Each Story I Hear

Personal tales and hard truths: conversations with writer Khaled Hosseini ’88

Khaled Hosseini, Goodwill Ambassador For Unhcr, The Un Refugee Agency, Visits Syrian Refugees In Norther Iraq
Khaled Hosseini ’88, Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, The UN refugee agency, visits Syrian refugees in northern Iraq. / Image by Brian Sokol via Panos Pictures / Red UX

By Steven Boyd Saum and Riley O’Connell ’19
April 15, 2019

IN MARCH 2001, while practicing medicine, Dr. Khaled Hosseini ’88 began writing his first novel, The Kite Runner. Six months and two-thirds into his first draft, though, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Overnight, Afghanistan, a country that many Americans could not place on a map, was the lead story around the globe. Hosseini worried that his book would be seen as opportunistic; his wife, Roya, convinced him not to second-guess the story he was writing. It needed to be told. ¶ The novel became a bestseller and has been assigned for all incoming first-year students at Santa Clara. Hosseini went on to write the bestsellers And the Mountains Echoed and A Thousand Splendid Suns. Altogether his books have sold more than 40 million copies. He has also served as a goodwill ambassador for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, meeting with people displaced from their homes in Darfur, Afghanistan, and Syria. ¶ He has given us tales of redemption and grace and crafted the stories of characters who are morally compromised by the situations in which they find themselves. “Stories are the best antidote to the de-humanization caused by numbers,” Hosseini wrote recently for The Guardian. “They restore our empathy. Each story I hear from a refugee helps me feel, bone-deep, my immutable connection to its teller as a fellow human. I see myself, the people I would give my life for, in every tale I am told.” ¶

I was a scholarship kid. To hear him highlight the contribution of immigrants gave me a sense of pride. It was meaningful and restorative.

Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1965. He and his family came to the United States as refugees after the Soviet invasion in 1980. He was recently on campus to discuss Sea Prayer, a brief and haunting elegy for our time. We two editors sat down with him (actually, we stood for part of it) for a couple conversations.

Steven Boyd Saum is the editor of Santa Clara Magazine. Riley O’Connell ’19 is the editor of The Santa Clara Review, SCU’s literary journal founded in 1869. Excerpts.

SANTA CLARA MAGAZINE AND REVIEW: You’ve written stories that try to connect people with one another—stories that capture both aspirations and suffering around the world. If we’re trying to open doors for people, what are some of the ways you would like to see that happen?

KHALED HOSSEINI: I would address this to young people, to students who are now attending Santa Clara University, and say, basically, that you should think about expanding your sense of community. Your community can be your home or your street. It could be Santa Clara University. It could be Northern California. But it could be a lot more. Because a community is more than just a bunch of people who have a language and culture in common. The cliché is that we live in this big interconnected global community—but we really do. We are irrevocably connected now—and it’s a complicated organism, that wider global community. I would encourage students to embrace being an organic member of that bigger community and embrace the challenges of the world that they’re about to inherit—be it refugees or climate change or poverty. And work toward solutions with a critical eye and a clear heart.

SCM & SCR: One of the qualities that’s always at play in your fiction is courage—people who need to show courage in tough situations. How do you define courage?

HOSSEINI: Well, it’s not fearlessness, that’s for sure. In the absence of fear, no position or action can actually be said to require courage to begin with. The root of the word is from Latin—cor. It means “heart,” which was the organ where the sense of truth and justice and strength were believed to reside. I’ve thought about this quite a bit, because I’ve come across people in my travels who have really displayed enormous courage. What I’ve found is what the courageous person always does is weigh the convictions in his or her heart against uncertainty, which is the root of all fear, and then deliberately chooses to stand with their convictions—even at the risk of personal loss. So courage for me is, for that reason, always tied up to selflessness, because it may ask you—require you—to prioritize a place or a person or a people above and over what your reptilian brain says is in your best interest. It’s infinitely bound to selflessness, and you can’t talk about courage therefore without talking about compassion and respect for others.

