The Kite Runner visits Villanova
Last night, Brandon and I went to a lecture at Villanova University by Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner (which, since I read it last June, has ranked up there with Too Late the Phalarope and My Name is Asher Lev as one of the most moving novels I’ve read). I estimated at least 1500 people in the audience. The lecture was part of Villanova’s One Book: Read It, Share It program, a year-long community focus on a selected book. The program launched this year with The Kite Runner. The university gave a copy to every student, organized book discussions and faculty lectures, and planned related events, including Hosseini’s visit yesterday and a kite festival to be held next month. The program’s purpose is to draw the university and local community together and foster extended reflection on the issues raised by a significant book.
For just over an hour, Hosseini talked about his background and what led to the writing of this first novel. He described his life as “the opposite of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Misfortunate Events.”
Born in Kabul, his father was a diplomat and his mother a teacher. In third grade, he developed a friendship with an ethnic Hazara, a man named Hossein Khan who worked in their household, and when he discovered that Khan could not read, he taught him to read and write in Farsi. It was a brief relationship, but years later he received a letter from Khan thanking him for teaching him to read, and promised that if Hosseini ever needed anything, he would provide it “a thousand times over.” His memories of Khan would later, in part, inspire the character of Hassan.
Because his father was eventually assigned to a diplomatic post in Paris, Hosseini and his immediate family were out of Afghanistan when the country was overtaken by the Soviets in 1978. Many of his friends and extended family were killed. But his days were spent in the company of journalists, artists, and dignitaries, writing short stories and plays that he made his siblings perform at parties.
When it became clear that they could not return to Afghanistan, his father moved the family to California. They lived on welfare until his father got a job as a driving teacher and his mother became a hairdresser. On weekends, he helped his father run a booth at a flea market.
He had always wanted to be a writer, but decided to pursue a career in medicine because it was stable and honorable. It was on a weekend leave from his residency while visiting his parents that he met his future wife, Roya. They talked for 40 minutes at a party. He went back to his residency in Los Angeles. Four days later, he asked his parents to go to her parents and ask for her hand, in the Afghani tradition. They were married 6 weeks later.
Six years later, they decided to move back to San Jose to be near their parents as they started their own family (they now have 2 children). While looking for a job, Hosseini went back to writing short stories, and one day saw a news report on television about the Taliban outlawing kite flying, an activity that had been a big part of his early childhood. With a surge of pre-Soviet and pre-Taliban memories, he sat down at the computer, and in 12 hours had written a short story called “The Kite Runner.” The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and Esquire rejected it. He put the story away and found a job.
But when his father-in-law convinced him the only flaw with the story was that it wasn’t long enough, he began to turn it into a novel. It took him about a year to finish (although he continues to edit it to this day, including changes he made yesterday to a portion he read at the lecture!). He hired an agent, and it was published by Riverhead a year later in June 2003.
At the conclusion of the lecture, the facilitator opened the floor for questions. Hosseini took time to answer about a dozen. Was it his intent for the novel to put a human face on geopolitical events? (He’d like to pretend it was, but, no, it was a happy accident, he was just telling a story that he had to tell.) Why did he make the character Assef half German? (It wasn’t a political statement, he just based the character—loosely!—on a half-German bully from his childhood.) How has American culture influenced his writing? (He considers himself an Afghani in exile, but he’s a US citizen and has lived here for 25 years, and he believes readers have rightly discovered Judeo-Christian themes in his book—like forgiveness and redemption—that are not necessarily common to Afghani culture.) Does he consider himself religious? (He identifies culturally with Islam, though he does not practice it, but he can see himself becoming “more spiritual” as he gets older.)
Besides the interesting stories he told, I appreciated his genuine manner. He said he is still stunned by the response to his novel, and he seemed moved by the large number of people who had come to hear him speak. He spent the whole day at Villanova, doing a book signing in the morning, the lecture in the evening, and having dinner with the literature students.
He is currently working on a second novel, due out in 2007, about two women in Afghanistan living under Taliban rule.