Khaled Hosseini is one of the most widely read and beloved novelists in the world, with over thirty eight million copies of his books sold in more than seventy countries. The Kite Runner was a major film and was a Book of the Decade, chosen by The Times, Daily Telegraph and Guardian. A Thousand Splendid Suns was the Richard & Judy Best Read of the Year in 2008. Hosseini is also a Goodwill Envoy to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Refugee Agency and the founder of The Khaled Hosseini Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation which provides humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan. He was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, and lives in northern California.
The Kite Runner helped alter the world’s perception of Afghanistan, by giving millions of readers their first real sense of what the Afghan people and their daily lives are actually like. Your new novel includes the main events in Afghanistan’s history over the past three decades, from the communist revolution to the Soviet invasion to the U.S.-led war against the Taliban. Do you feel a special responsibility to inform the world about your native country, especially given the current situation there and the prominent platform you’ve gained?
For me as a writer, the story has always taken precedence over everything else. I have never sat down to write with broad, sweeping ideas in mind, and certainly never with a specific agenda. It is quite a burden for a writer to feel a responsibility to represent his or her own culture and to educate others about it. It’s not how I feel or write. For me it always starts from a very personal, intimate place, about human connections, and then expands from there. What intrigued me about this new book were the hopes and dreams and disillusions of these two women, their inner lives, the specific circumstances that bring them together, their resolve to survive, and the fact that their relationship evolves into something meaningful and powerful, even as the world around them unravels and slips into chaos. But as I wrote, I witnessed the story expanding, becoming more ambitious page after page. I realized that telling the story of these two women without telling, in part, the story of Afghanistan from the 1970s to the post-9/11 era simply was not possible. The intimate and personal was intertwined inextricably with the broad and historical. And so the turmoil in Afghanistan and the country’s tortured recent past slowly became more than mere backdrop. Gradually, Afghanistan itself—and more specifically, Kabul—became a character in this novel, to a much larger extent, I think, than in The Kite Runner. But it was simply for the sake of storytelling, not out of a sense of social responsibility to inform readers about my native country. That said, I will be gratified if they walk away from A Thousand Splendid Suns with a satisfying story and with a little more insight and a more personal sense of what has happened in Afghanistan in the last thirty years.
What kind of response do you hope readers have to A Thousand Splendid Suns?
Purely as a writer, I hope that readers discover in this novel the same things that I look for when I read fiction: a story that transports, characters who engage, and a sense of illumination, of having been transformed somehow by the experiences of the characters. I hope that readers respond to the emotions of this story, that despite vast cultural differences, they identify with Mariam and Laila and their dreams and ordinary hopes and day-to-day struggle to survive.
As an Afghan, I would like readers to walk away with a sense of empathy for Afghans, and more specifically for Afghan women, on whom the effects of war and extremism have been devastating. I hope I am not exceeding the scope of my writing when I say that I would like the reading of this book to add depth, nuance, emotional subtext, and individuality to the all-too-ubiquitous image of the burqa-clad woman walking down a dusty street.
Where does the title of A Thousand Splendid Suns come from?
It comes from a poem about Kabul by Saib-e-Tabrizi, a seventeenth-century Persian poet, who wrote it after a visit to the city left him deeply impressed. I was searching for English translations of poems about Kabul, for use in a scene where a character bemoans leaving his beloved city, when I found this particular verse. I realized that I had found not only the right line for the scene, but also an evocative title in the phrase “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” which appears in the next-to-last stanza. The poem was translated from Farsi by Dr. Josephine Davis.
You earned your medical degree before you began writing fiction. How does being a doctor compare with being a writer?
I enjoyed practicing medicine and was always honoured that patients put their trust in me to take care of them and their loved ones. But writing had always been my passion, since childhood, much as with Amir in The Kite Runner. I feel ridiculously fortunate and privileged that writing is, at least for the time being, my livelihood. It is a dream realized.
I have not found many similarities between my two crafts, except that in both it helps to have at least some insight into human nature. Writers and doctors alike need to understand the motivation behind the things people say and do, and their fears, their hopes and aspirations. In both professions, one needs to appreciate how socioeconomic background, family, culture, language, religion, and other factors shape a person, whether it is a patient in an exam room or a character in a story.
In what ways was writing A Thousand Splendid Suns different from writing The Kite Runner?
Well, when I was writing The Kite Runner, no one was waiting for it! It’s a different beast, a second novel, particularly if the first novel was well received. I imagine this is a common sentiment among writers who prepare to write a second novel. At the outset, there was a period of self-doubt and worry, of hesitation and fretting, as well as a recurring tendency to question and reassess my own literary capabilities and limitations. This was especially so when I was aware of the people out there who were eagerly awaiting the book: agents, publishers, and of course, the reading public. This is both wonderful—after all, you want your work to be anticipated—and daunting—your work is anticipated!
Though I did experience some of these apprehensions—as my wife will surely attest—I gradually learned to view them as natural and not unique to me. And as I began to write, as the story picked up pace and I found myself immersed in the world of Mariam and Laila, these apprehensions vanished on their own. The developing story captured me and enabled me to tune out the background noise and get on with the business of inhabiting the world I was creating.
