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If you like Khaled Hosseini's story, you might also like:
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and Gore Vidal

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Khaled Hosseini
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Khaled Hosseini
Khaled Hosseini
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Khaled Hosseini Interview (page: 7 / 9)

Afghanistan's Tumultuous History

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The form of A Thousand Splendid Suns is interesting, because it switches back and forth between the heads of these two women. How did you decide on that form?

Khaled Hosseini: The structure of this book took a lot of work, because I knew I wanted to tell the story of two women who were separated by quite a bit of age. And I felt the flip-flop between the two was gimmicky and distractive, so I decided that at some point, after trying various different forms, including a kind of an unfortunate flirting with an epistolary form, that I would tell the story of Mariam, stop, and then go to Laila, stop, and then tell their story together. And so the book kind of unfolded naturally into three different sections with a short epilogue at the end.

When you said epistolary form, do you mean you thought about writing the whole novel in letters?

Khaled Hosseini: Well, it was semi-epistolary because I felt one way out of this would be to meet Laila through the letters, a diary that she was keeping of letters that she was writing, and her section would be composed entirely of letters. And I gave it a try, and it just didn't work at all. But for me, writing is always like that.

I know that I'm going to do things that aren't going to work, but I have to do them to find out for myself. I have to go down those blind alleys, whack my nose against the wall, turn around, walk out, go a different way, bang my head against another wall. I mean, there is no going directly to where you want to be; you really have to go through all of those other turns to get to where you want to be. At least for me, it has always been that way. The really gifted, the really great writers, I'm sure you have interviewed many of them, they have a clear path. You know, there is no detour, or at least that is what I imagine. But for me, I have to go through various drafts. I mean, I wrote probably five or six drafts of this book, some of them complete drafts. And so eventually this structure of seeing Mariam from childhood to womanhood and picking up Laila from childhood to womanhood, that felt the most natural format for me.

It was a daring choice to have the connection be that they are married to the same man at the same time.

Khaled Hosseini: I saw this book as a story in which there is a smaller drama and a greater drama. There's the human drama of what is going on in the household, and it comes with its own tension, its own violence, its own rivalries and camps and factions, really. And then there's the bigger story of what's happening outside the doors of that house, the rivalry between the different factions, and the war that is unfolding and its effects on the household. So it was kind of a bit of a juggling act to balance what is going on in the interpersonal human stuff with the political events outside, which in many ways, impact those interpersonal relationships. That juggling act took a bit -- especially there is a natural tendency to want to be an historian, an amateur historian and talk more about the political stuff, and that is very seductive to do. But ultimately, a novel is not about -- it is really about the characters and their emotions and so on, so I would have to restrain myself a little bit.

In your novel, we read about the proclamations that the Taliban made, restricting women in your country. Where does that contempt or fear come from? What was it about women working professionally or showing their faces that was so threatening to them?

Khaled Hosseini: The Taliban's proclamations have a root in the history in Afghanistan for centuries.

Afghanistan is largely a rural country that is religious and uneducated. That's a sad truth. In many parts of Afghanistan, at least in the tribal and Pashtun regions of Afghanistan, the way the Taliban perceived the role of women in society is pretty much the way women have been perceived for a long time. In that tribal code of life, it is considered dishonorable for your wife, your sister, to be seen in public by the eyes of a stranger, to be seen alone, to be seen that she is speaking with a stranger. It is considered an insult to the family. There is also, in that tribal code, an inherent distrust of women. They are seen as somehow immature, more immature than men when it comes to social conduct, sexual conduct. And so not only they're the center of honor of the tribe and have to be protected from outside influences, but they also have to be controlled. And so the practice of purdah, or living in seclusion, comes from that.

So largely, if you go to a village outside of Kandahar, for instance, a very deep tribal Pashtun region, you are very unlikely to see a woman on the street, and if she is seen on the street, she is probably fully draped and is walking with a male relative to whom she could not legally be married. So that is the code.

The thing that was really remarkable about the Taliban was that it took something that is a tribal custom in some parts of Afghanistan and turned it into national law and imposed it on the entire populace at large. And that was a shock to the system for urban professional women in Kabul who had grown up working in universities, as doctors, as lawyers, as teachers. And suddenly they had to behave like an illiterate, uneducated young woman from a village in the middle of the desert outside of Kandahar. Suddenly they had to be indoors all of the time, couldn't work, couldn't get an education, had to be fully covered when they go outside, and the litany of things that have now become very, very familiar to the public. That was the remarkable thing about what the Taliban did, and the hardship that it imposed on women who were not used to that was enormous.

Where do things stand today, in the summer of 2008? Do you have a sense of optimism about Afghanistan?

Khaled Hosseini: If you're optimistic, you have to be quite sober about your optimism or you look foolish. You have to admit to things. One is that some good things have happened in Afghanistan and not lose sight of that. It's important to remember that the country is in a better place than it was seven, eight years ago. There is more personal freedom, the economy is better. Some will say that it's largely because of drug trade, but it is better.

Are women going to school?

Khaled Hosseini: Women, at least in urban regions like Kabul, are back in the workforce and some of the infrastructure has been rebuilt. So those are positive things. Education actually is one of the success stories of the regime. On the other hand, some things either have not changed at all or have got worse. Security certainly has gotten worse since the last time I was there in 2003. We have a full-blown insurgency in the south and in the east. The suicide bombs, which were unheard of in Afghanistan in the two decades before, have suddenly become commonplace. You have a flourishing opium trade which is criminalizing the economy and supporting the insurgency. And you still have, you have a populace that is growing disillusioned with the regime and Kabul and with the West, in that they are not seeing the promises that were made, they are not seeing the fruition of those promises, seeing that those promises have been kept. They are not seeing enough difference in their day-to-day life. They are still jobless, homeless, have no access to water, schools, doctors -- not everybody, but a significant portion of people feel that way.

I know that from visiting Kabul this past September, and actually going outside of Kabul to Northern Afghanistan, and talking with people who come back from Iran and Pakistan and have tried to resettle in Afghanistan, and the enormous challenges they face in Afghanistan and the little support they feel they get from the government. It should also be remembered that that government is still in its healing stages. It is trying to rebuild a country that has unraveled for the last 30 years and is recovering from a massive catastrophe. Even acknowledging that, though, I think most people felt that Afghanistan would be, seven years later, in a different place than it is today. There is a frustration with the pace of reconstruction and the pace at which people are seeing their lives change.

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