No One Is Safe

BY CHANELLE ACHESON

“Honestly, I would be sick of reading another story about me,” says 3L Murad Kalam, a soon-to-be-published novelist. He is sitting in Starbucks in an unassuming button down shirt and gray slacks. Between abrupt gulps of coffee, he is animatedly attempting to explain his book, his life and even his future.

A Harvard English major, Kalam won the prestigious O. Henry award last year for his short story “Bow Down.” Yet unlike most aspiring authors, he maintains that he fully intends to practice law.

His explanation of his path to these somewhat incongruous destinations unfolds in a mishmash of tangents and analogies as he treads a fine line between cynicism and inspiration. A conversation with Kalam puts one squarely in the center of a tornado of publishers, agents, authors, lawyers, fictional characters and the specters of famous past novelists who seem constantly to peer over his shoulder. He seems aware of his potential position in the grand pedigree of literary tradition, invoking the names of great authors as regularly as breathing.

“Toni Morrison said: ‘If there’s a book you want to read that isn’t out there, you’re supposed to write it'” he said. “…so that’s exactly what I did.”

Kalam describes his book, “Night Journey,” as a coming-of-age novel about a boxer growing up in poverty in southern Phoenix, AZ and moving to the corruption and greed of Las Vegas – a far cry from modern detritus that he dismisses as about “fornicating in the suburbs.”

“It’s about facing yourself,” he said. “It’s about love and the value of people. It’s about disillusionment, innocence and obsession with the past.”

Though he speaks excitedly and fluidly of authors and fiction, Kalam’s brow furrows when he begins discussing the somewhat less esoteric world of publishing.

“As a first time author, it is very difficult to find an agent. [It is] very difficult to find some one who will really take the time to work with you,” he said.

The genesis of Kalam’s novel began with a thesis, advised by Robert Cohen and mentored by Jamaica Kincaid. The various twists and turns on his six-year journey to publication include quite a few fortuitous occurrences, such as his introduction to his agent and the discovery of a publisher willing to work extensively with him. Kalam’s appreciation for all those that have taken their time to work with him seems refreshing – he seems almost unaware of the role his own innate talent must have played in getting them to invest so heavily in his work.

Kalam pauses for a moment to emphasize the contribution of “One-L” author Scott Turow, whom he met while acting as the vice-president of the HLS Forum.

“He’s really been great,” Kalam said. “His involvement really helped me get my foot in the door. Turow even offered to “blurb” Kalam’s book for him – without asking.

After graduating from Harvard in 1996 and taking a year to work on his thesis, Kalam moved home to work on his novel. He researched extensively, reading books and using the Internet. He would drive through the area where the book was set to “notice the little things.”

His research must have paid off. Last summer, while working at a firm, Kalam gave a chapter of his book which took place in a crackhouse, to one of the partners to read. The partner returned it, looking deeply troubled. “He said that he had done some work in a crackhouse once, and that my writing was a very accurate description. I had to tell him that I had read a book about it.”

Indeed, Kalam seems pleasantly isolated from the situations about which he writes. As the son of a doctor who grew up in the suburbs of Mesa, AZ in what he describes as a, “conservative” community; what authority does he wield when writing about subjects such as poverty, prostitution, drugs and gangs?

“The thing is, there are so many fewer degrees of separation in the black community between someone who goes to Harvard and the people that I write about,” he said.

He will have many fewer degrees of separation from the subjects of his next novel. His face lights up when he talks about his new project: “It’s about Harvard Law School. It’s a subtle satire about the other side of prestige. About the many complex and interesting characters we have here with access to power.”

He breathlessly expounds upon the theme, calling his experience here “real, but it could have been a novel, everything just worked out so perfectly.” He reminisces for a minute on the built-in love story-Kalam is now married to a fellow 3L Rashann Duvall. He will write, he says, not only about the experience and the “mindgame” but about “these humongous walking egos we call professors.”

Indeed, as Kalam describes different personalities, Cambridge starts to seem more like a scene from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – and that’s just how he likes it. “There are so many great characters. [So many] are incredibly brilliant, but poorly adapted to reality.”

So, with all this talent, why law? “Writers hate each other,” he said. “I like lawyers better. I have every intention of practicing once I graduate. Writing is isolating. I wanted to be out there in the world. I want to have conversations around the water cooler.”

But he plans to write about HLS first. “It will be a catharsis, a gift to my class.” He raises and eyebrow and grins mischievously, “and absolutely no one is safe.”

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