Fiction Spotlight: Daphne Kalotay

Memorious contributor Daphne Kalotay was one of the first fiction writers we solicited for a story: I met her in 2004 when I handed her a postcard for Memorious at the reading series Cover to Cover, run by Steve Almond in Boston. While she did not send us a story then, she passed the card on to Emily Newburger, whose story we published in our very first issue.

Kalotay’s story collection, Calamity and Other Stories, was short listed for the 2005 Story Prize, and her debut novel, the national and international bestseller Russian Winter, won the 2011 Writers’ League of Texas Fiction Prize, made the long list for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, was nominated for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and has been published in over twenty foreign editions. Daphne’s second novel, Sight Reading, was a Boston Globe bestseller, a finalist for the 2014 Paterson Fiction Prize and winner of the 2014 New England Society Book Award in Fiction. “Relativity,” from her collection-in-progress, was the 2017 One City One Story Boston selection. She has received fellowships from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, the Bogliasco Foundation, MacDowell, and Yaddo. Daphne lives in Somerville, Massachusetts and teaches at Princeton University’s Program in Creative Writing.

In 2016, that solicitation in 2004 paid off again, when we published Daphne’s story “Awake” in Memorious 26. She kindly agreed to talk to me about her riveting new novel Blue Hours (Northwestern UP), out this week.

Blue Hours is part coming-of-age story, part love story, part mystery, part adventure story, part portrait of a generation, part examination of a country and its policies and the way they impact that generation: Nina MacLaughlin of The Boston Globe says that in “Kalotay’s skilled hands the novel is both richly human and deeply political.” At the center of the novel is the relationship between two women, Mim and Kyra, who we first meet in New York City in the early 90’s. The story weaves between those early years in New York and Afghanistan, twenty years later.

At the heart of this novel is the interrogation of the intense connections of our youth. How far would we go to help someone we had once loved, twenty years ago, but with an unmatched intensity? Can you talk a little about this central relationship, between the protagonist, Mim, and the woman who is first lost to her, and then lost, Kyra?

I think that in part because of the social pressures we girls feel even at a very young age, growing up we often look to other girls for examples of possible ways to be—and sometimes, as in the case of Mim and Kyra, this curiosity or fascination develops into real friendship and love. It’s only in our youth that we have the time, energy and complete openness (I’m speaking in a very general way about the middle-to-upper class population) necessary to throw ourselves into relationships in that utterly holistic way, without wariness, which of course allows us to be utterly crushed. In the case of Mim and Kyra, the intensity of Mim’s curiosity is heightened by their class difference; Mim is aware that she is perhaps glimpsing the life or mindset of a rich girl, and yet Kyra is clearly different from most people. Despite a surface insouciance, she is deeply compassionate, perhaps to a fault. She has a mysteriousness to her that makes her seem all the more elusive and out of reach. For me, one of the keys as I wrote the book was for Mim to discover some of the answers to her questions about Kyra only in Part Two, twenty years later, through reconnecting with another friend from Kyra’s past.

 I think many of us are hungry for more novels that explore relationships between women- whether friends or lovers- in complex ways. If there was a Bechdel test for novels, what should it be? And what are some of your favorite novels that would pass the test?

What a fantastic question! A Bechdel test for novels might also require, like the original, that the female characters discuss something other than men. But I would add two other requirements, based on my pet peeves. The first has to do with the egregious bias in the publishing industry—which I myself have encountered—for female protagonists to be “likeable” (whereas male antiheroes get to be jerks or cold or obnoxious, and no one complains); so I would require that at least one female protagonist—not antagonist!—behave in a way that risks being called “unlikeable.” The second requirement would be for the book to acknowledge women’s quotidian relationships—whether social, professional, or personal, including parenthood—as worthy of literary merit by allowing for some glimpse of their range and nuance.

