In a new book, author and former NPR science reporter Frank Browning explores the complexities of gender. What it means to be a man and a woman, and evolving perspectives on gender and sex.
Guest Host: Tom Gjelten
The best-selling author of the novels “The Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns” introduced millions of readers to Afghanistan. Khaled Hosseini’s new book begins in Afghanistan, but then branches out as it follows characters from Kabul to Paris and California – reflecting the author’s personal journey. Born in Kabul, Hosseini spent part of his childhood in Paris as the son of a diplomat. But his family was forced to stay in France after the 1978 coup. Later, they were granted political asylum in California, where Hosseini became a doctor, started writing fiction, and still lives today.
- Khaled Hosseini novelist, physician and U.S. envoy to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Read An Excerpt
Excerpt from “And the Mountains Echoed” by Khaled Hosseini. Copyright 2013 by Olympia Khaled Hosseini. Reprinted with the permission of Riverhead Hardcover. All rights reserved.
MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in today for Diane Rehm. "Winter, it descends on these villages and takes a random child or two every year. You can only hope it will bypass your home." That's a line from a new novel by Khaled Hosseini. He's the author of the huge bestsellers "The Kite Runner" and "A Thousand Splendid Sons." His new book begins with a young brother and sister in a remote village in Afghanistan.
MR. TOM GJELTENNext, a wrenching decision to let the girl be taken and raised by a wealthy family in Kabul. That momentous move reverberates across generations and time zones and "The Mountains Echoed" is the title of the book and the author Khaled Hosseini joins me here in the studio. Good morning, Khaled.
MR. KHALED HOSSEINIGood morning to you.
GJELTENI'm sure many of you have read Khaled Hosseini's books and want to join in this conversation. Our phone number is 1-800-433-8850. Our email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Of course, you can also join us on Facebook or Twitter. So Khaled, you tell a wrenching story here. One of the things that caught my attention first was how you described the poverty in which this family lived, at least in 1952 when the book opens.
GJELTENI already read a line in the intro about what winter meant to families in this remote Afghan village. You also have these lines, the thoughts of the boy Abdullah when he first encounters a really wealthy woman in Kabul and he is reminded of his own little hut back in the village.
GJELTEN"He found himself thinking of the smoke of piranhas cooking, the kitchen shelf cluttered with her jars and mismatched plates and smudged pots. He missed the mattress he shared with Pari though it was dirty and the jumble of springs forever threatened to poke through. He missed all of it."
GJELTENNow, Khaled, I assume you had a fairly comfortable upbringing as a child...
GJELTEN...in Kabul and then in Paris and yet you, in this book, are able to describe in such evocative terms what it is like or what it was like to be poor in an Afghan village. How were you able to do that? How are you able to do that?
HOSSEINIWell, in a couple of ways. One, yes, I was extremely fortunate to live in a pretty privileged upbringing in Afghanistan. But Afghanistan is a third-world country and like many third-world countries, affluence and poverty live next door to each other.
HOSSEINIAnd all you have to do is really go down the street and you're face to face with poverty. So that's one. But also I've had a chance to travel, too. I had a chance to travel to Afghanistan even as a child and you know, go to Herat and long ago we would stop in different villages and see things and I'd seen how people live.
HOSSEINIAnd most importantly I've traveled to Afghanistan in the last ten years and I've seen a lifestyle that's, you know people living in these small villages in little huts more or less described exactly as you just read in the book. And that's kind of a lifestyle that people have had there for decades and decades and life for many of the poor in Afghanistan really hasn't changed all that much.
GJELTENWell tell us about your own upbringing in Afghanistan. How old were you when you did leave and move to Paris with your family? Your father was a diplomat.
HOSSEINIRight, I was born in '65 and I lived in Kabul until '76. My father was a diplomat, worked for the Foreign Ministry. My mother was a vice-principal of a large high school for girls where she also taught Farsi and history. So my family was sort of in that kind of an upper-middleclass crust of Kabul society.
HOSSEINIWe moved to Paris in 1976 because my father was assigned a diplomatic post at the Afghan embassy in Paris. We had a full intention of coming back in 1980. Of course, Afghanistan changed dramatically between '76 and '80 because of a communist coup in '78 and a subsequent Soviet invasion.
HOSSEINIAnd so my father sought local asylum for our family and we were granted asylum and moved to the U.S. in the fall of 1980 where I've lived since.
GJELTENAnd you say your mother taught Farsi. Is Farsi your native language then?
HOSSEINIYes, it is.
