Afghanistan Had long been the very definition of remote. Tucked away in the inside pages of newspapers for decades, it suddenly became the centre of global attention when it was invaded by the USA to oust the Taliban in 2001. Shocking stories poured out every day – the terrorism, the violence, the brutality, the tortured women – all things the world at large had chosen to ignore.
And then, in 2003, came a book by a first-time author. And the country of cold, grisly headlines captured the hearts and minds of millions across the globe. All it took was The Kite Runner.
Khaled Hosseini is perhaps the most well-known Afghan in the world. The Kite Runner was a heartbreaking story of an Afghan living in California who returns to Kabul to redeem himself of the guilt of shunning a childhood friend. In 2007, Hosseini released his second work, A Thousand Splendid Suns, a profound tale of two women and how their lives change through Afghanistan’s tumultuous decades. Both books, at heart, are a narrative of Afghan life – of human experience during war and how it brings out the best and worst in people. They’ve sold 38 million copies across 70 countries.
Hosseini wasn’t always a writer. He was a doctor in Los Angeles, although he enjoyed writing stories, even as a child. And it is ironic that when he wrote his first book, he hadn’t been to Afghanistan since 1976 when he was merely 11 years old.
Hosseini was born in Kabul in 1965, the most peaceful time in the history of modern Afghanistan. Luckily for them, the Hosseinis moved to Paris (where his father was a diplomat at the Afghan embassy) just two years before the communist coup in 1978. As things got worse in Afghanistan – the Soviets invaded in 1979 – the family knew they couldn’t go back. “From our apartment in Paris, we received regular news of family members, friends, or acquaintances who had been imprisoned, tortured, killed, or had gone missing,” the author recalls. In 1980, when he was 15, the family gained asylum in America.
It’s where Hosseini learnt English, became a doctor, married and had two children. All far from the turmoil of his homeland.
So where do the stories come from?
At first, they were derived from what he heard at weddings, parties, at small Afghan gatherings in America and from accounts of other Afghan exiles, many of whom had lived under the Taliban. And from news reports. Now, they also come from his visits to Afghanistan after 2003.
A few weeks before the release of his latest book, And The Mountains Echoed, he spoke to Brunch on the phone from his home in California, about his life, his books and Afghanistan. Excerpts from the interview..
And The Mountains Echoed is your first book that doesn’t deal with the Taliban. Is it a conscious effort to move past the Taliban in your writing?
I had written about it already in both my previous books. And I didn’t want to dwell on the same thing again. I also felt no responsibility, because I was born in Afghanistan, to write about something that’s going on in Afghanistan right now.
I’m a novelist. I see my role as someone who is guided by ideas that compel him. And for me, it wasn’t a conscious effort not to write about the Taliban. It’s just that it doesn’t appeal to me at this point anymore. Because I really didn’t want to retrace my steps.
But also, the way these characters were formed in my mind; they were characters that grappled with things that didn’t play out in a large political war, things far more intimate – loss of home, loss of parents or a child, trying to reconnect with your family...
What inspired you to write it?
When I travelled to Afghanistan with the UN Refugee Agency to visit returning Afghan refugees in 2007, one of the most striking parts of that trip was learning from village elders about the devastation that Afghanistan’s notoriously brutal winters visited upon impoverished villagers, routinely taking the lives of the young, the elderly, the sick and disabled. I listened with a mix of horror and admiration to the tales of survival, the lengths to which they went to protect their families through the cold season. I tried to picture what I would do under those circumstances.
A family began to take shape in my mind – not unlike the many I had visited. At the heart of this family, I pictured a young brother and sister, who become the unwitting victims of their family’s despair. The novel begins, then, with this single act of desperation, of sacrifice, that ruptures the family and ultimately becomes the tree trunk from which the novel’s many branches spread out.
How long did it take to write the book?
This book didn’t actually take six years to write, although it has been six years since the publication of my last novel. I spent a year just forming ideas, just to find a proper voice to follow. I spent one year taking care of my father who became very ill. This novel was started a month before my father died, in November 2009. So I spent about two-and-a-half years actually writing this book.
Idris, one of the main characters in your new book, a doctor like you were, often feels guilty about living a comfortable life in America. Do you?
You know, I have been extremely fortunate. I’ve had a very good career, a very good life. And my living circumstances are not that different from those of Idris. So I share some of the sentiments about Afghans living in exile and some of the conflicts he faces when he goes home.
When I go back to Afghanistan, I realise it was just pure genetic lottery that I ended up where I am right now. Nothing more than chance separates me from a family of refugees living in a camp in Pakistan.
When you take stock of everything, the life you’re living, and compare it to the obstacles other people are facing, it’s human to feel a sense of guilt. That’s partly the reason I started the foundation [The Khaled Hosseini Foundation provides humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan] – to try to turn that into something positive, something that can make a difference in people’s lives.
Hosseini talking with Mohammed Ibrahim (right) a nomad leader in a tent colony of squatters outside Kabul in 2009
Social boundaries are quite rigid in South Asia. But in your books, people from different backgrounds form intimate relationships. Did those lines blur in Afghanistan at the time? Or does it just make for a good story?
I think it makes for a good story. Although, in Afghanistan, those social boundaries were certainly prevalent but not quite as formal and rigid as they are in India.
