Monday, June 17, 2013

Wordcraft -- Families & an instinct for goodness

“So, then. You want a story and I will tell you one. But just the one.”

In the notebook I keep of notable openings for stories, I’m jotting down the first line of type in Khaled Hosseini’s latest novel, And the Mountains Echoed. I used to call the notebook “opening sentences,” but I’ll stretch it to “opening lines,” to include those, like Hosseini’s, too ingenious to cram excess weight onto a single subject and verb.

Of course the speaker, like any unreliable narrator, doesn’t always tell the truth. Because, departing from the format of his two previous bestsellers -- The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns -- Hosseini tells not one story but several on his way to describing the ramifications of a family’s loss of a child. A child lost not to death, but sold to buy the necessities of life for her poor family.

I’m writing this on the Sunday designated in the United States for honoring fatherhood, and reading the story an anguished father tells his children on his way to Kabul to sell the youngest -- the parable of a child-stealing div.

“They said he was an unfit father. A real father would have fought the div. He would have died defending his family,” father Saboor says, relating the fable of loss to his children Abdullah and Pari, who listen without comprehending the story’s meaning for their own lives.

“I think the way this book is similar to the previous two is that it’s about family, about how to be a good person, and how difficult that is,” Hossieni told the hundreds packing the sanctuary of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas last week during his promotional tour of And the Mountains Echoed.

“Where it differs, is the more complete structure that allows me to expand the cast of characters beyond the Afghan setting.”

Hosseini’s appearance was originally scheduled only as a book signing at the Barnes &
Noble bookstore in Dallas Lincoln Park shopping center. When he asked for a chance to speak as well, the demand encouraged the bookstore to partner with the community church to provide the needed space.

“One of the themes in my new book is about being separated from something you love,” Hosseini said, a statement that resonated with the many audience members of Middle Eastern heritage.

Drawing on the book’s foreword from the Rumi poem, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing there is a field,” Hosseini said, “It’s a basic human instinct to want to be good. For me, it’s not so interesting whether a person is good as whether they struggle. To me, it’s the decision process that’s interesting, because most of us live in that field Rumi’s talking about.”

(The complete text of the book’s opening quotation and the parable of the reed flute Hosseini also referenced in his talk are available in The Essential Rumi translated by Coleman Barks.)

Hosseini, whose family left Afghanistan in the 1970’s, spoke diffidently about his role as an advocate for his troubled homeland following release of his books. “You go to a place where there’s so much suffering, it’s human to feel guilty. I’m from Kabul, but I’m not that person on the street. Real kindness and real brotherhood takes several more steps.“

Feeling the need to give something in return to the characters behind his book, Hosseini became spokesman for refugees in 2006, and has established The Khaled Hosseini Foundation, providing humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan.

For more about Hosseini and his writing, see

To view his video in support of World Refugee Day this Thursday, June 20, see

(Next Monday -- Wordcraft gives back to friends and fellow writers who offered help with dreaded writing chores.)

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