Moving the Mountain

5 minute read
Katy Steinmetz

Edmund Burke once told the British Parliament that fiction lags after truth. He said so while trying to make members sympathize with discontented American colonists in 1775. Afghan-American writer Khaled Hosseini tweaks Burke’s aphorism: he sees fiction as a series of lies that hopefully lead to something truthful. His novels–The Kite Runner (2003) and A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007), which have sold a combined 38 million copies worldwide–have helped countless readers better understand a discontented Afghanistan.

Hosseini’s latest book, And the Mountains Echoed (Riverhead Books; 404 pages), follows the lives of characters who are touched by a father’s tortured decision on whether to let someone else raise his child. It sustains the themes of the author’s previous novels–the toll of loyalty, the weight and joy of family–while also drawing on roles that Hosseini, 48, has played in real life. From his home in the Bay Area, the father of two spoke with Time about enduring misconceptions of Afghanistan, how he invents characters and the complications of a “hyphenated life.”

What would you say And the Mountains Echoed is about?

The book is shaped like a tree, and at the trunk is the story of a brother and sister who are separated at a young age. The title came from a beautiful chant in a William Blake poem: “And all the hills echoed.” I chose mountains for the topography of Afghanistan; pivotal things happen in the presence of those mountains, and what happens has echoes across time, place and generation.

The story includes a man who, like you, leaves Afghanistan, becomes a doctor in the U.S. and then returns.

I went back as he did, and I felt like I had no real ownership over what had happened in Afghanistan because I’d been away for so long. My experiences were so dramatically different from those of the people around me. On the one hand, I felt a sense of coming home. On the other hand, I felt like an outsider.

How do you break down those lines of American vs. Afghan identity?

I live this hyphenated life, and I certainly have a lot of Western sensibilities. But I was born in Kabul; I lived the first 11 years of my life there. Every time I go and the plane is about to land, I look down and feel a very powerful sense of connection, thinking that’s where I was born, that’s where I was loved for the first time.

What has impressed you when you’ve returned as a United Nations goodwill envoy or with your own foundation?

How incredibly resourceful returning refugees are, and how brave they are. For someone who has lived in Pakistan for 20 years in relative stability and decides to come home, to settle 50 miles outside Kabul in a barren area with so few resources, little commerce, little local governance, and to be able to eke out a living–it’s mind-boggling.

Has Americans’ perception of Afghanistan changed since The Kite Runner?

I think we’re wiser, more sober. That said, there are still misconceptions–for instance, that Afghanistan is a country stuck in the Stone Age. I understand how you could think that if you drive through remote [areas] and see mud huts. But it’s a lazy way of thinking. If you take a closer look, you will see a country with millions of young people who are interested in education, in enterprise, in engaging with the world.

You write from so many perspectives in this book: male and female, young and old, Afghan and Greek. How do you get inside these characters’ heads?

I visualize them, wonder what they sound like, what clothes they might wear. My first drafts are always rather flat and disappointing. It’s a little bit like when you move into a home. You haul all your stuff and shove it in the house; the things you need are there, but it looks horrible and doesn’t feel like a home at all. The subsequent draft is about saying, O.K., this couch belongs here. Let’s get rid of this painting. Let’s put this armoire here … With this novel, my aim was for more ambiguity in terms of moral character. In my earlier novels, the characters were far more archetypal.

Have your thoughts about the role of fiction changed since your first book?

Fiction accomplishes things that the writer probably doesn’t intend–it has a life and a significance beyond what the writer wanted. I could say I write my books so that people understand Afghanistan better, but it wouldn’t be true. I write because I love these characters. A single image began this book: a man walking across the desert, pulling a red Radio Flyer wagon behind him with a little girl inside and a boy following them. I had no idea why this image came. But I had to figure out who these people were and what was happening.

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