For me as a writer, the story has always taken precedence over everything else. I have never sat down to write with broad, sweeping ideas in mind, and certainly never with a specific agenda. It is quite a burden for a writer to feel a responsibility to represent his or her own culture and to educate others about it. For me it always starts from a very personal, intimate place, about human connections, and then expands from there. What intrigued me about this new book were the hopes and dreams and disillusions of these two women, their inner lives, the specific circumstances that bring them together, their resolve to survive, and the fact that their relationship evolves into something meaningful and powerful, even as the world around them unravels and slips into chaos. But as I wrote, I witnessed the story expanding, becoming more ambitious page after page. I realized that telling the story of these two women without telling, in part, the story of Afghanistan from the 1970s to the post-9/11 era simply was not possible. The intimate and personal was intertwined inextricably with the broad and historical. And so the turmoil in Afghanistan and the country’s tortured recent past slowly became more than mere backdrop. Gradually, Afghanistan itself—and more specifically, Kabul—became a character in this novel, to a much larger extent, I think, than in The Kite Runner. But it was simply for the sake of storytelling, not out of a sense of social responsibility to inform readers about my native country. That said, I will be gratified if they walk away from A Thousand Splendid Suns with a satisfying story and with a little more insight and a more personal sense of what has happened in Afghanistan in the last thirty years.
2. What kind of response do you hope readers have to A Thousand Splendid Suns?
Purely as a writer, I hope that readers discover in this novel the same things that I look for when I read fiction: a story that transports, characters who engage, and a sense of illumination, of having been transformed somehow by the experiences of the characters. I hope that readers respond to the emotions of this story, that despite vast cultural differences, they identify with Mariam and Laila and their dreams and ordinary hopes and day-to-day struggle to survive. As an Afghan, I would like readers to walk away with a sense of empathy for Afghans, and more specifically for Afghan women, on whom the effects of war and extremism have been devastating. I hope this novel brings depth, nuance, and emotional subtext to the familiar image of the burqa-clad woman walking down a dusty street.
3. Where does the title of your new book come from?
It comes from a poem about Kabul by Saib-e-Tabrizi, a seventeenth-century Persian poet, who wrote it after a visit to the city left him deeply impressed. I was searching for English translations of poems about Kabul, for use in a scene where a character bemoans leaving his beloved city, when I found this particular verse. I realized that I had found not only the right line for the scene, but also an evocative title in the phrase “a thousand splendid suns,” which appears in the next-to-last stanza. The poem was translated from Farsi by Dr. Josephine Davis.
4. You recently received the Humanitarian Award from the United Nations Refugee Agency and were named a U.S. goodwill envoy to that agency. What kind of work have you done with the agency? What will your responsibilities be in your position as a goodwill envoy?
It’s been a tremendous honor for me to be asked to work with UNHCR as a goodwill envoy. As a native of a country with one of the world’s largest refugee populations, I hold the issue of refugees close to my heart. I will be asked to make public appearances on behalf of the refugee cause and to serve as a public advocate for refugees around the world. It will be my privilege to try to capture public attention and to use my access to the media to give voice to victims of humanitarian crises and raise public awareness about matters relating to refugees.
In January of this year, I had the opportunity of going to Chad with UNHCR to visit the refugee camps where some 250,000 people from Darfur have sought haven. I had the chance to speak to refugees, local authorities and humanitarian staff and to educate myself about the staggering tragedy unfolding in the region. It was a sobering and heartbreaking experience and one that I will never forget. Presently I am working with UNHCR on the Aid Darfur campaign. It is my intention that my future work with the agency take me to Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan.
5. You present a portrait of Afghanistan under the Taliban that may be surprising to many readers. For example, the Taliban’s ban on music and movies is well known, but many readers are not familiar with the “Titanic fever” that swept through Kabul upon the release of that film, which was shown in secret on black-market VCRs and TVs. How tight a grip did the Taliban truly have on the country? And how does pop culture survive under these traditions?
The Taliban’s acts of cultural vandalism—the most infamous being the destruction of the giant Bamiyan Buddhas—had a devastating effect on Afghan culture and the artistic scene. The Taliban burned countless films, VCRs, music tapes, books, and paintings. They jailed filmmakers, musicians, painters, and sculptors. These restrictions forced some artists to abandon their craft, and many to continue practicing in covert fashion. Some built cellars where they painted or played musical instruments. Others gathered in the guise of a sewing circle to write fiction, as depicted in Christina Lamb’s The Sewing Circles of Heart. And still others found ingenious ways to trick the Taliban—one famous example being a painter who, at the order of the Taliban, painted over the human faces on his oil paintings, except he did with it watercolor, which he washed off after the Taliban were ousted. These were among the desperate ways in which artists tried to escape the Taliban’s firm grip on virtually every form of artistic expression.
6. You earned your medical degree before you began writing fiction. How does being a doctor compare with being a writer?
I enjoyed practicing medicine and was always honored that patients put their trust in me to take care of them and their loved ones. But writing had always been my passion, since childhood, much as with Amir in The Kite Runner. I feel fortunate and privileged that writing is, at least for the time being, my livelihood. It is a dream realized.
I have not found many similarities between my two crafts, except that in both it helps to have at least some insight into human nature. Writers and doctors alike need to understand the motivation behind the things people say and do, and their fears, their hopes and aspirations. In both professions, one needs to appreciate how socioeconomic background, family, culture, language, religion, and other factors shape a person, whether it is a patient in an exam room or a character in a story.