GJELTENAnd the characters in your book speak Farsi as well. Nevertheless, of course, that's only one of many languages spoken in Afghanistan and as we all know at this point there are very important tribal and clan differences in Afghanistan.
GJELTENWe, I think, often hear about the Pashtun element of the population and there is the Dari language as well. Does the fact that the family that you portray come from a Farsi background, does that simply reflect that part of the Afghan demography that you know best?
HOSSEINIYes, it does and I kind of pictured -- it's a demography that I'm familiar with and I feel comfortable with and also I sort of pictured this village, this, the boy and his sister live in an impoverished village in a. It's kind of a fictional village that I made up.
HOSSEINIBut I kind of pictured they live somewhere similar to like the Shomali Plains, outside of Kabul, an hour or two outside of Kabul. And so it's just something that I'm familiar with because of my background as a Farsi speaker.
GJELTENAnd have you, did you visit those, some of those places in that region of Afghanistan...
GJELTEN...in your work on behalf of the U.N. agency, the refugee agency? Is that how you sort of had a sense of what those villages were like in your own mind?
HOSSEINIYeah, very much, I mean I've had a chance to go and visit settlements and these villages where people live and I'm always struck by the isolation of some of these places and how resourceful you have to be to eke out a living in a place as seemingly remote and desolate as some of these places.
GJELTENNow you open your book with a father, Saboor, a poor man telling a folk tale about a giant div...
GJELTEN...stealing a child. Tell us what a div is and where this notion of a giant, sort of, comes out of Afghan folklore.
HOSSEINIWell, a div is a recurring, mythical creature in Persian literature going back at least 1,000 years so it's a very well-known creature to all children in that part of the world including in Iran and it's a recurring character in folk tales and so on and was part of some of Persian, ancient Persian literature.
HOSSEINIThe folktale that begins the novel is about a, the father is telling his children this folktale and it's about a village that is visited by this giant creature who picks a household and says you have to give me one child that I'm going to take away and if you don't I'm going to take all your children.
HOSSEINIAnd so the parents of this child in the folktale are then put in this terrible quandary that they have to pick one of their children and they have five. So essentially they have to cut the finger to save the hand as the father says.
GJELTENHad you heard that very folktale as a child or?
HOSSEININo, no, no. No, this is one that I made up, but it's sort of both told in a style that I remember in that it's just sort of an old-fashioned folktale and then I kind of put my own twist on it because it just doesn't go where the reader thinks it's going to go.
HOSSEINIThe div who does take the child away and leaves the village ends up being something that the father didn't expect and ends up imparting some important lessons on the father, lessons that he neither expected nor particularly wanted, I think.
GJELTENNow, as you say, the sort of the theme of that tale was this terrible decision that the div's visit presented to families there where they, actually, if he came to their house, would have to choose a child to be sacrificed in a sense or given to the div in order to save the rest. That actually, that dilemma foreshadowed...
GJELTEN...what actually happened with this family?
HOSSEINIYeah, and it's, in fact, the folktale is set up as a foreshadowing of the entire novel in a way because in an allegorical fable-like way, it sets up so many of the themes that are then revisited in a very kind of a down-to-earth, more realistic way throughout the novel, including this having to -- this impoverished family, now this is outside the folktale, actually have to decide.
HOSSEINILook winter is coming and winter is a little bit like a div that is visiting the village and this family has to make a choice having lost one baby already to the winter and about to be visited by this brutal winter again. And that's something that I saw in Afghanistan.
HOSSEININot necessarily that somebody you know, let go of their children because of it, but that fear of the looming winter and the cold which is so brutal in Afghanistan. I know you've been there and so you know, people tend to think Afghanistan is sort of hot and dusty. In fact, the winters...
HOSSEINIIt's brutal, heavy snowfall, the temperatures fall and so -- and it's a horrible, difficult time for those who don't have shelter, those who are exposed to the elements.
GJELTENNow speaking of that story, Khaled, it's a wonderful tale. It's told by the father, Saboor, to his children, Abdullah and Pari, at their bedtime. And at the end of that chapter, which is the first chapter in your book, we're sort of left impressed by the tenderness of this father who is dirt-poor.
GJELTENAnd yet the next chapter reveals him to be quite a harsh father, gruff, impatient, almost mean. He actually hits Abdullah in the beginning of that chapter, throws a rock at him the way you say that children in the village throw rocks at dogs.
