Behind the veil
Hosseini soars with searing portrait of Afghan women
After the unexpected success of his first novel, The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini decided to focus his second book on a part of Afghan society often obscured from public view its women. "There are women characters in The Kite Runner, but I wouldn't describe any of them as major characters," he says. "So there was this entire aspect of Afghan society and Afghan life that I hadn't touched upon. It was a landscape that I felt was rich with possibilities for storytelling."
Hosseini, a superb storyteller, realizes those possibilities fully in A Thousand Splendid Suns, his textured, deeply affecting novel about the intersecting lives of two Afghan women. Mariam is the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Herat movie house owner. She grows up exiled with her mother to a hovel in the hills outside the city, visited occasionally by the father she adores. When her presence at the periphery of her father's life threatens family peace, she is forced into marriage with a shoemaker from Kabul. Life in Kabul goes from bad to worse under the Soviet occupation. Her husband brutalizes her and eventually takes in, then marries, a young, well-educated girl Laila who has been orphaned during the Afghan civil war. Most of A Thousand Splendid Suns depicts the extraordinary relationship that develops under grim circumstances between these two women.
"As a writer, the things that always move me are the intimate human stories, the links between the characters, their dreams, their disappointments, their crushing defeats and their atonements," Hosseini says during a call to his home in San Jose, California. Hosseini was an internist at a Bay Area Kaiser hospital before the phenomenal popularity of The Kite Runner allowed him to take an extended leave of absence. He and his wife have two young children. He briefly, politely, interrupts the call to kiss his son goodbye as he heads off to school. Hosseini appears remarkably unaffected by the hoopla over his first novel.
But later in the conversation, Hosseini admits the success of his first book, which has sold more than 4 million copies, cast a looming shadow over early attempts at composing the new novel. "Suddenly everybody was interested in what I was writing next," he says with a pleasant, rueful laugh. "You go through these crises of self-doubt. You wonder: Am I a hack? It took a little bit of work to ignore the noise outside my door." In fact, for a while, Hosseini rented an office in a nondescript office building, a room with nothing on the walls to distract him that he now calls his windowless bunker.
He worried about finding the right voice for the book, writing through four drafts using different approaches and points of view. He chastised himself because he had not only decided to write from a woman's standpoint, but had decided to write from the standpoints of two women. "I had to not only think about what it would be like to be a woman, but I also had to think about what it would be like to be a different woman. As long as I was self-conscious about the fact that I was writing from a woman's voice, it kept coming across as very self-aware and contrived. But as I wrote and as I began to know these women, began to understand their motivations, their dreams, began to understand them as people, the issue vanished on its own. At first I was a ventriloquist and they were dummies speaking with my voice. But as I began to know them, the characters took over and I became a mouthpiece for them. That was a watershed moment for me."
The completed book has the same big heart displayed in The Kite Runner, but even Hosseini (despite his writerly doubts) believes the new story is more masterfully told. "I feel this is a more subtle and somewhat more restrained book," he says. "I think that I, as a writer, have learned to trust readers and allow them to make their own connections." One sign of such mastery is the way Hosseini weaves recent history into the narrative. He says he struggled to restrain himself from getting too much into the history and political turmoil of those years. But he eventually found that the intimate story of these characters and the bigger story of what is going on in Afghanistan twisted around each other like a DNA strand. "It is really by necessity, because these two women happen to be living in the volatile period of recent Afghanistan history. There is no way I could have told the story of Laila and Mariam without telling the story of Afghanistan."
In addition to their concern for the plights of Hosseini's characters, readers will be carried willingly from page to page by the sensory and cultural details that enrich Hosseini's depiction of Afghan life in this era. Hosseini grew up in Kabul before immigrating to the United States as a youth. His family was originally from Herat, which he would visit for family gatherings. "I remember the city and how beautiful it was," he says. " I can speak Farsi in both the Herati and the Kabuli accent. This is part of my background." Breaking his rule of allowing only his wife to read and comment on drafts of his novels, he asked his father, a former Afghan diplomat, to read the final draft and serve as a sort historical and technical advisor. In 2003, a time of cautious optimism in Afghanistan, he visited Kabul. A Thousand Splendid Suns resonates with his remembered and recently witnessed details of Afghan life.
"The writer side of me," Hosseini says at the end of our conversation, "wants what every writer wants: that people respond to my characters, to feel their happiness and sorrow, and to be transported by them. Then there's the other side of me. I am from Afghanistan. And although it's not my intention to educate people about Afghanistan, I do hope that in some ways this novel gives people a window into Afghanistan, especially into the difficult existence of Afghan women over the last 30 years. Maybe this novel will give some identity to the nameless, faceless women in burqa walking down the street, so that a reader will now sense that these are real people who have dreams and hopes and disappointments. Just like everybody else."
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.