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Wed July 17, 2013

Khaled Hosseini's Latest Bestseller Spans Generations

Author Khaled Hosseini found international fame with his debut novel, “The Kite Runner.”

Now he’s out with his third book, “And the Mountains Echoed,” which tells a story spanning decades and stretching from a village in Afghanistan to Paris and California (excerpt below).

Hosseini mines his own experiences as a transplant from Afghanistan to show how tightly intertwined all of our lives are.

The idea for the book

Out of the success of “The Kite Runner,” Hosseini was given the opportunity take a greater role in giving aid to his native Afghanistan.

“I’ve felt helpless for such a long time,” Hosseini told Here & Now. “I watched this country that I have a very strong connection to just fall apart. I felt like there was nothing I could do. When the refugee agency — the UNHCR — asked me to work with them, it was an absolutely perfect opportunity.”

There are some core universal human experiences that we’ve all had, no matter our backgrounds, and this book does speak to them.
–Khaled Hosseini

The chance he was given to work with UNHCR helped him formulate his new book, about an Afghan doctor living in Northern California and returning to Afghanistan as an adult — a plot line that echoes Hosseini’s own experience.

“It’s impossible to not write about myself,” Hosseini said.

Feeling like an outsider

Hosseini went back to Afghanistan at the age of 38, his first time there since he was 11.

“And yet when I walk the streets of Kabul, I realize this isn’t home.”

He wanted to ask locals questions about the wars, but he wasn’t sure if he was “entitled” to do so. But even as he felt self-consciousness, he watched other Afghan Americans — who he calls “ugly” Afghan Americans — act as if they belonged.

In “And the Mountains Echoed,” he describes one such man by saying, “He was working on his pecs at Golds Gym while these people were getting bombed to death.”

Hosseini feels incredibly lucky, which sometimes makes it even harder to experience Kabul.

“I do recall going to Kabul and being bowled over by this immediate instinct to want to help everybody … and I’m a physician.”

But to follow through on helping everyone, or anyone, takes a whole lot more than just good intentions. The lead character in his book experiences just that. He meets a little girl who is brutally injured and he promises to help, but he realizes that isn’t quite so easy.

Universal human experiences

He also describes a younger character in the book who realizes his father may not be the heroic figure he had always believed.

“That’s why I love writing about 12-year-olds, because they have one foot in childhood and they have a foot in this other place where the foundations of the world as they have thus far understood it are beginning to crack. It’s a transformative period. We all want to think that we are heroes and we’ll stand up and do the right thing, do the brave and courageous thing.”

The turmoil this young boy experiences over discovering truths about his father, is an experience shared by people in every culture.

“There are some core universal human experiences that we’ve all, had no matter our backgrounds, and this book does speak to them,” Hosseini said.

Book Excerpt: ‘And the Mountains Echoed’

By Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini Back home, in Shadbagh, Pari kept underneath her pillow an old tin tea box Abdullah had given her. It had a rusty latch, and on the lid was a bearded Indian man, wearing a turban and a long red tunic, holding up a steaming cup of tea with both hands. Inside the box were all of the feathers that Pari collected. They were her most cherished belongings. Deep green and dense burgundy rooster feathers; a white tail feather from a dove; a sparrow feather, dust brown, dotted with dark blotches; and the one of which Pari was proudest, an iridescent green peacock feather with a beautiful large eye at the tip.

This last was a gift Abdullah had given her two months earlier. He had heard of a boy from another village whose family owned a peacock. One day when Father was away digging ditches in a town south of Shadbagh, Abdullah walked to this other village, found the boy, and asked him for a feather from the bird. Negotiation ensued, at the end of which Abdullah agreed to trade his shoes for the feather. By the time he returned to Shadbagh, peacock feather tucked in the waist of his trousers beneath his shirt, his heels had split open and left bloody smudges on the ground. Thorns and splinters had burrowed into the skin of his soles. Every step sent barbs of pain shooting through his feet.

When he arrived home, he found his stepmother, Parwana, outside the hut, hunched before the tandoor, making the daily naan. He quickly ducked behind the giant oak tree near their home and waited for her to finish. Peeking around the trunk, he watched her work, a thick-shouldered woman with long arms, rough-skinned hands, and stubby fingers; a woman with a puffed, rounded face who possessed none of the grace of the butterfly she’d been named after.

