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Author Husseini Discusses Latest Book

June 15, 2007 at 6:45 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: From the 30-year tragedy of Afghanistan, the Soviet invasion and occupation, sectarian fighting that destroyed many parts of the country, the terror of Taliban rule came a novel that grew mostly by word of mouth into a publishing phenomenon. “The Kite Runner” has, to date, sold some four million copies.

Its author, Khaled Hosseini, was born in Kabul in 1965, but left as a boy with his family. He grew up in California and practiced medicine before turning to writing. In 2003, he made his first return trip to Afghanistan, and the experience led to a new novel, “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” which portrays the trials of two generations of Afghan women.

KHALED HOSSEINI, Author, “The Kite Runner”: I grew up in the ’70s, back when Afghanistan was at peace, Kabul was this reasonably thriving, cosmopolitan city. When I went back to Kabul in 2003, it had been through more than two decades of warfare. So I saw an overpopulated, crowded city, much of which was neglected, some of which was non-existent.

I spent most of my time talking to people, to men, women, children, the young and the elderly, and they told me these intricate stories of what life was like under the Soviets, what life was like when the Mujahedeen were fighting, what was it like to live under the rule of the Taliban. And there were incredibly vivid stories that they told me.

For instance, one man told me that there was a painter who had these beautiful paintings of portraits, but the Taliban banned the painting of human faces. And so he used water color and painted over the faces of his human figures in his paintings. And after the Taliban left, he simply washed it off.

JEFFREY BROWN: Washed away the water color?

KHALED HOSSEINI: Washed away the water color, and the faces came back. So I came back with this wealth of stories and anecdotes and details, so when I wrote this novel, I could reflect back on these things and try to create a convincing Kabul for these characters.

Telling an Afghan woman's story

JEFFREY BROWN: What about how you, yourself, feel? One of the main characters in "Kite Runner," when he returns, talks about feeling like a tourist in his own country. Was it like that for you?

KHALED HOSSEINI: Well, that line proved prophetic, because I wrote that line before I went to Kabul. And when I went to Kabul, I experienced the exact same sentiment as this character that I created. And I felt like a tourist in Kabul because I had been gone for 27 years.

I felt I was at home, on one hand, because I knew the language, the culture, the music, the sounds and the smells, but on the other hand, I'd been away for so long, and I did feel like an outsider to some extent.

JEFFREY BROWN: The new novel focuses on women, and it's a very painful story. One of the characters sets the tone early on to say that, really, for women in Afghanistan, it's a question of enduring.

KHALED HOSSEINI: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: That's really what they have to hope for. Why did you want to tell a story through the eyes and story of women?

KHALED HOSSEINI: It's a story that I can't imagine not telling as an Afghan writer. I mean, so much has happened to women in Afghanistan, especially in the past 15 years. They've been beaten, humiliated. They've been in prison. They've had their human rights violated. They've been forced into marriage, prostitution.

And, you know, it's just a very compelling, tragic, and relevant story. And I would see these women in burqa walking down the street, six, seven children trailing them, and the novelist in me would always wonder, you know, what's behind that? Who are they? What is she thinking? What are her hopes? What are her dreams? What is she longing for? What is she afraid of? What is she hope life will bring to her?

JEFFREY BROWN: I read that you even tried on a burqa.

KHALED HOSSEINI: I tried on a burqa there. I tried it on as a child. And, you know, the novelist in me -- this book, I guess -- is my way of looking behind the veil, as it were, and to look at the humanity behind the veil, and try to breathe some life into this very two-dimensional burqa-clad image that has become so iconic now.

Engaging the reader

JEFFREY BROWN: It's interesting to me, you keep saying "the novelist in me." Do you write -- what comes first, is to give an idea or some concept of this country? Or is it to tell a particular story?