GJELTENOf course, he has his reasons as you explain, but still that contrast in those first two chapters in the character of this man is startling and I assume that you contrasted those two sides of the father deliberately?
HOSSEINIYeah, and he's not the only character that has seemingly these very conflicting aspects to his personality. There's later in the book another character who is, as we find out, was a Jihadi fighter in the 1980s against the Soviet Union and he's idolized by his son and he's a very tender father.
HOSSEINIHe's a very caring father, attentive to his son, very loving. He's also sort of this benevolent figure to the town, giving out money so people can start their business, building a clinic, building a maternity ward. And yet there's also this very clear understanding that he's quite a violent man and probably has a very dark past.
HOSSEINIAnd so I think many of the characters in this book have this sort of conflicting truth residing simultaneously within them.
GJELTENThey're complex characters, all of them, aren't they?
HOSSEINIWell, that was my aim, you know. To what extent it worked, that's up to my readers.
GJELTENKhaled Hosseini is a novelist, physician and goodwill envoy to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. His previous novels "The Kite Runner" and "A Thousand Splendid Sons" have together sold more than 38 million copies worldwide. His new book is "And the Mountains Echoed." We're going to take a short break and then when we come back, we'll talk more about this splendid new novel. Stay tuned.
GJELTENI'm Tom Gjelten sitting in today for Diane Rehm. And my guest is Khaled Hosseini, whose new novel is, "And the Mountains Echoed." And, Khaled Hosseini, this is the third book he has written that begins at least in Afghanistan. He's the author of "The Kite Runner" and "A Thousand Splendid Suns." Now, Khaled, the relationship that really is at the core of this novel is between the boy Abdullah, later the man Abdullah, and his sister Pari. First of all, tell us about this young boy and girl as the book opens.
HOSSEINISo this two children are living with their father and their stepmother. Their own mother is dead. They're living with their father, the stepmother and their little stepbrother in a small village in a remote part of Afghanistan. They're extremely close to each other. Abdullah is 10 years old, Pari is three. And Abdullah feels a very deep, powerful emotional bond with his sister, and that is reciprocated from the sister. So when we meet them, these are two people very much bound to each other.
GJELTENAnd that bond becomes clear early on in the book. We have found -- identified one paragraph here. Could you read that to us where you are talking about Abdullah's bond with his sister Pari.
HOSSEINISure. "He was the one raising her. It was true. Even though he was still a child himself. Ten years old. When Pari was an infant, it was he she had awakened at night with her squeaks and mutters, he who had walked and bounced her in the dark. He had changed her soiled diapers. He had been the one to give Pari her baths. It wasn't father's job to do -- he was a man -- and, besides, he was always too exhausted from work.
HOSSEINIAnd their stepmother, already pregnant with Omar, was slow to rouse herself to Pari's needs. She never had the patience or the energy. Thus the care had fallen on Abdullah, but he didn't mind at all. He did it gladly. He loved the fact that he was the one to help her with her first step, to gasp at her first uttered word. This was his purpose, he believed, the reason God had made him, so he would be there to take care of Pari when He took away their mother."
GJELTENKhaled, so you were describing here a sibling relationship. Tell us a little bit about why you decided to focus on a sibling relationship in this novel. And, you know, what does it draw from or what did it draw from in your own experience and your knowledge of Afghan society?
HOSSEINIWell, it's a relationship that is full of intrigue and just rich with dramatic potential for me. I'm forever drawn to family stories, possibly because of my upbringing in Afghanistan. It's very difficult in Afghanistan to visualize and understand and fully understand yourself as just an isolated individual. You're always part of something bigger, you're a part of this family. You know, when I was raised, you know, I thought of myself as somebody's brother, as somebody's son, as somebody's cousin.
HOSSEINIIt's the way you kind of make sense of your life, make sense of your surroundings. It's the way you sort of make sense of the world around you. And so I'm just drawn to that. And, you know, I just think in families, especially in sibling relationships, you have all the great themes of literature. You have love, you have content, you have envy, you have forgiveness, you have guilt, you have, you know, this sort of inherent push and pull conflicted relationship, which I find incredibly rich and vibrant and full of dramatic potential.
GJELTENWell, I don't want to give away the whole narrative arc of this book, but I think we can say that the relationship between Abdullah and Pari dominates at least Abdullah's life until he becomes an old man.
HOSSEINIIt does. And it's sort of the -- it sort of looms over the rest of the book. And it's sort of in the background all the time. And what happens early in the book is that these two creatures who love each other are separated.
