Several times recently, I've spoken his name aloud and received, in return, a searching, amnesiac stare.
"The author of The Kite Runner," I clarify.
"Oh, right. Wow. I loved that book."
For whatever reason — first book syndrome? no decades-long track record? — some of the four million readers that made Khaled Hosseini's debut a publishing phenomenon can't immediately recall its author's name. Mention The Kite Runner, though, and a spell washes over their face, as if suddenly they're immersed again: Amir and Baba, Hassan and Sohrab...
Now, here comes Hosseini's follow-up, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and it's arguably a better book. In this tale of two vastly different Afghani women who come to share a husband and home, Hosseini writes with far more confidence, and more nuance. Splendid Suns confirms the talent, and vast potential, of an ambitious young novelist with a long career ahead.
"Never mind the sophomore slump," advises my coworker, Danielle Marshall. "As well as illuminating the rich history and familial culture behind war-torn Afghanistan, A Thousand Splendid Suns is filled with authentic relationships and characters that are absolutely haunting."
Dave: A lot has been made of the fact that The Kite Runner was a story about two men and, now, A Thousand Splendid Suns tells the story of two women. Aside from that, though, the new book is about Afghans who stayed in their country, the ones who didn't flee.
Khaled Hosseini: That first novel is an immigrant story. Amir and his father come to the States. Their life resembles mine to quite an extent, especially the immigrant experience.
The second novel is about people who stayed behind all the years that Amir and his father were going to the flea market in Fremont. They're in Afghanistan for the factional fighting; they're there to see the Taliban come to Kabul. Because of that, in this new novel, Kabul is even more of a character than it was in The Kite Runner.
Dave: Taking Amir back to the city after many years in America, Farid tells him, "Kabul is not the way you remember it." What is the lasting part of Kabul? What has withstood the shelling and the war?
Hosseini: Not much. When I went back, some of the neighborhoods were almost nonexistent. They were so badly destroyed that you're walking and it's almost like a sand castle, debris and walls and not much else. The better neighborhoods, the so-called more posh neighborhoods, by our standards looked terribly neglected, with huge potholes, broken windows, broken walls.
Some things remain. The school where I went, built by the French in the sixties, was in surprisingly good shape. It had been renovated and restored; it was full of students.
Some of the landmarks in Kabul are still there, but even those — for example, the big pleasure palace-slash-restaurant on top of the hill that overlooks the whole city — those landmarks are still standing but they've been badly damaged. The old palace that the king had built in the 1920s used to be very glamorous, full of splendor. It was supposed to capture some of that European glamour. It looks like a ghost house. It's been blown to pieces, a bunch of pillars. It's very sad.
Dave: So much political confusion clouds the Taliban's rise to power that Laila doesn't know which side is good, which is bad, and sometimes even who is fighting with or against whom.
Hosseini: Between 1992 and 1996, prior to the rise of the Taliban, the infighting between factions was violent and anarchic. It caused terrible destruction within Kabul and killed seventy thousand people in the city. And it was very confusing: all these different factions, aligned along ethnic lines generally, each with their own warlords-slash-commanders.
And they would shift allegiances. They would sign peace accords and then break them the next day. One would sign with one group for two months, and then they would switch and sign with another group. You never really know who was fighting who. It was confusing. Groups would capture certain parts of the city and then lose them, so one day you were under the authority of one faction and the next you were under the authority of another. It was chaotic.
Dave: It's estimated that seven or eight million people fled the country.
Hosseini: At the height, it was close to eight million. They fled when the Soviets invaded — a lot of the Afghan exiles living in the States came after the Soviet invasion. Then large numbers fled when the Mujahideen began infighting, and of course the Taliban caused another wave.
Dave: Mariam and Laila come from completely different backgrounds, economically and culturally, and different generations, but they wind up under the same roof.
Hosseini: The two women are very different. For me the heart of this novel, the What if? as I was writing, was, "What would happen if these two very different women wound up in the same household?" What would happen in that house? How would they deal with each other? What would be the dynamic? The heart of the novel became this nascent friendship.
Dave: Under the Taliban, a woman's livelihood depended upon how much freedom and respect the man in her house would give. Women had no recourse outside of the home, or outside the marriage.
Hosseini: They share a lot of hardships, Mariam and Laila. Outside the home, on the streets, the Mujahideen are blowing the city to pieces, or the Taliban are hanging people and whipping them and so on. Inside the home, this abusive man, Rasheed, has a lot of scorn for them and is basically an unrepentant misogynist.
Dave: At what point did you realize that A Thousand Splendid Suns would be told in the two women's voices? Kite Runner is told in Amir's first person voice, but here you use the third person from alternating perspectives.
