Khaled Hosseini stormed the best-seller lists with his debut novel, “The Kite Runner,” in 2003, following it up with the even more popular “A Thousand Splendid Suns” in 2007. Both set in the author's native country of Afghanistan, the novels have sold more than 38 million copies internationally, including 10 million in the United States alone — a remarkable feat for a writer who began to pursue literature full time only after working for a decade as a physician. Now Hosseini, who with his family successfully sought asylum in the U.S. in 1980 following political upheaval in their homeland, is back with his beautiful, often harrowing third novel, “And the Mountains Echoed,” also set in Afghanistan (as well as several other locations around the world).
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A multigenerational saga about disrupted family ties and their repercussions over several decades, the novel begins with an ominous fable told by Saboor, a desperately poor man in a small village, to his 11-year-old son, Abdullah. As Abdullah comes to realize, to his horror, the story is an allegory of Saboor's agonized decision to give Abdullah's little sister, Pari, to a wealthy, childless couple in Kabul as a way to spare the rest of the family from privation.
Printers Row Journal spoke by phone with Hosseini, 48, from the San Jose, Calif., offices of The Khaled Hosseini Foundation, which supports humanitarian relief efforts for Afghan women and refugees now attempting to return to their native land in the winding down of the U.S.-led occupation. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: The tale that begins the book — in which a man is forced to make a terrible decision about which of his children to give to a div, or ogre — seems like a fairy tale or fable, like something out of "The Arabian Nights." Were those in fact its models?
A: It was really based on the kind of stories I was told as a child growing up in Afghanistan, either by my father or grandmother, at bedtime. Stories, especially fables, were a big part of my childhood. There was no television, and very little radio, in Afghanistan at that time, and obviously there were no computers. So people talked a lot, and engaged with each other in a social way. At parties, it would not be uncommon to hear somebody tell a long story — not necessarily a fable, but there was certainly a tradition of oral storytelling, and in some ways it informed some very basic instincts that I have as a writer.
Q: In addition to establishing a certain storytelling mode or tone for the book, the opening fable, we gradually realize, was a prophecy. And not just a prophecy, but a series of prophecies that are fulfilled, or not, later in the novel.
A: That's true. It's Saboor's way, first of all, of explaining the inexplicable to his son in language that Saboor is comfortable with. He's a closed-off person who can't really express himself, but he suddenly becomes much more expressive when he's telling a story. He uses that mode, in this case, to express his pain and anguish about the decision he's had to make.
But as you say, the fable sets up a whole series of things, in an allegorical way, that are revisited later. A number of the big themes in the book are foreshadowed in the fable — the theme of a rupture in the family; the theme of self-sacrifice, of accepting a deep, resounding loss to oneself for the sake of others; the theme of memory, as the protector of things we hold dear, but also as a kind of curse that makes you relive the most painful experiences of your life, and whether you're better off without it.
Q: Much of your fiction, including "And the Mountains Echoed," is written from the perspective of children. There's a feeling that life is never more intense, and felt more deeply, than when it's experienced by a child.
A: Yes. I like writing from the standpoint of children, especially children who are in that transition period between childhood and adolescence — that period of life where you start to wake up and begin to see that ways in which you perceived the world for a long time are not necessarily a solid foundation. Cracks begin to show, and you start to move away from archetypal notions about the world and begin to appreciate its nuances and ambiguities.
Of course there are transformative events that happen early in childhood that are difficult to appreciate at the time. I like to see how children respond to those things, both when they happen and as the adults they become.
Q: That theme of childhood trauma, and its repercussions later in life, we also see in the story of Parwana, Abdullah's stepmother, and her beautiful sister, who ends up crippled. It explores sibling rivalry and the tragic circumstances that can grow out of it.
A: It's amazing how early childhood dynamics often play out, and how they shape what you become, the archetypal ways children are categorized, and how those labels tend to stick. If you have the beautiful, dutiful daughter on the one hand, and the not-so-beautiful, black-sheep daughter on the other, that's often how they will develop as adults. It will maintain some unseen presence in their lives and play a role in how they behave toward each other. Those labels are very, very powerful, and they leave their mark on you.
Q: Did you have any labels applied to you as a child?
A: I did. I was the first-born of five siblings, and so was labeled as the responsible, sensible, considerate son. I'd be dishonest if I tried to say that that had no role in my decision to pursue medicine.
Q: I once interviewed Ethan Canin, another physician-turned-writer, and he talked about his desire to do something "practical" with his life, and yet he always felt the pull of literature. I imagine you went through something similar.
A: My whole life, I knew I needed to write, and I started writing as a child. Medicine to me was a very practical decision. I had respect for the profession, and for the fact that you're in the service of other people, which was very important to me. But there were also other reasons.
When we came to the States, my family and I, we were destitute. We were on welfare, and dependent on others, which was a horrible feeling. Once you've been there, you never want to revisit that. You never want your life to be unstable, and you want to make sure it doesn't happen to your children. So the logical leap from there was not, "I think I'll pursue a career in fiction writing." (Laughs.) Instead, you do one of the trifecta of doctor, engineer or lawyer. And I knew my parents had hopes in that direction; for me to deny that at this stage would also be disingenuous.
And so I chose medicine. Part of it was a way to honor my parents' sacrifice and say, "You came here in middle age and left everything behind for us kids, and now I will show you that it wasn't in vain." But I can't say that I was ever really happy as a doctor. I liked my patients and was well liked by them, for the most part. But it didn't fulfill me in the way I hoped it would. And the pull of writing, of creating stories, was powerful.