HOSSEINIAnd they go to Kabul and something happens in Kabul and they unwittingly go there and they're separated from each other at a young age. And that separation triggers a series of other events and ends up affecting the lives of a great number of other characters, who then each take turn sort of relating their particular piece of this mosaic picture.
GJELTENAnd Pari ends up being adopted as it were by this wealthy Afghan woman in Kabul who then takes her to Paris. And, sadly, Pari seems to not remember anything of her previous life or her brother.
HOSSEINIYeah, she's very young when she's given away. And so there's -- she doesn't really remember, you know, her old life, but there is always in her a sense that she doesn't have a full picture of her life, that the narrative of her life that she has been given by her adopted mother is incomplete and that there's something missing. So there is this sort of recurring theme in the book of this kind of like gaping hole, a sense of absence in character's lives that they try to fill in various different ways to one extent or another successfully.
GJELTENNow the relationship between Abdullah and his sister Pari is so powerful and so poignant. Can you explain your work inspired in describing that relationship and whether any of your recent trips to Afghanistan, for example, helped you imagine this relationship.
HOSSEINIYeah, I actually went to Afghanistan -- I want to say this was September of 2009. And I met a pair of sisters in the Shomali Plains and I think the older sister was five or six, the younger one was maybe three or four. And they were living in this very bleak environment in the middle of nowhere. There were only two families living in shacks and there was just nothing but plains and desert and dust and mountains around them.
HOSSEINIAnd they had just resettled from Pakistan in Afghanistan and they had one toy between them, which was this little plastic Pooh bear, you know, Winnie the Pooh that they could squeak. And that was sort of it and there was a swing hanging from a sort of this tree. And that's really all they had. And it was strikingly gorgeous. They had bleach blonde hair, beautiful blue eyes, fair skin. Just in another life, they would have been child models, I think.
HOSSEINIBut they happen to be Afghan refugees. So that was their fate. But they were so clinging to each other, and particularly the older sister seemed so parental towards the little one and so protective of her. It touched me very deeply. And they called each bibi, which is sort of an Afghan term of endearment but one that has an element of respect as well. It's like almost like ma'am. And they held hands.
HOSSEINIAnd as I was leaving, I had an apple that I gave to the older sister and she just immediately gave it to her little sister. And then they went, sat somewhere and shared it. I was just so moved, so touched. So when I wrote -- sat down to write this book, I couldn't help but to think of them and to think of Abdullah and Pari, this powerful bond. As one of the characters says, it was a kind of two bees and whom love had found.
HOSSEINIThe simplest and the purest expression, that's sort of how I felt when I saw those two little girls.
GJELTENAnd now talk about their father, Saboor, who as you say, felt it necessary to leave his daughter Pari with a strange woman in Kabul and forget about it. Tell us how you saw him, his character and how you imagined him.
HOSSEINIWell, I just see him as somebody in deep anguish, somebody who has to make an extremely difficult and agonizing choice that I hope to God I never have to make as a father. And I sort of -- when I was writing him, I don't think I could have written this book maybe 10, 15 years ago because I didn't have my own children. Now, I have two children, they're 12 and 10 years old.
HOSSEINII just imagined what it would be like for me if the survival of my family depended on my deciding between one of the two, my two children and how agonizing that would be and how I would almost have to take on a kind of an abrupt and kind of brusque and kind of, you know, cold demeanor to steal myself against, surely, the pain that is coming. And I think that's part of the reason why he is the way he is.
HOSSEINIHe doesn't -- when the story begins -- he doesn't want Abdullah to come along. In fact, he's forbidden Abdullah from coming with him and Pari to…
GJELTENWhich is why he strikes him in the beginning of this.
HOSSEINIAnd there's a reason he strikes him. It's the first time he's ever hit him. And he tells, you need to stay home. But Abdullah will not, he doesn't know where they're going. He just thinks they're going to Kabul for work. He doesn't want to leave his sister, so he keeps following. And no matter if his father throws a rock at him or if he hits him, he keeps going. And so at the end, the father just gives up. He goes, okay, you can come along, but I won't have any crying. You know? Because I don't think he himself wants to cry.
GJELTENAnd he -- Saboor has been invited or found out about this opportunity in Kabul as a result of contact with his wife's -- his second wife because the first wife died in child birth -- the second wife's brother who they call Uncle Nabi in Kabul.
