this led to the sort of creation of this street artist—somebody who feels it profoundly and has nothing to do, doesn’t know where to put that energy.

Rumpus: That comes across so powerfully. Was he the first character, sort of your way in?

Hamilton: No, I think that was Todd. In some ways, Todd’s sort of like the Najibullah character. He’s sort of at the edges of the story where everything else happens. But in some way, I was exploring what is it that drives someone—drives me, even—to want to leave the comfort of all of this, being here [in the U.S.], and push myself out into these situations. What was driving Todd to push himself in this way? And reaching this conflict with his relatively new wife, Clarissa, who was saying, This is ridiculous; this is enough. We should be building a life together right now, as newlyweds, instead of you thrusting yourself off into Afghanistan.

And Todd’s desire—what really kicks off a lot of the action—his desire, in this atmosphere of restricted security, to go and get an ice cream. He should be allowed to go get an ice cream, and he’s fought for the right, with the security people, to be allowed to go get the ice cream. And while getting the ice cream, what happens kicks off a lot of the action and movement of the story.

Rumpus: In case it’s not clear, for those who haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, Todd is the director of a humanitarian organization in Afghanistan. Correct me if I’m wrong, Masha, but did you read some of Najibullah’s actual correspondence with his daughters?

Hamilton: So, Najibullah was the president of Afghanistan. And a larger-than-life character—a  pretty amazing character installed by the Communists—who was apparently very cruel when he was head of their secret service, what now they call the NDS. He was responsible for torturing people in that role, and then went on to become president and was really a relatively liberal president, who believed in supporting education for women, and didn’t want people to break down into tribal issues, and, you know, was sort of a generous personality at the same time. He resigned under an agreement with the UN to turn over power as the country was kind of breaking apart. And they were going to slip him out of the country, and they couldn’t, so he ended up being sort of a grand guest at the UN compound for practically three years.

Rumpus: And in the book, he’s writing letters to his daughters and his wife—well, to his wife through his daughters—the whole time telling them how much he wants to be with them, explaining the circumstances of his very posh captivity. And he does come across as a much larger-than-life character, and as a basically good person, although you do get the sense that, in the letters to his daughters, he’s massaging a few of the terrible things he’s done, as I suppose one would.

Hamilton: Yes.

Rumpus: Did you, from the beginning, know that he was going to be a character in the novel?

Hamilton: Yeah, I saw him as a counterpoint to Todd in some way—both of them moving through Afghanistan, connected across time by war and conflict and by another character, named Amin. So I needed both of them. I researched Najibullah, but I also did reach out on the Internet, and finally, I made contact with somebody who knew the family, who sent me a poem that [Najibullah’s] wife had written after his death, which was really amazing and eye-opening.

After we talked about that, he helped put me in touch with somebody who put me in touch with one of the daughters, and she wrote me several long e-mails, in which she answered my questions. Did he call you this? I mean, all kinds of dumb, little questions. And she also mused about her experiences, being a young girl in Delhi while he was stuck in Kabul at that time. That was really helpful. I didn’t use anything specific from those letters—I mean word-for-word—but I used the knowledge and information that she gave me to help inform them.

Rumpus: Let’s back up for a second and talk about your wide-ranging and wholly amazing career. You were a journalist in Moscow. You, I believe, reported on the first Intifada. You were a journalist in Afghanistan and now you’re the Director of Communications for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. If I understand correctly, you also founded the Camel Book Drive? Books are distributed by camel. And you started the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. So your experience as a writer, as a person in the world, is just incredibly vast.

Hamilton: I can’t make up my mind what to do.

Rumpus: I think it’s wonderful. Many of my favorite writers are people like that, probably because I’m like that (except without your staggering accomplishments and resume). Can you talk about that background and how that feeds into your writing?

