"These people that we are talking about in the news, they have faces and stories, backgrounds, and complicated family dynamics. Each one of them is a story and a world unto themselves. Being able to see them as human beings that share things with us as opposed to numbers or labels is a very powerful thing," says Khaled Hosseini, an Afghan refugee and San Francisco resident whose bestselling novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, debuted at A.C.T Theater stage this month.
When Afghan-American author Hosseini began penning the lines for his first novel—a narrative that started as a story about kite-flying in Kabul—he couldn't have predicted the world into which it would publish. Hosseini was midway through The Kite Runner when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001; by the time the book published in 2002, Afghanistan was at the center of world events. Now, 16 years later, Hosseini finds himself in another timely moment ("an unhappy serendipity," he says) as his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, the story of three generations of Afghan women, opens at San Francisco's A.C.T. Theater.
The son of a diplomat, Hosseini was born and raised in Kabul and spent his teenage years in Paris. When Soviets took control of Afghanistan in 1979, his father applied for political asylum and Hosseini's family was resettled in San Jose. The former doctor of internal medicine and now a best-selling writer, United Nations Good Will envoy, and founder of The Khaled Hosseini Foundation, a nonprofit that provides humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan, the San Francisco resident shares insights on his creative work and his vision for the two countries he calls home.
aila (Nadine Malouf, right) and her parents (Barzin Akhavan and Denmo Ibrahim) prepare to flee their home in Kabul in the world-premiere theatrical adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's international best-selling novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, adapted by Ursula Rani Sarma and directed by Carey Perloff. (Courtesy of A.C.T.)
7x7: You're a bestselling author, but your professional background is as a doctor.
Khaled Hosseini: From the time I was a kid, I enjoyed stringing words together and making stories. When we came to the States, though, I didn't speak English, and when you're a recent immigrant, you're pretty much penniless and your primary preoccupation is to find a sense of stability. The holy triumvirate was medicine, law, and engineering, and I always liked working with people, so I thought I could make medicine work for me. Pursuing what you've always thought of as a beloved hobby isn't exactly the kind of thing that immigrant families go for.
What was it like to be a refugee in the Bay Area?
It can be very disorienting when you come to a new country. Most of my family didn't speak English, and when you come to an entirely new place, you don't know how to do very basic things, like apply for a driver's license or enroll your kids in school.
What don't people understand about refugees?
This isn't a lifestyle that anybody chooses; it is forced on them. Nobody wants to take their family and put them on a boat in the hope of finding peace, or to abandon their communities and belongings and flee. Most of them are victims of violence, not perpetrators. These are entire families who have been disrupted and children who have lost their childhoods. It's dangerous to forget the humanity of this population and to think of them as a monolithic community of perplexing burden.
Your second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, is both a companion to, and a departure from, the The Kite Runner. What was your inspiration?
I felt I had written a book about the world of men and was really interested in writing a novel about women. As an Afghan, I had been following the news about the country and the horrific abuses women were suffering. I felt this was a story that was crying out to be told.
Was it challenging to write from the perspective of a woman?
My initial instinct was to put myself in the head of these two women and live the world through their eyes, but that was impossible because I don't have that experience. Instead of going to them, I let the characters come to me. I had to think of them as human beings who had fears and desires and were struggling for a sense of selfhood, rather than as Afghan women. Once I made that shift, I began to hear less and less of myself and more and more of who they were. By the time I was finished writing, I felt I knew both women quite well.
Do you think it's a hopeful story?
It is a difficult story because it talks about a very difficult period in Afghan history, but I find hope everywhere in the resilience of these women and their rejection of Draconian values. I hope that when people watch the play, they see that Afghanistan, like any place else, is a kaleidoscope and that there are men there who have an interest in seeing women take an active part. There are moments of real beauty and joy even in the most difficult of situations.
What are your hopes for the future of Afghanistan and its women?
In many parts of the country, life has not changed much for women. Nevertheless, at least in Kabul, there's a generation of young people who have the advantage of being connected to the world through technology and who reject notions of womanhood as a possession. I'm hopeful that if Afghanistan finds a measure of peace and tranquility, that this generation can be a transformative one.
The play is rather timely given Donald Trump's recent executive orders concerning refugees and travel from Muslim countries. What new perspective is gained from seeing A Thousand Splendid Suns play out onstage?
It's an unhappy kind of serendipity that this story is being replayed at a time when there are so many feelings about the issue and the region on both sides. At the end of the day, stories have one function: to make us feel connected to one another. There are core elements in the human experience—the need for belonging, community, friends, companionship, love, peace, and stability—that are true regardless of place, gender, religion, or culture. I think as the audience sits through the play, that connection is made. I hope people walk away with a sense of empathy and commonality.
Tell us a little about your work with the UN.
They contacted me about being a spokesperson for them in 2006, at a time when Afghanistan was the largest refugee-producing country in the world. It's been a wonderful opportunity and a process of educating myself and then advocating for refugee rights and programs. I've been to Syrian refugee camps in Jordan and Iraq, and traveled to Chad and Afghanistan three times.
What was it like for you to go back to Afghanistan after all that has happened in the past 20 to 30 years?
Whenever I visit, I have mixed emotions. On one hand, there's always a sense of homecoming, because this is where I was born and I have the loveliest memories of Afghanistan, but I see superimposed on them an alternate reality of what the country is now. Even in 2003, Kabul was an entirely different city—so much more crowded than I remembered and entire sections demolished beyond recognition. There were landmarks from my childhood that no longer stood, and all of the guns on the street, that was something you never saw before. You didn't see so many widows and people walking around with missing limbs. All of that was quite a shock. The scars of the last 20 years are everywhere, and it's not just the problems of the past that haunt Afghanistan, but a whole new set of them.
How do you feel about living in the United States given the current political climate?
The political rhetoric and executive orders that have been written have, if anything, given us a chance to re-examine what it means to be American. We're a nation that's based on tolerance and acceptance. We don't value people based on their skin color or religion, and these are ideas on which the country was founded. I have been deeply moved by the sight of people welcoming refugees at the airport and carrying signs denouncing divisiveness. I've been heartened by the calls for unity and unprecedented levels of civic engagement that young people are showing. For me, that has been a wonderful beacon of hope.
How would you advise those of us who want to help refugees?
Every little thing that you do matters. Discuss issues relating to refugees in your communities. Advocate, even on a small scale, for the rights of refugees. Support any of the organizations that are on the ground working to protect and support refugees or volunteer to help families of people who have been resettled. I remember from my own experience how disorienting it is to be a newly resettled family. Providing even a little help makes an enormous difference. Keep alive the idea of who these people are, and press our government to find enduring solutions to these conflicts. Until the wars end, the displacement of human beings will continue. From a micro to a macro scale, there's so much you can do. Go as far as you want.
// A Thousand Splendid Suns will show at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater (415 Geary St.) through February 26, Tickets are $35-150, act-sf.org