Friday, December 6, 2013

Khaled Hosseini speaks in Vancouver

Image of Khaled Hosseini from NPR

Last night at St. Andrews Wesley church, Khaled Hosseini was interviewed by Globe and Mail's Western Arts Correspondent, Marsha Lederman.

The evening began with a brief reading from Hosseini's latest novel, And the Mountains Echoed (Viking 2013).

The passage he chose concerned a walk taken by a pair of teenage twin girls through their home village in Afghanistan in the late 1940s. One girl is beautiful and she knows it; the other is unattractive, and resigned to not being noticed. On this particular walk, though, she is shocked to discover something new about her sister.

A California-trained medical doctor who has lived in the US since he was a teen, Hosseini was catapulted into his true calling as a storyteller by a short news item. When he heard that the Taliban intended to ban kite flying, he went to his computer. As he began to write his way into the vivid memories of his early life flying kites with his friends in Kabul, he was unaware that the novel was already taking shape in his mind. Later, as he worked on it, he rose at 4:30 each morning "to see what would happen next."

It's always fascinating to hear about a writer's creative process, and reassuring too, for others who engage in the mysterious process of story-making. In response to Lederman's question about how he "knew" a woman's feelings about aging, Hosseini replied that by spending time with his characters through successive drafts, he "gets to know their essence," understanding them so deeply that "gender is no longer an issue."

Like many other writers including Diana Gabaldon, he avoided censoring or over-considering his story by telling himself and sincerely believing that it would never be published. Hosseini also thinks the timing of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center was a historic factor that helped generate interest in his novel, then half-completed.

Indeed, he chillingly recalled how one agent he approached told him books about Afghanistan were already passe. This agent was following the sabre-rattling towards Iraq, and told Hosseini that books from there would be the next thing.

When a high school teacher asked him a question about the symbolism of kites in his work, he said what any serious author or reader would: since each individual reader brings a unique history and sensibility to the work, there are many valid answers to such questions beyond what the writer himself may be aware of while writing.

"Writers write books and give them to [readers], so they can tell them what they're about," he said. I was also delighted and astonished to hear him speak of plates spinning in the air as he described the novel writing process. Recently, thinking about my own work, I have been using that same metaphor;  I take this coincidence as a touchstone to help me hold my courage and finish the book.

When asked about the negative emotions -- shame, dislocation, survivor guilt -- that gave rise to his writing, Hosseini says he is glad to have been able to use these to motivate him to finish his stories and to find ways to help the Afghan people who have been "born in the wrong time and place."
With earnings from his meteoric success as an author, Hosseini has established a charitable foundation to help the women and children of Afghanistan.

While The Kite Runner reveals the violent breach of innocent friendship between two boys, Hosseini's second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, portrays the lives of two Afghan women buffeted by feudal mores and internecine struggles. Determined to survive, and to protect their children, the two friends find strength in each other.

Unlike two other contemporary Canadian doctor authors, Daniel Calla and Vincent Lam, Hosseini no longer practices medicine. He now focuses his energies on healing through stories. It was wonderful to hear him speak and read in Vancouver last night.

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