.‘Kite Runner’ Novelist Khaled Hosseini on Hope and Resilience

Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini’s four books—three novels and an illustrated book aimed at younger readers—have been published in over 70 countries and have sold more than 55 million copies worldwide. Success came early in his publishing career, starting with his 2003 debut novel, The Kite Runner.

Hosseini’s vibrant, moving story set Afghanistan’s complex history as the dramatic backdrop for a simple tale about a wealthy boy’s improbable friendship with the son of his father’s servant. Capturing in its grand grasp relationships of every kind—friend to friend, father to son, a country’s rulers to its people and other nations, and more—the book spent 103 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. And the 2007 movie it inspired was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

But in addition to inspiring a movie, Hosseini’s story also sparked the creation of a play by San Jose State University theater and film professor Matthew Spangler, who mounted the adaptation at the university (see accompanying story on page 10). Other productions followed, including a Broadway run in the summer of 2022. Now, Bay Area audiences can catch The Kite Runner April 3-7 at Hammer Theater in San Jose.

Presented by Sunnyvale’s EnActe Arts in collaboration with San Jose State University, the production features Fremont-based tabla player Salar Nader and is directed by Giles Croft.

The power-packed creative team includes Jonathan Girling (composer and musical supervisor), Barney George (scenic and costume design), Charles Balfour (lighting design), Drew Baumohl (sound design), William Simpson (projection design), Laura Stanczyk (casting director), Kitty Winter (movement director) and Damian Sandys (associate director), as well as Humaira Ghilzai as cultural consultant.

The Bay Area-based writer’s overwhelming success and subsequent seeming withdrawal from the public eye in recent years means in-person, face-to-face interactions with Hosseini are rare.

Previously, however, Hosseini was available for a phone interview shortly after The Kite Runner film was released and again a few years later in a 30-minute, face-to-face interview backstage prior to a public event. During those conversations, he shared generous insights into his processes, practices, and philosophies, along with special commentary into Afghan history, society, and culture. Excerpts and notes from those interactions, along with a recent interview with Spangler, provide unique perspectives on the upcoming production.

“All fiction comes down to characters who suddenly face a choice,” Hosseini said. “In a way, that was the premise of Kite Runner. We see characters making choices. What they choose is not interesting to me, but why they choose it and the consequences are interesting.”

While writing Kite Runner, Hosseini’s habit was to work Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to roughly 3 p.m., when his children returned from school. “Mostly, it is just sitting and staring. Some days there’s writing, some days there’s none. I never know where my books are going. I barely know what will happen on the next page, let alone how it’s going to end. There are a whole slew of surprises. I just sit and see what happens.”

Of course, Hosseini downplays the effort and hours invested in writing and rewriting, the latter of which he enjoys immensely. “I like manipulating drafts. First drafts are laborious, with unaltered passages that survive review and others that grind themselves into existence. Roya, my wife, is my home editor and a very good reader. The usual disadvantage of somebody who cares about you reading and not having the gumption to tell you if it rings false—Roya is not burdened by that,” he said, laughing. He confessed to “going into a funk” and “thinking I’m a hack” after a negative or doubting response, but within a day or two, he sees the truth of the commentary—and how to fix the problem.

Afghan people have a deep respect for poetry, Hosseini emphasized, which means the tradition of writing prose permeates the Afghan soul. Because of that, his childhood experiences are embedded in his book creation process and often the starting point and measuring stick used to make sense and tell stories of current events and situations in his homeland. “I am not looking to tell Afghan stories,” he said during our earliest interview. “I just have experiences that come back to me. It’s entirely probable that I’ll write something that has very little to do with Afghanistan someday.”

Kite Runner was written immediately following 9/11 and completed in 15 months—an extremely rapid pace he’s “envious of” when compared to his second and third novels, which respectively took four and six years to produce. “You become more discriminating; tougher on yourself. Hopefully, it’s part of the growth process.”

Hope is a natural preset for Afghan people, he asserted. “They’re resilient, resourceful. They eke out a living out of almost nothing. When I am there, I see the most egregious conditions and they will have survived them for years. They’re not built to just lie down, put their head on a rock and quit.”

Which doesn’t mean there is no fear among the residents, as well as for those who, like Hosseini, have made the difficult but essential choice to leave a country they know cannot provide the life they want for themselves and their families.

The worry about girls not being able to attend school loomed large in his mind in the years immediately following Kite Runner’s release. Since the United States left and the Taliban assumed power, past worries about restrictions are now realities.

Hosseini’s first book was an incendiary item—“It was like someone threw a grenade in a room and then ran,” he said—especially for an older, traditional Afghan generation of readers. All of which brings to mind the book-banning movements of 2024 and highlights the importance of groups like EnActe and their commitment to storytelling that places South Asian voices into a global context and leads to meaningful, cross-cultural interactions and conversations.

Even before Hosseini’s dynamic tale of family, immigration, betrayal, love, forgiveness and changed lives captivated the American literary scene, Spangler was invested in teaching courses about the way refugees and asylum seekers are represented in the arts.

“Why people are forced to leave their country; what it means to recreate your life in a new country? What happens when the father in this book loses his status and has to recreate it here, in California? Amir adapts more quickly than his father. There are differences between the generations, and that’s interesting too,” Spangler says.

Spangler started writing the play in 2006 and met with Khaled with regularity at that time. “It’s been in continuous production since 2009, which is a remarkable history for a play. Over that time, I’ve been able to work with a lot of different artists, like Salar Nader, who plays tabla in the production now, and our cultural consultant, Humaira Ghilzai. And for each production, there are 12 actors for each show.” Over the years, he notes, there have been “somewhere around 300 different actors.”

He explains, “I’m not Afghan and not a refugee. I haven’t lived it as a personal experience and not in my bones. I step into a rehearsal space with people who identify with the experiences or region more intimately than I do. I listen carefully and make changes to the text because they come into the room with their own backgrounds. They say a line doesn’t resonate or suggest pulling a different line from the book. I’ve found it extremely rewarding to work in this excessively collaborative way.”

Ghilzai, he says, has provided culturally astute sculpting of scenes, such as a wedding and a birthday party, as well as various dances, prayers, and other references to Afghan traditions and lifestyles.

Asked about the impact of the play seen in 2024 versus 2009, Spangler says the topic of refugee immigration is even more political and has deep, contemporary resonance. “Sadly, Afghanistan has stayed in the news for many reasons that are not happy for Afghan and its people. This play echoes the history of Afghanistan over the last 20 years. The Taliban taking over, the US recently departing; this play speaks to those things.”

Having just returned from attending the last week of rehearsal and opening night in London and the first week of the touring production’s rehearsals in New York, Spangler says, “I saw amazing casts offering generosity and talent. I’ve been living with this play for 20 years and what keeps impressing me is the experience the audience has and how the play touches a lot of people. It’s remarkable.”

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