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If you like Khaled Hosseini's story, you might also like:
Benazir Bhutto,
Mohamed ElBaradei,
Joan Didion,
Carlos Fuentes,
John Grisham,
John Irving,
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and Gore Vidal

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Khaled Hosseini
 
Khaled Hosseini
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Khaled Hosseini Interview (page: 2 / 9)

Afghanistan's Tumultuous History

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  Khaled Hosseini

Your English is virtually unaccented and perfectly fluent, and you write in English. Where did that fluency come from?

Khaled Hosseini: I think part of it is youth. I learned --


Farsi was my first language. I learned French when I was eleven, and we lived in France for about four years, so that became my second language. And then we moved to the States, and I was 15 at that time, so I began to pick up English. Actually, I picked up English pretty quickly, probably within a year I was pretty fluent. And part of it is that you're still very pliable mentally at 14, 15 years old. You still are not fully rooted in that, so you still have that ability to absorb things in a kind of a childlike way. And so I picked up the language pretty quickly. And I think part of it also is that I always had kind of an ease with foreign languages. I always had an ear for it and seemed to pick it up more quickly than some of my friends and fellow students. So I think it was a combination of both things.


As a teenager in America, you really have to learn the idiom, you have to learn the slang fast so you can fit in, right?

Khaled Hosseini: Fitting in in the U.S. when we first moved here -- boy, that was quite a difficulty, because I moved to the States when I was 15, and 15 is a strange enough age, regardless of who you are and where you are. And this is a strange enough age if you're in your own environment, and you are growing up, and you still feel alienated and isolated, and you feel like the world is against you and so on.

You are neither a child nor an adult.

Khaled Hosseini: It's a clichÈ, but it's really true. You really are kind of searching for who you are. You have gone through this period of metamorphosis, both physically and emotionally, mentally in every way. But it's that much more tricky when you are 15, and you have abandoned everything that you are familiar with, and you have come to an environment where you don't speak the language, you don't understand the ambient culture, and you feel completely at a loss.


I went to high school -- my family moved to the U.S. in September of '80, and two weeks later, I was in high school in a regular English language class. I will never understand why I was never put in ESL, but I spoke virtually no English, but I was sitting in this English class, and it was pretty much sink or swim. So that's how I learned English really on the fly like that. I just had to learn it -- there was no choice. But in terms of fitting in, I felt like a complete outsider. I felt like I was like looking in through the glass at a party that was going on, and I wasn't invited to it, I didn't really understand the behavior and the mores of high school, all of the different cliques. I felt like -- the only people that I kind of connected with at that time were other refugees, and there weren't that many Afghans at that time, as I said. There were only a handful of families at that time. There were a lot of Cambodian refugees, and I became friends with them. Probably my first year of high school I hung out with them and hardly any of them spoke any English, and they were speaking Cambodian among themselves. But I kind of felt natural for me to be among them. Gradually other Afghans came and I learned English and made friends, but I never felt, I never really felt like I ever belonged in high school.


Can you talk about the decision to write your novels in English? For an America-born person, that would be akin to saying I think I'm going to walk on the moon. I'm going to write a novel in my third language.


Khaled Hosseini: When I started writing The Kite Runner, the novel, which was in March of 2001, by then I had been in the States for over 20 years. So English had become a very, very natural language for me. I felt very comfortable with it. In fact, I had been writing short stories in English by then for almost two decades. So I felt at ease in the language and it felt -- my default setting for storytelling was English. I began writing when I was a kid in Farsi, and when we moved to France, I dabbled in writing in French. But at this point my prose voice, my fictional voice, the rhythm and the cadence and everything that goes into creating fiction, for me all of that, my setting, I was in English. So that is the language that I feel most natural with telling stories.


You ended up going into biology. Talk about that.


Khaled Hosseini: Deciding to pursue a career in science, specifically medicine, was very much a rational decision. When my family came to the States -- from a fairly affluent background in Kabul -- but when we came to the States we were political refugees. We had lost all of our belongings, our land, everything that we owned was gone. We had suitcases of clothes, and that was about it. So when we came to the States, my family was on welfare. I think that was a very difficult adjustment for my parents, because they were always kind of on the giving end of charity, and now suddenly they were on government sponsored aid, which was a real embarrassment for them, I think. I remember how ashamed my mother was when we would go to the grocery store, and she would pay with food stamps, and her big worry was that a fellow Afghan would see her doing that, and she would be mortified at the thought of it. So in that environment, I felt, my parents told us, "Look, this is our life now. We're going to work, but you guys have to study. That's what you have to do. You have to make something of yourself. We came here because there is opportunity for you guys here, and we want you guys to make something of yourself." And at that point, the thought of pursuing writing or something, to be honest, it never even crossed my conscious mind. It seemed so unachievable, so outlandish that in that kind of an environment where you feel like you have to become something, you always have this fear of economic instability, you always have a fear that you'll end up homeless or dependent.


Did you think trying to be a writer was self-indulgent?

Khaled Hosseini Interview Photo
Khaled Hosseini: Self indulgent, frivolous, almost. It seemed ridiculous. And so I never -- not to mention that I didn't speak the language. So I decided early on that I would pursue sciences. I had always been comfortable with the sciences, and I decided on medicine, biology for college, and eventually medical school, because I felt that was a profession where I would be good at it. It would provide me both financial and professional stability forever. And I felt that was a sensible thing to do. As I said earlier, I was always very sensible. I was never ever really a great risk taker. And so I went to medical school, but it was really more of a rational decision. Like a lot of, I think, first generation immigrants that come to this country and end up somehow as over-achievers, I think that's what happened to myself and my siblings, too.

Did they become professionals in their fields?

Khaled Hosseini: Yes. I have a sister who is a vice-president of sales at a company. I have a brother who got his master's degree in physics and electrical engineering at Stanford. I have a brother who is a chiropractor. They all pursued their dreams and did really well.

Were there teachers that were particularly important to you after you came here?


Khaled Hosseini: I had really good teachers in high school. Probably I connected the best with an English teacher that I had my junior year in high school, Miss Sanchez, Jan Sanchez -- God bless her. I'm still in touch with her, had lunch a couple of years ago, and we email each other and still exchange, recommend books to each other: "What novel are you reading lately? I read this book -- you want to read this." That kind of thing. But she really was the first time -- I remember it was in her class that I read The Grapes of Wrath, which was the first time I had read a novel in English where I felt like I got it at the time. I had the, I felt really connected to the writer and to the story. I told her how much I loved that book and what it meant to me, and I think I saw part of my own family, and a lot of the Afghans in that story -- people who would, they become uprooted and homeless and kind of drifting around trying to find a new home. So Jan Sanchez was probably my favorite teacher in high school, and although I never shared with her any of my writing, she came to one of my book readings as a surprise. I hadn't seen her in over two decades, and she showed up, and she goes, "Remember me?" Obviously, I knew immediately who she was, and it made me so proud that she had read my book and she had loved it. I felt like I had done good. You know, when your teacher comes up to you, even if you are middle-aged and have your own family, having your teacher come up to you and pat you on the back is still a pretty special feeling.


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