Saturday, June 9, 2007

Some Thoughts on Khaled Hosseini, reading from A Thousand Splendid Suns

I went to a reading by Khaled Hosseini last night, at the bay area Book Group Expo. Khaled read from a section of his new book A Thousand Splendid Suns, which someone described as being the history of Afghanistan viewed through the eyes of two women.

The reading was fascinating/frightening: it detailed the search of a pregnant woman and her surrogate mother for a hospital that would take them in while she gave birth. Women had been banned from all the hospitals in Afghanistan, bar one, and that one lacked water, electricity, and basic medical supplies. When the woman's baby turned out to be in the breech position, the doctor apologized for the lack of anasthetic, and then continued to do a cesarian section anyway.

Khaled Hosseini is a physician who has worked internationally; consequently, the medical details had a frightening heft. He described the way in which the pregnant woman's mouth stretched back and frothed with pain.

As he passed into this description, the audience, which was full, began to shift. The demographic was mostly women, but with more men than last year (I'd make a guess at 25-30%). Everyone was uncomfortable. As Hosseini described the doctor's whispered apologies, I heard people exclaiming to each other "There isn't going to be any anasthetic...!" Everyone appeared to find the idea shocking, unthinkable. Hosseini himself said that when he had gone into Afganistan as a physician, hoping to lend aid, he'd been shocked to hear from doctors that the sheer number of injuries that had been incurred by the war when the warlords entered Afghanistan meant that physicians were constantly running out of basic supplies. A doctor told him that it had, during the war, become expected to perform cesarian sections, and even amputations, without anasthetic. "As a doctor from the west," said Hosseni, "the idea was wild..."

The reading opened to audience questions. A woman asked Hosseini if he was afraid that readers would misuse A Thousand Splendid Suns to reinforce prejudices against Afghanistan as primitive, barbaric, misogynist.

Hosseini said he was not. "If the truth is ugly, you show ugly truth," he said. But he also described the way in which he viewed Afghan society as a kaleidoscope, and how he had been careful to describe some Afghan men as feminists.

Another woman inquired about the burkah.

Hosseini said that he felt the burkah was almost more important to people in the west than it was to women in Afghanistan. He mentioned that it was a great burden for professional women in urban areas who had it imposed on them, but he also mentioned that there were parts of Afghanistan where women had worn it for centuries, and were not unsettled to continue wearing it after the warlords were driven out.

The Iranian writer who was moderating the panel (I'll update on her name when I find it), Susanne Pari, said that the burkah is on the bottom of women's list of priorities. In Iran, they have to deal with more basic rights, such as fighting for the right for women to have custody of their childrne. Hosseini added that he felt the rights women were fighting for in Afghanistan were even more basic -- such as the right to health care that will lower the astronomical rate of maternal death in childbirth.

"The burkah is a powerful visual symbol," argued Hosseini. Bccause it is so symbollic, he argued that it receives disproportionate attention in the west.

Both writers described ways in which women make use of covering in their own ways. In Hosseini's book, he says one character whose fortunes have fallen is relieved by the anonymity granted by the burkah, so that she doesn't have to deal with the scornful recognition of old friends. The Iranian writer spoke more generally of Iranian women who find the coverings they wear to be useful because it makes them feel safe; she argued that in a society where a man's sexual repsonse to a woman is always the woman's fault, it is a relief for women to have anything which they feel allows them to prevent that sexual response. She added that her grandmother had never gone out without a chador, and that without it, she'd have felt naked.

I was surprised at how much attention was given to the subject of the burkah, especially in a conversation about how it is disproportionately discussed and used as a stand-in for more dire issues that affect women. However, after the reading, I overheard a young woman describing to her husband how she felt Hosseini was wrong that women liked the burkah; she'd seen a documentary where women talked about how they didn't like it. He countered that Hosseini had never said women loved the burkah, just that banning it wasn't their first political priority.

After overhearing this conversation, I remembered how deeply ingrained our western attachment is to this potent symbol of hiding women away. We want desperately to soothe this outward symptom. Perhaps it takes a doctor like Hosseini to remind us that the social disease of sexism is far larger and more insidious.

