On 9/11, Khaled Hosseini rose very early, as had become his habit, turned on his computer, and sat down to write. Because Hosseini is a physician and the father of two young children, his busy life compelled him to allocate his quiet predawns to this other enterprise, which he then considered a hobby, albeit a consuming one. On that warm clear morning, Sunnyvale, where Hosseini lives, felt about as far away as you could get from New York and Washington, DC — unless, of course, you counted Afghanistan. While he worked, an urgent e-mail arrived from his sister on the East Coast. Stunned, Hosseini and his wife turned on the TV.
As the events of that day and the ones immediately following unfolded, Hosseini did something very American: He abandoned his first novel. Along with countless other writers all over this country right then, he figured that whatever he had to say simply wasn’t important anymore.
But unlike most other writers all over this country, Hosseini was born in Afghanistan. More than half of his novel takes place there. No other American novels do. The other half takes place in Fremont.
“I didn’t think there’d be much interest,” he recalls now, but not at all coyly. He remembers asking himself, “Who wants to hear from somebody from Afghanistan?”
The headlines screamed an answer: Everybody. It occurred to him that readers would think he was capitalizing on an atrocity to get famous.
“A chill crept up my spine when I first heard the Taliban mentioned and my wife and I spoke about the possibility of a reprisal against Afghanistan by the US,” he says. “9/11 was horrifying for us not only for the same reasons as for everyone else, but also because we suspected that the people of Afghanistan would once again be subjected to bombing.”
He was of two minds about the unfinished book. It had meant so much to him — before the disaster that vaulted its setting and characters out of utter obscurity into blinding limelight. His friends and his wife urged Hosseini to resume writing. But the file stayed shut.
He opened it again in January; by June, he had a publisher. The Kite Runner won Borders’ Original Voices award for 2003, and made the year’s top-ten fiction lists in Entertainment Weekly and the San Francisco Chronicle. Foreign-language editions span the globe. The paperback edition hits bookshops this month. DreamWorks has optioned the story, and Sam Mendes, who directed American Beauty, is seriously interested.
Though he is pleased, Hosseini hasn’t — in a literal sense — forgotten where he comes from. He couldn’t, even if he wanted to. He remains in many ways divided. While his personal Web site firmly declares his literary success, a page on the Kaiser Permanente Mountain View site coolly explains that “in his leisure time, Dr. Hosseini enjoys soccer, racquetball, and writing.” In that order. He is a confident diagnostician, promenading the labyrinthine halls of his office floor with total familiarity and one hand in his pocket; yet in interviews he is self-effacing, fidgeting and seeming to wonder what to do with his fingers.
The Kite Runner is patently an immigration story about how we assemble ourselves from what we take and leave of life, of former lives. Its narrator is the son of a Pashtun businessman who tells the boy as the tale begins, “Understand this and understand it now, Amir: You’ll never learn anything from those bearded idiots.” He means the mullahs.
Amir’s constant companion is Hassan, the Hazara son of his family’s servant. Their bond, though close from birth, is hindered by ingrained ethnic prejudice in a culture where the ruling Pashtuns view the Hazara as second-class citizens. Although Amir depends on his companion, he can’t bring himself to call Hassan a friend, nor to protect him from the hideous brutality by which Hassan proves his loyalty. “In the end,” he muses, “I was Sunni and he was Shia, and nothing was ever going to change that. Nothing.”
Amir also struggles for a connection with his lordly businessman father, whom he variously disappoints, and with whom he emigrates to America: where “Baba” hangs a framed picture of Ronald Reagan in the hallway of their Fremont apartment and where, within earshot of Amtrak, the East Bay becomes a burial place for memories. Father and son merge with the local Afghan community, a focal point of which is the flea market, where “Afghan music played in the aisles … you sipped green tea with almond kolchas,” and ex-communists mingled with decorated generals, all selling old sewing machines and stringless secondhand guitars. But the time comes when Amir, missing his lost playmate Hassan, returns to Afghanistan — scene of rude awakenings, described with an insider’s horror and skill.
Hosseini was born in Kabul in 1965. His mother taught Farsi and history and his father was an ambassador. The family moved to Paris in 1976 when he was posted to the Afghan embassy there. “It was supposed to be a five-year stint,” Hosseini recalls. “We never went back.” The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan three years later; the family sought asylum in the United States.
As a young man in the Bay Area, Hosseini worked out a new life. He studied biology at Santa Clara University and attended medical school at UC San Diego, which for a time all but ended his habit of reading fiction. He did some rotations with a plastic surgeon: “Witnessing breast implants or chest cracks is fascinating the first couple of times,” he notes, “but after that it’s tedium.” Deciding on internal medicine, he figured he didn’t want a private practice — “the beeper, the always being on call.” He wanted a professional support system. He wanted to be able to go home and do something else each day, something entirely nonmedical, such as writing a novel.
Hosseini didn’t join any Afghan-American organizations because he doesn’t consider himself much of a joiner, but he shopped in East Bay Afghan stores and made Afghan friends. He spent time within Fremont’s Little Kabul community, particularly with his father at the flea markets not far from his parents’ home — just as Amir does in the book. “There are still aisles of Afghans there if you go there on a Saturday,” he says.
To write, Hosseini developed a dual-identity routine: After spending a few productive hours of each morning in a vividly imagined faraway place where the corpses of executed men hang in the street and men sell their artificial legs to feed their children, he would clock his nine-to-five amid the regulated order of his Peninsula office, checking voicemail messages, reviewing lab results, ordering tests, and referring patients to specialists. Medicine, he notes with an air of modesty and the tiniest hint of complaint, is mostly deskwork. So is writing novels, but he doesn’t mind that kind.
Last spring, with The Kite Runner finished and plenty of new history having been made in his home country, he went back for the first time since his departure. “Afghanistan is divided in so many ways,” the author reflects. “Divisions of ethnicity. Divisions of language, geography. Divisions of religion. You could make an argument that it’s not a country in a traditional sense — it’s more a scattering of ethnic groups and tribes. It’s sort of a taboo subject to talk about those things, to mention that not all ethnicities are treated the same. But those issues have always defined Afghanistan — and will always undermine Afghanistan.
“I don’t want to say those tensions are very strong here,” he continues. “You have to read between the lines. There were people who weren’t exactly vocal when the Taliban were ruling the country and are very vocal now. But here people are so immersed in their lives and what they have to do to get by.”
Although Hosseini appreciates the vigor of the Afghan-American community, particularly in the East Bay, he sees a dilution of the culture with each new generation. So he speaks to his children in Farsi. And he keeps the old ways in focus with his fiction.
The Kite Runner “has helped my patient-physician relationships,” he says. “People have seen me more as a human being. It’s just another nonmedicine thing about my life that I can talk about.” Hosseini’s office walls have accumulated maps and photos of Afghanistan, given to him by patients, which vitalize what would otherwise be an anodyne clinical milieu.
And when he autographs a copy of his novel, he does it in two languages.
The Kite Runner Riverhead, $14