Rosiland Jordan: Your third novel, “And the Mountains Echoed,” is coming out in paperback as we speak. Is it the favorite of your three novels?
Khaled Hosseini: Well, your last book is always your favorite. It feels to me in some ways the most personal of my three novels. It feels to me in some ways the most ambitious of the three. And maybe the most accomplished.
I feel this is the novel that challenged me the most to write. I think it was more complex than the other two to write. Just the structure of it. The multiple narratives. The diversity of character and setting. The subtlety of the themes.
One thing that struck me about all of the characters is that while each of them had something that a reader might find instantly appealing, they also had character flaws that made you just want to grab them by the shoulders and say, "Snap out of it. What are you doing?" How hard was it, given that you had more than a dozen people telling this one story, to make them real?
It was difficult. That was a challenge of this book, that each chapter was more or less freestanding. Although they overlapped with each other and then together they tell one big story. But each chapter had to be from a different voice.
Each character had to be fully human in the sense that they had things that, as you said, were appealing. But also that disappointed you in certain ways. And they behaved in unpredictable ways.
With each chapter in this book I felt like I lived with someone that was flawed in many ways that I am as a person. That many of us are as human beings. And that's why I picked the epigraph at the very beginning of the book. My editor actually suggested it. Which is, you know, "Out beyond the notions of rightdoing or wrongdoing there's a field. I'll meet you there." And I feel like so much — very many characters in this book live in that field beyond that sort of clear-cut notion of right and wrong.
There are moments about loss and sacrifice. Pari being sold to save her family. Parwana leaving her twin sister out in the countryside, we believe to die. Nabi making good on his promise to his employer, Suleiman, to help him when the end came. Why the focus on pain? What were you trying to make your reader understand?
You know, I think if we think back on our life, there's pain and suffering and difficult decisions — [they are] so central to every human experience. I think that's part of the reason why we read books that deal with those issues. And that in reading them in some way there's a communal experience of these emotions.
And we feel somehow less alone. And we feel like our own pain and suffering, albeit different from those of the characters, [are] understood by others. And that others have gone through this. The idea for the book really came about from a story that I read in 2008, which is really about these very painful and difficult acts of sacrifice and decision-making. The story was about the winter of 2008 in Afghanistan, which was just brutal. A lot of people died. And I read stories about families in Afghanistan who were living in villages who were selling their children to wealthy couples in Kabul to be adopted. I suspect in some cases to be enlisted in some form of house labor.
But these families were selling their children so that they could support the rest of their kids. And to also provide a somewhat better life for those children who were being sold. Just as a father, I kind of thought about — when I read that, I kind of thought about the kind of a Sophie's choice, you know, dilemma that is faced by a parent. And how painful and agonizing that must have been. That it really happened. That real fathers had to make those decisions. That kind of became one of the central emotions in the book.
I think if we think back on our life, there’s pain and suffering and difficult decisions ... so central to every human experience. I think that’s part of the reason why we read books that deal with those issues.
Before you founded your foundation, before you were the world-famous writer, before you were a doctor, you and your family were refugees. When you were 14.
You talked about the pessimism. Did you have that same sense when your family realized after the Soviet invasion, "We can't go home again, it's too dangerous"?
Yes. The prospects for us to return home were very bleak, because when the Soviets came, we knew this was going to be a protracted situation. And there was no quick resolution to this. And so we knew that essentially we had to start life all over again. Everything that we owned, everything that we had built as a family before was basically swiped off the board. It was time to start a new life. Which is a very frightening sensation. And we were the lucky one[s].
I mean, we were given asylum to come to the United States. Whereas most refugees live in camps, or they live in cities, in an urban center, where they're struggling to make ends meet. Where they're struggling to find work. To find food. To find schooling for their kids.
Who advocated for the Hosseini family?
My father. My father took the step to bring us to the U.S. We had friends in San Jose, [California,] that we knew from the past. They were so helpful to us when we settled. And that's something I wanna stress to the general population, is that when you see newly arrived refugees, when you see newly resettled people, have some compassion for them.
Because they're very confused. It's very disorienting to start life in a brand new country with a different culture. They may not speak the language. Even mundane, banal things like applying for a driver's license or enrolling your kid in school, or even grocery shopping or — it can be so confusing. Just helping them with those little things is an enormous help.
It’s very disorienting to start life in a brand new country with a different culture. They may not speak the language. Even mundane, banal things like applying for a driver’s license or enrolling your kid in school, or even grocery shopping or — it can be so confusing.
Is this in part why you are an advocate in addition to being a writer today?
Yes. When the U.N. Refugee Agency contacted me in 2006 and asked me to work for them — work with them, I could not think of a more suitable situation for me. I mean, I had watched — in addition to myself being an asylum seeker, I had also watched the Afghanistan refugee crisis explode in the course of the 1980s and '90s.
At one point 8 million Afghans were living abroad as refugees. That was an enormous crisis that I had watched from afar. Watching fellow Afghans being displaced, living in camps. So when the opportunity came for me to be a spokesperson for people like my fellow Afghan refugees — that's a chance that I wanted to take right away.
You recently became an ambassador after serving as an envoy since 2007. What makes this year's observance, in your opinion, particularly necessary for the global community?
