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?