The Camel BookmobileHamilton: Well, I think in terms of the issue of conflict, as a journalist I actually wanted to go to Africa, initially, and I got sent to the Middle East instead. So my first job as a journalist was covering conflict in the Middle East, and at that point, Israel was occupying part of Lebanon and at war, and then we did have the beginning of the first Intifada over the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And seeing the conflict—the chronic conflict—that closely really intrigued me as a writer thinking about drama, because people in that situation are so compressed. What they’re going to be is right there, and sometimes they’re amazingly generous and wise and good-hearted, and sometimes they’re amazingly petty. But you see, somehow, some kind of pure essence of them. And thinking about writing fiction or novels, you think about that dramatic arc, and it’s so much right there.

That really made me interested in exploring conflict, and of the five novels that I’ve written, four of them have conflict either front-and-center, or floating around the edges of the book. I would say only The Camel Bookmobile, that novel, doesn’t directly.

Rumpus: Were you drawn to conflict before you ended up in the Middle East? Is this something that you’ve always been interested in?

Hamilton: No, I really think it was the experience in the Middle East that made me interested in this compressed moment and the way people responded in it. I remember all kinds of stories. I remember going into Lebanon right after an attack and seeing people there and how they were dealing with things. I remember being in the West Bank in the middle of tear gas going off and guns being fired. I remember all these stories and watching how people responded at these moments.

Rumpus: You were just saying earlier that you’re a character-driven writer. Do you tend to write emotionally through your characters?

Hamilton: Yes. I just try to get a sense of who they are, and then how they can be pushed to as much of a limit as possible so that we can see what they do.

Rumpus: The characters are often under stress, and—well, they’re pretty much always under stress. Not in a foolish way, though. And that’s one thing that I really admire about the book—that it actually doesn’t have the feeling that a lot of Western novels about war zones tend to have, this sort of over-the-top dramatic arc: things continually exploding. It’s very restrained without being unemotional; it depicts the tedium as well as the excitement. It’s a perfect balance of so many different elements. Do you think that you’ll continue to be drawn to writing about war zones?

Hamilton: No, I think I’m done.

Rumpus: Really?

Hamilton: I do.

Rumpus: Really?

Hamilton: Well, I think another part that interests me are the family dynamics, and all the novels have that kind of stuff going on in them, as well.

Even from the very beginning, I was interested in the ways that you love somebody and still betray them or hurt them without meaning to. You know, that kind of thing and how that works in families. And I’m also interested in the adrenaline rush that drives people to continue to go to conflict, even though it’s so stressful, and the way that makes your life…you understand it better and you see, Okay, this is really not important. This is really something that is ridiculous. And you can sort it out at that point, and your priorities are straightened out.

I’m interested in that adrenaline rush, and so I’m looking at a storm chaser kind of situation. I’m looking at other situations where you might find yourself drawn to extremities without necessarily being war, because…

Rumpus: You’re warred out?

Hamilton: Yes. For the moment, anyway.

Rumpus: A number of the characters are in the U.S.—Todd’s wife and daughter are here in Brooklyn. And after he’s kidnapped, they have a really strong disagreement about whether to let the FBI go in and attempt a rescue. Clarissa, his wife, says no, and his daughter says, why not? This is his only way out. And this is exactly the sort of tension that happens in families: both people desperately wanting the right outcome and desperately wanting to make the right decision, and just fundamentally feeling that the best possible outcome will come from two totally different ways of handling something.

I think anyone who’s experienced a death in the family—or a disagreement with a parent, or a child, or anything like that—can relate to that kind of a situation, where you love someone so much—or in their case, they’re more united by their love of this one person—but you just really disagree about how to handle it.

Staircase of a Thousand Steps

Hamilton: Well, I will say that I did do some research into what happens when somebody’s kidnapped, and it is in fact true that if you’re military, they go in and rescue you and they don’t need to ask permission of the family. But if you are a civilian, they do need to ask permission, and one of the reasons is that things happen. They can happen during rescue. And they’re not going to ask you for that permission right before they know they want to carry out the rescue. So they get permission in advance, just as they’re attempting to do in the novel.

