With his first book, "The Kite Runner," and now his second, "A Thousand Splendid Suns," Khaled Hosseini has given his readers vivid portraits of the country where he was born: Afghanistan.
"The Kite Runner" told the gripping tale of two boys growing up in Kabul in the peaceful 1970s and the divergent paths their lives took when war came to their country. It created a publishing sensation, captivating book clubs and topping bestseller lists.
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After more than two years, it still remains on The New York Times bestseller list, currently settled in at No. 8. "The Kite Runner is an incredibly unlikely success story," said Hosseini. "If there was a formula of how to write a book that was sure to fail, 'The Kite Runner' has it.
"You take a dark, borderline unlikable central character. You put him in a place that a lot of people know nothing about and few people care about and then you make it a very dark story where people's favorite characters die in gruesome ways and you say here is a book for your leisurely reading on the beach."
'Hope' and Afghan Women
Where "The Kite Runner" was the story of boys who grow into men, "A Thousand Splendid Suns" is its counterpoint. Seen through the intertwined lives of two Afghan women across the recent war-ridden history of Afghanistan, the novel "is about the daily domestic struggles of these women in the setting of a country that is unraveling out of control," said Hosseini.
And the struggles are many: forced marriage, child marriage, the beating of women, the stigma of illegitimacy. "I think it reflects the reality for a lot of Afghan women, especially in the tribal areas," said Hosseini. "In those regions a Taliban-style repression of women has been the way of life for centuries, long before the birth of the Taliban."
"In those regions women have always been forced into marriage. They hardly ever go to school beyond the age of 12. They rarely are part of public life. So what we are familiar with, the Taliban, their treatment of women has been the way of life in certain regions of Afghanistan forever," Hosseini continued.
For Hosseini, what binds these women together and what draws American readers to their plight is a basic human truth. "I think it is in human nature to hope. What do you have if you don't have hope," he explained. "You hope for a better tomorrow. You hope that things change. You hope that if things don't change for you they will change for your children or maybe for their children."
Back to Kabul
Hosseini left Afghanistan with his family in the 1970s and arrived in the United States in 1980 after the Soviet army had invaded his country. He attended high school, college and medical school in California and was practicing internal medicine when he wrote "The Kite Runner."
Just before its publication in 2003, Hosseini traveled back to his home in Kabul for the first time in 27 years. "I found a whole different Kabul than when I left," he said. "I left in the '70s in the so-called heyday. Fairly thriving cosmopolitan city. And I go back and its this postconflict city. Seventy percent of it destroyed."
Hosseini continued, "The rest of it terribly neglected. Amputees walking around the city, widows, orphans, beggars everywhere." The experience for him was very bittersweet. "As an Afghan it was heartbreaking to see the city destroyed. To see people destitute. But despite that, I came away with a sense of optimism because it's part of the Afghan spirit to be very resilient. People still have hope."
Hosseini recognizes that the problems facing Afghanistan are enormous. "The Taliban have come back and they've changed the tactics of the war. Now you have suicide bombings which you never heard about in Afghanistan," he said. "You have this flourishing opium industry. Fifty percent increase in production last year. Tremendous humanitarian issues. In some parts of Afghanistan a woman dies in child birth every 30 minutes."
Americans Intrigued by 'Distant' Culture
For many American readers of his books, Hosseini is their only window into a culture and world that is very distant. "It's really such an insider's view of a country that we don't get to see inside of very often," said Elizabeth Santoro, who attended a book signing and discussion at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. "You see the violence on the news, but you don't see the richness of the culture and its history."
To those back in Afghanistan who would perhaps criticize his focus on negative aspects of Afghan culture, Hosseini said, "I think the novelist's job is to write precisely those things that make people nervous. Things that people don't necessarily want to talk about. Isn't that what novels have always done?"
In "A Thousand Splendid Suns" the author uncovers the lives of women hidden for so long behind walls and the iconic burqa robes.
"I want to convey what has happened to Afghan women," Hosseini said. "Especially in the last 15 years and the devastating effect that war and anarchy have had on Afghan women. So I feel very proud of this novel because I feel that to some extent it is a tribute to the struggles of women in Afghanistan."