Canadian soldiers first arrived in Afghanistan weeks after the attacks of September 11, 2001. They stayed until 2014. (A special forces unit returned in 2021 to help shut down the Canadian embassy in Kabul following the Taliban’s retaking of the country.) The mission, our largest deployment since the Second World War, involved over 40,000 troops, cost an estimated $18 billion, and resulted in the deaths of 158 soldiers. The horror and chaos of the operation was clear from the very first Canadian combat deaths: in 2002, an American F-16 pilot, thinking he was under attack from Taliban combatants, dropped a laser-guided bomb on Canadian soldiers conducting a live-fire exercise. The list of those killed and wounded includes soldiers from Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia—a grim display of cross-country representation.
War always stains nations; the longer and messier the war, the deeper the stain. In 2019, the Canadian Press reported that over 6,700 Canadian soldiers were receiving federal benefits for mental health issues related to their service. And yet Afghanistan seems to be quickly disappearing from our collective memories. Officially, our federal government is washing its hands of the place. Twenty-five Afghans who worked directly with Canadian officials in Kabul are currently suing the government for “unreasonable” delays in processing their permanent residence applications—delays that have left them behind to be targeted by the Taliban. The government’s response so far has been to say, essentially, not our problem anymore. (From the official statement: “Canada acknowledges that the Applicants face serious risks in Afghanistan. Those risks however are inflicted by foreign entities in Afghanistan, with no connection to the Government of Canada.”)
The entire modern history of Afghanistan, and especially that of the roles played by Western countries there, is a moral and political tragedy, with few clear heroes and villains and a long tail of broken lives on every side of the conflict. This should make it an ideal subject for exploration in serious fiction, which thrives on ambiguity and the lingering effects of historical trauma. But Canadian literature shows signs of the same Afghanistan amnesia afflicting the rest of our culture.
When Canadians were actively fighting there, nonfiction books about the region were a common sight, though that stream has since dried up. Our fiction writers, however, have mostly treated the conflict as a non-event. One exception is Trevor Cole’s The Fearsome Particles (2006), which tells the story of a father dealing with a twenty-year-old son traumatized after a brief time working in Afghanistan. Another is Michael Winter’s Minister without Portfolio (2013), in which a Newfoundland contractor is nearly killed by an IED explosion while working at a Canadian military base. Since Canada’s troop withdrawal in 2014, stories that engage with Afghanistan in any way have become few and far between. News from the Red Desert (2016) by Kevin Patterson starts in the early years of the NATO deployment. This Shall Be a House of Peace (2019) by ex-soldier Phil Halton provides an imaginative and surprisingly empathetic account of the origins of the Taliban.
More than a dozen Canadian-authored novels involving the First and Second World Wars were published just in the past few years. By comparison, the complete collection of Canadian fiction about Afghanistan—its cycles of war, its political hardships—could fit in a tote bag.
In June, Nothing Good Happens in Wazirabad on Wednesday, the debut novel by Toronto author Jamaluddin Aram, joined this very select club. Aram’s novel is especially notable in that it is written by someone who is from Afghanistan. Aram was born in Kabul sometime around 1990. (Some of his father’s documents were misplaced as his family moved around to avoid the civil war, so the exact date is lost.) He and his family left in 2013, with Aram heading to Union College in Schenectady, New York, to do an undergraduate degree. “My hope was to return to Afghanistan to teach and write,” he tells me. “The universe, however, does not care what we hope.”
Like the weekday in its title, Aram’s novel takes place very much in the middle of things: it’s set in the unstable moment following the failed Soviet attempt at occupation, which began in 1979, and before the Taliban takeover in 1996. For many Westerners, the post-Soviet, pre-Taliban period is probably a lost war within a lost war. Aram’s aim is not to fill this gap in our understanding—works of literary imagination are not data sets. By the end of the novel, however, we feel as though we’ve been living among these characters, all residents of a crumbling neighbourhood in Kabul, feeling the same frustration as the power goes out yet again, the same fear that death could come for us at any time. But, says Aram, “there’s also hope, and that’s why the characters continue living the way they do.”