HOSSEINIYeah. Uncle Nabi is Abdullah and Pari's step-uncle and he's sort of the success story of this little village, because he lives in Kabul, which is this great big city and he has this seemingly fancy life to the villagers. But in fact, you know, he's a cook and he's a chauffeur for this wealthy couple who are unhappily married and living in Kabul. And so he comes to the village in his boss' big American car once a month and everybody runs out to see him.
HOSSEINIAnd they sort of -- he's sort of the embodiment of what passes for glamour in the village. But he also is the agent of the separation between Abdullah and Pari and he's sort of the catalyst for this central event in the book, which triggers everything else.
GJELTENAnd as you say, that separation is the theme that like defines the entire book and it also, even though, as you say, he was the principal agent that facilitated this separation, he is tormented by it as well for the rest of his life.
HOSSEINIWell, he's a very -- he's a lovely man in many ways because he feels deeply, he's sensitive and he's not aloof at all to the gravity of what he's doing. But in his heart, he thinks it's the right thing to do although he also confesses that he has a few other ulterior motives as to why he sort of brings about the separation between the kids. Where we don't want -- I don't want to give away the reasons for those.
GJELTENYeah, we're giving away perhaps too much. It's a very suspenseful novel and it does have a somewhat surprising ending. The novel is, "And the Mountains Echoed" and my guest is Khaled Hosseini. I have a question here that is posted by Musalka (word?). He or she writes: Many young immigrants struggle to choose what aspects of traditional life are important to them and which are not.
GJELTENAll cultures are fluid and constantly changing. Please comment on this. And what, if any, positive changes have occurred in Afghani-American cultural attitudes since Afghans started coming here? So you have your -- you write from your experience not only in Afghanistan but also as an immigrant yourself.
HOSSEINIYeah. I mean, I have been living this sort of hyphenated existence for the last 32 years. I was far more conscious of it the first few years as an Afghan living in America because American culture, American life was so foreign to me. I didn't speak English. I was bewildered and sort of at a loss in high school. So I was very much aware of that hyphen between my two identities. But as the years have gone by, I think me and certainly my family, we have all assimilated I think fairly successfully and are now conducting our lives without thinking too much about the two sides of our identity unless somebody sort of asks us. It's become a natural organic process for us.
GJELTENKhaled Hosseini, the book is "And the Mountains Echoed." I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And of course an interesting and fascinating character -- and we were talking earlier, Khaled, about how the sort of the complexity of some of these characters and the conflicts within them, a very interesting character in your book is a doctor, Idris (sp?) who was in the book born in Kabul and actually grew up next door to this wealthy family.
GJELTENWho adopted Pari and eventually goes back. And like many returning Afghan expatriates, is moved by what he sees. He's a doctor. He's in position to help. Tell us what happened to him.
HOSSEINIWell, he's a very successful physician. He's probably in his mid to late-30s and he returns to Kabul after more than 20 years of being away and goes to Kabul and has a strange experience in that he feels like he's come home and at the same time he feels very much like an outsider. He feels occasionally schooled on his own country by foreigners who've been living there much longer than he has.
HOSSEINIHe feels like much of what has happened in Afghanistan has bypassed him. So he's a bit of at a loss on how to interact with the locals, how to properly address them, respect them and he feels very self-conscious. And then he has a very powerful experience where he meets a child who's been brutally injured. And this...
GJELTENRoshi (sp?) .
HOSSEINIYes, Roshi. She's been brutally injured and this triggers in him a very uncharacteristic sudden sort of philanthropic impulse of which he was thus far kind of unaware and something that's kind of new to him, although he's much crasser, kind of uncouth, womanizing cousin who's there with him has that kind of generous streak. But he's very kind of bellicose about it and this character agrees kind of begrudges his cousin not for his generosity but for the way he seems to flaunt it and he's very judgmental about it.
HOSSEINIWhereas he himself is much more reserved than the kind of introverted. But seeing this brutally injured girl just kind of awakened something in him and it triggered something unexpected and unusual in him.
GJELTENAnd yet when he returns to California, you write that he is focused not so much on the girl but on a home theater that he is building in his home. And you write: The picture shot from the projector mounted on the ceiling is sharp, the movements on the 102-inch screen strikingly fluid. The 7.1 channel surround sound, the graphic equalizers and the bass traps they have put in the four corners have done wonders for the acoustics.
GJELTENBoy, you could not have a more powerful contrast between the sort of the materialistic life that he has in California and, as you say, this philanthropic instincts that he had had back in Afghanistan. I wonder if you could read, you have an important paragraph here where you talk about what sort of has happened in the mind of Dr. Idris as he thinks about this girl that he saw in Afghanistan and wanted to help.
