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Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini

Arguing With Stephen Colbert on BookTV sums it up…

In this Interview


On why he’s an author: To generate dialogue.

On how to become an author: Become a chain smoker of reading and writing.

On something that changed the course of his life: Reading The Grapes of Wrath.

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– Khaled Hosseini

Returning to Afghanistan for the first time this year after 27 years in exile in America, Khaled Hosseini talks of Kabul in its heyday. His debut novel, The Kite Runner, explores the powerful relationship between a father and son during the Afghan monarchy and his hopes for a peaceful post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Click here to read a review of the book.

By Razeshta Sethna

Q: In The Kite Runner, do you create characters and events that are based on personal recollections or is the story purely fictional?

A: The story line of my novel is largely fictional. The characters were invented and the plot imagined. However, there certainly are, as is always the case with fiction, autobiographical elements woven through the narrative. Probably the passages most resembling my own life are the ones in the US, with Amir and Baba trying to build a new life for themselves. I, too, came to the US as an immigrant and I recall vividly those first few years in California, the brief time we spent on welfare, and the difficult task of assimilating into a new culture. My father and I did work for a while at the flea market and there really are rows of Afghans working there, some of whom I am related to.

I wanted to write about Afghanistan before the Soviet war because that is largely a forgotten period in modern Afghan history. For many people in the west, Afghanistan is synonymous with the Soviet war and the Taliban. I wanted to remind people that Afghans had managed to live in peaceful anonymity for decades, that the history of the Afghans in the twentieth century has been largely pacific and harmonious.

Q:What are your recollections of the last days of the Afghan monarchy and the subsequent invasion of the Soviet forces?

A: Kabul was a thriving cosmopolitan city with its vibrant artistic, intellectual and cultural life. There were poets, musicians, and writers. There was also an influx of western culture, art, and literature in the ’60s and ’70s. My family left Afghanistan in 1976, well before the Communist coup and the Soviet invasion. We certainly thought we would be going back. But when we saw those Soviet tanks rolling into Afghanistan, the prospect for return looked very dim. Few of us, I have to say, envisioned that nearly a quarter century of bloodletting would follow.

Q: Is Amir’s youth synonymous with your adolescence?

A:I experienced Kabul with my brother the way Amir and Hassan do: long school days in the summer, kite fighting in the winter time, westerns with John Wayne at Cinema Park, big parties at our house in Wazir Akbar Khan, picnics in Paghman. I have very fond memories of my childhood in Afghanistan, largely because my memories, unlike those of the current generation of Afghans, are untainted by the spectre of war, landmines, and famine.

Q: Can you shed light on the role of women at the time?

A: I came from an educated, upper middle-class family. My mother was a Persian and history teacher at a large high school for girls. Many of the women in my extended family and in our circle of friends were professionals. In those days, women were a vital part of the economy in Kabul. They worked as lawyers, physicians, college professors, etc., which makes the tragedy of how they were treated by the Taliban that much more painful.

Q: Your novel touches on internal strife before and during the Taliban government but lacks a strong focus on women.

With Katie Couric

A: My own background is fairly liberal and so this notion of ‘protecting women from outside intrusion’ is not in my nature, nor in my upbringing. The Kite Runner is a story of two boys and a father, and the strange love triangle that binds them. It so happens that the major relationships in the novel are between men, dictated not by any sort of prejudice or discomfort with female characters, but rather by the demands of the narrative. The story of what has happened to women in Afghanistan, however, is a very important one, and fertile ground for fiction. I have started a second novel set in Afghanistan, and so far all of the major characters are shaping up as women.

Q: Given the present state of politics and the American agenda in the region, how do you perceive the future of Afghanistan ?

A: I returned to Kabul this past March, after a 27-year absence. I came away with some optimism but not as much as I had hoped for. The two major issues in Afghanistan are a lack of security outside Kabul (particularly in the south and east) and the powerful warlords ruling over the provinces with little or no allegiance to the central government. The other rapidly rising concern is the narcotic trade which, if not dealt with, may turn Afghanistan into another Bolivia or Colombia.

Equally important is the lack of cultivable land for farmers, a profound problem when you take into account that Afghanistan has always largely been an agricultural country, and that even before the wars destroyed lands and irrigation canals, only 5 per cent of the land was cultivable. A great deal remains to be done in Afghanistan and the jury is out as to whether the international community has the commitment and the patience to see the rebuilding process through.

This last month, though, I have seen some cause for optimism. The Bush administration tripled its aid package to Afghanistan. Karzai finally (and courageously) announced that warlords will be forbidden from holding office in the future government. And finally, NATO agreed to expand the peacekeeping forces to troubled areas outside of Kabul.