The narrative focus of Aram’s novel is not on those at the heart of the civil war but rather on those surviving on the very edge of it. Aside from one notable gun battle in the neighbourhood’s main street—an incident Aram says he took directly from a childhood memory that served as the genesis of the novel—the denizens of Wazirabad apprehend the fighting almost like a bad weather system that moves in and refuses to lift. Their more immediate concerns are about the brazen nighttime burglaries that have been happening in the neighbourhood, the instability and unpredictability of the local electrical grid, and the need to make enough money to survive. “What do I know about the war?” a shopkeeper character complains. “I can tell you about the prices of food and different grades of rice, about people who have purchased things and haven’t paid yet.” After listing, at length and in great detail, all the amounts he is owed and by whom, he concludes: “With the war getting worse, who will settle their debts if one of them dies?”
The novel has the feel of a fairy tale, where every event seems fated and inevitable, and the slippery logic of dreams jumps the banks of sleep to invade daily reality:
For years Wazirabad knew no theft. There were occasional incidents where a thief came on moonless nights and made away with a chicken or a colander or an old bicycle. But when the war began, the thieves paid no heed to the moon; they came often and swept the houses so clean that the owners who, having been robbed even of their surprise, sat on the bare floor as if they never had any earthly possessions to their names except for the clothes on their backs.
This is a deliberate narrative strategy by Aram, an attempt to go “beyond the obvious.” There is no honest way to tell stories about a setting as intense as war-torn Kabul, he says, “without showing what a place feels and smells like in the slowest hour of a day.” Aram says that he did “minimal” research for the novel. “I looked up the value of the Afghan currency and the price of goods at that particular time.” For the rest, he relied upon memory. “When my memory hesitated, I talked to my parents, and friends, who grew up and lived in Kabul.”
Why are novels like Nothing Good Happens in Wazirabad on Wednesday so rare in Canada? We are far from squeamish in our literary tastes: the winner of this year’s Canada Reads competition, Ducks by Kate Beaton, is a graphic memoir about the trauma of working in the Alberta oil sands. The most recent winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, The Sleeping Car Porter by Suzette Mayr, is a novel about a queer Black train porter facing bigotry in 1920s Canada. And one of the bestselling novels of 2021, Five Little Indians by Michelle Good, is about a group of residential school survivors struggling with menial jobs, drug addiction, and prison. Not exactly beach reads.
One explanation for the relative absence of Afghanistan from our fiction canon might be that such books are often written by people who work, if not live, in one of our three or four big cities—that is, a long way from a military base. Canada’s armed forces have simply not been part of our urban experience. Among the soldiers killed and wounded in that 2002 friendly fire incident, for example, only two came from cities with a population bigger than 1 million. The rest are from places like Mill Cove, Nova Scotia, and Cupar, Saskatchewan.
In my experience, publishers—typically middle class, many with arts degrees—also tend to be unfamiliar with military life. There are outliers, but they are rare. (My own publisher, Kwame Fraser of Dundurn Press, served for eight years in the Canadian Forces, a period that included a peacekeeping tour in Sudan.)
Children’s author Deborah Ellis believes that part of the continuing reluctance of Canadian fiction writers to write about Afghanistan may be due to a “sense of hopelessness.” After all the years, money, and lives spent there, the Taliban simply took over yet again. Ellis is responsible for what is easily the most famous among the small clutch of Canadian works of fiction that engage with Afghanistan: her 2001 young adult novel The Breadwinner is the story of Parvana, an eleven-year-old girl who, after her father is arrested by Taliban soldiers, disguises herself as a boy in order to make money for her family. (Under Taliban rules, girls and women adhere to a strict dress code and cannot travel without a male chaperone.)