SCM & SCR: You chose to come to Santa Clara. But your family didn’t choose to emigrate. Talk about that experience—being an unwilling migrant.

HOSSEINI: My family and I were living in France in the late ’70s. My father was a diplomat, and he’d been posted to the Afghan Embassy in Paris. It was a four-year assignment, so we left everything in Afghanistan in 1976, believing that we were coming back in 1980.

I remember the moment at which our life flipped: December 1979. We were home in our little apartment watching TV. There was a break in the program and this update came out. We saw on that little black and white screen Russian tanks rolling into this country that nobody had heard of—our homeland, Afghanistan. When that happened, I remember an exchange of looks between my parents. I realized in that moment, in a kind of a visceral way, Our life has just been turned upside down. Suddenly everything that we had owned, known, experienced before that became a part of the past, in a way. And the future looked open and uncertain and scary. We were resettled in the United States. We arrived in the fall of 1980, a couple of months before the election of Ronald Reagan.

SCM & SCR: We were just walking through campus—a very different place from when you first came here. Coming to California must have brought a real sense of dislocation for your family. How did you wind up here?

HOSSEINI: Like a lot of students, a variety of factors landed me in Santa Clara. I had done my research. I knew it was an outstanding school and that I would get a top-notch, broad-based education. From an academic standpoint it made a lot of sense. I’d already had some experience with Jesuits in Afghanistan; Jesuits taught at my elementary school when I was in sixth grade. What really clinched it for me is that I had set roots by then in the Bay Area. I love being with my family here, I love Northern California, and I really wanted to stay here.

I enrolled at Santa Clara in 1984. It was around the time that I was finding my sea legs living here. My time in college coincided with a protracted period of financial struggle for my family. So I worked outside of school hours—I was a security guard to help put myself through school. I learned the value of work, and how to work and go to school at the same time. I learned about independence, personal growth. It was a time when I began learning how to be an adult—so it was a formative time.

Refugees on a cold and moonlit beach: A scene from Khaled Hosseini’s book Sea Prayer, illustrated by Dan Williams

SCM & SCR: Any moment that defined it for you?

HOSSEINI: There’s one moment that really stands out. I don’t know if it’s a defining moment, but it’s certainly one I think back on. It was in chemistry class—I think my freshman year. My professor was Dr. Atom Yee, and we were getting back a test on which, it turned out, the class had done poorly. I was shocked when he called my name and asked me to come down to the front of the lecture hall. It was a big class—like 100 people. I walked down and he told me I had gotten the top grade in the class. Then he took me to the board and asked me to solve one problem that I think a lot of students had struggled with.

So I solved it on the chalkboard, and I thought that would be the end of that. But then he kind of put his arm around me and turned me around and we faced the class, and he started talking to the class. He talked a little bit about his own background of having arrived in this country as an immigrant. And then he began to talk about the makeup of the country, and he said, “Just don’t forget, so much of what this country has built has been on the shoulders of immigrants.”

It was something that I didn’t realize I needed to hear at that point, but it meant a lot to me. Because I always felt different from a lot of the students on campus. I was a Pell Grant, Cal Grant, scholarship kid. There were nine of us living in a small house near East San Jose. I didn’t have all the means and resources that a lot of kids at school did; that brought, for me, a sense of shame about the deprivation and about the limited means at my disposal. But to hear him say that—to highlight the contribution of immigrants—gave me a sense of pride. It was meaningful and restorative. I always appreciated that.

SCM & SCR: Given your experience here, what do you think the world needs to know about Santa Clara?

HOSSEINI: I got a fantastic education. Coming here I knew would encourage me to expand my sense of community and horizon. Especially the climate that we’re living in now—a school where the values of tolerance and understanding and respect and being a global citizen are reinforced, I think it’s a very valuable thing.

Let me answer that with a story, too. When I was a student here, I was a bio major, and I was applying to medical school. When I applied, I literally couldn’t afford the fares to fly all the way to Boston and go to Nebraska or Saint Louis and do interviews for the medical school. I really didn’t know how I was going to actually apply.