KHALED HOSSEINI: Well, it's both. I mean, I want to tell a story that's compelling, that is moving, that will engage the reader and transport them purely on a literary level. But, you know, this novel, especially as an Afghan, I felt it was a very important and compelling story, which was very relevant, and I wanted to tell that story.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean the story of Afghanistan?

KHALED HOSSEINI: Of Afghanistan, particularly of Afghan women. So I kind of like to think this novel, at the risk of sounding a little grandiose, as my tribute to Afghan women, to their endurance, their resilience, and their ongoing struggle.

JEFFREY BROWN: At one point, one of the main characters, Laila, she says to herself, you write, "She's marveling at how every Afghan story is marked by death, and loss, and unimaginable grief." Now, as a writer, that's hard to convey, isn't it? I mean, it's hard to put that forward over the course of a novel.

KHALED HOSSEINI: It is, but my writing has always been on the dark side. And so I feel in my element writing about Afghanistan. I've been following what's going on in Afghanistan for the better part of two decades now. And so I feel these stories are based on truth. My writing is dark. Terrible things happen to really good people in my novels, but I feel that reflects the reality on the ground.

JEFFREY BROWN: You also, along with the horror of the situation, you have some details that might surprise people. You talk about, when the movie "Titanic" comes out, and there's "Titanic" fever in Kabul.

KHALED HOSSEINI: There is.

JEFFREY BROWN: But people can't see the movie.

KHALED HOSSEINI: But they still manage to. The Taliban had a very tight grip on all form of artistic expression, including film. But when "Titanic" came to Kabul around the year 2000, it was an enormous hit. And people would smuggle it from Pakistan in all kinds of creative ways and then, at night, when the lights went out, they would put drapes on the windows and play "Titanic" on their VCRs and watch it.

I think it gave people this extravagant piece of old-fashioned Hollywood filmmaking in a very, very grim and dark time in their lives. And people went to extreme to watch this movie and sometimes pay for it by being publicly punished.

Personal responsibility?

JEFFREY BROWN: I can't help but ask, do you look at all of this that's happened to you with some sense of wonder, a California childhood, a doctor, a best-selling writer, looking at a country and a life that you, yourself, escaped?

KHALED HOSSEINI: I'm continually astonished at what's happened to me and my writing. I mean, "The Kite Runner" is such an unlikely success story in many ways. You know, it's almost how not to write a best-seller.

And you take this borderline unlikable central character, and you set the story in this remote place that many people know nothing about...

JEFFREY BROWN: And don't know where it is, in a lot of cases.

KHALED HOSSEINI: ... and don't know where it is, and you make the story very dark, where these horrible things happen to these lovable characters. And that's not the formula for how to write a best-seller, so I appreciate the irony of what's happened to me, and I'm continually astonished.

But I think there's something about my writing that apparently appeals to people at a very emotional level. Fiction speaks to the universal human experience, to our ability to connect as people first. And, yes, my novels are about love, and they're set in Afghanistan, but they're about forgiveness, they're about love, they're about friendship, and these are not "Afghan experiences," per se. They're human experiences, and people find something in these novels that speak to them.

JEFFREY BROWN: You said earlier that you think of this new book as a kind of tribute?

KHALED HOSSEINI: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you feel some sort of personal responsibility to tell Afghanistan's story?

KHALED HOSSEINI: I'm ambivalent about that to some extent, because sometimes people pass me the mantle of Afghan ambassador, Afghan spokesperson, which...

JEFFREY BROWN: Because most of us, a lot of people know about Afghanistan through your books.

KHALED HOSSEINI: That to me sometimes feels like a prickly sweater. On the other hand, it's a little hypocritical because I went into the writing of this novel with kind of a mission in mind. And I really felt what had happened to Afghan women -- incidentally long before the Taliban came -- what happened to Afghan women was so relevant and was so riveting that I felt kind of a personal responsibility to tell at least a slice of that story.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Khaled Hosseini, thank you very much for talking to us.

KHALED HOSSEINI: It was my pleasure. Thank you.