And interestingly enough, being in Kabul now, I had the experience of seeing that on the other side, right before a rescue attempt. I remember at the time thinking, This is amazing. How novels often presage what really ends up happening in real life—this is one of those cases.

Rumpus: One really interesting thing about that situation, I thought, is that Clarissa seems primarily concerned, not so much about whether her husband Todd will be killed—although that is certainly a possibility—but about other possible casualties. She’s worried about the guy who is Todd’s trusted right-hand man, who is trying to negotiate with the warlords in an informal way.

Hamilton: I think it’s a real argument, too, because I was at Blue Mountain Center working on a part of this novel, and I had a chance to talk to a filmmaker who does some work in Afghanistan, and his wife, and I talked about this specific argument with them. I said, “So here’s the deal, this is what’s happening: she’s trying to figure out what her husband would want. What’s the best way to do it? And her daughter is saying, ‘Of course, rescue. What do you mean? Of course.’” And he said—the filmmaker to his wife—“Look, if I were ever kidnapped, do not have them send somebody in to rescue me.” And she said, “Really?”

And so it was really interesting that they had that discussion out of this, and it made me more sure that this felt authentic, for the two of them to be having this discussion—the stepdaughter and the wife of three years—about what to do about Todd.

Rumpus: It felt incredibly real and true. And as I said earlier, the conflict between Danil and his mother, Stela, is also heart-wrenching. Because they’re my favorites, I wanted to ask you a little bit more about those characters. How did they come to you?

Hamilton: Well, I read a lot about the Pat Tillman case, first of all, and I actually met the military lawyer who was on the edges of this at the time. Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan, and his family was initially told that he was killed in a firefight. And it turns out that’s not the case—he was killed by friendly fire. This is an example where they were first told one thing, and the family really pushed and shoved, and his brother was actually with him in Afghanistan at the time. So there were reasons that they found out—somebody else might not find out, someone unquestioning.

And so I was interested in this—in Stela, who is inspired by a used bookstore owner that we met in D.C. Stela’s different. She’s crusty and has got a strong personality. The belief is if her son was killed by friendly fire, then he’s not a hero. But he was a hero, so that’s not computing. And because this conviction is so strong, when her other son, who never felt right about it, says, Look, no, I’ve been told this is not right; he was killed by friendly fire, she says, You obviously have a problem, and pushes him out of her life, because she doesn’t know what else to do. And now she’s in a situation where she’s lost two sons.

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Rumpus: Let’s open this up to the audience. Does anyone else have any questions for Masha?

Audience Member: Do you think the reaction to your work would be different if you were a man?

Hamilton: That’s a loaded question. I think it’s easier to accept a man writing about a war than a woman.

Rumpus: As a journalist, how have you felt that being a woman has affected your ability to cover war zones? Has it been a benefit at times?

Hamilton: Yes, I think it’s been a benefit in a war zone because, by these folks who are fighting, you’re generally not seen as either a man or a woman. You know, you really are treated as some third gender. And so you’re kind of ignored, which is great because then you have the opportunity to pick all that up. You can be with the women, and you can sit with the women, and you can be with them when they’re at the various things that men can’t be part of: the pregnancy, the birth, the death rituals. You can also be with the men, and they’re not necessarily going to look directly at you, but you can occasionally get a question in. They’ll kind of slap off an answer, and you get to observe that, too.

Audience Member: I’m familiar with your work [surrounding] the Russian War in Chechnya. I thought of you when the Boston bombing occurred, and I wondered where you were and what your thoughts were when you heard the story.

31 HoursHamilton: I was in Afghanistan at the time, and…we had just had a kind of conflict. We’d had an explosion that had killed and injured some of my team, and [the Boston bombing] happened shortly thereafter. So in Afghanistan, everyone was saying it’s really hard to have these two things back-to-back. I did think of my previous novel, 31 Hours, which really tried to look at what would drive a confused, young man to attempt to carry out an act of terrorism, because I thought that the younger brother [Dzhokhar Tsarnaev] maybe fit into that category of confused and not really recognizing the full extent of what he’s doing.

