A Firsthand Novel of Surreal Afghanistan

Every once in a while, a book comes along that makes you want to wrest even your own work from readers’ hands and command that they instead read this. Masha Hamilton’s What Changes Everything is that kind of amazing. Hamilton has experience as a war correspondent, spouse and mother, and it is in part the juxtaposition of these roles that makes this, her fifth novel, so powerful. She knows the surreal world that is present-day Afghanistan firsthand, and she delivers the grief and love that world spills into our own with pace, grace and—perhaps most surprisingly—humor.

In this short, intricately constructed novel, Hamilton spins the stories of several people touched by a war which, for most of them, is half a world away: Clarissa, whose new husband Todd is in Afghanistan; Mandy, whose son was wounded there and who travels to Afghanistan herself; Stela, who writes letter after letter from her bookstore in Cleveland, trying to accept the loss of one son in the war and another in the aftermath; a graffiti artist named Danil; and one non-fiction character, Mohammad Najibullah, the president of Afghanistan, whose fall from power was tied to the rise of the Taliban.

Hamilton is the director of communications and public diplomacy at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, and the author of four prior novels, including 31 Hours, which the Washington Post called one of the best novels of 2009, and The Camel Bookmobile. She founded two world literacy projects, The Camel Book Drive and the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, which encourages and mentors Afghan women in the hopes that having their stories heard will begin to affect change in their lives, and is a recipient of the Women’s National Book Association Award. She answered a few questions for Ms. while briefly home from Afghanistan.

Ms. Blog: Several of the interwoven narratives of What Changes Everything start in a simple way: Todd decides he wants ice cream. If he hadn’t, his story—and Clarissa’s and therefore Danil’s and Stela’s, too—might be completely different. Yet this beginning is the place where another author might have ended a novel. How did you end up beginning with this small moment that does change everything?

Masha Hamilton: Small moments do change everything—we’ve all experienced that. The difference in a place of war and chronic violence, like Afghanistan, is that the changes brought by a seemingly inconsequential choice, a mere moment of attention or inattention, are often more cataclysmic. Todd doesn’t want to be constrained by security concerns; he wants to take a short walk and eat some ice cream. Simple enough. Later, though, in captivity, he is forced to question his choice. He bears outsized, unanticipated responsibility—to himself, to others—for acting on a very modest desire.

On a secondary note, I do think, as Todd notes, Afghan ice cream is delicious, a miracle in a land that badly needs miracles.

The novel in one sense explores three different scenarios: a man dies in war; a man is severely wounded; a man is missing. And yet the story is told largely through how what happens to them affects the women in their lives—and with surprising humor. Stela’s letters, for example, trying to understand why her son has died are so rich with humor. Did you ever doubt that approach?

When my grandfather died, I remember my mom talking about how she and her two sisters were packing up their childhood home, and my aunt Stana made a joke and then they all began joking, and then laughing in that uncontrollable way over trivial things, over nothing. Just a few months ago, on a sad day in Kabul, I also was hit by a laughing jag at a very inopportune moment, in a small closed-door meeting with senior U.S. diplomats. For a few minutes, I couldn’t stop. Some looked at me oddly; others joined in. It was a reminder of how these emotions—bereavement and hilarity and dread and optimism—swirl around in the same pool. One often touches off another. Stela is in enormous pain, having lost one son and become estranged from the other. But her way of trying to come to terms with it shows a kind of strength. And yes, also humor.

The focus on women also sprung from my desire to show the impact of war on those far from the front line. As a nation, we can nearly forget we are at war. It is remote and perplexing; comprehension of the initial motivation has grown blurred. But if you are in your 20s, it’s been going on for half of your life. As you finish college or get your first job, it has at once become background noise, and at the same time left indelible marks on a generation of young Americans. And every day, those living in the Midwest or the South or along the coast are waking up to find out that in personal and devastating ways, this war has, for them, changed everything.

All the women in this novel are complicated, and not anything close to perfect, but in fact they all find strength within themselves to survive. Why is it that their strength leads readers to feel ultimately hopeful in a situation that doesn’t seem to offer much hope?