I also think that A Thousand Splendid Suns is, in some ways, a more ambitious book than my first novel. The story is multigenerational, unfolding over almost forty-five years, often skipping ahead years. There is a larger cast of characters, and a dual perspective, and the wars and political turmoil in Afghanistan are chronicled with more detail than in The Kite Runner. This means that I was performing a perpetual balancing act in writing about the intimate—the inner lives of the characters—and depicting the external world that exerts pressure on the characters and forces their fate.
Do you see common themes in the two books?
In both novels, characters are caught in a crossfire and overwhelmed by external forces. Their inner lives are influenced by an often brutal and unforgiving outside world, and the decisions they make about their own lives are influenced by things over which they have no control: revolutions, wars, extremism, and oppression. This, I think, is even more the case with A Thousand Splendid Suns. In The Kite Runner, Amir spends many years away from Afghanistan as an immigrant in the United States. The horrors and hardships that he is spared, Mariam and Laila live through; in that sense, their lives are shaped more acutely by the events in Afghanistan than Amir’s life is.
Both novels are multigenerational, and so the relationship between parent and child, with all of its manifest complexities and contradictions, is a prominent theme. I did not intend this, but I am keenly interested, it appears, in the way parents and children love, disappoint, and in the end honor each other. In one way, the two novels are corollaries: The Kite Runner was a father-son story, and A Thousand Splendid Suns can be seen as a mother-daughter story.
Ultimately, I think, both novels are love stories. Characters seek and are saved by love and human connection. In The Kite Runner, it was mainly the love between men. In A Thousand Splendid Suns, love manifests itself in even more various shapes, be it romantic love between a man and a woman, parental love, or love for family, home, country, God. I think in both novels, it is ultimately love that draws characters out of their isolation, that gives them the strength to transcend their own limitations, to expose their vulnerabilities, and to perform devastating acts of self-sacrifice.
The Kite Runner was centered on the friendship between two men, and the story was told from a male point of view. In your new book, you’ve focused on the relationship between two women, and the tale is told from their alternating perspectives. Why did you decide to write from a female point of view this time? What was it about these particular women and their relationship that gripped you?
There was no thought-out, planned decision to write from a woman’s perspective. I did it because the voice that first spoke to me was that of a woman—initially Mariam’s. Had it been a male voice, I would have followed that, but it wasn’t. Often, as I write, stories are transformed, turn into something altogether different, and I am always surprised by where they end up taking me. The one thing that remained constant in A Thousand Splendid Suns was the voices of the two main characters, Mariam and Laila. They were female voices from the very conception of the book.
When I started the novel, I was not aware of the circumstances and turns of fate that would bring the two central characters together. But when I began to see how their lives would intersect, I became intrigued by the complex relationship between these two women, starting as adversaries, then tolerant housemates, eventually progressing to friends and, in the end, soul mates. It was the gradual transformation of this relationship—Mariam and Laila slowly realizing that they are the missing parts of each other’s lives—that was the most intriguing part of writing the book.
Writing from a female perspective—actually from two female perspectives—proved daunting at first. I grappled consciously with the notion that a woman inhabits a different social and emotional arena, that a woman’s experience of the world around her comprises unique perceptions and emotions, different from those of a man. I fretted for a while over handling this perspective deftly and over possibly missing the mark. But as I wrote, I came to see that writing from a female perspective is not so different from writing from a male perspective. The critical insight for me was that to be successful, I had to know the core of my characters, men or women. I had to understand for myself what they strived for, what they hoped for, what they feared. Once I reached the point where I could follow their voices, where I could identify their strengths, weaknesses, and contradictions, things became much easier for me, much less self-conscious, and I could be drawn out of my own skin and into that of these women. It was immensely gratifying to reach that point. I think I have written these women as truthfully and authentically as I could. I hope my readers will agree.
This novel has a few strong female characters. How did you create them? Are they based on women you know among your own family and friends, on your reading, on your imagination?
They are not drawn from family members or from people I know. In this respect, this second novel is far less autobiographical than The Kite Runner. Largely they are drawn from my imagination and from the women I saw and met in Kabul back in 2003. I remember seeing these burqa-clad women sitting at street corners, with four, five, six children, begging for change. I remember seeing them walking in pairs up the street, trailed by their children in ragged clothes, and wondering how life had brought them to that point. Did they have dreams, hopes, longings? Had they been in love? Who were their husbands? What had they lost, whom had they lost, in the wars that plagued Afghanistan for two decades? These questions circled around my head whenever I passed these women, and though at the time I had no inkling that I was going to write about a pair of women like them, I do recall thinking that probably each of those women had a life story worthy of a novel.
The Kite Runner was adopted by many reading groups, and by cities and communities as part of their public reading programs. Why do you think that happened? What do you think people take away from your stories?
The Kite Runner is multilayered, in that it provides readers with cultural, religious, political, historical, and literary points to discuss. But I suspect that also part of the reason it is popular with book groups is that it is a very human story. Because the themes of friendship, betrayal, guilt, redemption, and the uneasy love between fathers and sons are universal and not specifically Afghan, the book has reached across cultural, racial, religious, and gender gaps to resonate with readers of various backgrounds. I think people respond to the emotions in this book.
There is also, of course, international interest in Afghanistan, given the events of 9/11 and the war on terror. For many readers, this book is really the first window into that culture. So there is also a curiosity about that country, which this book addresses to some extent.