The good news is that I can think of a number of terrific novels that would pass the test. The classic that immediately comes to mind is Toni Morrison’s Sula, which tells the story of an entire community through the changing relationship between those two unforgettable girls/women, one of whom behaves in a way much of the town decides is “unlikeable.” As for more recent novels, Sheila Heti’s delightful autofiction How Should A Person Be is centered around her (real life) friendship with a wonderfully depicted artist named Margaux, and the big fight the two characters have isn’t over a man but over the fictional Sheila’s crossing of other, artistic and personal, boundaries. An even newer novel, Marlena, by Julie Buntin, set in an impoverished area of northern Michigan in the early aughts, at the beginning of the opioid crisis, shines a light on a region we don’t often see in contemporary fiction; it’s a story where friendship means risking getting blown up in a teenager’s meth lab and lying to authorities when your friend is knocked out on oxycontin. There’s also the excellent The Spare Room by the Australian writer Helen Garner, where the protagonist’s best friend is dying of cancer and comes to stay with her while undergoing treatment; her “doctor” turns out to be a quack preying on the desperate, raising questions about hope and the responsibilities of friendship. Each of these books would pass the test on each of those three points!

The novel so clearly captures New York in the early 90’s, seen through the eyes of a young woman who is beginning to understand her own place of privilege post-college. We see the challenges of the economic downturn, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, pervasive homelessness, the backdrop of the Gulf War. What was it about this time and place that interested you as the starting point for the novel?

The shadow that that era casts over us today, despite its seeming invisibility. (For instance, one might think of AIDS as manageable now that patients can take antiretrovirals, but it persists as an awful disease killing people too young. Likewise, the first Gulf War left unfinished business that would come back to haunt us in the early aughts, which in turn would carry over into Obama’s presidency, which has carried over into our current administration’s policy decisions.)  

The novel ambitiously moves between the period of the Gulf War, which Mim encounters only through her veteran roommate’s struggles with PTSD, and the war in Afghanistan, which she is faced with due to Kyra’s disappearance while she is working there with an aid organization. What motivated you to bring these two periods together in the novel? What kind of research did you engage in for this component of the novel? 

The first half of the story is a coming of age story about Mim and Kyra, and I see the book in general as a sort of coming of age story of America, from the naiveté of the first Gulf War—which was declared a success at the time but in fact left great instability in the region—to the long mire of Afghanistan. I’m particularly interested in our peculiar American “privilege” of ignoring our own wars simply because the fighting is taking place on foreign soil. Unless we are from that place, or have family there, or are in the military and serving there, we can turn off the news, skip the article, turn the page. 

In the first Gulf War, the spectacle took place over a matter of days, so people didn’t grow tired of paying attention, but with Afghanistan, our longest war, people grew weary years ago. I count myself as a typical American who spent a long time being really ignorant about a country in which we have a huge presence. At some point it struck me as shameful that though our two countries were so intertwined I could know so little about one of them. I think it’s my duty to educate myself, and I did that through a lot of reading (history books, memoirs, newspaper articles, treatise on policy) but also arranging to meet people and ask questions and try to see what I could learn, which still is just a fraction, I realize, but it allowed me to imagine what it might be like to go there as a somewhat naive American encountering a place that has been dealing—whether gratefully, resentfully, patiently or impatiently—with U.S. forces for eighteen years.  

If there was one thing you would want readers to know about this novel, what would it be?

That it’s fun to read! That despite the seeming “serious” subject matter, this book has the same sense of humor as all of my work!

You have hosted a gathering of women writers, which you have dubbed the “charrette” and have written about for Vida, providing a template for other women to form their own charrettes. (Disclosure: I am the poet at the beginning of the Vida piece, and attended these when I was living in Cambridge.) How has this growing community of women writers influenced your work, or even this particular novel?

The mix of genres is the factor that I personally find usually gets me thinking differently. I’m often thinking in terms of fiction, and when I hear, for instance, a memoirist express the challenges of narrative distance in the first person voice, I completely shift the way I’ve been thinking about the topic. As for how the charrette has influenced this book, the novel was already pretty complete when we started our meetings, but having the group around me while the book was on submission, and being able to celebrate other participants’ successes—like the day you had your first poem accepted by The New Yorker, or when Whitney Scharer got her agent, or Mandeliene Smith sold her story collection, or Erin Almond sold her novel—has been buoying, even when I was feeling personally frustrated or simply weary.

What can we expect for book five? Are you working on a new project?

I’m completing a second story collection, and I’ve just begun a new novel.

Interviewer Rebecca Morgan Frank is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Memorious: a journal of new verse & fiction and the author of three collections of poems, most recently Sometimes We’re All Living in a Foreign Country.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, art, and more interviews, visit our magazine, Memorious.

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