An Afghan boy runs after catching a kite on a hilltop in Kabul on November 2, 2012. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)
Khaled Hosseini first took us on a tumultuous journey to 1970s Afghanistan in the 2003 best-seller The Kite Runner, and followed it up in 2007 with A Thousand Splendid Suns, a novel about two women in Hosseini's homeland. On May 21, his third novel, And the Mountains Echoed, hits store shelves. Unlike his previous works, it jumps across continents, weaving together a tale about love and loss across generations. Here, the author talks about his newest title, his view on writing, and his hopes for Afghanistan with Wajahat Ali, a writer and attorney.
Your first two novels were set mostly in Afghanistan. For your latest, the narrative, although rooted in Afghanistan, branches out across generations, time periods, and the globe: Greece, Paris, and California. What inspired you to "leave Afghanistan" and tackle a global canvas?
"Family is so central to Afghan life. It's the way you understand yourself, those around you, and how you perceive yourself in the world as part of this whole."
It was a conscious decision, and the natural flow of the book demanded it to be more global. I wanted to create a story-world that didn't necessarily begin with Kabul and end in Kandahar. I wanted to expand the geographic milieu for my characters in part because I've travelled a lot in the past 10 years and I wanted to stretch my literary legs as a writer. Many writers write boundless and wonderful books practically set in the same town for their entire career, and I admire them for that, but I wanted to go out for a breath of fresh air.
This book started so small, so small, with such a simple idea of a father and his two little children walking across the desert toward Kabul, and it just kept snowballing. And I had this particular image of this trunk of a tree with all these branches that went everywhere -- it wasn't a conscious decision to say I'm going to go France now, and then Greece, it just sort of developed organically that way. I wanted to see how far this story echoed and how many lives it could touch. I was excited to explore that.
You're also experimenting with style and structure. Each chapter shares a unique perspective from a different character but is connected to the overall mosaic. One chapter is in the form of a letter, another is a magazine interview, and most resemble short stories. Why break with traditional form and employ an unorthodox approach for this particular novel?
I was interested in looking at people and situations from different points of view. I thought the magazine interview (set in Paris) was a perfect vehicle to get inside the mind of this woman, a complicated poet, and get her idea of how she understands herself, her life, the world she was raised in and how she understands her place in it. Because we've seen her before in an earlier chapter, and she's been described through the eyes of her Afghan chauffer; she's also being described by her own daughter in the later chapters. So, we have these different accounts of a single person full of contradictions and conflicts and we get to see her from multiple angles.
This is unlike the sort of archetypal characters I wrote in Kite Runner. There weren't too many ways of interpreting those characters, like Hassan, who was such a lovely, angelic character. But there are different ways of interpreting this woman. That's what this shifting perspective and structure allowed me to do; see different people in different situations in different storylines from various angles.
Throughout the novel, I noticed the characters have a persistent need and search for an existing but absent love -- one that is eventually earned but often at a burdensome cost. For most characters, it seems sacrifice is necessary to truly appreciate and understand love's reality. This reoccurs in all your novels. What keeps drawing you to this theme?
You're right. It's something I'm drawn to. The very first chapter of this book, which is a fable, sets up questions that are raised throughout the book, albeit in a realistic way and not an allegorical way. It begins with the notion of "family." I'm from Afghanistan, and family is so central to Afghan life. It's the way you understand yourself, those around you, and how you perceive yourself in the world as part of this whole.
That opening fable asks what does family mean to you? To what length will you protect its unity? How far will you climb for it? How would you measure your own personal happiness or what you owe to those around you? Are you capable of inflicting a deep, resounding loss upon yourself out of love for someone else -- for the greater good? Also, I'm interested in the role of memory. In the fable, the div (a supernatural creature in Afghan folklore) gives the father, Baba Ayub, a potion and relieves him of the burden and pain of remembering his son, whom the div has captured and hidden in his fortress). This recurs at the end of the book with the character Abdullah.
Is memory how we make sense of the life that we've lived? Or is it a protector of that part of us that shine brightest? Or is it a curse that makes you re-live over and over the parts that hurt and pain you? Or is it both? These themes are raised in this relatively short fable but are revisited over and over in the novel.
