For Afghanistan With Love: An Interview With Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1965. The Hosseinis sought and were granted political asylum in the United States, and in September 1980 moved to San Jose, California. In March 2001, while practicing medicine, Hosseini began writing his first novel, The Kite Runner. His debut went on to become an international bestseller, as did his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, in 2007. Together the two books have sold more than 10 million copies in the United States and more than 38 million copies worldwide. Hosseini's much-awaited third novel, And the Mountains Echoed, was published on May 21, 2013.

Emotional intensity and hardship are hallmarks of Khaled Hosseini's novels of Afghanistan, and his third novel, And the Mountains Echoed is no exception. A diverse cast of characters, located around the world and in varying times in history, deliver a wide range of human experience. The common denominator that binds together all these stories is Afghanistan, specifically an impoverished village and a mansion in Kabul.

And the Mountains Echoed begins in the Afghan village of Shadbagh, with the remarkable connection between a brother and sister as children. Hosseini reveals that his idea for the book began with these children: "I wrote the second chapter first, because the very first thing that came to mind was image of a man walking across the desert pulling a wagon with a little girl in it, and there's a boy trailing them. I no idea where they were going, or who they were. As I wrote that story, I started to become aware of other voices, other characters demanding for their stories to be told. So I kept pursuing these different characters because they were all connected to that first story--I followed the ripples in that first story. I like to think of it as voices gradually building into a choir until they become like one voice."

Hosseini's goal was that the effect of this approach would be a unified narrative, "one sweeping story, that when you add all the parts together, you get one story."

Part of the novel is set in 1950s Kabul, which Hosseini depicts as advanced and cosmopolitan. "That's Kabul as I know it," says Hosseini, referring to his move from Kabul as a child. "Today's Kabul, to me, is a strange place. My memories of Kabul are vastly different than the way it is when I go there now. My memories are of the final years before everything changed. When I grew up in Kabul, it couldn't be mistaken for Beirut or Tehran, as it was still in a country that's essentially religious and conservative, but it was suprisingly progressive and liberal. My family was a part of the sector of a western sensibility, where women were outspoken and opinionated and dressed how they liked, drank alcohol, drove cars, wrote poetry, taught in universities. That was my experience of Kabul, not the horrible distortion that the Taliban have made of it."

The distortion, unfortunately, has been the reality of Kabul for the past 30 years, and as such it is the only depiction of the capital that most western readers would recognize. For that reason--to present a less familiar and more poignant side of Afghanistan--Hosseini chose not to dwell on politics and religious oppression in And the Mountains Echoed as he has in his previous novels. "Of my three books, this one is probably the most politically neutral," he says. "This time I just wanted to write stories about Afghan people that didn't necessarily revolve around extremism and zealotry--I set out to write something more personal, intimate, and human. I didn't want to follow my own steps again, and instead wanted to write about something different, to have a conversation about Afghanistan with a focus on the characters' motivations, rather than on their oppression."

The immigrant experience haunts this novel, and Hosseini acknowledges that these depictions are inspired by his own life--and that the experience is all the more wrenching when the country of origin is in a state of catastrophe. "I have been unbelievably fortunate in my life, and come from a place that has been unbelievably unfortunate," he remarks. "When I go to Afghanistan I realize I've been spared due to a random genetic lottery, by being born to people who had the means to get out. Every time I go to Afghanistan I am haunted by that. On the one hand there's the sense that I'm home, and a visceral emotional connection to where I was born. At same time I feel like an outsider--I've been away for too long, missed out on so many experiences that others have had, that don't feel like I belong there."

The themes Hosseini wishes for readers to take from the book are varied: "This novel encompasses so many different things, is so broad in view and vision, that it's hard to point to one thing," says Hosseini. "I would like people to have an appreciation for what happened to women under the Taliban, as in A Thousand Splendid Suns. I hope they get a sense of how connected we all are. One of the things novels should do is shine a light on those parts of us that are common, the fibres that connect all of us. They should convey the sense that we're all connected, coming from the same tree, sharing common roots. Nothing happens in a vacuum in life: every action has a series of consequences, and sometimes it takes a long time to fully understand the consequences of our actions."

Some of the most emotionally difficult sequences in And the Mountains Echoed concern the suffering and debilitation of illness. "One of the themes in this book is the end of life, loss of faculty, physical decay, characters as victims of the passage of time," comments Hosseini. "This is something that I have witnessed on two levels: first as a professional physician I saw a lot of people lose their dignity, independence, and a way to look after themselves, and the responsibility for them always fell on someone. And I experienced it in my own life. I'm 48 now, and in the last ten years a number of people I know have been ill and died. How difficult life can be and the idea of death and illness--which has a real space in my own life--inevitably has informed some of the writing of this book."

This interview originally appeared in Shelf Awareness.