HOSSEINIYeah, this girl named Roshi. "In the last month, Roshi has become something abstract to him, like a character in a play. Their connection has frayed, the unexpected intimacy he had stumbled upon in that hospital so urge and acute has eroded into something dull. The experience has lost its power. He recognizes the fierce determination that had seized them for what it really was, an illusion, a mirage.
HOSSEINIHe had fallen under the influence of something like a drug. The distance between him and the girl feels vast now, it feels infinite, insurmountable and his promise to her misguided, the reckless mistake, a terrible misreading of the measures of his own powers and will and character, something best forgotten. He is incapable of it. It's that simple. In the last two weeks, he has received three more emails from Amrah (sp?) the nurse who cared for Roshi.
HOSSEINIHe read the first and didn't answer. He deleted the next two without reading."
GJELTENKhaled Hosseini, reading from his new book, "And the Mountains Echoed." We're going to take a short break. When we come back, your calls.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in today for Diane Rehm. And here with me in the studio is Khaled Hosseini. He's the author of "The Kite Runner" and "A Thousand Splendid Suns." And he has a new book out "And The Mountains Echoed." And, Khaled, just before the break you were reading about the character, the Afghan American doctor, who went back and was moved by the suffering of this girl, (sp?) Roshi who had been nearly killed by her uncle in a violent attack that took the lives of her parents. Violence makes appearances in your book and that's not surprising is it given that this is a country that's been at war and whipped by insurgency for 30 years.
HOSSEINIYeah, I mean, the last 32 years of Afghan history are completely spotted with violence of massive scale. So writing about characters who live in -- who have lived in that era it's unfortunate that the specter of violence just kind of looms over their lives.
GJELTENKhaled, I want to bring some listeners into our conversation now. First I'm going to go Regina who's calling us from Reston, Va. Good morning, Regina.
REGINAGood morning. It's Regina.
GJELTENRegina, I'm sorry.
REGINAThank you for taking my call. That's OK. You pronounced it as is proper. First of all, I have to say I loved "The Kite Runner." Thank you so much for continuing to write. But my comment, after listening to you speak and it's heartbreaking and I'm definitely going to read your book, is that what you're writing about has occurred in societies and in families for centuries. And it still occurs today. It occurs primarily in people who are poor or, you know, who have very few prospects in life.
REGINAAnd in my personal experiences with African American culture and families where even up from slavery parents had to make a choice about which child got the nutrition that would enable that child to survive and the others got less and did not do as well and many of them died. And it's still occurring today. I see it.
REGINAI work with children in Washington, D.C. where families have neither the financial nor the emotional resources to nurture all of the children that they have. And some of the children are neglected at best or brutalized at worst while maybe one -- and unfortunately that survival they are coddled and in the end they often do not survive because they have not been equipped with the skills that they need to survive.
GJELTENThis is a universal phenomenon is it not?
HOSSEINIYeah. Yeah, I mean I -- thank you for your comments and, you know, this, in some way, this is an Afghan specific book in that some of the things that happen in this book really could only happen in Afghanistan. And then in other ways it, sort of, transcends the setting because, you know, even something like the adoption of a child because the parents can't take care of them can happen even here in the United States and somebody in Washington, D.C., frankly, quite startlingly identifies with that and observes that happening in her own community. So, yeah, in some ways it's Afghan specific, but otherwise -- in other ways it's very much universal.
GJELTENYou know the description of life in Afghanistan in your book is so harsh and, yet, there are these, sort of, refreshing moments. And one of them is the references to your book to poetry. Even in some of the most isolated and depressed villages you write about the importance of poetry by Rumi, and other Sufi poets. Talk about why you emphasize or talk about poetry in the lives of these poor, relatively uneducated Afghan families.
HOSSEINIBecause no matter your social class poetry is part of the Afghan soul. It has been part of it for centuries. You are likely to go to a remote village and meet several people who can recite to you verses of classic poetry. We were required to memorize poetry in school and be able to recite it by rote memory. Maybe the best way -- the most vivid way to kind of explain that is I went to Kabul and there was this beautiful and incredible palace built in Kabul that I actually saw in its splendor in the 1970s, which then became one of the focal battlegrounds between the different militias when they fought in the 1990s. And it was destroyed beyond recognition.
