Daphne Kalotay never had a particular affinity for literature or writing. But when she took a creative writing elective by chance at Vassar, that changed. Since she had already run out the clock for her undergraduate degree in psychology, she decided to pursue her Master of Fine Arts at Boston University. But even with a master's degree, starting a writing career without the mental catalog of literary canon to lean on felt daunting. So she jumped at BU's offer in 1994 of full funding for a doctorate in modern and contemporary literature that would give her that chance to read and learn.
Under Professor Saul Bellow, Kalotay wrote her dissertation about the author Mavis Gallant. Gallant’s work explored how world wars leave residual effects on the individual level, and explores the ways people persist afterward. Kalotay admires her ability to incorporate humor into the subject; Gallant’s light touch shows that recuperation isn’t all sadness and heaviness. “I suspect [the] reason I loved Mavis Gallant’s writing is because my own family was shaped by war,” Kalotay said over the phone.
Kalotay’s father was born to a Jewish family in 1941 Hungary. While he survived Holocaust, his father and many other relatives did not. Life continued without his family. He lived in occupied Hungary when the Soviets took over. He witnessed more violence when Hungarian Revolution tried to throw overthrow Soviet interference in 1956. The Kalotays finally fled to North America as refugees. War had a domino effect on their lives — it wasn't a contained incident.
As Kalotay talked about her family history, she got quieter. The pauses between her sentences got longer with each progressive detail. This wasn’t a story of the distant past — it was a generational trauma at the forefront of her emotional reservoir.
Kalotay channels that personal nature of war through two characters in her latest novel, "Blue Hours," which came out this summer. The story’s protagonist, Mim, finds herself compelled to help the friends from her youth, from bonds forged strong enough to weather a decades-long separation. The novel spans two timelines: one during 1990s New York City, where Mim comes of age post-college, and the other during 2012, when Mim is forced to reckon with the United States’ endless war with Afghanistan.
In New York, Mim watches her roommate, Carl, a friend and veteran from the Gulf War, suffer from PTSD. His nightmares propel him into thinking Mim is a threat. The trauma cuts deep for a soldier on leave from a war which the U.S. framed as “a small quick triumph where we were heroes,” Kalotay said. “Later, we were told just about oil.”
Then in 2012, Mim’s ex-girlfriend Kyra goes missing in Afghanistan after dedicating her life to humanitarian aid in the very countries the U.S. has been sending troops and causing political unrest. Throughout those 20-some-odd-years, Mim has the luxury of forgetting that the U.S. was even at war, while Carl and Kyra are haunted by it daily. “Even decisions to not care and not pay attention are political decisions,” Kalotay said. “We’re [in Afghanistan]. That’s the American story.”
Unlike Mim, Kalotay has never lost touch with the support systems she once relied on. Before the seed for "Blue Hours" had even been planted, Kalotay helped cultivate the growth of her literary community in Boston. During the intense year of her MFA program, she bonded with the 11 other people in her fiction cohort who became her lifelong friends. One of those friends later became an early reader of "Blue Hours." Not long after her doctorate, she was one of the first writing teachers at Grub Street when it began in 1997. Kalotay has also carved out her own legacy in the Boston literary community. Several years ago, she began a charrette for local writers to discuss their craft.
What began as an informal chat between 11 women has evolved to a monthly workshop with over 40 writers, with a wait list at the ready for when a vacancy opens up. The premise has stayed the same: the group generates a topic of discussion (i.e. experimental form, or plot arcs, or unreliable narrators), and Kalotay sends out an email prior to the meeting with a brief description and links to further essays about and examples of the topic. Writers will start the conversation online, carry it over to the in-person meeting, and then Kalotay will follow up with an email summarizing the meeting for anyone who could not attend in person. The charrettes foster community and support among fellow writers just as her MFA cohort once had.
To this day, when friends from Kalotay’s cohort say they’ll show up to each other’s readings, they mean it. It's easy to see how this type of community support keeps Kalotay going as she grapples with darker themes in her work.
Daphne Kalotay will be at the Boston Book Festival on Oct. 19.
Correction: An earlier version of this post indicated the wrong schedule for Kalotay's charrette.
This article was originally published on October 15, 2019.