Well, we have a displacement crisis around the world that is unparalleled. Over 40 million people are displaced. This is an enormous humanitarian crisis. We have a very, very urgent situation in Syria. The estimation is that by the end of the [conflict] … Syria will displace Afghanistan as the largest refugee-producing nation on earth. Over 4 million people will be displaced. So I think this year in particular — every year, but this year in particular — is a very good time for people around the world to take a step back. To think about the millions of people whose lives have been disrupted through no fault of their own. Ninety percent of refugees arrive in neighboring countries carrying nothing. Seventy-five percent of refugees are women and children. These are human beings who've lost everything. And World Refugee Day for me is a day to think about them — to stand in solidarity. Pay homage to their contribution.
You met some of these refugees in March when you visited northern Iraq.
What struck you the most about their plight?
The refugees I met came from a Kurdish part of Syria in northern Iraq. And one of the things that was very, very striking to me is how pessimistic they were about the potential for return home. At the same time, what a terrible longing they had to go back to Syria. None of the refugees that I met were happy to be in northern Iraq. All wanted to go back to Syria. But all of them knew that the situation in Syria is very, very difficult for them. Virtually every refugee that I met were steeling themselves against the idea of having to stay in northern Iraq for a protracted period of time because of violence in Syria. There appears to be no end to it.
I was struck, also, by the generosity of the local community that welcomed the refugees. The camp that I visited in Kawergosk was built essentially overnight, in a matter of [a] week, to accommodate the influx of thousands of Syrian refugees that crossed the border the year before. I was also struck by the fact that these neighboring countries like where I was in the Kurdistan region of Iraq — but also Lebanon and Egypt and Turkey — these are countries that have enormous problems of their own. The influx of refugees is a huge strain on their social services — on their infrastructure, on their economic situation.
It behooves all of us as an international community to see this not as the problem of a handful of nations neighboring Syria. But as something that we can all address as an international community. We can all do our part to help ease the burden for those countries as the refugees continue to flow across the border.
Focusing more on Afghanistan, war seems to be ending. People are trying to move back. We're in the middle of a political season. The runoffs are in two weeks, as of right now. Yet there is concern that Afghanistan could fall away if the world doesn't continue to pay attention. What is your perspective on this?
I think that's a view shared by a lot of Afghans that I've spoken to, both abroad and in Afghanistan itself. The Afghans that I've spoken to from all walks of life feel that the country has progressed over the last 10 years. It can't be compared to the pre–Sept. 11 Afghanistan on many, many fronts.
However, they don't feel like it's a country that can stand on its own feet as yet. It's still dependent on foreign assistance. There's also a general skepticism about whether the Afghan state, such as it is, can fully protect the civilians against the insurgency. I think the current period for a lot of Afghans is a time of anxiety and of uncertainty. The big bogeyman in the closet is a return to the '90s. And I'm not even really referring to the Taliban years. But I'm referring to the years preceding the Taliban when you had basically militia warfare. That's the disaster scenario that a lot of Afghans fear and hope that we will not go back to, when you had massive human displacement.
Chaos. Violence that was rampant. People were dying by the tens of thousands in cities, and cities were being destroyed. That's the Afghan perspective. The fear of that scenario has been the basis of the general approval of the presence of the foreign troops over the last decade. Now that the troops are leaving, I think there's a sense among Afghans of uncertainty of what exactly is going to happen moving forth. And nobody really knows the answer to that.
Now that the troops are leaving, I think there's a sense among Afghans of uncertainty of what exactly is going to happen moving forth. And nobody really knows the answer to that.
How does the West support the Afghan people through this transition? Isn't there this danger of Westerners trying to impose their values, their cultural and historical perspective on Afghanistan, on people, without acknowledging their own views of what is best for the Afghan nation?
I think early on in the Afghan campaign there was a lot of that. I think we've become a bit wiser since then. More and more I hear that what we need to do is to be a supportive presence. No enduring, meaningful change will come to Afghanistan unless it's initiated by the Afghans themselves within the context of Afghan history and Afghan culture.
Yes, we can make quick changes. But what we really need is enduring change in Afghanistan, that can only be brought by the Afghans themselves. Afghans have never been very receptive to the idea of a foreign master. They've always revolted against that. Afghanistan needs economic [development] and a period of relatively good security to be able to bring about a kind of a cultural transformation that I think is necessary.
Where does the Taliban fit in all this? At one point people forget they were the government.
Well, I think these elections were a national referendum against the Taliban. They were very clear in their message that if you show up to vote, we'll kill you.
And people showed up by the millions. Given this is a country that's racked by an ongoing insurgency, and how inaccessible some parts of the country are. And yet people showed up by the millions, including women, including old people. And they voted.
And I think that was an egg in the face of the Taliban. I think it was also an answer to those people who think that the Taliban present an agenda that is appetizing to Afghan people. What these elections say to me is that the Taliban vision for the future of Afghanistan is not shared by the majority of Afghan people. That they want their voice heard. That they want to be part of the political process. However imperfect and fragile that democracy may be, they want to be part of it. They wanna have a voice in the future of the country. It does not include going back to the days of extremism that we saw under the Taliban. Seems to me the country has turned a corner. That there's some things now that ought to be treated as untouchable and as red lines.
Your three novels have dealt with an Afghanistan that particularly people in the West don't know. Haven't appreciated. You've talked about the tension between being an artist, being a writer, and being an advocate. I think you said it was, quote, "a kind of an onerous burden" to one interviewer. How do you square the two?
You have to be honest with what you are and what your limitations are and what your influence can be. I'm a person who's lived outside of Afghanistan now since 1976. To portray myself as an expert in all things Afghan is disingenuous. When I'm asked about the situation in Afghanistan, I give my answer as a layperson. As somebody who's interested in the country and who reads. I'm very careful to draw the line. I am first and foremost a novelist. I write books about characters.
This interview has been edited and condensed.