New York -- For a painfully shy fiction writer who insists he has no political agenda, Khaled Hosseini learned the power of international celebrity - and his own voice - in a hurry.
Just before he became a best-selling author, the California doctor took a trip to his native Afghanistan in 2003. His first book, The Kite Runner, had not yet appeared, and he had no clue it was about to become a publishing sensation. Instead, his thoughts were focused on the silent women he saw wearing burqas in the war-ravaged streets of Kabul, two years after the Taliban had been driven from power by an American-led invasion. He began toying with the idea for a new novel.
"I saw these women trailed by their children, and I wondered who they were underneath those garments, what they had been through during the last 30 years," Hosseini said. "That's when I got the idea of writing a novel about their lives. My first book focused on fathers and sons, but this would be a story about mothers and daughters. And it was an important story to tell the world, because women in Afghanistan have suffered so greatly."
The resulting novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, was published last month by Riverhead Books and quickly shot to the top of best-seller lists, like its predecessor. Expectations were running high for Hosseini's second effort, but the buzz has given him a forum beyond the printed page: For nearly a year, he has been working as a humanitarian advocate for the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), speaking out on crises from Darfur to Pakistan, which is now home to an estimated 2.4 million Afghan refugees.
"I was lucky to get this opportunity, and if people have a better understanding of what's going on because they've read my books, I couldn't ask for a better outcome," the 42-year-old author said recently, relaxing in a 35th-floor restaurant overlooking Central Park. "I felt that I wanted to speak out, to take some action."
In his new book, Hosseini offers a bleak, heartbreaking portrait of Afghan women: He writes of mothers who were denied anesthesia for C-sections in Taliban-run hospitals. He tells of beatings and rapes that became a routine form of punishment for women. But he also describes a new day in Afghanistan, where young girls are skipping through the streets in the mornings to schools that are now open to them for the first time in years.
The solution is not for the West to impose radical reforms on Afghanistan and bring its women into the 21st century, Hosseini cautioned. There are too many communities outside of Kabul where these harsh, patriarchal traditions are ingrained, and it will take a major cultural reformation of the country, sparked from within, for these changes to take root in a meaningful way.
Hosseini isn't the first novelist or journalist to focus on injustice and suffering in Afghanistan. Yet few have enjoyed his success. While critics have not put him in the contemporary pantheon of prose stylists, they have praised his spare writing style and his cast of sympathetic, deeply human characters who grapple with a modern, war-torn world. A Thousand Splendid Suns interweaves the tragic stories of Mariam, a child born out of wedlock who becomes the wife of an abusive man, and Laila, the daughter of educated parents who struggles to raise her children and stay by the side of the man she loves. In the end, the book offers a faint ray of hope amid a landscape of pain.
The story of how Hosseini got his first book published almost has a fairy-tale quality to it. Three years ago, he was a successful physician who dabbled in writing during his spare moments and never dreamed that it would become a full-time occupation. He was prodded by his wife, Roya, however, to submit the draft of a first novel to New York literary agents; she believed that readers were ready for a compelling story about Afghanistan, especially after Sept. 11. None of the agents knew who he was, and most decided to pass on the manuscript that eventually became The Kite Runner.
Unlike many of her colleagues, literary agent Elaine Koster said she knew right away that Hosseini's manuscript had enormous potential, and she was eager to represent him. She was impressed by his "storytelling ability, his graceful prose and captivating characters, the exotic setting, and the timeless themes he explores - loyalty and betrayal, the relationship between fathers and sons and ultimately the possibilities of growth and redemption."
There are now 4 million copies of the book in print, and last month Hosseini was greeted like a hero at the Book Expo America convention in New York. A movie of The Kite Runner will be released in November, and producer Scott Rudin has taken out an option on the new novel. Meanwhile, fans have been lining up to meet Hosseini in bookstores across the country.
Another writer might simply kick back and enjoy the attention, while it lasts. But Hosseini, who still seems stunned by all the publicity, said he decided early on to harness it for some public good. The catalyst came last year, when UNHCR officials gave him a humanitarian award, citing his compassionate portrayal of Afghan refugees in The Kite Runner. To their delight, the author did more than accept the honor. He wanted to help focus more attention on refugees around the world.
"He wanted to see our field operations and said he'd like to get involved," said Tim Irwin, a UNHCR spokesman who traveled with Hosseini to eastern Chad to visit survivors of the continuing violence in Darfur. " ... He's been a tremendously influential advocate in garnering support for what we do, and helping people focus on all of these problems."
Others believe Hosseini would have made a strong contribution even if he had never set foot in a refugee camp. Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department analyst for Afghanistan who is now affiliated with the Middle East Institute in Washington, believes the author's two novels could have a profound effect on grass-roots American attitudes toward Afghanistan.
"His books have introduced U.S. readers to Afghanistan's culture and politics in a way that almost nothing else could have," Weinbaum said. Hosseini's newest book is particularly relevant, he added, because it deals with contemporary Afghanistan and the post- Sept. 11 world. "We still owe a commitment to that nation, and the new book reflects that. Even as our feelings about the war in Iraq change, this is a writer who reminds why we should continue to care about Afghanistan's future and its history."
Hosseini was born in Kabul, where his father was a diplomat and his mother taught Farsi and history at a large high school. The family also lived in Tehran, where the young boy began showing an early interest in writing. His family was forced to relocate after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, moving first to Paris and settling in the United States in 1980. They had lost virtually all their possessions and lived briefly on welfare; Hosseini's father later supported his family with multiple jobs..
Although he began practicing internal medicine in 1996, his wife, an attorney who was also born in Afghanistan, became a big booster for his writing. One story particularly caught her attention, a tale that formed the nucleus of The Kite Runner, and Hosseini began to feel that it might be a novel more than a short story. With her strong encouragement, he began to revamp and expand the story. "But I never intended for it to be published; it was just something I was doing for myself," he stressed. "All the rest - the release of the book, writing a second novel and the work I'm doing with refugees - I could never have predicted this at all."
Even as he speaks out on behalf of UNHCR issues, Hosseini forever reminds himself, and others, that he is not an expert: "I'm just a guy who makes up characters in a book and writes about them. People need to remember that," he said. But there are moments when his passion and anger cannot be contained by modesty. Recently, during a panel discussion, he encountered a woman who was gung-ho for America to wage an even wider war in Afghanistan, regardless of the toll on civilian lives. "She was saying, 'I hope we bomb the hell out of them.' And that struck me as so simplistic. This war isn't a football match that you cheer from the sidelines. It's a bloody, destructive conflict."
Although he believes most Afghans support the U.S. military presence in their country, Hosseini said the tragedy of bombs gone awry, of children found dead in the rubble, haunts the country's collective memory.
"That's the other side to this war," he said. "We're never told the exact number of civilians who have been killed. And they're all people who wanted to live. It's the stuff of a million novels."
Josh Getlin writes for the Los Angeles Times.