Deni Ellis Béchard
Deni Ellis Béchard
Deni Ellis Béchard is an international journalist, novelist, and photographer. His books include Vandal Love, which was selected for Oprah’s Book Club’s summer reading list; Of Bonobos and Men, winner of the 2015 Nautilus Book Award for investigative journalism; Into the Sun, winner of the 2017 Midwest Book Award for Literary Fiction; and Kuei: A Conversation on Racism, an epistolary book coauthored with First Nations poet Natasha Kanapé-Fontaine. White, a novel, is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions. His articles, fiction, and photos have been published in dozens of newspapers and magazines, including the LA Times, Salon, Reuters, the Paris Review, the Guardian, Patagonia, La Repubblica, the Walrus, Pacific Standard, Le Devoir, Vanity Fair Italia, the Herald Scotland, the Huffington Post, the Harvard Review, the National Post, and Foreign Policy. His photojournalism focuses on human rights, the environment, and conservation. He has reported from India, Cuba, Rwanda, Colombia, Iraq, the Congo, and Afghanistan. He currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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Books by Deni Ellis Béchard
Author Q & A
How much of Into the Sun is inspired by the interactions you had with working journalists and aid workers while living in Kabul, and how much is more broadly based on your own experience in conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Congo?
When I first began working in Kabul, I was surprised by how expats often advertised their work and adventures with what appeared to be a sense of showmanship. I often perceived something vaguely opportunistic in the risks people took, as if they were more interested in the swashbuckling narratives they were constructing (often via social media) than in the work they were there to accomplish. I began to see America's presence in Afghanistan as a neocolonial project that wasn't dramatically different from the British or French colonial projects half a century earlier, with expats living protected lives, largely cut off from the local people while being served and protected by them.
The scene with the rocket attack in downtown Kabul—when a rocket fired from the mountains strikes the side of the Serena Hotel—very closely follows an experience I had, and all the details were those I observed. Many Afghans I spoke with also helped me construct scenes in the book based on their own stories, such as the suicide bomb attack on the American convoy and the young Afghan who, disoriented by the explosion, reaches down and picks up the jawbone of one of the attackers without realizing what he's done.
In reading the first-person sections of the book narrated by Michiko, the journalist character, I surprised myself by assuming, at first, that she is a man. How did the gender dynamics in Kabul play into this decision, and how did they transform throughout the novel?
In her daily interactions, Michiko, who is androgynous, lets people project their understanding of gender on her and works with their projections—or she manipulates their understanding of gender to pass as a man or a woman when it is most convenient for her. I wanted to let readers engage with her the way many people in her life do, and the reaction of most readers is to think she's a man because she's dating a woman. The realization that she is a woman prepares readers to have their projections overturned throughout the rest of the novel, as I hope is the case with other characters, including Idris, the Afghan main character whose narrative takes over in the end.
There is also a strong theme of gender violence in the novel that creates tension between the vision that many expats have of being saviors of Afghan women, even though they are from cultures with a great deal of gender violence, like the United States, Canada, or Japan.
How do you hope readers will perceive war and media after reading Into the Sun?
I began working on the book in 2009 because I was fascinated with the expat culture of the civilian surge and found myself asking how such a thing could be both civilian and a project created and funded by the United States government with a military goal in mind—to "win hearts and minds" (a trope widely used in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam).
So much has been written about military engagement—the firefights and the daily lives of soldiers and their homecomings—but I wanted to address the sort of frontier culture that arises in expat communities. These individuals are often highly critical of their governments and of the war, and yet are often a part of the mechanism of that war. Just as a book like David Abrams's Fobbit showed readers the often absurd bureaucratic workings of military life inside the Forward Operating Bases, Into the Sun takes the reader into expat culture, with its war zone visionaries, its cowboy aid workers, its adrenaline junkies, and its world-savers, many of whom are reinventing themselves after relatively mundane lives in America or elsewhere. Later, the book shifts the focus to show how a young Afghan raised during the Kabul aid bubble, seeing the boomtown ambitions around him, tries to make sense of his future and reinvent himself as well.