Barnes & Noble interview with Khaled Hosseini
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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?Skip to next paragraph
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KH: Oh, without a doubt. I've been told, and I think I recognize it, that there's a cinematic quality to my writing, with a sense of image and place and scene -- and, some would say, my tendency to finish my books the way Hollywood finishes its films. [LAUGHS] My experience with cinema as a boy was, to say the least, very eclectic, because Afghanistan was at the crossroads of all these different influences. You had the Russians importing Russian films, which I found, at the time at least, dreadfully tedious and plodding and morose. We also, obviously, were greatly influenced by Persian cinema, most of which was family dramas, with lots of fistfights! And, of course, Bollywood, with its over-the-top feast of color and music -- a kind of total sensory gluttony.
Then we had lots of films from the West, from France and also, obviously, from the United States. There seems to me, in retrospect, no rhyme nor reason to the selection of movies that were shown at that time in Afghanistan. You had the very Gothic horror movies of the 1950s, with Christopher Lee as Dracula and so on. You had the Tarzan movies with Johnny Weissmuller, and you had Westerns, both the classics, like The Magnificent Seven, and also B-movies that I recognize from time to time now when I flip through television. It was extremely eclectic. But I loved cinema from a very, very young age, and it's a medium that I continue to admire. And one that I don't eye with any particular suspicion. I know some novelists have an inherent distrust of the medium as an art form, but I don't. I still love film, and I think that my love for cinema undoubtedly influences my writing.
JM: When did you learn English?
KH: I learned it in the States when we moved here in the fall of 1980. We arrived in September, about two weeks before the start of the school year -- I was just starting high school -- and I knew only a handful of words. But they put me right into the regular freshman English classes. Actually, when I entered high school there were three levels of freshman English: there was 1A, 1B, 1C. 1A was for the really bright kids. 1B was for your average kids. And 1C was where you had your troublemakers and kids who had behavioral problems, I guess, or who were not particularly motivated -- and I started with them.
The most difficult thing, and in some ways the most embarrassing for me, was not knowing the language and not being able to communicate, and it made the high school experience for me . . . well, let's just say it's not an experience I look back on very fondly. I felt disengaged from much of high school culture, and at least during the first year it really had to do with language -- my just not understanding English. But eventually I picked it up. I've always had a fairly easy time learning languages, and by the start of my sophomore year, in September of '81, I was pretty fluent in English.
JM: You've said that, beginning at a very early age, you saw yourself as a writer. In light of the seismic language shift you've just described, I'd like to ask when the storytelling voice you carried inside your head changed from Farsi to English.