So I came and spoke to my biology professor, Dr. William Eisinger, after class. He sat with me, and I told him about my dilemma. He was so kind, and he listened and he said, “I’ll see what I can do.” A few days later he pulled me aside and gave me a check that the school had cut for me to cover my travel expenses. That was very meaningful to me, and I’ll never forget that.

Not saying everybody is going to get their fares paid for by Santa Clara! But what I’m saying is that you are an individual here. It’s a small campus. You are a person here and your voice will be heard, and you will be seen as an individual in specific circumstances.

SCM & SCR: One thing we’ve talked about before is the fact that most refugees don’t migrate hoping to move to a new country forever. They want to go home someday. Was that a hope that your parents had, or that you had?

HOSSEINI: I was talking to a Syrian refugee in Lebanon this past June. A report had come out that nine out of every ten refugees in Lebanon wanted to go home. But they couldn’t go because of security issues. And he said to me, “Look, even Heaven is not home.” Over and over again, this is something that I’ve seen.

I think for my parents, not going home was a tectonic disaster for them, because they had established identities. They had homes. They had careers. They had property. They had roots and an entire community they belonged to. For them to have all of that wiped off the map in one fell swoop was a real blow.

But I think we understood that for us, going back home would be very difficult. We had a number of family members who were shot. People who were put in prison. My uncle was tortured. I have cousins who were shot. Colleagues of my father who did go back who were killed. So the idea of going home … we were in the same predicament as so many refugees are in the world today.


SCM & SCR: A decade ago, after returning from a trip to Afghanistan, you talked about how we just cannot afford to give up on these people. Why not?

HOSSEINI: There’s a couple of different ways of looking at it. One is, politically Afghanistan is still a very important nation. Its location has always been strategic, and it’s always placed at the center of power struggles between great powers. So if 9/11 taught us anything, it’s that what happens halfway across the world does affect us.

If you ask Afghans why we shouldn’t give up on Afghanistan, they will say that there’s no people on the planet that deserve peace and a chance of rebuilding their country more than they do. Many Afghans, rightly or wrongly, see the end of the old Cold War as having been written with Afghan blood: the defeat of the Soviet Union, which took ten years and cost over a million Afghan lives, and how Afghanistan was abandoned afterward and allowed to fall into extremism and oppression and violent regimes. For a lot of Afghans, they feel like they’ve paid a very high price, and that the result of the Afghan War benefited the West greatly. They feel, again rightly or wrongly, that the world shouldn’t give up on them—but should give them a chance to rebuild their country. And what I said ten years ago in some ways is still true today.

Meadow Ii
Memories of summer: The father in Sea Prayer recalls his son walking with the boy’s mother—killed in the war. Illustrated by Dan Williams

Sea Prayer

SCM & SCR: The book Sea Prayer is very different from your three novels. This monologue of father to son is inspired by a tale tragically true: Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old boy from Syria who drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach safety in Europe. The photograph of his tiny body washed up on the beach crystallized for many the depth of a tragedy still unfolding. So how did the book come to be?

HOSSEINI: Sea Prayer was originally conceived as a talk that I gave at a fundraiser for UNHCR, the refugee agency. I was asked to come and speak for about five minutes along with a whole host of other people, and I decided to use my five minutes not reading from my most recent book, as I had been asked, but to actually say something about the current refugee crisis. Specifically, I had been thinking about that photograph of the drowned Syrian boy, so I wanted to tell a story. Not about him, per se, but about all the families that have taken that desperate journey across the sea. So I sat down and, over the course of a couple of afternoons, this little monologue came out from the viewpoint of a father talking to his son, who is sleeping—talking about this frightening journey that awaits them and the uncertain future. Then, in collaboration with Google and the Guardian and UNHCR, it became a small virtual reality film. The Kronos Quartet composed the track for it, and so it was really lovely. My UK publisher reached out to me and said, “Hey, I think this would make a really beautiful picture book.” So it became this gorgeous little book. Dan Williams, the artist, did unbelievable work on this book. All the proceeds will go to to help refugees, through the Khaled Hosseini Foundation and the UNHCR. There’s been an aura of grace around the project.