Hosseini: It went through a lot of transformations, starting as a first person narrative with Mariam telling her story. Laila kept becoming a bigger character, until the novel became her story. Eventually I stepped back and realized both women were important, so next I tried two different perspectives, both first person. There was even a brief flirtation with an epistolary form. All of it felt very gimmicky.
This perspective, two voices both in third person, seemed to me the most natural and least obtrusive.
Dave: Laila and Tariq signal each other at night with flashlights. Like kites in the first novel, those flashlight games transcend geography. Whether we're American or Afghani, we'll recognize the game, which brings us a bit closer to the characters.
Hosseini: Whether you're in Portland or Kabul, kids like to shine mirrors and blind people with the light; they like to play with flashlights or throw rocks or whatever. It's what kids do growing up, and these are children.
Afghani culture can be so enigmatic — it's so distant. People think of it as so different. In some ways, kids in Kabul are similar to kids in any city. They have the same silliness and aspiration, humor and anger, the same emotions. Those things are universal.
Dave: Did you have a favorite kite growing up?
Hosseini: I didn't have a favorite kite, but I had a favorite kind of kite. My kites never stuck around long enough for me to have a favorite. I wasn't very good.
The kites of Kabul were built for aerodynamic reasons, not aesthetic reasons. They were fighter kites. We flew a particular kind of warrior kite.
Dave: Those scenes in Kite Runner are so evocative. When you describe the competitions, how much is fictionalized? I mean the nature of the competitions, not the experiences of the characters.
Hosseini: A lot of it was taken from memory. Of course you take liberties and elaborate, make it a little grander than the reality, but that was what pre-adolescent and even adolescent boys did in the winter.
There was nothing much to do. We had three months off from school. It snowed everywhere. It was cold. You couldn't go out to the countryside with your family like you did in the summertime. We were trapped in the city with no television, very little radio. You'd already seen the flick down at the theater. Boys get restless. Kites were a great way of letting off steam, socializing.
We spent entire afternoons flying kites. In fact when I think of Kabul in the 1970s, the first thing that comes to mind is the kites.
Dave: I didn't realize that the city sits six thousand feet above sea level. That might not be so high compared to some of the mountains around it, but it's higher than Denver. Do you miss the mountains?
Hosseini: I live by the coast, but I can get to the mountains quickly. That's one of the great things about the Bay area: You can get to the desert, the mountains, the beach, anywhere you want.
Some people are surprised to hear about valleys and trees and rivers in Afghanistan, the lush areas. The news always shows the caves of Tora Bora and the mountains or desert. It looks dusty and barren and rocky, but entire regions in Afghanistan are filled with lush valleys and meadows and flowing rivers and beautiful trees and flowers. People always say, "I didn't know there were trees in Afghanistan."
Dave: I suppose it's difficult to assert much of a marketing and tourism effort when a country spends thirty years at war.
Hosseini: But the campaign for tourism is building up there. They want people to come.
Dave: You were a practicing physician. What stirred you to write the book that would become The Kite Runner? Had you been writing all along?
Hosseini: I'd been writing most of my life. I started when I was a kid, writing short stories off and on. I loved it, though I was fairly private about it.
The Kite Runner began in the spring of '99 as one of these What if? short stories. I revisited the story in March of 2001. My wife and my father-in-law somehow had found it and read it. My father-in-law said, "This is a great little story. I wish it had been longer. I wanted to know more."
I went back and reread it, and I recognized how it didn't work as a short story, but I thought maybe there was a book in it. It started that way.
In March of '01, I began writing a novel, expanding the short story, and it took on a life of its own. Before I knew it, I was completely invested in that world and writing that novel.
Dave: How long was it between the time you thought you'd finished the novel and when you sold it?
Hosseini: I sent it to agents in June of 2002. Several weeks of rejections followed, but eventually I found an agent and it was sold within another month or two. I sent it off in June and by September I was talking to my editor.
Dave: What made you study biology in college?
Hosseini: I made a rational decision to go into medicine. My family came to the States essentially penniless. We'd lost all our belongings, our properties, our homes. We had to start from zero. For a period, we were on welfare. If you've been through that, you never want to go through it again. You want to ensure that you don't.
I was the eldest of five kids, and I said, "I'll go to medical school." That was the honorable, good job. I'd have economic stability. It was a thought-out process. I had respect for the profession. I hoped I'd be good at it, and I hoped I would enjoy it, eventually.
It was very different from writing. I never thought of writing as a viable option, as something I'd make a living from, but I'd always loved doing it.
I did very well in college, I did well in medical school, and I was in practice for eight and a half years. That was great, but my first love, as it were, was always writing.
Dave: Did any particular mystery or thriller writers make an impression on you as a young reader? I'm thinking of the last quarter of Kite Runner.