Abdullah wished he could love her as he had his own mother. Mother, who had bled to death giving birth to Pari three and a half years earlier when Abdullah was seven. Mother, whose face was all but lost to him now. Mother, who cupped his head in both palms and held it to her chest and stroked his cheek every night before sleep and sang him a lullaby:

I found a sad little fairy

Beneath the shade of a paper tree.

I know a sad little fairy

Who was blown away by the wind one night.

He wished he could love his new mother in the same way. And perhaps Parwana, he thought, secretly wished the same, that she could love him.

Excerpted from the book AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED by Khaled Hosseini. Copyright © 2013 by Khaled Hosseini. Reprinted with permission of Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.

Guest

Copyright 2013 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

A top prosecutor in Afghanistan was killed by gunmen today, another sign of the Karzai government under attack by the Taliban as it negotiates a U.S. troop withdrawal. But today, we want to step back from that headline with a conversation with Khaled Hosseini.

Khaled is author of the Afghanistan-based best-sellers "The Kite Runner," "A Thousand Splendid Suns" and now "And the Mountains Echoed." We sat down at a packed book signing at the Unitarian church in Cambridge, Mass., to speak with the man who's become our window on the Afghan world.

What Khaled Hosseini has done - humanize the people who are in the shadows of our headlines here in the United States, make us look closer at their faces, make us wonder what their stories are. So let's now formally welcome author, physician and humanitarian Khaled Hosseini.

(APPLAUSE)

KHALED HOSSEINI: Thank you.

YOUNG: Khaled Hosseini's latest novel follows the fortunes of a brother and sister cruelly separated. Khaled himself left Afghanistan as a child. He eventually became a doctor in Northern California. He's now a goodwill envoy for the U.N. Refugee Agency, and started his own foundation to help Afghans. I started by asking what's it like to be part of a diaspora.

Let's just talk a little bit about being one of those outside the country, looking in.

HOSSEINI: Well, I've felt helpless for such a long time, watched this country that I have a very strong connection to just fall apart. I felt like there was nothing I could do. You know, when the refugee agency, the UNHCR, asked me to work with them, it was an absolutely perfect opportunity.

YOUNG: But even before that you were writing the books, telling their stories, telling us about this huge chasm between the Afghans still living in mud-brick homes and the sophisticated, educated Afghans in Kabul, people who became a part of the diaspora, going to Paris, going to California, as your family, but also siblings. Why did you go there?

HOSSEINI: I mean, I just thought I was telling a story, and then I noticed that a pattern is emerging. And that's because I don't start with big ideas, but rather I start with something really small, just an image or a line of dialogue.

With this one it hit me like a thunderclap, and it was an image of a man, you know, obviously some kind of villager, and he was walking across a desert. And he was pulling behind him one of these little Radio Flyer red wagons we all used to pull when we were kids. And inside the little wagon is a three-year-old girl, and then a few paces behind him is a boy, he's about 10 years old, and he's following them.

And it was an image that just came to me perfectly, beautifully.

YOUNG: Had you see that, do you think, in your life?

HOSSEINI: No, no, I hadn't, and when that - when I thought of that image, it just kind of stole my breath a little bit. And immediately I realized that the little girl and the boy are brother and sister and that they have a bond that sort of transcends just your typical sibling relationship.

But what actually happens in Kabul ends up rupturing this beautiful relationship.

YOUNG: We know that the sibling relationship, they're finding out more and more, is maybe even more powerful than the parental. And I was wondering, too, if this - if we're not giving away too much to say that they are cleaved, I mean, in just a painful way.

If that becomes even a better metaphor, again for back to the diaspora, for someone being cleaved from the motherland...

HOSSEINI: As we all go through life, we lose parts of ourselves. It could be a sibling, it could be hope, it could be our homeland. There is this kind of almost visceral instinct to want to be reunited with those parts of you that just shine, those parts of you that you feel you have lost. It shows, and it's something I've learned in my life, that life kind of doesn't care about, you know, these kinds of neat symmetries and reunions and this sort of thing.

Life just kind of imparts lessons on you as you go, and the lessons that you learn, the closures that you're given, are rarely the ones you thought you were going to get.

YOUNG: How much of it is a way of telling your story because one of the characters is flung to Paris, one of the - another character is flung to Northern California. Hmm, you know, both Paris and Northern California.

HOSSEINI: Yeah, well, it's impossible to not write about myself. I'm all over the pages of all my books. You mentioned Northern California. There's a chapter where there's this youngish physician who has a very kind of affluent life, he's a successful doctor in Northern California, and he after being away from his country for 20 years decides to return to Afghanistan.

