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Barnes & Noble interview with Khaled Hosseini

(Page 4 of 9)



KH: It had already kind of switched from Farsi to French, because I had lived in France for a handful of years before that, and I was becoming really comfortable writing my short stories in French. Then, when I came to the States, obviously it took me some time to learn English, and I really didn't write much -- at least in English. I was still writing in French, and a little in Farsi, the first few years, just for myself. At some point before I graduated high school, I began to write in English. By the time I was a junior in high school, I was in the 3A class -- I was up there with the best students. We were reading John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, and we were reading Our Town and Upton Sinclair. It was a pretty good selection. By then, I felt at ease with English, and I had begun to find in my head a voice that spoke to me in English that I felt I could wield.

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In the summers of those years, I worked as a security guard, so I would have long days of just sitting behind a desk. You really weren't supposed to read, but I would sneak in a paperback novel with me. I read a lot of genre fiction. I read mysteries and I read horror novels. And around this same time I began writing short stories in English. Suddenly I felt that there was a rhythmic cadence of English in my head, and I began to recognize a voice. That was probably around the end of high school, beginning of college.

JM: Were there any books that spoke to you with particular power at that time?

KH: Yes. The Grapes of Wrath was the first book that I read in English that spoke to me in a personal way. Part of my reaction, maybe, was a response to the fact that I had managed to get through this big book that had some stature in the history of American literature. I was proud of myself for that alone. But it spoke to me in other ways as well. Some of it had to do with what was going on in Afghanistan. By then, the Soviet war was in its fourth year, and the Afghan refugee situation was really becoming a major crisis. Millions of people were leaving home, and they were ending up homeless -- uprooted and disenfranchised and disenchanted. They also found themselves unwelcome in places where they were trying to settle and build a new life. Something about the plight of Steinbeck's Okies spoke to me in that sense.

JM: One of my favorite sentences in your two books appears near the beginning of A Thousand Splendid Suns. It's about Mariam -- you're describing when she's a girl. You write: "Mariam longed to place a ruler on a page and draw important-looking lines."

KH: [LAUGHS] Yes.

JM: That's such a striking encapsulation of the aspirations of a child. In both of your novels, you identify with young children quite closely, and the narrative follows them from very early youth into adulthood -- their lives shape the stories you tell. Did you frame each novel with a child's perspective by conscious decision, or was it an intuitive preference?

KH: On some level, it feels natural to me; again, part of it is my upbringing, for the stories we were told basically started with a childhood and ended with death. There's an old-fashioned quality to both of my books -- each is basically the story of a life. So it feels natural to me to start at the beginning. But I also feel a kinship with children, and I am very much intrigued by the relationship between child and parent. In Afghan society, parents play a central role in the lives of their children; the parent-child relationship is fundamental to who you are and what you become and how you perceive yourself, and it is laden with contradictions, with tension, with anger, with love, with loathing, with angst. I find it endlessly fascinating, the way children and their parents push and pull each other, and the way in which they both tear each other down and build each other up -- the way in which they hurt and soothe each other.

Both of my books, in some sense, have been about the loss of innocence. I think of my own childhood with a very fond heart. I had a beautiful childhood growing up in Afghanistan, and I'll always think of being a child in a very romantic way because of my own particular circumstances. So I always find myself drifting back to childhood, and writing, I guess, about my own childhood in some way.