You touched upon memory. What do you believe is the future of Afghan narratives and storytellers? Can it, and should it, escape the memory of 9-11 and finally move beyond discussions of the war on terror, the Taliban, and a narrative often associated with "the graveyard of empires."
As a writer living in exile, it's easier for me to do. Because my immediate reality is not living on the streets of Kabul where on every corner I can see a living reminder and living relic of the tragedy of the past 30 some-odd years. My reality of living in the U.S. is different and the distance affords me a compulsion to write about that is not as powerful as if I was writing from ground zero in Kabul. I think the enormity of what's happened to Afghanistan is far too powerful a black hole -- a vortex -- and a far too great a looming presence in the daily life of Afghan writers living there. Ultimately, you hope for a day when there's stories, songs, poetry coming out of Afghanistan that have nothing to do with the painful realities of the past 30 years. But, I think it's too early. I think the story is still unfolding. I think people are still licking their wounds, and there are people literally walking around still wounded, also psychologically wounded. It's far too great a reality to turn away from.
Speaking about stories, you've said that in Western media, "There are still myths about Afghanistan , such as that the country is stuck in the 12th century. There is an element of romanticism too, as well as the idea that Afghans hate the west." Your novel Kite Runner remains one of the most popular, mainstream narratives of Afghanistan for many Americans. There's been a criticism that your narratives have been used to promote stereotypical generalizations of Afghans and certain political agendas. What's your response?
I thought the perception of the region was more nuanced than it got credit for in The Kite Runner . The criticism is often leveled at me by older, more conservative, religious members of my community who feel the books have somehow blemished the reputation of Afghanistan in Western eyes. I don't see it that way. Most of my Western readers -- particularly Americans I've met for a better of a decade now -- never have that impression. My understanding is that the books have depicted a far different picture of Afghanistan that my accusers seems to fear it has.
Most readers have come away with a sense of empathy for Afghanistan and its people; there's been awareness of the richness of its culture, its heritage and its history. And as a result of connecting with the characters of my novels, they have achieved a more nuanced understanding of Afghanistan, and they certainly feel a sense of personal stake when they hear about an Afghan village being bombed. I've received emails and letters to this effect. So, many of these fears are unfounded. And I think by and large, I hope my novels have raised the profile of Afghanistan in a constructive and hopefully instructive way.
You say Kite Runner is an example of pop culture being constructive and instructive. You've also mentioned that American shows depicting Muslims and the Middle East, such as Homeland , need to be done in a "responsible way" and not push an agenda. What is your opinion of America's depiction of Central Asia and Muslims; if it's negative, how do you counteract it using storytelling?
I think it's transforming. In our traditional mainstream media news, I think there's far too many stories dealing with "the radicalized Muslim." We get a lot of those stories in the news media, and I do understand that -- I certainly think this is timely given what happened in Boston. Just like in Afghanistan, the story of 9-11 still looms large even more than a decade after it happened. That said, I do hope we can move away from that.
I see an opportunity for America to engage with the Muslim world. Perhaps we haven't done it to the fullest extent. For example, in Afghanistan, we're looking at a very young population -- over 60 percent of Afghans are under the age of 25. And most of them are not radicalized or have any hopes or desires of becoming radicalized. There are people with energy, vigor, entrepreneurial dreams; people who want to engage the modern world through technology and education, and I hope we move towards a form of engagement with the Muslim world that is more constructive than simply depicting large sections of a billion people under umbrellas that are pejorative.
Speaking about new narratives, I want to go back to this novel in which you seem very comfortable merging classical, Afghan folklore storytelling with modern narrative fiction. This particular novel casually references the supernatural, such as divs and jinns. Often, it seems Western fiction condescends and rejects the mystical in favor of realism. Do you think Western fiction could benefit, or learn, from Afghan storytelling?
"Over 60 percent of Afghans are under the age of 25. And most of them are not radicalized or have any hopes or desires of becoming radicalized. There are people with energy, vigor, entrepreneurial dreams."
There is room for everything. I think if you reject a certain kind of storytelling you handicap yourself and limit your options. I think current Western contemporary fiction rejects even more than the mythical, it rejects the "sentimental" story. An instinct that has any aspirations of appealing to the reader on a deep emotional level is occasionally branded as sentimental in a kind of professorial, condescending way. My background has never been in literature. I've gone to medical school. So, I don't consider myself part of "that" world. So what is said does not affect me all that much. But I do think we are seeing an enrichment of contemporary fiction in this country by the rise of new, young voices from Pakistan, India, Iran and hopefully Afghanistan. This can only add dialogue, make it more interesting and instructive as well.