For me, what’s interesting about this is that while growing up in an impoverished country, even in an upper-crust, middle-class, semi-Westernised family like mine, you live right next door to poverty. All you do is just walk down the street and you see abject poverty and you can’t escape the two things living side by side. It’s a fact of life. This opulent lifestyle right next door to poverty is fascinating to me. It’s something I used to write about even as a child.
What’s your life like in the US now?
I have two children, I live in a suburban area in northern California in San Jose. I send my kids off to school in the morning and then I try to write from around 9am to 2pm. Then they come home and I kind of become a dad to them. I travel with them in the summer...
So, you’re absolutely American now
I’m not absolutely American and I’m not absolutely Afghan! I spend little time thinking about these issues unless somebody asks me in an interview [laughs]. I’ve learnt organically to live this hyphenated life, you know, with my Afghan side and my American side. I’ve lived here for 30 years. Inevitably, American Western sensibilities have seeped into my identity and personality.
But, every time I go to Afghanistan and the plane is about to land in Kabul, I feel a surge of emotion. I think to myself, this is where I was born, where I was loved for the first time, where I learnt to speak, to walk. A very strong bond will always be there. Obviously, the bond is far less for my children. They’ve never been to Afghanistan; I hope to take them one day when it’s more peaceful, and as a parent, I’m less paranoid about them being hurt. I want to show them the city where I was raised. That’s a dream for the time being.
What do you think will happen to Afghanistan when the US withdraws troops in 2014?
I think the next few years will be a time of uncertainty and anxiety, probably marked by continued political instability and spikes of violence, even as the country moves gradually toward some form of peace negotiations with the insurgents. The path to peace promises to be a treacherous one, as there is no clear leadership structure on the Taliban side, and the conditions each party will bring to the table are likely to create, at least for some time, a series of impasses.
I’m still cautiously optimistic that peace is a possibility. Though I do fear – with the withdrawal of the West – a return to the chaos and ethnic civil wars of the ’90s, I’m also hopeful that important lessons have been learnt from that catastrophe and that the various factions have come to see the dividends of peace. Of course, outside parties have to observe and respect Afghanistan’s sovereignty and allow Afghans to attain their own peace.
Your books are so emotional, unlike writing coming from the West. Why do you think your writing appeals to a Western reader?
Yes, my books are more or less set in Afghanistan, but at their heart they’re family stories. They’re about parents and their children, about love, loss and about wanting to belong to something. Those are very human experiences. No matter where you’re from, you can identify with that.
The success of both my books continues to bewilder me! I just have to believe that people find something of themselves in my stories.
I think, modern, contemporary fiction shies away from the emotional because they fear they might seem sentimental, which appears to be the great crime of writing contemporary fiction. And there’s a respect for writing that is comical or analytical. And a kind of frowning on fiction that is strong on emotions. They call it ‘pulling the heartstrings’.
But none of that is of much concern to me. I write my stories the way that I feel them in my heart.
You write from the point of view of men, women, children... is it as effortless as you make it seem?
You’re very kind to say that, first of all, thank you. But nothing about writing is easy, ever, ever! Not a single moment in the entire writing process is easy. Everything comes with pain, effort, and is unpleasant. Your only hope is that after the suffering there is something that can be salvaged, something that can make you happy… Every single word that is on the pages of this book is a struggle.
Excerpts from the book
The last discovery was, in some ways the most surprising to Adel. The revelations of what he now knew his father had done – first in the name of Jihad, then for what he had called the just rewards of sacrifice – had left Adel reeling. At least for a while. For days after that evening the rocks had come crashing through the window, Adel’s stomach ached whenever his father walked into the room. He found his father barking into his mobile phone, or even heard him humming in the bath, and he felt his spine crumpling, his throat going painfully dry. His father kissed him good night, and Adel’s instinct was to recoil. He had nightmares. He dreamt he was standing at the edge of the orchards, watching a thrashing about among the trees, the glint of a metal rod rising and falling, the sound of metal striking meat and bone. He woke from these dreams with a howl locked in his chest. Bouts of weeping side-swiped him at random moments.
Something else was happening as well. The new awareness had not faded from his mind, but slowly it had found company. Another, opposing current of consciousness coursed through him now, one that did not displace the first but claimed space beside it. Adel felt an awakening to this other, more troubling part of himself. The part of him that over time would gradually, almost imperceptibly, accept this new identity that at present prickled like a wet wool sweater. Adel saw that, in the end, he would probably accept things as his mother had. Adel had been angry with her at first; he was more forgiving now. Perhaps she had accepted out of fear of her husband. Or as a bargain for the life of luxury she led. Mostly, Adel suspected, she had accepted for the same reason he would; because she had to. What choice was there? Adel could not run from his life any more than Gholam could from his. People learned to live with the most unimaginable things. As would he. This was his life. This was his mother. This was his father. And this was him, even if he hadn’t always known it.
Adel knew he would not love his father again as he had before, when he would sleep happily curled in the bay of his thick arms. That was inconceivable now. But he would learn to love him again even if now it was a different, more complicated, messier business. Adel could almost feel himself leapfrogging over childhood. Soon, he would land as an adult. And when he did, there would be no going back because adulthood was akin to what his father had once said about being a war hero: once you became one, you died one.
Bloomsbury, pp 416, price: Rs. 599
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4. Where did Amir live with his father in The Kite Runner?
5. What was Mariam’s mother’s name in A Thousand Splendid Suns?
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This interview has been condensed and edited. For the complete interview, click here
From HT Brunch, May 26
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