SCM & SCR: How different was it for you in writing a book that has that very clear focus—parent to child?

HOSSEINI: I feel very much in my element writing about parents and children and families, being an Afghan, and family being such an important and central part of our identity. When I saw that photograph of the young boy, part of what gives that photograph power is that he’s lying face down. You can’t quite see his features, so it’s very easy to project the face of someone you love onto that little body. Like your own children. For me the entry point into this story was always going to be as a dad. I kept trying to imagine what his father must have been going through, watching his son’s body being picked up from the water by a Turkish soldier. Somebody who didn’t know Alan’s name or the sound of his voice, or his favorite toy … As a dad, those are the things that immediately rush into me when I see something like that. I wanted to pay tribute to that family, but also to the thousands of others, both before and after him, who tried that journey, and so may have perished.

SCM & SCR: The father says, “All I can do is pray.” We’re no strangers to that at a Jesuit university. I’m curious, when you’re inhabiting the head of this father, what prayer means to you.

HOSSEINI: I should be up front. I’m not a particularly religious person. I don’t pray daily in any conventional sense, but I do remember that prayer has had a presence in my life regardless. When I was younger, in boyhood, I used to think of prayer as holding enormous magic power, almost like a magic coin you toss into a divine vending machine, and then you select the result you want to see. Some version of that stayed with me even as I grew a little bit older; I lived with the idea of prayer as this mechanism to compel God’s actions, including in my own personal life. Over the last couple of years, I’ve gotten more involved in some mindfulness and meditation. It has a very prayer-like quality for me, because it allows me to be quiet and to be still, and to feel my presence in the physical world, and to feel a connection to the infinite. It helps me feel my own smallness, and my own fallibility. But also the fact that I am a unique expression of creation like everyone is here. And that I’m kind of a small miracle that has never been seen before and never will be seen again, as every person and every living thing on the planet really is.

A Storytelling Species

SCM & SCR: You’ve spoken of the importance of stories as teachers of empathy. On the flip side, sometimes stories can be used to encourage hate. How do we combat that?

HOSSEINI: You know, we’re a species wired for metaphor. Storytelling is at the heart of all human endeavor. We build economies and start wars with stories. Stories end wars, too. They liberate oppressed people. They justify genocides. So they’re powerful things. And I think one of the fundamental questions facing us today is how do we separate those stories that heal and enrich us from those that divide and destroy, that create mistrust?

To be effective, stories don’t have to be factually true. They just have to resonate as emotionally truthful. Which makes them very powerful, but also potentially dangerous. Because stories can fool you into overlooking subtext and nuance and shade and important information that doesn’t necessarily fall in with the prevailing narrative. Or they can be used deliberately to mislead you, by changing facts, or denying facts, or positing outright falsehoods that prey on our vulnerabilities and our fears.

You see that play out every day in the world today. So, it behooves us to tell each other the right kind of story, especially our young people. Stories that communicate human values, in a way that permits them to see its relevance to their lives. Stories that enrich us, that connect us, that tap into our shared humanity, give us wisdom, and foster positive change. We don’t have a choice, we do have to tell each other those stories.

We’re a species wired for metaphor. Storytelling is at the heart of all human endeavor. We build economies and start wars with stories. They liberate oppressed people. They’re powerful things.

SCM & SCR: Sometimes folks here at Santa Clara like to say, “I’m on a mission to…” So if you were to say you’re on a mission—what would it be?

HOSSEINI: I’m on a mission these days to use my position as a storyteller and as a writer to highlight the core experiences that unite us as people. I think we’re living in a time of great division and stress and skepticism. But the fact is that the things that we all share, the things that unite us, by degrees dwarf the things that separate and divide us—and that’s something that we lose track of. So whether it be through my writing of novels, or whether through my work with UNHCR and highlighting the plight of refugees, I try to always bring the human element—and those core experiences that we share in common as a species—into the story.

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