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A man of letters, action

Khaled Hosseini writes of Afghan women's woes, and adds a chapter on U.N. aid to his own life.

June 13, 2007|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — For a painfully shy fiction writer who insists he has no political agenda, Khaled Hosseini learned the power of international celebrity -- and his own voice -- in a hurry.

Just before he became a bestselling author, the San Jose-area doctor took a trip to his native Afghanistan in 2003. His first book, "The Kite Runner," had not yet appeared, and he had no clue it was about to become a publishing sensation. Instead, his thoughts were focused on the silent women he saw wearing burkas in the war-ravaged streets of Kabul, two years after the Taliban had been driven from power by an American-led invasion. He began toying with the idea for a new novel.

"I saw these women trailed by their children, and I wondered who they were underneath those garments, what they had been through during the last 30 years," Hosseini said. "That's when I got the idea of writing a novel about their lives. My first book focused on fathers and sons, but this would be a story about mothers and daughters. And it was an important story to tell the world, because women in Afghanistan have suffered so greatly."

The resulting novel, "A Thousand Splendid Suns," was published last month by Riverhead Books and quickly shot to the top of bestseller lists, like its predecessor. Expectations were running high for Hosseini's second effort, but the buzz has given him a forum beyond the printed page: For nearly a year, he has been working as a humanitarian advocate for the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), speaking out on crises from Darfur to Pakistan, which is now home to an estimated 2.4 million Afghan refugees.

"I was lucky to get this opportunity, and if people have a better understanding of what's going on because they've read my books, I couldn't ask for a better outcome," the 42-year-old author said recently, relaxing in a 35th-floor restaurant overlooking Central Park. "I felt that I wanted to speak out, to take some action."

In his new book, Hosseini offers a bleak, heartbreaking portrait of Afghan women: He writes of mothers who were denied anesthesia for C-sections in Taliban-run hospitals. He tells of beatings and rapes that became a routine form of punishment for women. But he also describes a new day in Afghanistan, where young girls are skipping through the streets in the mornings to schools that are now open to them for the first time in years.

The solution is not for the West to impose radical reforms on Afghanistan and bring its women into the 21st century, Hosseini cautioned. There are too many communities outside of Kabul where these harsh, patriarchal traditions are ingrained, and it will take a major cultural reformation of the country, sparked from within, for these changes to take root in a meaningful way.

Hosseini isn't the first novelist or journalist to focus on injustice and suffering in Afghanistan. Yet few have enjoyed his success. While critics have not put him in the contemporary pantheon of prose stylists, they have praised his spare writing style and his cast of sympathetic, deeply human characters who grapple with a modern, war-torn world. "A Thousand Splendid Suns" interweaves the tragic stories of Mariam, a child born out of wedlock who becomes the wife of an abusive man, and Laila, the daughter of educated parents who struggles to raise her children and stay by the side of the man she loves. In the end, the book offers a faint ray of hope amid a landscape of pain.

Supportive spouse

The story of how Hosseini got his first book published almost has a fairy-tale quality to it. Three years ago, he was a successful physician who dabbled in writing during his spare moments and never dreamed that it would become a full-time occupation. He was prodded by his wife, Roya, however, to submit the draft of a first novel to New York literary agents; she believed that readers were ready for a compelling story about Afghanistan, especially after 9/11. None of the agents knew who he was, and most decided to pass on the manuscript that eventually became "The Kite Runner."

Unlike many of her colleagues, literary agent Elaine Koster said she knew right away that Hosseini's manuscript had enormous potential, and she was eager to represent him. She was impressed by his "storytelling ability, his graceful prose and captivating characters, the exotic setting, and the timeless themes he explores -- loyalty and betrayal, the relationship between fathers and sons and ultimately the possibilities of growth and redemption." She added that "the folks at Riverhead snapped it up in a substantial preemptive offer, practically overnight.... They really believed in the book."

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