Hosseini: Growing up in Afghanistan, I read mostly Persian poetry. I grew up in a pretty literate home, but in Afghanistan there's not much of a novel-writing tradition. I read some novels in Farsi, translations of Western novels, but I didn't really begin reading novels until I came here. Then I read a lot of genre fiction as well as literary.
There's a kind of thriller feel to the very end of Kite Runner, at least in a couple of chapters, but I don't know that they were inspired by anybody.
Dave: When you came to the U.S., did you speak English?
Hosseini: No. A few words, a couple sentences maybe. We had to take English in France, but that's no way to learn a language, in a classroom. You learn very little. So when I came here I had to learn English from scratch.
Dave: How quickly did you immerse yourself in books, in the U.S.?
Hosseini: They stuck me in an English class that was not an ESL class but it was the lowest rung you could take as a freshman. I was in there with a lot of troublemakers, struggling students, but I picked up English pretty fast. I was somewhat fluent by the end of that year.
The first novel I read in English that I felt like I understood was The Grapes of Wrath. I remember reading that and having a couple Ah! moments. And I thought the end was very moving.
There was also something about that story... I had been very fortunate — my departure from Afghanistan was undramatic and uneventful, really: I went to Paris, and we came from Paris to here. But there was something about those people who'd lost their homes and their farms, and were wandering around with this dream of a better life on the west coast. Some of that reminded me of Afghans and what they had gone through, and even my own family to some extent.
Dave: What's the oddest place you've ever encountered a reader?
Hosseini: There have been moments of serendipity. My kid's soccer coach saw my son's name, Haris, and told me, "The only time I've seen that name, spelled with one r, was in the dedication to a novel called Kite Runner." As we were talking, she suddenly said, "Your son's last name is Hosseini... Oh!" She realized it was my novel.
I've sat next to people on airplanes who are reading my book, gauging their reaction.
Dave: In your work with the United Nations Refuge Agency, what has surprised you most? Or, what has offered the most hope?
Hosseini: It's easy to become very bleak about the human condition if you go to a place like eastern Chad and see how much violence there is, how the line between good guy and bad guy is so blurry. Today's good guy is tomorrow's bad guy and visa versa. To see the cycles of violence that happen over and over, and how it knows no age.
This one guy in Chad — he was from Darfur — said to me, "When the janjaweed came, they killed women and children, elderly, young. The bullets don't know the difference." That can become very depressing.
What gives me hope is that there truly are people who genuinely care. Some of these humanitarian aid workers are incredible. It's unbelievable, the conditions in which they work. We landed in a place called Bahai, in eastern Chad. The plane landed, and it looked like an alien landscape, the most unforgiving, desolate place I've ever been to. Cold. Windy. Dust. Nothing as far as the eyes could see but dust and shrubs. And yet these young humanitarian workers spend two years there, day in day out, working with the populations.
It gives you hope to see that there are people who will sacrifice everything to help others who need it so badly. Their work makes a tremendous difference.
I find that in the States, by and large, people do care. If you speak to them, put it in human terms that are accessible, not talking in diplomatic jargon, people are curious. There's an innate curiosity. They want to learn. They want to help.
Dave: In both of your books, the issue of allegiance comes up repeatedly, in different guises. Allegiance to family — it's what keeps Laila from leaving with Tariq — or allegiance to God or country.
Hearing you talk about those workers in Chad, what's curious, and maybe special, is the idea of fostering an allegiance to something or someone initially foreign to you.
Hosseini: It is unusual — those people are extraordinary — but that potential exists in all of us, just as the potential is there for all of us to do horrible things. As a writer, writing about people, that's what's fascinating about humanity.
I'm reading now a book called The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang. Here's a story about seemingly decent, young Japanese men who committed atrocious crimes against innocent people. There's that potential in many human beings, but there's also the potential to be good and noble and committed and helpful, and I think both sides live in all of us.
In a way, Amir is the embodiment of both sides. He does some incredibly terrible things, but he also has the ability to be compassionate and even noble toward the end.
Dave: One of the reasons a reader can bear with his transgressions early in the book is that they're not unrecognizable. They're not crimes against humanity; they're moments of weakness.
Hosseini: They're recognizable flaws, things all of us are capable of doing. I think that's why people like that character — not that they want to have a beer with him or like him as a person, but they like him as a character in a story. He wears his flaws on his sleeve; he's aware of them. He's not aloof to what he is.
All of us have done things we're ashamed of, things we wish we could take back, and all of us have done things we're proud of. He kind of embodies both. I don't think you'd want to read a novel, three or four hundred pages, about some irredeemable jerk.