And he has a very kind of discomfiting experience in that he feels - and I might as well change the pronoun from he to I because this is precisely what I felt.

YOUNG: I was going to say...

HOSSEINI: The first time I went to Afghanistan, I remember flying just even just the first time I saw the Hindu Kush, it tugged at me. I left when I was 11, and I went back when I was 38. So when the plane began to approach Kabul to land, and I saw this city underneath for the first time, it was very powerful.

I mean, it was like I'm coming home. You know, this is where I was born. The first time I laughed, the first time I fell down, the first time somebody loved me was down there, and it was just - I felt like there was such a bond. And yet when I walked the streets of Kabul, I realized this isn't really home anymore.

I mean, it would be disingenuous to say it is because it transformed so dramatically. I have not been party to everything that has happened there. And so I felt a little bit like an outsider. I felt like I was in exile in my own home. I wasn't sure what - how to engage the locals. Am I entitled to simply ask them questions about the wars and make them relive these very painful memories because I want to know?

I mean, these - this seemed kind of like hair-splitting and kind of navel-gazing type of questions, but it mattered to me a great deal, and I wanted to do it the right way, and I felt very self-conscious. I did notice a contingency of Afghan-Americans that I privately thought of as the ugly Afghan-Americans who went to Kabul and just pretended, acted a little bit in a bellicose kind of way, shooting around the city with their cameras and addressing and glad-handing people, slapping them on the back and as if they were really - you know, and the line in the book is that, you know, he was working on his pecs at Gold's Gym, you know, when these people were getting bombed to death, and now he's acting like, you know, hey, I'm one of you guys.

And it bothers this character.

YOUNG: Author Khaled Hosseini, his new book is "And the Mountains Echoed." We spoke at a book signing in Cambridge, Massachusetts. More after the break.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

And another story we're following, Panama has detained a North Korean ship carrying Cuban missile technology. The weapons were decades old, but the U.S. and U.N. still have a lot of questions. Details later on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Khaled, (unintelligible). It's really a pleasure and honor to be in your company and to hear you speak.

HOSSEINI: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: "The Kite Runner" is one of the very few books that I confess made me cry, really from the heart. It was a very, very touching book. My question is a very simple one, and it encompasses all three of your books.

YOUNG: We're hearing excerpts of our conversation with author Khaled Hosseini at a Porter Square book event in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Many in attendance were also Afghans living in exile, judging by the questions that came.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is a land, Afghanistan, that right from the age of Alexander the Great has constantly been plundered, ravaged, and yet there is this beauty about Afghanistan, there is this forgiveness, there is this grace. I just want you to talk about that element of grace, which makes all this suffering still imaginable.

HOSSEINI: Oh, thank you, what a lovely question, and the answer I would hope to be half as lovely.

(LAUGHTER)

HOSSEINI: You know, I meet people, and they've been all over the world, and they always say but the one place, man, that always sticks in my heart is Afghanistan. There's something about the place, it's the people, it's the land, it feels like it hasn't been - hasn't changed in forever. But I think that there is something about the Afghan soul, you know, if I can say such a thing, that is very intoxicating and very beautiful.

YOUNG: And very much a part of his latest book, "And the Mountains Echoed," in which a character much like Hossein is a doctor living an affluent life in Northern California when he returns to a war-torn Afghanistan. Let's pick up our conversation there.

Your character has all the best intentions of wanting to help especially some severely damaged...

HOSSEINI: Little girl, yeah.

YOUNG: Little girls. And I'm just wondering if maybe you had an interaction like that where you had the best intentions of helping someone, and out of that maybe came the work that you are actually doing.

HOSSEINI: What happens to him is fictional although not the feeling of it. I do recall going to Kabul and being bowled over by this immediate instinct to want to help everybody.

YOUNG: And you're a doctor.

HOSSEINI: I know, and I'm a physician. And then I noticed that when I came home, it kind of dissipated a little bit, after two, three weeks. The point is that it takes much more than that.

YOUNG: Good intentions.

HOSSEINI: Good intentions are not enough. He meets a little girl who's severely, brutally injured, and I did meet a little girl exactly like that, but I met her as part of a group of us that went to a hospital and saw her. And I, you know, I never had any relationship with her, although he develops this very close relationship with this little girl, and he promises he's going to help her, and then he finds that to follow through on your promises takes a whole lot more than just good intentions.