Ellis, who donated all the royalties for The Breadwinner toward providing educational training and materials for women in Afghanistan, suggests that we’re looking in the wrong place for stories about the conflict. She wonders if we should be doing more to encourage Afghans to write them, in part by building a creative infrastructure of workshops and writing programs for the many refugees already in this country.
Kevin Patterson, whose 2016 novel News From the Red Desert is informed by his own experiences working as a doctor in Afghanistan, agrees with the idea of hopelessness: “I don’t think it’s possible to sustain any idea that anything done there was remotely worth the cost.” People in the West, he says, were “catastrophically misinformed about what they could do as a force of occupation.” Citing the example of All Quiet on the Western Front, however, Patterson notes that major works of literature can arise from precisely such a sense of failure and disillusionment. It may simply be that we need some time to absorb it.
How much time, though? The main Canadian combat mission in Afghanistan ended nearly a decade ago; it’s clear this period of absorption has become a period of forgetting. Our literary writers seem to agree with our government: not our problem anymore. I am just as guilty of this: my first two novels each contain a single brief, throwaway reference to Afghanistan. My third contains none. And I am someone who grew up next to a military base and who has friends and family in the Canadian Armed Forces. But I can also remember my own mild, squishily liberal expressions of skepticism about the Afghanistan mission being met with what became a favourite rejoinder: “If you don’t stand behind our troops, feel free to stand in front of them.” How can a casually deranged statement like that not cry out for deeper fictional exploration?
To be clear: Canadian novelists do not have a moral duty to write about the US-led war in Afghanistan and its after-effects. (As Zadie Smith once wrote in an essay about post-9/11 literature: “Were there calls, in 1915, for the Lusitania novel?”) When it comes to the creation of literature, words like “duty” and “morality” should be treated like cops in a playground: not always unwelcome but rarely invited to linger. But it’s hard not to wonder why, at a moment when Canadian literature seems fixated on historical suffering and moral outrage, this conflict merits little more than a shrug. To put it more practically: why are novelists barely touching such potentially rich material? When stories of beleaguered oil sands workers and train porters are being celebrated, why are more of our writers not tempted to create their own award-winning bummer of an Afghanistan novel?
The reason may be that we’re much more comfortable when we can pin all that suffering and outrage on one of the usual suspects: unfettered capitalism, say, or institutional bigotry. Both of those forces play a role in the story of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan, but they are mixed in a bigger morass: complex local histories, clumsy geopolitics, cynical realpolitik, and, making it all the more complicated, genuine good intentions. Which suggests the war is less in need of its Margaret Atwood than its Graham Greene.
Nothing Good Happens in Wazirabad on Wednesday is too self-consciously poetic in its prose and languid in its pacing to work as The Quiet American–style literary thriller, but Aram shares Greene’s fascination with showing how people, good and bad, get consumed by the larger conflict going on around them, how they struggle to retain their individuality and humanity in the midst of war. As in a story book, the names of the characters in Aram’s novel often disappear into their occupations: Watchmaker, Bonesetter, Baker.
For his part, Aram disputes the idea that hopelessness is the primary reason why more Canadian novelists are not engaged imaginatively with his country of birth. “In the worst case,” he says, “it has to do with incuriosity and, in the best case, with fear—the fear of not knowing enough, the fear of being wrong. Is their fear valid? Yes, and so is the fact that inquiry is at the heart of the novel, or any piece of writing, for that matter.”
Aram is likely right that fear plays a large part in keeping most Canadian writers from writing about the conflict in Afghanistan. But a deeper cause may be found in Ellis’s suggestion that we support and fund Afghan refugees to tell their own stories. It’s a worthy and noble idea, and one that ought to be made real, but it does have the whiff of a very Canadian impulse: faced with a monumental and complicated issue, we’ll wait for someone else to explain it to us, preferably with the help of government funding. To help understand the real impact of a war we spent over a decade fighting, and that was likely doomed from the start, we need more novels set in Kabul. But we also need ones set in Cupar, Saskatchewan.