Afghan offers vital lessons for writers

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Most of us entertained the thought of running away from home when growing up. We would have gladly left behind the spanking, scolding and lectures our parents generously gave us. However, after we eventually left and started our own homes, with nice wall papers, efficient dishwashers and in the company of the latest electronic gadgets, we still miss the homes we were brought up in.

In his book, Homesick in Heaven, Oliver Holmes wrote: "Where we love is home, home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts." Like Holmes, Arabian writer Khaled Hosseini, in his latest New York Times best-selling sensation, realises that one can never really leave home. In A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini goes stark raving nostalgic. Though currently living comfortably in San Jose, California, he goes back to the dusty streets of Kabul with a teary pen.

He simply cannot shake off the images of the burqa-clad Afghan women walking quietly down the dusty streets of Kabul. Women who, for the last several years, have been subjected to all manner of abuses from rape to forced marriage. They have been abducted, sold into prostitution and reduced to pieces of bread and spoils of war.

The Taliban limited the women's freedom of movement, work and education. And of course, later, the Americans dropped bombs and shattered their heads.

Teary-eyed, Hosseini remembers that: "In the spring of 2003, I went to Kabul, and I recall seeing these burqa-clad women sitting at street corners, with four, five, six children, begging for change. I remember watching them walking up the street in pairs, trailed by their children in ragged clothes, and wondering how life had brought them to that point.

Compelled by these situations, Hosseini wrote the stunning and heartbreaking story of Laila and Mariam. He says: "When I began writing my book, I found myself thinking about those resilient women of Afghanistan over and over. "Though no one woman that I met in Kabul inspired either Laila or Mariam, their voices, faces, and incredible stories of survival were always with me, and a good part of my inspiration for this novel came from their collective spirit."

Khaled Hosseini can be a good inspiration to many young Kenyan writers because his unlikely story of success in the mysterious world of publishing. Born in Afghanistan, of all places, the dream of becoming not only a writer but featuring in the New York Times Best-Seller list was a remote one.

Like many budding Kenyan writers, Hosseini started in total obscurity; no one knew him and no one cared. He probably was not sure if any reader in the world would be interested in reading a novel about Afghan characters. That, however, did not discourage him.

And therein lies one of the greatest lessons for any writer, be it a great novelist or a simple columnist like yours truly. Do not throw in the towel. No matter how many times you do not get published, keep writing. After a while, with much learning, you will know even by gut-feeling what kind of books publishers like and the rejection slips will train you about the ones they detest.

Another secret of Hosseini's meteoric rise is that even as a child, he was an avid reader.

Those who want to become good writers must read. They should read not only good works of literature but also the not-so-good ones and of different genres. Being able to distinguish a good story from a bad one, with all our varying tastes notwithstanding, is good for a budding writer. This could help prevent him from writing a novel that he only enjoys (and then wonders why no other person shares in the enthusiasm!)

Thanks to Hosseini's voracious reading of poetry, he found the title of the book from a seventeenth-century Persian poet, Saib-e-Tabrizi who once wrote about Kabul during another time and era when it was peaceful and tranquil that,

Ah! How beautiful is Kabul encircled by her arid mountains...

Every street of Kabul is enthralling to the eye
Through the bazaars, caravans of Egypt pass
One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs
And the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls

Of the title Hosseini says, "I was searching for English translations of poems about Kabul, for use in a scene where a character bemoans leaving his beloved city, when I found this particular verse. I realised that I had found not only the right line for the scene, but also an evocative title in the phrase ‘a thousand splendid suns,' ."

How many such titles and many good things have not been captured by Kenyan writers because they no longer read and research what other writers, both past and present, have written?

Arguably, the greatest secret to Hosseini's earthshaking success in "A Thousand Splendid Suns" is embracing a style and characters of his own. Many a writer of today is trying to be a John Grisham, Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steele or Chinua Achebe. Consequently, their stories and characters ring with an unexplainable hollowness, lacking the grasp and touch that is uniquely their own.

Hosseini goes back to Kabul and creates his own characters and voices, emotions and words that make the story unforgettable and of world-class type.

Writers should not be copycats; they are great originals whose voices we must hear clearly without hearing echoes of other writers in what they put down.


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Afghan offers vital lessons for writers

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This article was published on 2010/03/11