HOSSEINII visited the place the last time I was in Afghanistan and it's just sort of this haunted looking mansion. It's sort of the visual symbol of metaphor for what's happened in Afghanistan. And it's just full of holes. The roofs have caved in. It's snakes and scorpions everywhere and it's just everything is falling apart. And yet on the walls there's tons of graffiti and when you looked at the graffiti closely you'll see that people have spray painted poetry. Sometimes classic poetry like from Rumi and sometimes clearly amateur poetry that was, you know, some amateur poet that's written -- but nevertheless poetry, you know.
HOSSEINIAnd I was so moved by that and there's a character in this book who's a Greek surgeon who works in Kabul and an Afghan character says to him. He says why do you stay here? Why do you like Afghans? He goes well, because even the graffiti artists spray paint Rumi on the walls. And that came from my visit that I had in Afghanistan.
GJELTENI'm going to be going back to the phones in a few minutes. If you want to join our conversation the number is 1-800-433-8850 and our guest is Khaled Hosseini. He's the author of "And The Mountains Echoed." That's his new book. Previously he wrote "The Kite Runner" and "A Thousand Splendid Suns." And, Khaled, speaking of poets the woman who takes Pari, the young girl from the village, is Nila. She is, herself, a poet and actually it turns out quite an accomplished poet. Tell us a little bit more about her.
HOSSEINIWell, she might be my favorite character in the novel because she is a real firebrand. This is a woman who was born in the late 1920s and who comes of age during the Second War. When we meet her she is a young woman married to an older man in a very unhappy marriage. She is a woman that I would say was born in the wrong place at the wrong time.
HOSSEINIShe is a, frankly, sexual character, very outspoken, very opinionated, fiercely intelligent, probably a raging narcissist, a budding alcoholic, an extremely talented poet, very impulsive and basically just a bubbling cauldron of pathology, contradictions, charm, intelligence. And so she was a lot of fun to write. And she is the one who adopts the little girl, Pari, and they go on to have an often rocky, complicated relationship throughout their lives.
GJELTENNow obviously Nila does not tell Pari about the story...
GJELTEN...Of her childhood. She allows her to believe or, maybe, leads her to believe that she is her own child, correct?
HOSSEINIRight. And so as this sort of, what I was trying to say earlier, is that for Pari the narrative of her life as related to her by her mother, this poet, is incomplete. It feels occasionally like very vital parts of it have been left out. And that her own life is a kind of a puzzle to her and that's one of the -- you know, there's this absence in her life that she's trying to figure out.
GJELTENLet's go now to Cynthia who's on the line from Vernon, N.Y. Good morning, Cynthia.
CYNTHIAGood morning, gentlemen, what a wonderful program. Thank you for your books. I wanted to tell you there's a group in Kabul of youngsters. They're called Afghan Youth for Peace. And with some women they make these little quilts because, as you both know, it's freezing cold there in winter. And the little kids die. And so if you want to know more about it you can go on the internet and it's called Voices for Creative Nonviolence dot org or vcnv.org. And they're in Chicago and they've raised $40,000 within the last three years and it pays for the women who have a job in Kabul doing these. And at the same time it helps to save the little kids lives. So that's what I wanted to say.
CYNTHIAAnd I wanted to say to the author I'm the old librarian and I know that you will love this book called "With Children Like Your Own" by David Ferri-Smith (sic) and it's poems of Afghanistan. And the last poem in the book is called "I Cannot Hear The River Sing." And I can't get through that poem without sobbing.
GJELTENMy goodness, well, thank you for sharing those...
GJELTEN...Suggestions, Cynthia. Speaking of this "And The Mountains Echoed" tell us where that title comes from, Khaled, the title of your new book.
HOSSEINIOh, it -- the title came last. I finished the entire book. I didn't have a title and I was beginning to get a little worried. And I began researching poems about children because so much of the book was about childhood. And I ran into this absolutely lovely poem/song by William Blake called "The Nurse's Song." And one of the verses ended with these beautiful words and all the hills echoed, which really struck me as very evocative.
HOSSEINII kind of played with it and changed the hills to mountains because of obviously Afghan's topography, but also because mountains are, sort of, a recurring theme in this book. But also because of the idea of echo.
GJELTENThat's kind of a metaphor isn't it?
HOSSEINIIt's a metaphor for what happened. The book begins with this central event, this separation between the brother and the sister. And that echoes then throughout continents and generations and the years and rippled out and touched the lives of characters, you know, who may not even be aware of it.
GJELTENUm-hum. Let's go now to Dana who's on the line from Washington, D.C. Good morning, Dana, thanks for calling us.
