Deni Bechard is one of those writers who can leap between fiction and nonfiction with ease. The journalist and award-winning novelist now has a new book, a novel inspired by his time reporting from Afghanistan.
"Into the Sun" drops readers into Kabul, where explosions have become a weary part of everyday life, even 10 years after Sept. 11. When a car bomb kills three expats working in the city, the friend they leave behind begins to investigate their deaths — and their lives. Michiko, a Japanese-American journalist, follows their story across continents and through corruption, on the trail of the forces that brought them together in that fateful moment. The story delves into both the personal narratives of the dead — of Alexandra, a human rights lawyer; Justin, a teacher; and Clay, a security contractor — and into the political repercussions of the war in Afghanistan.
Bechard joined MPR News host Kerri Miller to talk about "Into the Sun," and how he weaves his experiences as a journalist into his fiction. An excerpt of "Into the Sun" is below.
For the full interview with Deni Bechard, use the audio player above. Bechard will read from "Into the Sun" at the grand opening of Milkweed Books in Minneapolis tonight at 6:30 p.m. Full event details are available from Milkweed.
An excerpt of "Into the Sun" by Deni Ellis Bechard
All that week, Kabul was quiet — traffic jams and construction and impromptu checkpoints, but quiet nonetheless. Spring arrived in sunlit days. Afternoon showers stripped dust and smog from the air, and tamped it into the earth. The nights hovered at freezing: brittle stars, drafts at windows, and the creaking of metal as the fire took in my bukhari.
I sat next to it, working my way through Alexandra's scuffed journal with the help of an iPhone French-English dictionary and Google Translate, searching for what compelled her into a love triangle like a Wild West standoff between a hayseed missionary and a gun for hire. In expats' speculation about who had died, Clay was absent, and I enjoyed his mystery as I read her entries, anticipating his arrival.
During high school, I studied French. Its sound evokes refinement for the Japanese. My professor said the history of France and Japan is a love story between aesthetics, each finding in the other the embodiments of ideals. But I knew nothing about French Canadians.
Je n'ai pas le choix, she wrote before leaving Montreal for Kabul. "I have no choice. I have to go. I am afraid. I have no affinity to that place or its people, but going will help me move on." The dramatic tone surprised me. I said the first line out loud: "I have no choice." Tyranny is a poor metaphor for internal struggle, and yet it was a feeling we shared.
In Justin's emails to Alexandra, he described the importance of educators in the civilian surge, whereas she was more interested in justice for women. They sounded intoxicated with their ideas, as if, in the space of writing them, they'd transformed Afghanistan.
His emails mentioned Idris: If we're going to create change, we need to change those in power. The men have power. We must not marginalize them . . . He wrote about Frank: He believes he can shape a culture by choosing its leaders; rather, its leaders must choose us. They must see in us a representation of values they can aspire to.
Though I'd intended to pen a seminal article and expose the plot that nearly took my life, I read with a growing sense that I was onto something bigger: a tale of power and a doorway into America, where all passions seemed justified.
Hour by hour, the reasons for my interest seemed to rise up, promising and bright on the horizon, before evanescing like mirages. When I'd come to Kabul, I'd planned to become a war correspondent. I read Ernie Pyle, and longed for World War II's grit and simple glory, a clear enemy, two options: heroic victory or destruction, not endless games of attrition played in secret. I read Michael Herr: you couldn't find two people who agreed about when it began . . . might as well say that Vietnam was where the Trail of Tears was headed all along . . .
And yet, as I learned about Justin, Alexandra, and Clay, my imagination nourished their stories with the journeys and characters in the American novels I'd grown up reading. Increasingly, I pictured myself writing in that form. I was fortunate to have a mystery, a plot, a missing person, maybe even a murderer. That evening, Tam came over. She'd been preparing for her Special Forces embed, doing paperwork and preliminary interviews on bases in Kabul while wrapping up edits for previous projects. Each time I saw her, she talked about Alexandra's death. She never mentioned Clay, only Justin's obsession with Idris, his conviction that Frank was using him. "But what disgruntled student embarks on a suicide mission?" she asked. She, too, was skeptical of the Taliban's claim — unless Justin had been proselytizing. Converting a Muslim was one of the worst offences here.
Kabul was a haven for conspiracies. Sooner or later expats explained away even the most random killing. If a Westerner was shot, a rumor arose that he was feeding information to an embassy or a diplomat, and someone put out a hit. If the deceased was a journalist, people said his writing had been critical of a warlord, when in truth it was hard to write anything about Afghanistan without mentioning warlords or being critical. Some days, we agreed on the incompetence of the Afghan security forces. Others, we believed they had precise information about everyone and would do anything to maintain the status quo, even kill us.
The conspiracies gave us the sense that we were players in a vast intrigue whose chaos hid its order. In this way, they made us feel safe. If we accepted that much of what happened was random, how could we go out our front doors? We repeated stories that stripped others of their innocence so as to enshrine our own and live more fully in its protection.
If I told Tam about my investigations, she would think I was encroaching on her territory, but just gathering this information and building it into a story diminished the uncertainty I sensed around me.
Embers glowed inside the bukhari's open hatch. Beyond the compound wall, an engine raced, tires spinning loudly against the ice.
I closed my eyes. Bodies immolated, blown apart. What made everyone so sure of who was in the car? Did the police simply count the pieces? Death was too common here for them to do more than that.
I stroked Tam's hair until she fell asleep. I traced her throat, her collarbone. She drew closer, pressing against me, breathing softly.
An excerpt from Into the Sun by Deni Ellis Bechard (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2016). Copyright c by Deni Ellis Bechard. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions. www.milkweed.org.