Dave: Both novels turn on the kinds of singular moments you're describing. Amir spends an awful lot of time cogitating over what he could have done differently in that alley. Similarly, Mariam has a lifetime to reconsider the night she spent outside Jalil's gate. She had no idea what it would cost her; she didn't realize she was making a decision that would change her life. But these are decisions we all make through the course of our life.
Hosseini: And little do you know that seemingly small decisions can have profound effects. In a way, both novels are about regret and that sense of loss. In Amir's case, it's much more justified than Mariam's.
Dave: If I can trust my paperback copy of The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns was at one point called Dreaming in Titanic City.
Hosseini: Hundreds of thousands of this edition were printed with that title, which eventually was changed. I liked the title until I started taking a lot of questions about the Titanic and realized that it was misleading.
As much as I liked the sound of it, it became obtrusive. People thought it was about the ship. It's not. Titanic City was, for a while, a neighborhood in Kabul where people sold ordinary goods and put the word "Titanic" in front of the name so they could charge a little extra, just because the movie was such a huge cultural phenomenon. Titanic Toothpaste. But I took so many questions about the ship that I understood the title wasn't going to work. This is a novel about Afghanistan, not about the Titanic.
Dave: Was the book finished at that point?
Hosseini: No. I was still writing it, but I had that title.
Dave: The Kite Runner movie comes out in November. Finally people will discover your first novel.
Hosseini: Ha! I'm excited. I've seen an early, rough cut of the film, and it was very moving. It brought tears to my eyes. My wife bawled through the whole thing.
It has a very old fashioned, sweeping narrative that really captures youth from the first scene. I'm looking forward to seeing the finished film.
I was on the set for a couple weeks in China, which was a lot of fun, but it was a little surreal to see dozens of people running around like crazy trying to put together a scene that took you a paragraph to write. For the big kite-fighting scene, which is the visual centerpiece of the film, they had shut down three city blocks. They had hired three or four hundred extras. There was artificial snow on every rooftop. They'd been at it since three in the morning, and it took three or four days to shoot. I remember thinking, This took me two pages to write.
Film is such a collaborative process, completely different. It was surreal but also very flattering, obviously. My father was with me. He beamed with pride the whole time.
Dave: What movies or books have been important to you in the last ten years?
Hosseini: That's easier asked than answered. I love film. In many ways, I grew up around film more than novels. Lawrence of Arabia I've watched many times. I still think it's the best film ever made. It's tremendous, not only visually but the performances. And the writing is brilliant. There's not a wasted line in that film. The dialogue is so beautiful. The pacing is immaculate. It's a masterpiece. That's been my favorite film for a long time.
I finally saw Citizen Kane, which everybody says is the greatest film ever. I hadn't seen it until recently, and I was blown away by that as well.
Novels? I'm always reading, and then when people ask me I can never pinpoint one book. But I'll tell you a writer who has influenced me in recent years: Alice Munro. She has a quality that I try to emulate to some extent, subtlety, which I've been accused of not having a whole lot of.
She's also a great storyteller. Her stories never go where you think they're going to. You're always in for a surprise in terms of voice, or you think you're going here and all of a sudden you sidestep, a minor character takes on new life. The unpredictability of her work. She's a very, very gifted writer.
Dave: You continue to write. Now you're on the road meeting readers and introducing this new book. Tonight's event is sold out. It must be somewhat mind-blowing to draw such large audiences around the country.
Hosseini: I've been very fortunate. It's been great for me. Suddenly people semi-care what I say. I use whatever venue there is to talk about the fact that we live on an impoverished planet. No, we are not representative, the way we live. People need our help.
Sometimes people who are so-called celebrities, film or t.v. people, are taken up by a sense of social responsibility, and you want to snicker at that, but I think it's important. People who have some kind of access to media ought to talk about something other than themselves. To not seize that opportunity seems to me an amazing waste.
Dave: We talked earlier about Laila's confusion about who is fighting who. It's Rasheed who says that Americans don't even know who these factions are. Which is true. Laila can't figure it out; how are we supposed to? Whether we're talking about Chad or Afghanistan, the first hurdle is education and a basic orientation. Familiarity breeds compassion.
Hosseini: When you asked about books that I really loved, I should have mentioned What Is the What. That's not only great fiction, a great story, but I feel like it's a very important book. It brings home this tremendous tragedy, these hardships people have gone through — and now just a few hundred miles west of there it's happening all over again in Darfur.
That's the role writers and filmmakers, people in these walks of life, play. As you say, it seems distant, but they bring it home. They put you in the shoes of those people. Dave Eggers make you understand what it feels like to walk all those miles to Ethiopia and have your friends snapped up by lions, to eat a rotting elephant. What Is the What is one of my favorite books.
Khaled Hosseini visited Portland on June 12, 2007, for a reading at the Bagdad Theater. Earlier in the afternoon, we spoke at the Heathman Hotel.