Aside from your career as a novelist, you've spent considerable time and energy as a goodwill ambassador to Afghanistan. That nation has endured decades of warfare and tragedy, most recently the post 9-11 U.S. invasion. What are the grievances that Afghans have with the U.S.? Is the rift irreparable, or can the wounds be healed?
There's an abandonment complex in Afghanistan which had its origin in the wake of the Afghan-Soviet war. I'll relate the generic Afghan voice I've heard over and over again in many Afghan communities, which says that once the Afghan-Soviet war was over and Afghanistan had served its purpose by playing a major role in the downfall of the Soviet Empire and ending the Cold War, the West abandoned Afghanistan and its people. Afghanistan was then exploited by thugs, the militia men, the Taliban and so forth. That is the main grievance leveled against the U.S. and its allies by the Afghan people. That has echoes to what we're seeing in Afghanistan now.
Afghan people are a sovereign people. It's well-documented that they don't like foreigners on their soil. However, there is an anxiety, a sense of trepidation about what will happen once U.S. and NATO forces fall back in 2014. Are we going to see a repeat scenario that we witnessed after the Soviet War? Is the country going to unravel and revert back to ethnic war of the 1990's? Is there going to be mass displacement of ethnic populations? Are we going to see another Afghan refugee crisis? Are we going to see the return of power of peoples for whom democratic ideals are not a priority? These are the views of the Afghan people, and the grievances they have against the West. They want the West to assure them they won't abandon them so it reverts back to this previous state.
We should remember that a great deal of promises were made to Afghanistan after 9-11. I happen to be one of those that say that significant things have been accomplished in Afghanistan. There's been improvement in the health care sector, education sector, and personal freedoms and so on. For many Afghans, however, the reality they currently face falls short of the expectations they had after the U.S. invasion of 2001. Much of that is also leveled against the current Afghan government and its shortcomings and inability to provide for the Afghan people.
Afghanistan's problems seem so overwhelming and insurmountable. What is the proper way for Americans to "help" Afghanistan and Afghan people?
People need to understand who the Afghans are and their wishes and aspirations. There's a myth that suggests that Afghans want the U.S. and the West to just give them all the money in the world and rebuild their country for them. I think it's important for Westerners to know that's not the case and it's not a constructive way to view Afghans.
Afghans are not beggars; they are fiercely proud and extremely resourceful. They are a very determined people who want to rebuild their country. What the Afghans do want is economic and civic space to accomplish these things. It's been a challenge to deliver this to them in the past 10 years. The U.S. has done some of it but it hasn't gone that far. There are more aid organizations in Afghanistan than you can count and the rebuilding needs are massive.
There is a fatigue when it comes to Afghanistan. This is a particular concern of my own. The Afghan narrative, I have noticed personally, has changed a lot in the past 10 years. People seem far more receptive to the idea of "let's support Afghanistan and its people, let's invest in the country and let's rebuild," but it's very hard to get traction for that particular story.
I understand why because this war has been long and costly in all sorts of ways. As an Afghan I can't help but hope that the gains that have been made in Afghanistan - and they are significant - that those gains are not lose once more when the U.S. packs its bags and leaves.
You have had a unique journey toward becoming a storyteller. A child of immigrants, you first became a physician and then a novelist at 36. In many immigrant communities, children are told to abandon their creative ambitions to pursue the safety of the "holy trinity" of professions: doctor, engineer, and businessman. As such, many of us have become successful professionals, but we haven't produced many modern artists. What's your advice to the aspiring creatives, especially the children of immigrants, who want to pursue their artistic passions but must deal with immense family and community pressures?
This is a brilliant question and touches upon something I've experienced firsthand. I think this is something that will sort itself out. Because the reality for the next generation, for example my children, is very, very different from mine.
When I came to the United States with my family in 1980, there were nine of us. We lived in a small house near East San Jose. We lived on welfare. In that kind of incredibly stringent, stressful environment where day-to-day life was uncertain and you're living on government sponsored aid, the idea of nurturing artistic aspirations is esoteric at best. You develop a sense that the world is unstable and you must make your future solid and stable and you have to make sure you never end up in this position again. For the parents, they think "Okay, our life is gone, but for the children, we have to make sure they don't live a life like this." So, they instilled in us the idea of getting a "serious" profession and the whole idea of "the holy trinity" that you mentioned.
