Khaled Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1965. At the age of 11, he moved to Paris with his family as a result of his father's diplomatic posting to the French capital by the Afghan Foreign Service. Four years later, unable to return home because of the Soviet invasion, the Hosseini family was granted political asylum in the United States and moved to San Jose, California, where the future author pursued his high school education. He subsequently enrolled in Santa Clara University, earning a Biology degree before attending the University of California at San Diego's School of Medicine. He spent seven years as a practicing internist before the publication of his first novel, The Kite Runner, in 2003.
A phenomenal bestseller in both hardcover and paperback, The Kite Runner was adapted for the screen in 2007; that year also saw the appearance of Hosseini's acclaimed second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns. With the latter book's first paperback publication imminent, I spoke with Hosseini by telephone at the end of October. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. -- James Mustich
James Mustich: Could we talk a bit about the formation of your literary sensibility? In other interviews, you've referred to the strong Afghan tradition of oral storytelling. What kind of role did that tradition play in shaping your own sense of telling stories?
Khaled Hosseini: A great one, I think. I entered the literary world, really, from outside. My entire background has been in sciences; I was a biology major in college, then went to medical school. I've never had any formal training in writing. So what I know about writing, I know from my own instincts, and whatever the narrative voice is in my own head. Both of those were shaped, I'm sure, by my having grown up in Afghanistan, where there was a very strong sense of oral storytelling. It seems to me now, in retrospect, that the people I grew up around were very skilled storytellers, even under the most casual of circumstances, and that the people listening to them had a longer attention span for stories.
My grandmother was probably my very first influence. I distinctly remember myself and my brother sitting with her as she told us stories of her childhood -- how she went to Hajj and Mecca with her mother when she was a little girl, and what it was like to be on a ship with a thousand people. She was just a fantastic storyteller. And there was a radio program in Kabul called "Stories," a radio serial that was clever and really well told. You'd have to tune in the following week to catch what happened after this week's cliffhanger. We'd sit around the radio and listen to these stories.
I grew up with that kind of storytelling instinct, and when I write, my default setting is to find a story and then to tell it. It's the only way I know how to write.
JM: You were raised in a very literate household, and your parents shared a great deal of classic Persian literature with you. Was that mostly poetry?
KH: Yes. Virtually all of it was poetry. One of the works that really affected me was the grand epic of Persian literature, the Shâhnameh, which literally translates into The Book of Kings. It was written by Ferdowsi back in the 11th century, and it's the crowning jewel of Persian literature. It begins with the dawn of time and ends with the Arab invasion of Persia, but it's really the story of the great, mythical kings and warriors of old Persia. It has all the elemental themes of literature -- betrayal and guilt and greed and honor and so on. I remember being very moved by these stories, particularly by the tale of Rostam and Sohrab, a father-son story that I alluded to in The Kite Runner. The tales of the Shâhnameh are very dramatic, very intense, invariably tragic.
I think my upbringing in that kind of literary environment also influenced me. But I discovered novels on my own, in a local bookstore in Kabul that sold used old paperbacks as well as condensed young adult editions of classics, like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Old Man and the Sea and Alice in Wonderland. There isn't, even now, a great tradition of novel-writing in Afghanistan. Most of the literature is in the form of poetry. But serial novels were popular -- actually, The Exorcist was being published in a women's magazine, in an Iranian women's magazine, and it was presented as a cliffhanger, two or three chapters at a time.
In any case, I was drawn to stories and to writing from a very, very young age -- from the time I was 9 or 10 years old.
JM: Those novels that you read then, and the condensed versions of the classics, were they in Farsi?
KH: Yes, they had been translated in Iran. The condensed editions were actually called "Golden Books." I even remember the name, "Ketab hai telaii," which means "Golden Books" in Farsi. I collected some of them. They were translated in Iran, and then imported into Afghanistan.
JM: Although you were raised in a culture in which there was not a strong tradition of the novel, your two books embrace, it seems to me, the fundamentally empathetic imagination of the form, telling stories that broaden the reach of our own passions and sentiments by allowing us to identify with the emotions and experience of others outside of our familiar circumstances. Does the tradition of the novel tell us anything about a culture's sense of itself?