Q: Why did you return after 27 years?

A: I returned to Afghanistan because I had a deep longing to see for myself how people lived, what they thought of their government, how optimistic they were about the future of their homeland. I was overwhelmed with the kindness of people and found that they had managed to retain their dignity, their pride, and their hospitality under unspeakably bleak conditions.

I did see plenty that reminded me of my childhood. I recognised my old neighbourhood, saw my old school, streets where I had played with my brother and cousins. And, like Amir, I found my father’s old house in Wazir Khan.

Q: Lastly, what were the reactions of Afghans in exile in the US after reading your novel?

A:I get daily e-mails from Afghans who thank me for writing this book, as they feel a slice of their story has been told by one of their own. So, for the most part, I have been overwhelmed with the kindness of my fellow Afghans. There are, however, those who have called the book divisive and objected to some of the issues raised in the book, namely racism, discrimination, ethnic inequality etc. If this book generates any sort of dialogue among Afghans, then I think it will have done a service to the community.

Q: Can you tell me about your second novel?

A:I am not sure how it will shape up, whether it will become one woman’s story or a family saga told from various women’s viewpoints.

But it will also be set in Afghanistan’s pre-Taliban days and, I suspect, in present-day America. I wish I could tell you more but I don’t know a whole lot more myself about it.

The Kite Runner The Kite Runner
Buy The Kite Runner

In the spring of 2004, Khaled Hosseini took some time out to talk with us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests.

What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
I remember reading The Grapes of Wrath in high school in 1983. My family had immigrated to the U.S. three years before, and I had spent the better part of the first two years learning English. John Steinbeck’s book was the first book I read in English where I had an “Aha!” moment, namely in the famed turtle chapter. For some reason, I identified with the disenfranchised farm workers in that novel — I suppose in one sense, they reminded me of my own country’s traumatized people. And indeed, when I went back to Afghanistan in 2003, I met people with tremendous pride and dignity under some very bleak conditions; I suspect I met a few Ma Joads and Tom Joads in Kabul.

What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
In no particular order:

  • The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy — A hypnotic novel about damaged people and forbidden love. The writing is as lush as the landscape, the imagery rich (see the opening page), and the array of characters unforgettable. The use of language — such as the children’s lingo, which runs throughout the narrative, or the use of nouns as verbs and adjectives as nouns — was brilliant, and the metaphors will always stay with me: A man’s muscular stomach is a slab of chocolate; a bitter, divorced woman gazes at her wedding picture and thinks that applying her makeup that day had been “like polishing firewood.”
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley — With daily news about our rapidly advancing biomedical technology and reports of humans already cloned, I lately find myself thinking of this great novel (which I first read in high school), and the questions it raises on the perils of unattended scientific creation and the manipulation of nature.
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell — I have always loved this fable-like, allegorical little novel, written about what happened in Russia in the early 20th century but still so relevant in today’s world, where still far too many totalitarian regimes oppress people while claiming benevolent intentions.
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck — See above. This story of the Joad clan and the hardships suffered by oppressed migrant laborers in the 1930s still resonates with me today as much as it did when I first read it in high school. The theme of the exploitation and oppression of dispossessed people appeals to me, and I think the final scene of selfless sacrifice — Rose of Sharon breastfeeding the dying man in the barn — is the most haunting final scene I have ever read.
  • I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb — Troubled love between brothers, regret, overpowering fathers, and the human need for redemption and freedom from the burden of one’s own past are themes that I also felt compelled to explore in The Kite Runner, and it is no wonder that I admire this daunting (at 900-plus pages) but enthralling novel by Wally Lamb.
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov — This book can be as highbrow as it can be vulgar and obscene. I love books with marginal characters as protagonists, as Nabokov gets us to, if not like, at least empathize with Humbert.
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel — Destined to be a classic. From the very beginning — including the so-called Author’s Note — to the conclusion, nothing is what it seems in this book. Or is it? An astounding statement on the nature of faith and how far we will go to find it.
  • Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides — This is an enchanting novel about, among many other things, the meaning of identity. It took Eugenides nine years to write this book, and every minute was worth it. This is the kind of book that brings other writers dangerously close to simply giving up.
  • Being Dead by Jim Crace — Two dead bodies on a beach make for an unforgettable and unsentimental look at death. One of the bravest premises ever for a novel.
  • The Rubbayiat of Omar Khayyam — I used to memorize his irresistible quatrains as a child:Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
    To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
    One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
    The Flower that once has blown forever dies.
    What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
  • The Magnificent Seven — Because of the cast, the theme music, and because I am a sucker for westerns.
  • The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly — See above.
  • Lawrence of Arabia — Omar Sharif’s entrance by the well has to be one of the great entrances in film history. Who could forget Peter O’Toole’s blue eyes against the white desert sand? And who could forget Anthony Quinn snarling, “Thy mother mated with a scorpion.”
  • The Godfather I and II: Too many great scenes to recount. James Caan’s death scene still rattles me.
  • Pulp Fiction — It broke all conventions of narrative.
  • Fargo — Grotesque and hilarious. And in one of my favorite lines ever, Marge looking in her rearview mirror at the captured killer, shaking her head and saying, “Don’t you know there is more to life than a little money?”
  • What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you’re writing?
    I don’t listen to music when I write — I find it distracting. I have been listening to quite a bit of Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan lately. He is a master of qawali music, the improvisational Sufi chanting that praises God. It is packed with spirit and grace. I was deeply saddened at his passing.
  • What are your favorite kinds of books to give — and get — as gifts?
    I give novels as gifts, and there is nothing I like to receive more as a gift. My last three birthdays, I have asked my wife to skip the tie and cologne and get me a good novel. She responded with Life of Pi by Yann Martel, Waiting by Ha Jin, and She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb. Who could ask for better gifts?
  • Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you’re writing?
    I write in the very early hours of the morning. Typically I get up at around 4 a.m., have cereal, read the San Francisco Chronicle, and heat up some black coffee. Then I head to our basement, where my writing den is located. I write for the next 2-3 hours (I pace quite a bit), before I call it a day and get ready to go to my other job (I am an internist and have been in medical practice since 1996). I can’t listen to music when I write, though I have tried. I like to read a few lines from a favorite novel before I start writing, to sort of put me in the flow of things.

