Flying high

A discussion with visiting author Khaled Hosseini, whose novel The Kite Runner made the foreign world of Afghanistan achingly universal.

“Here it comes,” Hassan said, pointing to the sky. He rose to his feet and walked a few paces to his left. I looked up, saw the kite plummeting toward us. I heard footfalls, shouts, an approaching melee of kite runners. But they were wasting their time. Because Hassan stood with his arms wide open, smiling, waiting for the kite.
— from
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Three years since its publication, The Kite Runner is still arousing conversation among readers worldwide. A coming-of-age novel set in Afghanistan, the book has been a favorite of both mainstream literary circles and grassroots discussion groups. Its national acclaim can be attributed in part to the novel’s timeliness; it was published at a time when Americans struggled to understand Afghan political and social sensibilities. A disconcertingly personal novel, The Kite Runner confronts themes that are as universal as they are private—guilt, loyalty and the complexity of familial bonds.

The author, Khaled Hosseini, will visit Reno on March 30 as a guest speaker for Nevada Humanities’ third annual Books and Authors Series. He’s been a Bay Area resident since 1980, when his family immigrated to the United States from Kabul, Afghanistan, when Hosseini was 11 years old.

In an interview with RN&R, he offered some particulars about The Kite Runner, the political events that helped inspire it and about his upcoming book, tentatively titled Dreaming in Titanic City.

The narrator of The Kite Runner discovers his writing talent almost by accident. Did you have an experience like that—one when you realized you were a storyteller?

There wasn’t a moment exactly like that. But around the time when I was 7 or 8, I began creating little stories, and I would make my brothers and sisters dress up and act them out, almost like a play. They all counted on me to come up with stories. When I was around 10 years old, I actually began writing stories down and keeping them in a little notebook. But those are gone now.

Some of my favorite passages in the book describe the less dramatic events. What moments in the book are close to your heart?

Probably my favorite moment in the book is also a small one. It is when Amir [the narrator] has dropped off his father at the General’s house, ostensibly so that his father can ask for the girl’s hand in marriage. As he’s driving away, he sees the retreating figure of his father, hunched over in his ill-fitting brown suit. It’s an important moment because Amir sees his father looking this way, a person who has been a towering figure in his life.

I also like the moment when Amir is on his way back to Afghanistan. He spends the night as a guest of a poor family, and he realizes that the family gave him all that they had to eat.

Khaled Hosseini’s debut novel, <i>The Kite Runner</i>, was published in 2003 and has since sold more than 3 million copies.

The tradition of kite running has emotional significance for Amir. Is it a practice you keep alive in your family?

Well, I haven’t flown a kite in 30-plus years. It is something that I did in childhood, when I was 9 or 10 years old. For me, the kites are associated with a peaceful Afghanistan. I grew up in a peaceful Kabul, before the Soviet invasion, and maybe my single most vivid memory of that time was having winters off and spending those times flying kites with my family. So for me, that era is kind of what the kites represent.

There’s a parallel in the novel between the loss of innocence of the two main characters and that same loss for Afghanistan. What importance did the end of kite running as a practice have?

I did associate [kite running] with a very lovely, peaceful era in Afghanistan’s history. It is allowed now, but it was banned when the Taliban was in power. In banning this, they were shattering whatever innocence that was left. Kids in Afghanistan have so little already. Kites were cheap to buy, and to take this enjoyment from them seemed particularly cruel.

I read recently that one of your favorite novels is The Grapes of Wrath. Was it an influential novel for you professionally?

It’s hard to say what books have influenced my writing. In some way, shape or form, I’m influenced by everything that I’ve read. I just saw things in The Grapes of Wrath that reminded me of Kabul. The hardships for Americans during the trek to California are reminiscent of the experiences of the people of Afghanistan. I learned English in high school, and I read The Grapes of Wrath during my junior year. It was kind of my first experience of reading a great book in English.

How have you dealt with expectations about how your new novel will portray Afghanistan? Have you managed to gauge many Afghan responses?

Well, in my estimation, my first book was far more political than my second one. But I have found that the reaction of Afghans was overwhelmingly positive. They seemed really pleased and proud that someone from their community had written about their lives. That has been the general reaction. There are others—I think that they are in the minority—that object to [The Kite Runner] and the issues it raises. They think that the book is divisive and that it stirs up issues that are best left alone. But overall, the response has been a positive one.

I understand the novel you’re working on now will feature female lead characters—was that an intentional change of viewpoint for you?

Not so much. It wasn’t an act of writing a redemptive book. The feel for it came from my March 2003 trip to Afghanistan. I walked the streets of Kabul a lot, almost incessantly. We also drove around a lot. During that trip, I saw so many women, many of them widows, sometimes trailed by five, six or seven kids. I found myself wondering what their lives were like, what their histories were, what they had been like when they were younger. Shortly after that, I heard about the women’s prison in Kabul. I thought of the women who lived there and gave birth to their children, raising them in the prisons. All of that had been simmering in my mind for a while. Sometime in 2004, I began thinking about one woman, then a second woman, and the book eventually became about their friendship. So there was no single person or moment but more of a composite of experiences that led to the book.

Like the singular threads—some autobiographical, some imaginary—that form the whole of The Kite Runner, Hosseini also embodies the merging of experiences. He was first an Afghan migr, then a student in the United States, later a doctor, father and husband—and finally, a writer. Hosseini acknowledges his current success with casual grace and modesty. The fact that it is, in whatever small way, contributing to a dialogue among Afghans has given me a wonderful sense of accomplishment.