It’s the birthday of Khaled Hosseini (books by this author), born in Kabul (1965), author of the runaway best-selling novel The Kite Runner (2003), which has sold more than 12 million copies around the world.
He’s the son of a diplomat, and his affluent family immigrated to the United States around the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, receiving political asylum as members of Afghanistan’s government were being executed. They landed in San Jose, California, when Khaled was 12 with nearly nothing.
His diplomat father found work as a driving instructor in San Jose, and the family was forced to go on welfare. Khaled deferred his childhood dream of being a writer, feeling like he had to have a career that guaranteed a healthy income. So he went to medical school, made it through his residency, and had settled into a job as an internist when he began to think about writing again. He got up at 5 every morning so he could write for two hours before he went to the hospital. He wrote about his memories of Afghanistan, which were all good; they’d made it out of the country just before the Soviet invasion. He wrote a story about a friendship between an eight-year-old boy, the son of an Afghan diplomat, and one of the family’s servants, an illiterate man from an ethnic minority group. The young prosperous son teaches the servant to read and write, and the servant teaches the child to fly kites.
When the book was all written and in the publisher’s hands, he took a trip back to Kabul, for the first time in 27 years. When he’d left, it was a thriving affluent cosmopolitan city, but it had since spent decades in war. He knew it would be bad, but what he found was even worse than he expected. He walked the streets of his old hometown, now ravaged by war and with burqa-clad women and children all over the streets begging for money, people paralyzed by shrapnel, prevailing destitution and despair. He said, “I felt like a tourist in my own country.”
He said that because his first book had been so phenomenally successful and expectations were so high, with a book contract and anxious publishers and booksellers, he had a bit of a hard time getting started on the writing of his second book. He was plagued by self-doubt about his literary capabilities and whether he could measure up to his debut success. He said that he has “this almost pathological fear of boring the reader.” But eventually he found his way into the rhythm of the story, and into the inner lives of his characters. His second novel is a more ambitious book then his first, with lots of main characters, not at all autobiographical, multigenerational, and told from alternating points of view of two female narrators, their thoughts intertwined with a historical narrative of Afghanistan’s past three decades. The women weren’t based on anyone he knew, exactly, though were inspired by stories of people he’d encountered on his trip to Kabul. To get into his protagonists’ mindset, he even tried on a burqa when no one was around, “just to see what it felt like.” He said, “It steals your breath away. It’s really hard to get used to.”
A Thousand Splendid Suns, the story narrated by Afghani women Mariam and Laila, was published in mid-2007. The book was also hugely successful and was Britain’s best-selling book in 2008. The title is an English translation from a 17th-century poem in Farsi; the Persian poet had written verses describing the splendor he’d experienced upon journeying to Kabul.
Hosseini’s latest novel, And the Mountains Echoed, came out in 2013.