Dear Katey Schultz,
When reading, Still Come Home, I was in a mason jar of dust and oak and apricot. The novel was a self-contained entity of imagery and conflict that incited all the senses. Sweet to read yet there is a discomfort created within these pages, wounds that bleed out in lyrical prose and conflict. Discomfort in the good way. This is the kind of reading that can be absorbed in one sitting, because one can’t stop, but do, because the lines created need to be inhaled and exhaled.
The novel takes us between three main characters who rotate chapter to chapter–two Afghanistan natives and an American soldier. As a reader we live through the conflicts of social expectations, interpersonal relationships, and war. Even though perspectives rotate the general theme and tones are the same–life in the middle of a war-torn country is not sustainable.
On your website you mention a term you coined yourself–ecstatic uncertainty. You go on to describe it as, “The feeling when a person is presented with the opportunity to stretch beyond his or her comfort level and current understanding of the world.” You achieve this in, Still Come Home. Set in 2009 Afghanistan, every millennial and generation above knows what that means. Immediately, I knew what your setting would encompass. Smartly, you give your readers multiple points of view, which I appreciated in such a political setting. Aeseya who struggles with independence and the restrictions of her gender, Rahim who has to juggle expectations of being a husband, and Nathan who deals with life as a soldier and the marital struggles of being overseas.
There is an admiralty that comes with the poetic narrative and brutality of your depiction of war,
“There’s no justice in war and no one to blame except himself, and if he waits another second, that family up ahead might take one, two, three more steps any direction and blow themselves into a thousand fleshy splinters. The desert is a minefield. The minefield is the ocean. He is walking on water. There is no Jesus Christ. He is utterly unglued.”
Balanced, you do not romanticize or diminish such a big undertaking. We see each character affected by their setting and yet there’s always hope, whether we find in within a wife overseas or with a lost little boy. You have taken such a rock of a topic, heavy and seemingly unmoving, and yet you grabbed it, molded it, and presented it with delicate edges.
Ecstatic uncertainty is embodied here, in this place that you experienced solely in your writing. Through your characters and your setting, you live up to your coined term. You paint scenes that capture the moment and leave us suspended,
“A few blocks ahead, Aaseya hears the cries of animals for slaughter, sons bargaining on behalf of their mothers. It’s a spectacle of activity: the smell of dung, the dry taste of the desert, people coming and going—enlivening the mud-cooked pathways in flashes of teal, maroon, sun gold, deep purple. Men loiter, scuffing their dirt-coated sandals against the ground. At the edge of the bazaar, beggars wait.”
Personally, as a fiction writer, what I enjoyed, not most but just as much as everything above, was your craft. Throughout the book, we go back and forth between perspectives: Nathan, Rahim, and Aaseya. Each character has their own voice and shift in tone. We see the effects of bombing and death from every character, who in their own way, are connected. Like Aaseya and Ghazél, “the two connected mid-air by an invisible thread,” each character has an invisible string to those alive and dead within the narrative.
Each character has their own language, the gears and mechanics of your lines reshape within each change in perspective:
Nathan, the American soldier who just wants to go home.
Rahim, the husband who is in truth a good man but held down by social norms.
Aaseya, a young woman unable to accept her position in her world.
I love them all dearly.
They all are experiencing the same topics: loss, love, identity. Yet, their experiences are their own microcosm within the macrocosm of theses pages.
Still Come Home builds from the ground up climaxing with a literal and metaphorical bang, an explosion that was built through tension from the first page. With all its bravado, you still find a way to encapsulate paternal and maternal love and tenderness. The main female characters’ name, Aaseya, means pillar or column. I think Aaseya is a perfect encapsulation of the books end, the climax is full of rubble in the setting, yet the foundations of the characters identities and relationships are all still intact, we are hopeful. And about a million other things all at once. I see why you open with Yeats: Endure that toil of growing up/ The ignominy of boyhood/ the distress of boyhood changing into man/ The unfinished man and his pain/ Brought face to face with his own clumsiness.
Yeats creates a poem of the mind and soul arguing and while there is no clear winner at the end of the poem, I think your characters found harmonies amongst their own souls and bodies.
At one-point Rahim said, “The Persian poet Hafiz would say that the past is a grave, the future a rose. Think of the rose.”
That’s what I think this book is–a rose.
Thank you for introducing this world to me,
McKenzie Zalopany is currently living in the Tampa Bay Area, where she is completing her MFA in fiction. Her work has appeared in the Tulane Review, Superstition Review, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for her non-fiction piece in Belletrist. She is a queer artist, who focuses on mental health and disability awareness.