A Writer's Journey: Kamand Kojouri
Born in Tehran, raised in Dubai and Toronto and currently a resident of Wales, Kamand Kojouri saw her debut poetry collection rewarded with bounteous praise. In her second collection, she turns the age-old question of the existence of God on its head, and asks whether humanity exists. Her main intention is to make us think and act more humanely—with compassion, empathy, and understanding.
We caught up with her to find out a little bit more about her journey as writer.
What was the first book that really inspired you?
Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion. It was the first book I annotated. I remember making notes and highlighting like a fanatic. It felt like I was solving a puzzle because I was uncovering the symbols and motifs of a beautiful book written by a masterful writer.
When did you first realise you wanted to be a writer?
It happened when I was volunteering at a hospital in downtown Toronto. One of my patients asked me to read her a book, and from that day on I read every day during my lunch break. I started with the Russian classics, Tolstoy and Nabokov, and I fell in love with reading. I thought that because I was reading in my own special way—marking up books— I believed that maybe I could write differently too.
How did you know it could be more than just an ambition?
I didn’t. I had never taken any literature courses during school or my undergraduate years, so I had no way of knowing for certain. After university, my parents moved back to Dubai and I tried to re-enrol into creative writing. Unfortunately they only offered journalism and multimedia programmes, so I took a beginner’s creative writing course at a mall and wrote a few short stories. I applied to a creative writing MA in London and sent one of the stories. They liked it and offered me an interview, and the rest is herstory.
What is the best book you have ever read?
Anna Karenina, because it is a novel of ideas that explores practically every theme under the sun. I loved being deeply invested in Anna’s unravelling—I think Tolstoy captured it brilliantly. But my favourite part of the book is actually Levin’s story—a character I think Tolstoy, himself, most identified with because Levin becomes a pacifist who advocates manual labour, a simple life, and other Tolstoyan beliefs. At the end of the book, after battling with his divided selves (the quintessential Chekovian moral dialectic), Levin has an epiphany and comes to share his truth with Kitty, but then he realises that there are some truths that we have to keep to ourselves. It’s just like John O’Donohue said, “Your sense of inner beauty has to remain a very private thing.”
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I suppose one of my writing quirks is that I usually listen to classical music whilst writing prose or poetry. The piece I choose to listen to before I start writing sets the tone for the text and it helps me immerse myself into the world and the character’s voice. Music also inspires me to write poetry.
When did you write your first book and how old were you? What happened with the book?
I wrote my first historical novel for my Masters' programme. I was 24 years old. I published the first chapter in an anthology and my programme director sent out the anthology to different agents. Three agents got in contact with me and they seemed very interested in my novel, but I felt like my book wasn’t ready to be published and I didn’t have the time to work on it, as I started my PhD programme shortly afterwards.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I love to read poetry, more than anything else. I play in an orchestra, and I love going to classical concerts. I love jazz, ballet, and the opera. I used to swim and go rock-climbing a lot, but I’ve stopped that for some time now. I’m also always travelling because my family lives in different corners of the world.
Have you ever learnt anything about yourself through your writing?
Flannery O'Connor once said, “I write to discover what I know.” My newest poetry collection, God, Does Humanity Exist? includes poems that focus on issues of war, the refugee crisis, mass shootings, and the atrocities committed in Aleppo and even the ones on our doorstep. I always believed that I had no political affiliations, but I’ve realised that the personal is political, and I no longer shy away from using my platform to raise awareness.
Are you ever conscious of subconsciously including someone you know in your characters?
Yes, I do it rather consciously. My mother, for instance, appears as two separate characters in the historical novel I’m currently writing for my PhD programme. I always think of this gorgeous quote by Thomas Wolfe, “[…] Dr. Johnson remarked that a man would turn over half a library to make a single book: in the same way, a novelist may turn over half the people in a town to make a single figure in his novel.”
What is the greatest feedback you have received to date? And the worst?
The greatest feedback I’ve received are the ones that have changed my life. So, naturally, the feedback I received when I submitted my short story to the MA programme made me euphoric. I suppose, it was also the validation I was looking for, as I had decided to take a very big leap then.
The worst feedback I’ve received was quite recently when I submitted an excerpt to a writing competition. It was the first time I had submitted something to a competition myself, and my piece wasn’t long-listed. They didn’t give me any feedback, which I think is the worst feedback, because you want to know what worked and what didn’t.
As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I wanted to become a doctor. I’d save up my money to buy stethoscopes and microscopes. I always wanted to help people, and I think (and hope) that I might be able to do that with my writing now.
What for you defines a good read?
My favourite novels are philosophical novels, like Javier Marias’ novels. I think art ought to be didactic. Sure, art should have an aesthetic appeal and entertain and be cathartic, but more than anything else, I think it should edify and instruct.
In regard to poetry, I know I’ve come across a good poem if I’m reading it and time is suspended, or rather annihilated, and the words and images linger in my mind long after I’ve finished. I’m a sucker for a great line at the end of a poem that surprises me in its unfolding.
For every book sold, a tree will be planted in Sub-Saharan Africa to help provide families with food, income, and a sustainable way of life. Royalties will also go to children’s charities in Iran.
God, Does Humanity Exist? is available in paperback (£9.99) and eBook (£4.99) formats. For more information visit: KamandKojouri.com