Barnes & Noble interview with Khaled Hosseini
(Page 2 of 9)
JM: You were raised in a very literate household, and your parents shared a great deal of classic Persian literature with you. Was that mostly poetry?Skip to next paragraph
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KH: Yes. Virtually all of it was poetry. One of the works that really affected me was the grand epic of Persian literature, the Shâhnameh, which literally translates into The Book of Kings. It was written by Ferdowsi back in the 11th century, and it's the crowning jewel of Persian literature. It begins with the dawn of time and ends with the Arab invasion of Persia, but it's really the story of the great, mythical kings and warriors of old Persia. It has all the elemental themes of literature -- betrayal and guilt and greed and honor and so on. I remember being very moved by these stories, particularly by the tale of Rostam and Sohrab, a father-son story that I alluded to in The Kite Runner. The tales of the Shâhnameh are very dramatic, very intense, invariably tragic.
I think my upbringing in that kind of literary environment also influenced me. But I discovered novels on my own, in a local bookstore in Kabul that sold used old paperbacks as well as condensed young adult editions of classics, like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Old Man and the Sea and Alice in Wonderland. There isn't, even now, a great tradition of novel-writing in Afghanistan. Most of the literature is in the form of poetry. But serial novels were popular -- actually, [LAUGHS] The Exorcist was being published in a women's magazine, in an Iranian women's magazine, and it was presented as a cliffhanger, two or three chapters at a time.
In any case, I was drawn to stories and to writing from a very, very young age -- from the time I was 9 or 10 years old.
JM: Those novels that you read then, and the condensed versions of the classics, were they in Farsi?
KH: Yes, they had been translated in Iran. The condensed editions were actually called "Golden Books." I even remember the name, "Ketab hai telaii," which means "Golden Books" in Farsi. I collected some of them. They were translated in Iran, and then imported into Afghanistan.
JM: Although you were raised in a culture in which there was not a strong tradition of the novel, your two books embrace, it seems to me, the fundamentally empathetic imagination of the form, telling stories that broaden the reach of our own passions and sentiments by allowing us to identify with the emotions and experience of others outside of our familiar circumstances. Does the tradition of the novel tell us anything about a culture's sense of itself?
KH: I don't know. Both of my novels -- certainly the first one, which is a kind of coming-of-age story -- are far more influenced by my American experience than by my Afghan experience. I think we're going to see more and more writers from my native country embrace this form, rather than poetry, to write about their society and the things that shaped it, especially writers who live in exile and who have been exposed, as I have, to Western novels and the art of writing novels. Which is not to say that there aren't people writing novels in Afghanistan; but it's very hard to get a sense of what is being written there, given the limited resources available to people in terms of getting published and getting their work out to be read by the world at large. But I have a sense that going forward, particularly in the Afghan diaspora, we will see more of the kind of thing that I have tried to do with my writing.
JM: When you were a boy in Kabul, you saw a lot of films, as you have on occasion noted. Could you describe your youthful engagement with movies for us? Did it extend the possibilities of storytelling in your imagination, beyond what you knew from the oral traditions and the classic Persian literature you were exposed to?