KH: I don't know. Both of my novels -- certainly the first one, which is a kind of coming-of-age story -- are far more influenced by my American experience than by my Afghan experience. I think we're going to see more and more writers from my native country embrace this form, rather than poetry, to write about their society and the things that shaped it, especially writers who live in exile and who have been exposed, as I have, to Western novels and the art of writing novels. Which is not to say that there aren't people writing novels in Afghanistan; but it's very hard to get a sense of what is being written there, given the limited resources available to people in terms of getting published and getting their work out to be read by the world at large. But I have a sense that going forward, particularly in the Afghan diaspora, we will see more of the kind of thing that I have tried to do with my writing.
JM: When you were a boy in Kabul, you saw a lot of films, as you have on occasion noted. Could you describe your youthful engagement with movies for us? Did it extend the possibilities of storytelling in your imagination, beyond what you knew from the oral traditions and the classic Persian literature you were exposed to?
KH: Oh, without a doubt. I've been told, and I think I recognize it, that there's a cinematic quality to my writing, with a sense of image and place and scene -- and, some would say, my tendency to finish my books the way Hollywood finishes its films. My experience with cinema as a boy was, to say the least, very eclectic, because Afghanistan was at the crossroads of all these different influences. You had the Russians importing Russian films, which I found, at the time at least, dreadfully tedious and plodding and morose. We also, obviously, were greatly influenced by Persian cinema, most of which was family dramas, with lots of fistfights! And, of course, Bollywood, with its over-the-top feast of color and music -- a kind of total sensory gluttony.
Then we had lots of films from the West, from France and also, obviously, from the United States. There seems to me, in retrospect, no rhyme nor reason to the selection of movies that were shown at that time in Afghanistan. You had the very Gothic horror movies of the 1950s, with Christopher Lee as Dracula and so on. You had the Tarzan movies with Johnny Weissmuller, and you had Westerns, both the classics, like The Magnificent Seven, and also B-movies that I recognize from time to time now when I flip through television. It was extremely eclectic. But I loved cinema from a very, very young age, and it's a medium that I continue to admire. And one that I don't eye with any particular suspicion. I know some novelists have an inherent distrust of the medium as an art form, but I don't. I still love film, and I think that my love for cinema undoubtedly influences my writing.
JM: When did you learn English?
KH: I learned it in the States when we moved here in the fall of 1980. We arrived in September, about two weeks before the start of the school year -- I was just starting high school -- and I knew only a handful of words. But they put me right into the regular freshman English classes. Actually, when I entered high school there were three levels of freshman English: there was 1A, 1B, 1C. 1A was for the really bright kids. 1B was for your average kids. And 1C was where you had your troublemakers and kids who had behavioral problems, I guess, or who were not particularly motivated -- and I started with them.
The most difficult thing, and in some ways the most embarrassing for me, was not knowing the language and not being able to communicate, and it made the high school experience for me . . . well, let's just say it's not an experience I look back on very fondly. I felt disengaged from much of high school culture, and at least during the first year it really had to do with language -- my just not understanding English. But eventually I picked it up. I've always had a fairly easy time learning languages, and by the start of my sophomore year, in September of '81, I was pretty fluent in English.
JM: You've said that, beginning at a very early age, you saw yourself as a writer. In light of the seismic language shift you've just described, I'd like to ask when the storytelling voice you carried inside your head changed from Farsi to English.
KH: It had already kind of switched from Farsi to French, because I had lived in France for a handful of years before that, and I was becoming really comfortable writing my short stories in French. Then, when I came to the States, obviously it took me some time to learn English, and I really didn't write much -- at least in English. I was still writing in French, and a little in Farsi, the first few years, just for myself. At some point before I graduated high school, I began to write in English. By the time I was a junior in high school, I was in the 3A class -- I was up there with the best students. We were reading John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, and we were reading Our Town and Upton Sinclair. It was a pretty good selection. By then, I felt at ease with English, and I had begun to find in my head a voice that spoke to me in English that I felt I could wield.
In the summers of those years, I worked as a security guard, so I would have long days of just sitting behind a desk. You really weren't supposed to read, but I would sneak in a paperback novel with me. I read a lot of genre fiction. I read mysteries and I read horror novels. And around this same time I began writing short stories in English. Suddenly I felt that there was a rhythmic cadence of English in my head, and I began to recognize a voice. That was probably around the end of high school, beginning of college.
JM: Were there any books that spoke to you with particular power at that time?