    Many writers are hardly “overnight success” stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
    The Kite Runner was my first attempt at writing a novel. I began in March 2001 and finished it in June 2002. By July of that year, I had found a literary agent who then sold the manuscript to Riverhead within a few weeks. So I was quite fortunate, as my path to publication was pretty seamless.

    What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
    I would give them the oldest advice in the craft: Read and write. Read a lot. Read new authors and established ones, read people whose work is in the same vein as yours and those whose genre is totally different. You’ve heard of chain-smokers. Writers, especially beginners, need to be chain-readers. And lastly, write every day. Write about things that get under your skin and keep you up at night.


    In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here’s what Khaled Hosseini had to say:

  • Atonement by Ian McEwan — An elegantly told story of guilt and redemption, and a heartrending, whopper of an epilogue.
  • Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer — The opening story alone, Brownies, is worth cover price. Then come stories of alienation, disillusionment, and despair. ZZ writes her characters with respect and intelligence, using the kind of exacting details that make them leap from the page.
  • The Dark Tower Series by Stephen King — A delicious mix of pop culture, mythology, the old west, and Stephen King’s trademark edge of the seat prose. My favorite is Wizard and Glass, the fourth in the series, a love story set in a parallel, old west world complete with bad guys, a nasty witch, and a damsel in distress.
  • Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss — A fictionalized account of the famous Siamese twins, told with wit, sympathy, and a persistent sense of longing. Read the first page and you won’t stop.
  • Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri — Stories of immigrants and expatriates assimilating in a new home. Lahiri’s gift is telling stories in a breezy, seamless manner, yet charging them with a sense of urgency that keeps you turning the pages.
  • West of Kabul, East of New York by Tamim Ansary — Ansary’s memoir hails back to an Afghanistan most people have forgotten, one I personally remember fondly and recreated in my book, an Afghanistan living in peaceful anonymity, a “lost world” of walled villages, extended family networks, a world where instead of television, “we had genealogy.” His prose is rich with the sounds and smells of this old world, but it transcends mere nostalgia. Tamim’s memories serve as tools for his keen observations about the social and political mores of that time, about ripples in the calm way of life which led in part to the communist coup — see the chapter titled “Unintended Consequences.”
  • Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas — In one word: Hilarious. I recognized so many of my own relatives in this tale of an Iranian girl growing up in the U.S., living in a family of lovable eccentrics.
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving — Irving’s Owen Meany, the diminutive, self appointed vehicle of God’s will, is one of the most unforgettable characters of contemporary fiction. A lyrical coming of age story, perfect for the dog days of summer.
  • Waiting by Ha Jin — A story of infinite patience and boundless love, told in deceptively simple prose. As an aside, make sure you have access to food nearby; Jin’s descriptions of food will make your stomach grumble.
  • Islam, A Short History by Karen Armstrong — A concise and easy to read revision of Islam and its roots, told by one of the world’s top scholars. An important book in this world climate.
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  • A note from This author rates very high for promoting understanding among cultures as well as keeping interest through skilled writing. Read him! Click here to read a review of the book.

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