And in 31 Hours, as the young man, who’s the central character, gets ready to go into the subway to blow himself up, he picks up these nails that he’s supposed to put into his pocket—that are supposed to increase the impact of the explosion. And then he thinks, No, and he leaves them behind. Which, for me, was really a sign that he has no idea what he’s going to do. Like, these nails are not going to make the difference, dude. My daughter Briana put it one way: that he was protesting an idea and didn’t really realize that these people would all die from it. He didn’t really focus on that fact, you know? So I thought of that at that time [of the Boston bombing].

Audience Member: I was curious about your experience working as a reporter. And now you’re working for the State Department, right? For the embassy. That seems like a very big fence to jump over. Can you talk a little about that?

Hamilton: Yes, only a bit. I can say that, as a journalist, I never expected I would have this opportunity to see what’s going on inside the embassy, and so that’s been really interesting. And also, as a journalist, I didn’t really go and ask the diplomats that many questions because they were so unforthcoming, that I didn’t think they knew anything. So I didn’t bother going to ask them, and I have told them this now, because they actually know quite a bit. I’ve said, “We can’t be so risk-averse that you aren’t able to, even on deep background, show all the stuff you know, and help inform and shape the narrative by sharing this.” And I think a diplomat told me that the basic philosophy is, you will never get promoted by talking to a journalist, and you could well lose your job, so why bother? It’s been a very fascinating window opening that I never thought, as a journalist, I would ever have.

Audience Member: Could you talk about how writing fiction allows you to process—or not process—conflicts, in general, and your experiences in Afghanistan?

Hamilton: It absolutely has. My second novel, The Distance Between Us, was about being a journalist and putting this barrier over your heart (as you have to, in order to be a journalist), and I actually think that it’s right to do that because the story is not about you—the story is about everybody else that it’s happening to. And if you allow yourself to fall apart by what you’re seeing, then it becomes all about you, and that’s really what it shouldn’t be. People don’t care about you freaking out; they really care about what’s happening here. And in order to be the pipe through which the story can travel, you have to do that. But I’ve found that working as a journalist in war zones cost me a little bit of what it meant to be human. Because I don’t think you can put nine-to-five hours on it. And it ends up bleeding into everything else.

The Distance Between Us

Writing that first novel made me recognize how, for a decade or a little more, I had closed off my feelings in order to be able to be a journalist. And so the second novel really allowed me to process how covering conflict can impact you. And I went back at that point, to the Middle East—it was the start of the second Intifada. I followed around my journalist friends and asked a bunch of them questions, and they [were] like, “What, are you interviewing us? Get out of here.” But I really wanted to try to be true to that experience that they were having, as journalists.

And I think that through this novel, a part of what I processed was really a sense of the ways in which we were connected by the conflict so far away—and the ways in which we ignored it and pushed it away, which was something that was really interesting to me.

Rumpus: The book does that very well. It shows the connection between the war and the people here, and the ways we push it away and the ways that some people can’t escape it. Do you find that fiction enables you to deal with things—to process things—in a way that writing about it as memoir would not?

Hamilton: Yes.

Rumpus: What is that thing that fiction enables you to do, that other forms don’t? Can you articulate it?

Hamilton: Being able to take on other characters, and try to really empathize with them and go as far with them as you can, allows you to see things from multiple sides, and it allows you to write more into the gray.

Rumpus: Right.

Hamilton: And a single-character story—a memoir with me or a single character or you—that’s a more limited perspective, even if you bring all of your stuff into it. I like the multi-character [form], and I like being able to ask the questions and be comfortable with ambiguous answers, and that’s what fiction allows for me.

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Featured image of Masha Hamilton © by S.E. McKee.


Maud Newton has written for the New York Times Magazine, Narrative Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, Granta, Bookforum, Tin House, The Awl, Los Angeles Times, Humanities, Medium, and many other publications. She received the 2009 Narrative Prize for Fiction and has interviewed, among other writers she reveres, Donna Tartt and Joan Didion. More from this author →