KH: Yes. The Grapes of Wrath was the first book that I read in English that spoke to me in a personal way. Part of my reaction, maybe, was a response to the fact that I had managed to get through this big book that had some stature in the history of American literature. I was proud of myself for that alone. But it spoke to me in other ways as well. Some of it had to do with what was going on in Afghanistan. By then, the Soviet war was in its fourth year, and the Afghan refugee situation was really becoming a major crisis. Millions of people were leaving home, and they were ending up homeless -- uprooted and disenfranchised and disenchanted. They also found themselves unwelcome in places where they were trying to settle and build a new life. Something about the plight of Steinbeck's Okies spoke to me in that sense.
JM: One of my favorite sentences in your two books appears near the beginning of A Thousand Splendid Suns. It's about Mariam -- you're describing when she's a girl. You write: "Mariam longed to place a ruler on a page and draw important-looking lines."
JM: That's such a striking encapsulation of the aspirations of a child. In both of your novels, you identify with young children quite closely, and the narrative follows them from very early youth into adulthood -- their lives shape the stories you tell. Did you frame each novel with a child's perspective by conscious decision, or was it an intuitive preference?
KH: On some level, it feels natural to me; again, part of it is my upbringing, for the stories we were told basically started with a childhood and ended with death. There's an old-fashioned quality to both of my books -- each is basically the story of a life. So it feels natural to me to start at the beginning. But I also feel a kinship with children, and I am very much intrigued by the relationship between child and parent. In Afghan society, parents play a central role in the lives of their children; the parent-child relationship is fundamental to who you are and what you become and how you perceive yourself, and it is laden with contradictions, with tension, with anger, with love, with loathing, with angst. I find it endlessly fascinating, the way children and their parents push and pull each other, and the way in which they both tear each other down and build each other up -- the way in which they hurt and soothe each other.
Both of my books, in some sense, have been about the loss of innocence. I think of my own childhood with a very fond heart. I had a beautiful childhood growing up in Afghanistan, and I'll always think of being a child in a very romantic way because of my own particular circumstances. So I always find myself drifting back to childhood, and writing, I guess, about my own childhood in some way.
JM: One of the reasons your books have been so beloved by readers, I suspect, is that, while you're writing about a culture that may not be familiar to non-Afghans, your ability to broadcast so clearly, if you will, from a child's wavelength strikes some universal chord that is evocative for many people; as a result, we're immediately linked to the protagonist more strongly than we might be if you had started with a teenager or a young adult whose experience might be more narrowly circumstantial and less broadly recognizable. I think of Dickens, who often takes us from the earliest consciousness of a child all the way through the adulthood of his or her central character. Following that thread is consoling, in a way, because we've shared something of the journey it marks ourselves.
KH: No matter where we're born, which countries we're raised in, what cultures we come from, there are some universal experiences we all have as children. I don't want to say that we're all the same, but we all kind of start the same. We want the love of our parents, we want companionship, we want friends, we want to have fun, we want to play, and we're all hurt the first time we learn that the world is a far from perfect place -- it's the start of a series of epiphanies and realizations that is what growing up is all about. The Kite Runner in particular is a story about childhood and disillusionment and growing up to be a less-than-perfect adult. I think in that book people see their own childhoods, even though the story is set in Kabul in the 1970s. People remember what it felt like to be a child, what it felt like to feel so passionately about things that, in the end, were so completely inconsequential. People remember how stable and permanent life felt when they were kids, when the notion that everything they'd ever known and loved could change -- the possibility that you would become something else -- was entirely absent. It doesn't matter if you're from New York or Kabul; at some level, kids are kids.
JM: To me, one of the most poignant aspects of The Kite Runner is Amir's father's experience in America. There's a section of the book that begins, "Baba loved the idea of America. It was living in America that gave him an ulcer." It's almost as if, for want of a better description, the novel of Amir's father in America hides quietly within the pages of The Kite Runner; that secret story reveals the sorrow of his immigrant life, the diminishment of the expansiveness and magnanimity which had been the soul of his being in Kabul. What was an opportunity for Amir, an opening-up of the world, was a closing-down for Baba. If I read that correctly, does it reflect your own experience in any way?
