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‘I See Art As a Way for People to Not Think of Each Other in Broad Strokes’
Erika Milvy | Photo: Ian Allen | January 31, 2017
San Jose novelist Khaled Hosseini talks about adapting his work for the stage and dealing with Trump’s America.
This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by the editors of our sister magazine, San Francisco. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Name: Khaled Hosseini
Residence: San Jose
San Francisco: Your first novel, The Kite Runner, and its follow-up, A Thousand Splendid Suns, which A.C.T. is adapting for the stage this month, exposed Americans to stories about Afghans. Do you fear that we’re about to witness a dramatic regression in racial and religious tolerance—even in our Bay Area bubble?
Khaled Hosseini: I love living in the Bay Area partly because people from all over the world and all walks of life live here. So I have never felt like an outsider living in the Bay Area, and I feel confident that it will be OK here. [But] there are incidences of hate crime everywhere, and there have been a troubling number since Trump’s election. It’s a disgrace that these things can happen again and again and they don’t seem to be addressed by the president-elect, other than looking at the camera and saying, “Stop it.” I think everyone is hoping that people will remember that we’re all citizens of the same country; that every person regardless of race or religion is someone deserving of respect and dignity, and that it behooves us now more than ever to remember that we became what we are in this country because we respected each other.
Why allow A Thousand Splendid Suns to be adapted for the stage?
I see art generally as a way for people to not think of each other in broad strokes. My story played out in the drama of Afghanistan. But the fuel that drove the story forward—the momentum—was largely based on very universal human experiences. And that’s my hope: that the adaptation of this book into this play will generate that same kind of connection with the audience. When you’re seeing a really good play, there are moments when you’re sitting in the dark and this drama is being played out feet away from you, and it absorbs you so deeply that you feel part of this intense shared experience. It can be very riveting and very powerful.
This is now your second book to be adapted—The Kite Runner was made into a movie and a play, and now Suns is a play. Do you feel protective of your stories?
I think I’m proprietary toward the characters in the story as long as I’m writing it. Once it’s published, it’s out there in people’s imaginations. [The characters] live in people’s heads, and I don’t have any more claim to them than anybody else. People have their own way of reading the story, their own interpretation based on millions of things that I would never know.
Your first book was about boys and fathers, and this one is about mothers and daughters. Have you gotten any flak for writing from a female perspective?
That really hasn’t happened at all. In fact, quite the opposite. One of the things I take pride in and I see as a real honor has been to see women from all walks of life—from all around the world, but particularly from my own region of the world—embrace this book so passionately. I don’t claim any particular insight into the life of any woman, whether she is Afghan or not. But I do claim particular insight into the lives of these two specific characters who came to live in my head and lived with me for three or four years.
Those women—Mariam and Laila—are married to the same cruel husband, who forces them to wear burkas. You describe it as physically constricting but also emotionally liberating. In recent years in the West, there have been bans on burkas and incidents of harassment and violence toward Muslims in veils. What’s your take on the practice?
By and large, the concerns of people in Afghanistan are so existential. They have their own feelings about wearing a veil, but I assure you that there are things that matter to them much more. When the burka became a very powerful symbol is when it was enforced on all women [by the Taliban], including progressive urban women on whom it was a real affront to their sense of selfhood and individuality and freedom. For those women who wear the veil as a legitimate form of religious expression, I want to respect that. On the other hand, if somebody uses that veil to hide a bomb, I can understand [why that’s a concern], too. I think it’s the unique nature of our times that you have legitimate fears on both sides which are then played out through these ghoulish extremes from the right. So I don’t know how I feel about it, frankly.
A Thousand Splendid Suns runs Feb. 1–26 at the Geary Theater.
Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco