A CURTAIN OF CONSTANT CONFLICT

thousand splendid suns cover 

For the spring conference of the Wisconsin Association of Public Librarians, I led a book discussion on Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns.  There is nothing easier than doing a book discussion for librarians who lead book discussions.  When I train, I always talk about the perfect book discussion or what I refer to as the tennis match.  In the perfect discussion, the leader becomes the tennis judge, rotating his or her head back and forth as people discuss the book without much guidance.  This book proved to be one of those titles. 

Khaled Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1965.  His father was a diplomat with the Afghan Foreign Ministry and his mother taught Farsi and History at a large high school in Kabul.  When the Afghan Foreign Ministry assigned Hosseini’s father to Iran in 1970, the family accompanied him, and they lived in Tehran until 1973.  That year, Afghan king Zahir Shah was overthrown in a bloodless coup, leaving the government unstable and the country vulnerable.  In 1976, the Afghan Foreign Ministry relocated the Hosseini family to Paris.  They were ready to return to Kabul in 1980, but by then Afghanistan had already witnessed a bloody communist coup and the invasion of the Soviet army.  The Hosseinis sought and were granted political asylum in the United States.  In September of 1980, Hosseini’s family moved to San Jose, California.  Hosseini graduated from high school in 1984 and enrolled at Santa Clara University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Biology in 1988.  The following year, he entered the University of California-San Diego’s School of Medicine, where he earned a Medical Degree in 1993.  He completed his residency at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles.  Hosseini was a practicing internist between 1996 and 2004.

While in medical practice, Hosseini began writing his first novel, The Kite Runner, in March of 2001.  In 2003, The Kite Runner, was published and has since become an international bestseller, published in 38 countries.  Hosseini’s fiction is inspired by his memories of growing up in pre-Soviet-controlled Afghanistan and Iran, and the people who influenced him as a child.  The Kite Runner introduces readers to life in the pre-Soviet Afghanistan of the author’s childhood and honors his memories of Hazara servant Hossein Khan, who worked in the Hosseini household during their years in Tehran and taught the young Hosseini to read and write.

A trip to Kabul in 2003 provided Hosseini with the inspiration for his second novel. As he explained to in Publishers Weekly, he witnessed Afghan women “‘walking down the street, wearing burqa, with five or six children, begging.'” Talking to these women, Hosseini heard stories that both shocked and saddened him.

From his own memories of Afghanistan and the stories he heard, Hosseini fashioned the character of Mairam.  Mariam is the illegitimate product of a union between a successful theater owner and his servant.  Forced away from the city and his legitimate family, Mariam and her disgruntled mother live in a small impoverished village which receives an occasional visit from the father as a token of his responsibility.  To bury his shame, the father negotiates an arranged marriage for Mariam, at age fifteen, to an older, unattractive shoemaker named Rasheed.  Their relationship is never steady, as Rasheed longs to replace the son he lost and Mariam dreams of a love that is romantic as well as true. 

Because the book covers a number of years, we eventually are allowed to see Rasheed replace Mariam with a fourteen year old wife named Laila by bringing her into their home as a second wife.  Laila’s life, though short, has been filled with Soviet soldiers, a love torn from her side, and a rocket attack that leaves her helpless, thus bringing her to Rasheed.  By now Rasheed is a man to be feared by the women and the actions of their keeper will force each of the women to make a choice that proves to be one of the strong themes of the book. 

These two women characters are keys to understanding and enjoying the book.  There inability to counteract the failure of their country to protect them from harm and their need to deal with an oppressive patriarchal society will provide plenty of opportunities to develop questions for the book discussion. 

All of this is set against a curtain of constant conflict as Afghanistan struggles to find a national identity while dealing with the Taliban, the Soviets and eventually the Americans.  Here are more areas where questions can be found.

This is an unrelentingly tragic story.  It should remind everyone who reads a newspaper or watches the nightly news that behind the shifting maps and the body counts, individuals who love, raise families, go to work, sing and dance—they suffer with each bomb and every bullet. 

It should be easy to develop a discussion, but if help is needed, there are discussion questions to be found at http://us.penguingroup.com/static/rguides/us/thousand_splendid_suns.html.  You might also like to visit the author’s website at http://www.khaledhosseini.com/index.html.

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About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

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