DANAOh, good morning. Thanks for taking my question. I was absolutely struck by the excerpt that your wonderful author just read about the physician who was so compelled to help this child who he found. And then got home and set up his big TV and found that impulse dissipating to the point where he stopped responding to emails. And my own work in international development has taken me to many different countries around the world and as a professional you're kind of trained to maintain your distance.
DANABut I've been in that almost exact situation myself. And I know my own impulse it was very real and very authentic and powerful and compelling just the way that he describes, but yet I had exactly that same experience myself coming back even to the point of not being able to respond to emails. And it was very disturbing and puzzling to me at the time and it still is. And so my question is, Mr. Hosseini, what -- do you have an explanation or a theory about why that phenomenon happens?
GJELTENThank you very much, Dana. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And, Khaled, I want to slightly modify the question because one of the things I'm curious about is whether this character, this doctor, is in anyway autobiographical. I mean he's Afghan origin, lives in California, you're a doctor. And in the process of explaining that maybe you can answer Dana's question.
HOSSEINISure. No, it's probably the character that resembles my life the most. In fact, his experience of going back to Kabul is lifted almost directly from my own experience. I have very similar feelings of guilt and displacement when I went to Kabul. And in fact the little girl who's injured I went with a group of Afghans to a hospital to visit and I met a little girl that was injured in the precise same mechanism and suffered that exact injury. Now I never ended up having a relationship with her. I never, you know, we never really spoke and so the rest of that story is fictional, but I did meet a little girl like that and I remember that it was such an absolutely powerful experience to meet her and to see suffering of that scale. And it just really seized me.
HOSSEINIAnd yet it was also strange that in some way even though I remember her like it was yesterday some of the power of that experience waned a little bit when I came home because it -- the doctor in the story refers to it as watching this incredibly emotional movie and then you go out to dinner afterwards and some of that emotion wears off. You know, I think -- I think the story is really -- this particular chapter is really about how complicated generosity really is and how kindness takes work. It takes effort. It takes patience.
GJELTENIt's not just an impulse.
HOSSEINIIt's not enough to have good intentions. It's not enough -- you know, anybody who sees somebody injured on the street -- you know, anybody other than an absolute sociopath would feel empathy, but not everybody would then go out of their way to help, go out of their way to improve somebody's life. That takes patience, perseverance. And that's something that I've learned over the course of my visits to Afghanistan, something I've learned over the course of my work with the refuge agency, through the course of my work with my foundation. And it's a very valuable lesson.
GJELTENAnd you refer to your foundation, have you stopped practicing medicine? Are you devoted now exclusively to your writing and to your foundation work?
HOSSEINIYes, I haven't practiced since December of 2004. So I've been writing full time, working with the U.N. and also running a foundation for the last few years, yeah.
GJELTENSo, Khaled, I have to ask you something. You've sold 38 million books. That's just phenomenal and I'm curious about this as someone who's written a couple books myself. How do you sell that many books? What is the secret? How do you connect with an audience to such an extent as you have managed to do? What's the secret?
HOSSEINII honestly -- I want to give you a very truthful answer and I'm afraid it'll be trite because I don't have a secret. I'm not trying to appeal to as many people as possible. But what I do is when I'm writing I descend into this kind of mental bunker where I'm completely secluded. And I become utterly involved with the lives of my characters. And my sole goal is to rid myself of this compulsion. There's a pebble in my shoe. There's a leaky faucet at the back of my head which is these characters and their story that just won't leave me alone.
HOSSEINII've got to figure out how it pans out. I've got to figure out why these characters do what they do, what is it that motivates them. And so I try to figure it out and as it so happens that a lot of people have been, you know, have connected with my stories because I do write about things that I care about a lot, about friendship, about loyalty, about grief, about jealousy, about the frailty of the human soul and things that are very universal and a lot of people have responded to them.
GJELTENI wish we had time to bring more listeners into the conversation. Let me just read what a couple of listeners were planning to say if they had a chance to be on the air because our producers do take notes. Bernadine from Richwood, Texas loves your writing and says that you have taught her so much about Afghanistan. And Mickey, who's calling from Oklahoma City, Okla., says that you have a great voice and he is -- Mickey is a truck driver and listens to books on tape. And he wants to know if you're going to be reading a version of this audio book.
HOSSEINIThe audio book is out. I read two of the chapters and two other actors read the rest of the book.
GJELTENVery good. Khaled Hosseini, he is the author of "And The Mountains Echoed." He's been our guest this morning. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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