KH: You read it, I think, very correctly, and it certainly does reflect my own experience. Years ago, I began seeing my parents in a very different way than the way I used to see them in Afghanistan. Afghanistan -- I shouldn't say even Afghanistan, I should say Kabul -- was a small community, where virtually everybody knew each other. Not only did they know each other, but they knew who each other's parents and grandparents were, and who had married whose cousin and aunt and so on, for three generations back, who could trace their lineage to such-and-such king, and whose father had been minister of this or that. It was almost like a national pastime to figure out how people were related. There's a line in The Kite Runner that says, "Put two Afghans in a room, and within five minutes they'll realize how they're related." There's an element of truth to that.
In that environment, my parents were big players, and they had, I think, a very firm sense of identity, a very firm sense of self. When we came to the United States, the enormity of life here, and of the culture, diminished them in some way. It reduced them; it made them smaller. It's something that, at some level, I expected, but I was still surprised to witness it. They became a lot more human to me when we came here, especially my father, who was not unlike the Baba character in the book; he always has been a strongly principled person who is very charitable, and in Afghanistan he was widely respected in the society. When we came to the States, I think he felt in some ways bewildered by the changes that had come over us. He was 41 years old, with five kids, a wife, and a mother in tow, and he had to start a new life. He became an assembly line worker. He tried to sell insurance. He became a driving instructor. He didn't outwardly complain -- he never vocalized it -- but I can't help but imagine what it was like for him to reconcile his new self with the old one.
Those passages in The Kite Runner, in the middle of the book, were written over a very, very short period of time -- two or three weeks at most -- and the chapters almost flew right out of me. That's partly because what they detail is so closely related to my own experience of living as an Afghan in exile here in the Bay Area. Also, in my encounters with the Afghan community here, I met people from two ends of a spectrum. There are those who acknowledged the change in their realities and decided to make the best of it, passing the baton on to the next generation; they saw their lives now defined not by what they could do for themselves but rather what they could do for their children (which was pretty much my parents' approach). At the other end of the spectrum were people who just could never let go, people who became defeated by their new circumstances, who became depressed, who became more withdrawn, more recalcitrant, more resistant to change, who clung to what they once had with increasing zeal; among these were people who clung to the hope that Afghanistan would finally emerge from the darkness, that it would somehow magically become again what it had been in the '70s, and that they would one day be able to return and slip right back into their old identities. The character who represents this view in The Kite Runner, obviously, is the General.
So yes, I think that little section of The Kite Runner is probably closer to my actual life than any other section in the novel.
JM: It's very powerful. It has haunted my imagination for some time.
KH: Thank you.
JM: You've said that one of your intentions in your second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, was to help "breathe life, depth, and emotional subtext into the two-dimensional image of the Afghan woman in a burqa walking down the street."
JM: I was reminded of that by the article you wrote a few weeks ago, for the Washington Post, about the tenor of the presidential campaign . That piece begins, "I prefer to discuss politics through my novels, but I am truly dismayed these days. Twice last week alone, speakers at McCain-Palin rallies have referred to Senator Barack Obama, with unveiled scorn, as Barack Hussein Obama." You go on to discuss what you saw as the Republican candidates' lack of moral courage, evidenced by their failure to denounce such fomenting of prejudice and division. You ask of Senator McCain and Governor Palin, "Do they not understand the kind of fire they are playing with?" In light of your own experience, you recognized great danger where participants in the rallies, and the candidates themselves perhaps, saw only a kind of high-spirited rabble-rousing.
KH: I found the entire business highly distasteful. I am not a person who takes offense easily, and I am not a person who looks for offense in every uttered word. Thankfully, it seems to have died down, although you never know. What was going on, I felt, was so blatant and so ugly that I felt I had to say something. Part of it has to do with the fact that I actually, for many years, had a great sense of respect for Senator McCain and his experience, and the kind of political leader he appeared to be. I was rooting for him very hard back in 2000. But watching him at those rallies, I couldn't help but get the sense that he had made a Faustian deal to allow this hatefulness to go on if it got him elected. I'd always thought, and I still do, that on some level he's much better than that, that he is a man of principle and honor and dignity; I could almost see that side of his nature reflected in his body language. But what was going on at those rallies was really loathsome, and his and his running mate's response to what was going on was tepid.
I know McCain was trying to defend Obama when that confused lady got up and said, "I don't trust him; he's an Arab," and McCain took the mike and said, "No, no, he's a decent family man." His intentions may have been good, and it was unintentionally hum
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