RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
No one was more surprised than Khaled Hosseini when his first novel, set in Afghanistan, became a bestseller in America. "The Kite Runner" told the story of two boys growing up in Kabul, inseparable, until a betrayal followed by war and flight from war tore them apart.
Hosseini himself escaped the Afghan wars when he was a boy, and his diplomat father never brought the family back to Kabul after the Soviets invaded. His new novel called "A Thousand Splendid Suns." In it, Khaled Hosseini tells the story of two girls who grow close as women.
Mariam begins life in 1959 an outcast, who never escapes the harsh reality of patriarchal Afghanistan. Laila is a great beauty and a generation younger. She is raised in a liberal family with a loving father. These unlikely friends are brought together in the chaos of war.
The novel opens with the line: Mariam was five years old the first time she heard the word harami.
Dr. KHALED HOSSEINI (Author, "A Thousand Splendid Suns"): Harami means illegitimate. She's an illegitimate child of a rather wealthy businessman living in the western city of Herat, where she's raised. And she is secluded in many ways. She lives apart from her father, who, by the way, has three wives and 10 legitimate children. But Mariam lives with her mother in a shack on the outskirts of a remote village. That's how the novel begins.
MONTAGNE: And the other character in the novel is Laila, who, in a sense, couldn't be more opposite from Mariam.
Dr. HOSSEINI: Yeah. I mean, she comes from - Laila comes from a really different background than Mariam. She's born into these middle class parents in Kabul. So she comes from this kind of progressive, liberal background as it were. And Laila's best friend is a boy named Tariq who lives down the street, who's lost a leg to a landmine some years back. And the two of them are inseparable, they're very good friends from a very young age. And of course that friendship evolves into something else as they grow older.
MONTAGNE: You know, the neighbors - one neighbor at one point calls out after them the name of a pair of legendary Persian lovers.
Dr. HOSSEINI: Leili and Majnoon, which is kind of like saying Romeo and Juliet. They're running around the neighborhood kind of unheeding of the gossip that might be spread about them. And once they get to a certain age in their early teens, people's attitude changes, and they began to sense that people are eyeing them differently.
MONTAGNE: And the great catastrophe of her life comes very shortly after that with the civil war.
Dr. HOSSEINI: Yeah. And there are multiple catastrophes in both of these women's lives. But certainly the outbreak of the civil war in 1992 has a devastating effect on both of these women and changes their lives irreversibly.
MONTAGNE: I mean, it's a war that left, in the end, 70,000 civilians dead, Kabul in ruins; and in her case, Laila, she lost everyone. In fact, the only choices Laila has when everyone has gone are prostitution, starvation, or marriage at 14.
Dr. HOSSEINI: Yeah. The outbreak of anarchy in war was a disaster for a lot of women. And Laila is an example. Once she was stripped of her family, there was really nowhere she could turn to. And this kind of demonstrates the helplessness of women and what a commodity a man was, really, a husband.
MONTAGNE: Tell us how Mariam comes to not just get to know Laila but live in the same house with her as a co-wife.
Dr. HOSSEINI: Well, the two women find themselves in the same household at the outbreak of war, which broke out in 1992. The mujahideen rode into Kabul and then promptly turned their guns onto each other. And the two women find themselves, as a result of that violence, in the same household, married to the same man, Rasheed.
MONTAGNE: Laila becomes his second wife, and that pits her against Mariam, initially.
Dr. HOSSEINI: Yeah. I mean, for me, the fun part as a writer was to figure out how these two women were going to relate to each other, these two very, very different women. And it begins very contentiously, especially from the first wife's viewpoint - Mariam, the older woman.
MONTAGNE: There's a turning point, though, between Mariam and Laila. Tell us how it happened that they actually began to become dear to each other.
Dr. HOSSEINI: Well, Laila essentially saves Mariam from a vicious beating by Rasheed, and the two women realize that they have something in common, in that they have a common enemy, this husband. So the moment where Laila stands up for Mariam is a turning point in the relationship. And I'm going to read a short passage that shows the two women shortly after that episode. And they're sitting for the first time together in the backyard, kind of uncomfortable in each other's presence and tentatively trying to connect to each other.
(Reading) They sat on folding chairs outside and ate halwa with their fingers from a common bowl. They had a second cup, and when Laila asked her if she wanted a third, Mariam said she did. As gunfire crackled in the hills, they watched the clouds slide over the moon and the last of the season's fireflies charting bright yellow arcs in the dark.
And when the baby woke up crying and Rasheed yelled for Laila to come up and shut her up, a look passed between Laila and Mariam, an unguarded knowing look. And in this fleeting, wordless exchange with Mariam, Laila knew that they were not enemies any longer.
MONTAGNE: You were 11 when you left, did writing about Afghanistan - did that allow you or even were you doing it for this reason - did that allow you to connect with this massive and decades-long suffering that you escaped?
Dr. HOSSEINI: Oh, in a very, very real way. It's funny you say that. I mean, I was a practicing physician for years, and in the 1990s, I was in medical school. And Afghanistan kind of became this distant place suddenly for me. I emotionally kind of lost touch of what was going on. And the writing of that first novel, "The Kite Runner," really just kind of brought it all back to me.
I think that when I went there and I saw the enormity of the suffering that people had gone through, in some ways you wonder why you were spared all of that and whether you have made good use of the good fortune that for sheer luck you've been granted.
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MONTAGNE: Khaled Hosseini's novel "A Thousand Splendid Suns" is out today. That title comes from a 17th century poem that's an ode to the city of Kabul: One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs, or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls." You can read an excerpt of the novel at npr.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.