YOUNG: Yeah, then there are other characters who have a light bulb go off, and they realize they're not going to make the choice they wish they would make. They're going to make a lesser choice. I'm thinking of even a young boy who has an epiphany when he realizes that the father that he adored turns out to be maybe not the great guy that he thought he was.

And then he realizes that oh, and you know what? I'm going to go along with that.

HOSSEINI: This particular boy is living in a mansion in a kind of desert-like situation next to a small town, and his very caring, tender and loving father, who is also helping the town with loans so they can start businesses, he's built a women's clinic with a midwife and a doctor, he's built a school for little girls and so on, and he also happens to be, you know, a war criminal, you know.

And so this boy has an awakening. Oh, in "The Kite Runner," in "A Thousand Splendid Suns," and in this book, I'm sort of enamored with that process. That's why I love writing about 12-year-olds because they have one foot in childhood, and they have a foot in this other place where the foundations of the world as they have thus far understood it are beginning to crack.

It's a transformative period. We all want to think that we are heroes and that we will stand up and do the right thing, do the brave and courageous thing. The world is - doesn't quite work that way.

YOUNG: How much is all of it about making up for something you had no choice about, but the fact is you left?

HOSSEINI: Yes, I think to continue on the sort of - my trip to Kabul, what hit me really there was an almost overwhelming sense of guilt. It's almost trite to say, but I saw that, you know, the only thing that separates me from this guy here is that I happen to be born in this family that had the means to leave, and this guy didn't. And if not for my having won through no merit of my own at this random, idiotic, genetic lottery, you know, I would have been the one in a refugee camp.

And I wouldn't have written these books. I would have never become a - my life would have been completely different, and I would have been the one walking two miles to fill my antifreeze container full of water and bring it back to my hut and walk back again, back and forth. That would have been my life.

There is that comes with that a sense of unearned privilege, and that causes a sort of a dissonance inside you. It makes you question that your whole life, you know, that the things that you have have been given to you, in a way, through no merits of your own.

And I carried that home, and certainly, you know, part, and not all, but part of the reason I got involved with the UNHCR and started the foundation was to help turn this kind of very unpleasant, roiling emotion inside of me outwards and turn it into something positive and productive.

YOUNG: Yeah, it's interesting that, I mean, this is obviously your story, but a lot of it is so universal. My mother had a sister who ran away from home when they were like 14, 15, and it ruined - it changed her life. I mean, her whole life she yearned for that sister who was missing. Throughout the book, as we said, there are people who are going to make it, and there are people who are not.

And the people who make it have to deal with that fact, far more, maybe, even than the people who don't.

HOSSEINI: Right, there are things in this book that reflect the world as you've come to understand it so far and reflect to you what it's like to be, you know, a human being living on this planet and living a life. And there are some core universal human experiences that we've all, had no matter our backgrounds, and this book does speak to them.

YOUNG: Yeah, has it helped that you tell the stories? Has it helped you, as you said, to kind of get some of that out from what was...?

HOSSEINI: Oh yes, it has. I receive so many letters from high school students from all over the country that say, you know, we read your book in class, our teacher taught it, we all loved it, and - but what can we do. We want to help people like the characters in your book. So it does help. You know, I've gone out, and we get letters, we get letters and sometimes checks from, you know, people from all over the world, you know, private - as little as a dollar to as high as $100,000.

(LAUGHTER)

HOSSEINI: So, you know, it's been really amazing.

YOUNG: Part of our conversation with author Khaled Hosseini. As we closed, I asked him if he was still practicing medicine. He said not since his first book came out in 2003.

HOSSEINI: And I noticed that increasingly patients are coming in with a copy of my book.

(LAUGHTER)

HOSSEINI: And, you know, I end up talking to them about, you know, "Kite Runner," and then with two minutes left I have to manage their heart failure, their diabetes.

(LAUGHTER)

HOSSEINI: I'm like this is not good for my patients, you know.

YOUNG: Well, but my second thought, and I'm sure I'm not the only one having it, is you are practicing medicine. This is incredibly healing, as is your foundation.

HOSSEINI: Thank you.

YOUNG: Khaled Hosseini, thank you so much.

HOSSEINI: Thank you, thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

YOUNG: Author Khaled Hosseini at a book signing in Cambridge, Massachusetts. To read an excerpt from his best-seller "And the Mountains Echoed" and to hear about his foundation, go to hereandnow.org. We'll be back to the latest news, that's next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.