I was frustrated by a claim made by the Iranian writer during her introduction of Hosseini. She took a moment to explain their similarities. Both are expatriates (they did touch on Salman Rushdie's claim that expatriate's writing of home is a broken mirror distorted by time and nostalgia; Hosseini agrees). She also said that both of them are interested in storytelling rather than sending a political message.

Even before the restof the panel, this claim set my teeth on edge. An American, and Afgan expatriate's, novel of recent Afghan events, told through the eyes of women -- this is unpolitical? And then as the conversation moved on, and we discussed foreign policy, the nature of war, the availability of medicla help in Afghanistan, the treatment of owmen, activism, and so on -- it was extremely clear that the book was a political one, manifestly dealing with issues that are political in nature.

Several times, the Iranian writer repeated that she felt one of the most important virtues of writing is its ability to humanize distant tragedies. What could be a more political project? By her own words, she admits that she is seeking to complicate American narratives of powerless narratives. She is trying to change essentially political narratives -- for what one presumes are political goals. That storytelling is her tool does not mean that the means and ends are not political, as well as artistic.

It astonishes and vexes me that a writer can make the claim that her writing is not political, even while entering a conversation about foreign policy, activism, and women's rights. Her strange assertion ground home to me the lengths to which educated, brilliant writers are invested in the western construction of politics and art as dichotomous. The concept that true art is apolitical has been historically leveraged against the writing of underprivileged groups, as a way of demeaning the writing of women, people of color, queer people, and the poor. The buy-in to this construction is so complete that writers who are clearly political can be seen to distance themselves from politics in order to increase their ability to claim a connection to art.

Politics and art are not dichotomous. Giving ground to this idea allows people to demean writing by calling it political. The response to this should not be to deny that one's writing is political, but to ask frankly, "Why is that a problem?"

Although my writer-brain wants to focus on those internecine politica, I think the most important moment of the panel occured toward the middle, when the Iranian writer turned to Hosseini and asked him, "What can people do? Besides send money to UNICEF..."

"Don't underestimate the importance of money!" he countered.

Money, he said, is important. Money allows the programs that we have sent into other countries to function. He searched for a specific example, and came up with one that is astonishing in its simplicity and efficacy.

In refugee camps in Darfur, he said, one of the most dangerous activities for a woman is to collect firewood. They need firewood in order to cook, but when they go out for it, they risk rape, kidnap, assault, and murder. He mentioned that he had met women who had been raped in this fashion when he went to African refugee camps.

A German man has invented a low-energy cooker that will greatly reduce the amount of firewood that women need. However, each one costs $70. So, every $70 that's used to buy cookers means that a woman does not have to risk rape, kidnap, assault, and murder, in order to feed herself and her children.

I sometimes see writing that denigrates people who give money to political causes, implying that they are insufficiently dedicated, that their help is lesser and a salve to privileged consciences. Hosseini's comment, however, allowed me to reframe the issue for myself. Giving money to international charities *is* giving labor to international charities, only indirectly. It's working within the American economic system to benefit people in other economic systems. It transforms one's labor in the ad company, or grocery store, or computer industry, into the labor of political activism.


Susanna J. Sturgis said...

Excellent report, Rachel. You addressed all the issues I probably would have noticed if I'd been there! Like the notion that art and politics are separable, and western preoccupation with burqas (and hijabs) -- and I especially appreciated the reminder that money when it's wisely directed can have a huge and beneficial effect on women's lives.

JOY said...

A good read! I was searching for some material on Khaled Hosseini and stumbled against this article. Reading A Thousand Splendid Suns was such a different experience. A strange bond taht forms between two women and the fact that they become bound by love that goes beyond the enmity that should be natural in their relationship. The book is not just a story of two women definitely; for it is set against a background of a war-torn nation with loose laws and high chances of mortality.

Luxembourg said...

This book is very timely and makes the Muslim world very real. However it is a very painful and violent book to read. I am not fond of books that depict violence against women and children and there is so much violence against the two main characters. No doubt it was well written and the pain and suffering of these two characters is very vivid and even when I finished reading a passage it was difficult to erase the memory.