Friday, June 7, 2013

Tim Stone Interviews Khaled Hosseini, Author of And the Mountains Echoed and The Kite Runner

I recently spoke with Afghani American writer Khaled Hosseini, who has just published his third novel, And The Mountains Echoed (Riverhead Books, May, 2013), which recounts the separation of two siblings in a story of family betrayal and the drive to rectify personal loss. Aside from this below interview, my article about the author and his newest novel will appear shortly in the press.

About Khaled Hosseini
In the mid-1970's, at the age of eleven, Hosseini moved from Kabul to Paris, where his father worked for the Afghan foreign ministry. After the bloody communist takeover of Afghanistan and the subsequent Soviet invasion, Hosseini’s family gained asylum in the United States, when he was fifteen.
           Hosseini burst onto the American literary scene with the 2003 publication of The Kite Runner, a coming-of-age masterpiece recounting an Afghani boy’s failure to defend his childhood friend from racist violence, and his later efforts to make amends during the violence of Taliban rule.
Hosseini followed up in 2007 with A Thousand Splendid Suns, depicting the love and suffering of women struggling against class discrimination and sexual oppression as the Taliban plunges Afghanistan into a dark age of Muslim fundamentalism.
Funded by the financial success of his first two novels, which have sold over 38 million copies worldwide, The Khaled Hosseini Foundation provides humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan.
Khaled Hosseini spoke with me per phone on May 28th, 2013:

Tim Stone: One of the siblings in And the Mountains Echoed is sold in childhood by her father to a wealthy Kabul family. Later in life, she meets up with the brother she adores. But the reunion does not turn out as expected.  Did you depict this personal trauma, and the circuitous path to reunion, to convey the challenge and hope of modern of Afghanistan?

Khaled Hosseini: That was not my intent. The drive to reconcile with loss is a universal phenomenon. The [renowned 13th century] Persian writer Jalaluddin Rumi describes this human condition in The Reed Flute’s Song. The reed flute has a mournful cry. It is longing for the reed bed of its origin. Yet it can never actually reunite with its roots. This poem captures our deep, intuitive pull toward reunion, and suggests that reconciliation rarely occurs in ways we expect: Pari [the female sibling in And The Mountains Echoed] gets a form of closure after separation from her brother, but not in the way she had hoped. Her brother also wishes for a reunion, but by the time it comes, he has lost his faculties to comprehend it.

Tim Stone: Though you have spent most of your life in the United States, you grew up in Afghanistan until the age of 11. Has the Persian literary tradition influenced you aside from The Reed Flute’s Song?

Khaled Hosseini:  When I was a child, my grandmother and father used to read to me from The Book of Kings, or Shahnameh, a 50,000-verse 11th century epic poem known as the crown jewel of Persian literature.  This influenced me -- these beautiful stories of warriors, kings, monsters, and mythical creatures -- and inspired in me storytelling.

Tim Stone: How widely is the Shahnameh known today?

Khaled Hosseini: The Shahnameh was written by the [renowned] Persian poet [Hakim Abdul-Qasim] Ferdowsi, and is set during the 7th century Arab invasion of Persia. It is as revered in the East as The Iliad is in the West.

Tim Stone: So, would you consider yourself an eastern storyteller?

Khaled Hosseini:  Not entirely. Though the Shahnameh inspired me, it is an epic poem, not a novel, and novels are not part of the [classic Persian] literary tradition. I’m a hybrid. I write coming-of-age novels, but with an eastern storytelling feel.

Tim Stone: Afghanistan’s political and ethnic tensions play key roles in The Kite Runner and in A Thousand Splendid Suns. Your newest novel contains little political conflict, but through back story, recounts the brutality of a man who axes his brother’s family to death over an inheritance dispute. Did you intend this as emblematic of the Afghani people or culture?

Khaled Hosseini: No, but Afghanistan is a violent place. We've seen thirty-two years of war and many crimes committed with impunity. The ax scene would have been emblematic of Afghanistan if it had related to the Taliban or to a suicide attack. In that case, the protagonist [an Afghani American √©migr√©] could have better understood it. But instead he’s confronted with a form of violence that could have happened regardless of the current political situation.

Tim Stone: In the tragedy’s aftermath, the protagonist, a doctor, tries to bridge the gap between his affluence and the neediness of his former homeland. But he can’t fulfill his promise to arrange medical attention for a girl who survived the attack. Did this happen to you?

Khaled Hosseini: I did not make a promise to help someone that I could not fulfill. I do remember that when I returned to Afghanistan after so many years away, I felt powerless amidst such suffering and poverty. 

Tim Stone: What is your realistic best case scenario for Afghanistan?

Khaled Hosseini: Currently, different parties have been involved in brutal ethnic fighting. I would like to see the parties at peace, for selfish reasons: peace is good for the country’s development. So the best would be if people don’t pick up guns and shoot.

Tim Stone: Isn't that wishful thinking?

Khaled Hosseini: Not in the long term. Others don’t feel as optimistic about Afghanistan’s future. But I can imagine a gradual shift in Afghani society, intrinsic change, led not by western powers or neighbors, but from within, since the only meaningful way for change to ever happen will be by the Afghani people themselves.

Tim Stone: And why would change come now from within Afghanistan?

Khaled Hosseini: I believe it will come, though slowly, because nearly two thirds of the population is age 25 or younger. The younger generations will take advantage of technology and telecommunications with the outside world, such as through the Internet. This exchange can allow modernity to replace tribal thinking, help establish values such as women’s rights, and bring the country into the 21st century.

Tim Stone: How likely do you think that youth and technology will fuel peace and prosperity in Afghanistan?

Khaled Hosseini:  I believe there is a reasonable chance this will happen.

Tim Stone: Your foundation [The Khaled Hosseini Foundation] provides humanitarian aid to the people of Afghanistan. If you think a new generation of Afghanis can lead their nation’s revitalization through Internet-driven global exchange, do you have plans to expand the focus of your foundation to foster the use of technology by Afghani youth?

Khaled Hosseini:  The Foundation focuses mainly on helping women and children, though we are also getting involved in health care, for example, by helping educate a female medical student.  We have no plans at the moment to expand our mission. But we are always evolving.

Tim Stone: Thank you for your time.

Khaled Hosseini: It was a pleasure, Tim.