I would argue it is not only their strength, but their authenticity, that makes the novel hopeful. They are struggling with messy, unexpected, even “wrong” emotions: resentment of a son who lost his legs, anger at a partner who was kidnapped, inability to trust those who love them most. Yet they try to handle these deep-rooted, troubling reactions with integrity. I think we feel hopeful and empowered by seeing people bring honesty and creativity to overpowering challenges.

Through their responses, they also manage to touch one another, and this interconnectedness deeply interested me as I was writing. Their openness to exploring their individual struggles means that a bookstore owner in Ohio, a street artist in Brooklyn, a nurse from Texas and an Afghan hospital administrator are among those who become linked through this conflict. And in some cases, for example with Danil and Clarissa, they manage to save each other at critical moments.

Some of the women in your novel step beyond the boundaries allowed them, into the kind of danger that is necessary for change. I know in real life you have worked with Afghan women writers, who by the very act of writing also cross that boundary into danger. Were these fictional characters inspired at all by that work?

Four of my five novels skirt around or dive directly into the topic of war, and as a journalist I covered the Arab-Israeli conflict for five years. In these situations, I have repeatedly seen women—and men—take risks to fully be themselves, or step outside themselves in a bid for a more peaceful future. I have absolutely seen it with the brave Afghan women who write for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, telling their remarkable stories in a country where that degree of self-revelation from a woman holds potential danger.

In my experience, when conflict between nations or within a society ratchets up, greater repression of its women is typically one of the first responses. I have thought a lot about why: Is it that the men need something to control when life feels uncontrollable? Is it some confused desire to “protect” the women? Or a superstition that when women are too free, a society pays the price?  In any case, this reflexive repression requires of women enormous strength and grace.

There are two characters in What Changes Everything whom I was surprised to find had stolen my heart: the American graffiti artist, Danil, and the Afghan aide-turned-negotiator, Amin. Did they steal yours, too? Were any of the characters particularly easy to write? Particularly hard?

Amin and Danil are among my favorite characters as well. To write Danil, I spent some time watching street artists work late at night, and got a sense of the bravery they, too, bring to self-expression. Their work goes beyond ego, and it is tied in part to a desire to connect with those beyond their natural reach, which is a theme in the novel.

And Amin: in some ways, I feel the redemptive quality to the book belongs to him most of all. He begins the book haunted by the cost of conflict. By it’s end, he changes history—or at least, history’s impact on him.

That said, I grew close to all the characters, even secondary ones. As you know, a novel is like an iceberg—the reader sees the top, but in the years it takes to write, we get to know and experience all that’s below the water’s surface.

In your last novel, 31 Hours, you allow us to understand how something like the Boston Marathon bombing might happen by bringing us inside the head of a young man who has been radicalized. In What Changes Everything, you allow us to see the human side of the former president of Afghanistan, who was a pretty brutal guy. I know you’d seen war up close before you wrote these books, but I also know the last months you’ve spent in Afghanistan have been really difficult. Would you write them any differently now?

No. It has been a brutal couple of months, and when one is in the midst of sorrow and loss, there is an impulse to view life in black and white: this is evil and wrong; that is perfect and right. Despite that, I continue to believe it is right to invite readers to see the humanity of a terrorist or a torturer. I accept that it is artistically risky. But it is a novelist’s job is to shave off the top layer, ask the questions open-endedly, write into the grey, and then embrace the soft edges of the semi-answers that emerge. And I think it can give the reader some comfort (it gives me comfort) to know there is no one single answer, but gradations of an answer constantly under creation, under revision.

And what’s next for you?

Once I get back from Kabul, I hope to start a novel about a middle-aged storm chaser and his mother. It will allow me to explore some of those familiar questions: the adrenaline rush, the search for meaning, the unique and powerful relationship between parent and grown child.


Meg Waite Clayton is the author of the novel The Four Ms. Bradwells, a Ms. Summer Recommended Reads selection about a woman nominee to the Supreme Court.