Kalam ’02 sets sights on writing life

News   /   May 3, 2003  / 


BY JANKHANA DESAI

Ernest Hemingway won one in 1927. In 1920, F. Scott Fitzgerald. This year, it was Murad Kalam ’02.

Kalam, an aspiring novelist and second year student at HLS, won an O. Henry award last month for his short story, “Bow Down,” that was published in Harper’s Magazine last October.

The O. Henry awards are an annual collection of the year’s best stories published in American and Canadian magazines and written by American or Canadian authors. The series editor, currently Larry Dark, selects 20 stories from among the 2,500 to 3,000 published in the 240 or so magazines consulted for the series.

“I was completely shocked,” Kalam exclaimed. “When I was talking to the editor, I made a complete fool of myself … I was a blubbering idiot because I was shocked.”

Kalam’s story, which was about a young boy who fights to hold onto a house, was the very first piece he had published. If everything goes as planned, it won’t be the last.

Kalam is currently in the finishing stages of a 350-page novel. Kalam began his novel, “Night Journey,” during his senior year in college. After graduating from Harvard University magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in English, Kalam decided to continue working on his novel. He moved back to Mesa, Arizona, in the Phoenix metropolitan area, where he had spent most of his childhood years and where the novel takes place. Kalam spent three years in Mesa, working for his father’s medical practice as the office manager. It was there that he was able to put the detailed touches on his story, a story about a boxer.

“Because I was home, I really got to see Phoenix, and I got a sense of it for the book,” explained Kalam. “Living there as an adult for three years, I saw all the sort of nuances that take place. I got to drive through the back roads … a lot of things that I was able to put into my book.”

Joshua Bloodworth ’03, who went to college with Kalam, said it is details like these that make Kalam such a gifted writer. “I think he is very insightful at pulling [out] subtle differences that have lots of meaning,” explained Blood-worth. “He is able to take ordinary people and show the extraordinary aspects of their lives without being facetious or dealing in stereotypes.”

Bloodworth read Kalam’s award-winning piece and parts of his novel. “I think it’s really excellent,” said Bloodworth. “He is able to highlight subtle things that really makes a character’s personality.”

Kalam, who says writing is “definitely in (my) blood,” began his journey as a writer many years ago when he was only 11 years old. It was then that he sat in his mother’s study and started to write.

“My mother was into writing, and my great uncle was a writer,” said Kalam. “On my father’s side there is a long lineage of story tellers: They have the art of talking and keeping people in trance, telling them a story.”

But there is something else that also inspires Kalam. “The thing that really inspired me to write was actually that my father had a medical practice in Amarillo, Texas and there was a lot of racism there,” said Kalam. “It gave me a lot of rage and this desire to write.”

Kalam’s father, who holds an M.D. and Ph.D. from the University of Washington, is a Jamaican immigrant who came to United States in 1959.

“My father was run out of town because he was black,” said Kalam. “It was really eye-opening for me because there was such pernicious racism, and it made me so angry and gave me the urgency to write. After that, I was always writing.”

At the time, Kalam was very young. But his sense of the South as he saw it stayed with him.

“There are vestiges of the South that you feel in my writing,” said Kalam. “I wrote a lot of stories about racism in college.”

In college, Kalam continued to develop his skills as a writer. He won second place in a fiction contest for the Harvard Advocate in 1993. He also wrote a creative senior thesis, which won summa cum laude. According to Kalam, he also worked and still works with Jamaica Kincaid, a novelist who used to write for the New Yorker.

Harbour Fraser Hodder, with whom Kalam took a Sophomore Seminar in English and who was Kalam’s adviser, discovered Kalam’s talents early on. “He, very early on, displayed a commitment to language and conveyed ideas and feelings very articulately in language,” Hodder said.

“I also had a chance to see some of his short stories as his adviser, and those stood out as being original and fascinating and had a different voice than I had ever seen before,” Hodder explained. “He wasn’t copying other people.”

Hodder, who is currently a contributing editor at Harvard Magazine and a former lecturer at Harvard, describes Kalam as a “brilliant writer.” “His writing is really very moving … It’s very authentic,” said Hodder. “He creates these amazing characters.”

“He is going to be somebody who will probably make a name for himself in many different ways,” said Hodder.

Bloodworth echoed the same sentiments. “If talent is the only requirement to be rich and famous, then he will be,” explained Bloodworth.

So why law school then? Well, Kalam said he came to law school to “be out of (his) element.”

“I didn’t want to follow the normal course of things … and get a Ph.D. or a Masters in Fine Arts and sit in a room and workshop my fiction with a bunch of aspiring novelists,” explained Kalam. “Writing cannot be taught. Either you have it or you don’t. I liked the old school way of writing, which is to work a nine-to-five job and write at night, and to be ‘in the world’ so to speak.”

“At HLS I’m certainly out of my element because everyone is so pragmatic, but I like that,” said Kalam. “Law provides excellent balance to the creative life.”

Kalam will be working for Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C., this summer and wants to practice law after graduation.

“As a writer, you have no colleagues, no sense of community,” Kalam ex-plained. “It is a very lonely profession. For this reason, I wanted something to balance that.”

Kalam writes two to three hours a day. He is already working toward his next goal.

“I am working very hard to get my novel submitted to get published and keeping my fingers crossed,” said Kalam. “That is the biggest thing for me right now.”

Besides writing, one of the other loves of Kalam’s life is photography, a hobby he developed from his father. “He would give me his old cameras and let me take pictures with those and so I really got into it that way,” explained Kalam.

“When I am writing, the stakes are really high. I am very competitive, and I have to be the best, but nothing is at risk when I am taking pictures,” said Kalam, who takes pictures for the RECORD. “The stakes aren’t so high so it is just pure enjoyment.”

Kalam’s other passions are jazz, coffee and, of course, his fiancee – Rashann Duvall ’02.

As for Kalam’s future … Ernest Heningway went on to win the Pulitzer. And although Kalam’s doesn’t talk much about awards, he does speak of achieving great heights.

“I want to be a great writer someday … I want to be like the people I admire,” said Kalam. “Being a great writer means being acknowledged as one of the great ones.”

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