I already see it being different for my children. I have a 10-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old boy and I don't think I've once told them that I want them to be a doctor, engineer, or lawyer, and I don't think I do want them to be those things. They live in a completely different world than I do with far more opportunities, far more chances, far more leisure to choose exactly what it is that speaks to them so they can pursue it.
I wanted to be a writer so badly growing up that coming to America as a 15 year old, not speaking a word of English, it seemed outlandish that I would make a living writing stories in a language I didn't speak. I think the next generation we will see musicians and artists and poets and painters and our usual motley crew of physicians and engineers and lawyers.
Rumi, the spiritual poet of Islam, was born in Afghanistan and wrote those beautiful words in Farsi. At the same time, we see that the Taliban's interpretation of Islam has initiated a reign of religious terror for the Afghan people. As a person who has lived in Afghanistan and frequently gone back, what role should religion play in modern Afghanistan, and can it be reclaimed from tyrants?
I wish it was quite that simple. I don't think the terrorists have necessarily co-opted the religion. I think the insurgents have conveniently and strategically tapped into an existing mindset in Afghanistan. Islam is alive in every facet of Afghan life. It dominates everything.
I am more or less a Westernized person at this point. I believe strongly in the separation of church and state. However, I'm not so naïve to think that day is coming for Afghanistan. Right there in the Afghan constitution it states that no law of the land shall contradict the principles of Islam, and that's open to all sorts of troublesome interpretations. For the time being, I see religion playing an important, dominant role in Afghan life, politics, and culture. Afghanistan is a deeply pious country. That's just the way it is.
The Taliban has taken religious principles to unacceptable extremes for the majority of the Afghan population. There is very little public support for the Taliban and polls have borne that out. But, it's not like the Taliban came and invented the burqa or child brides. The nucleus of those things were alive and well in the culture -- not everywhere, but certainly in the tribal provinces. There's certainly modernism in Kabul, but most of Afghanistan is rural and much of it is very, very conservative.
There is room for everything. I think if you reject a certain kind of storytelling you handicap yourself and limit your options.
Your book begins with this famous English translation of a classic Rumi quote: "Out beyond of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I'll meet you there." They say in the 21st century the world is a battleground. So, where is this field and how do you think we can reach it?
The more we understand that we are connected; the more we understand that what happens in another region of the world echoes with us. The more we understand that we no longer live in a world that is insular, where the actions of other people, the fate of other people, the plight of other people who are different from us have no bearing on our life. The more that we understand those things, the more we will identify with each other. We will realize we all have common goals. It behooves us to help each other. It behooves us to come to each other's aid.
On the few occasions that people have asked me to speak at commencement ceremonies, the message I always tell this coming generation is that you cannot afford to say that you are alone. You cannot afford to pretend that what happens in Afghanistan, in Somalia, in Peru has no bearing on you. It does. The days of our living in a compartmentalized existence on this planet are dying. We have the internet; our modern life has completely changed that. It'll never go back to the way it was.
I can only hope that we can be in the field once we see how connected we are and how we are part of one giant organism. I perhaps echo your question's sentimentalism and idealism with my answer.
Your critics accuse you of sentimentality, but your sentimentalism also makes your stories beloved to the masses. If you can be self-critical and do a self-audit, what are your strengths and weaknesses as a storyteller?
I think my strength is in telling a story. That's my strength. I can keep a reader's interest. I can bring a sense of anxiety to every page; bring a sense that something's at stake in every page. Certainly that's my goal, but to what extent I've achieved it is for the reader to decide. I also write in a way that emotionally resonates with the audience. I want something to be at stake emotionally for every story I write. To some extent, the readers feel the same.
My weaknesses? I have a long list. I'm well aware of my limitations as a writer. I will never be stylish. I will never have a particularly interesting prose. When I read contemporary fiction, I recognize prose that is beyond my grasp.
I do think I have a modest but sturdy set of skills that have served me very well. They have allowed me to create stories that to readers at least, feel very authentic and connect with them on a deep human and emotional level. And that's good enough for me.