Category Archives: Afghan American

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

And the Mountains EchoedBefore this novel, Khaled Hosseini‘s third, even hit shelves on May 21, the world had already made it a bestseller; many months – more likely years – will pass before it fades from the international spotlight. Although I had the galley for months before, I kept it tightly closed, glancing at it occasionally to savor its potential. But when I found the audible version has Hosseini himself narrating (he alternates chapters and characters with Iranian American actors Navid Negahban and Shohreh Aghdashlo), resistance disappeared. Having met Hosseini once before – the emphasis is on before, as in before he became a sensational phenomenon (you can read that story here) – hearing him voice his own words lulled me into finishing all too quickly.

Although more than a few weeks have passed, I delayed writing this post, silently paralyzed by the heavy burden of waiting for his next book. Four years elapsed between The Kite Runner (2003) and A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007; still my favorite of his three), then another six until Mountains appeared. If that progression holds, then we’re looking at eight long years, 2021 (!), for his next. Guess I’ll have to make sure my aging eyeballs and ringing ears are still functioning into the next decade!

Mountains is surely Hosseini’s most expansive story thus far. From a remote village in Afghanistan, his characters disperse around the world, to a comparatively cosmopolitan 1950s Kabul, to the literary lights of Paris, to the Greek island of Tinos, to the contemporary immigrant communities of Northern California. At the center of multiple generations of scattered family and related others are a brother and sister whose father decides that “‘the best’” for both children will be to live separate lives.

Abdullah “believed, the reason God had made him, [was] so he would be there to take care of Pari when He took away their mother.” Over the next half-century and more, he remains tightly bound to the memories of his lost sibling even as he ends up on the other side of the world. Pari, whose original family ties never had the chance to solidify, continues to search her heart for the elusive, unnamed presence that was once Abdullah. Around and between and overlapping these two unjustly separated souls, Hosseini creates an intimate landscape populated by an uncle with a dying wish, village sisters whose love for the same sweetheart traps one and saves the other, neighborhood boys who escape their war-torn homeland and their prodigal return, a talented surgeon who once longed to be a photographer and the single image seared into his heart, and so many more.

Readers and critics alike have lauded, cheered, extolled, and marveled over Mountains. I gladly confess to my own groupie admiration for Hosseini’s work: his writing has matured profoundly through this three novels, surely enriched in no small part by his experiences as a Goodwill Envoy to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) since 2006, which inspired him to establish his The Khaled Hosseini Foundation.

And yet … oh, that yet. From Kite to Suns to Mountains, I can’t seem to let go of a tiny seed of concern over what we might expect when his next title debuts (hopefully not too) far in the future. I wonder if that maturity might have come with an unexpected price. Mountains, for all its epic sweep, glows with a surprising sheen that wasn’t found in either Kite or Suns. The emotions that felt earnest and pure in Hosseini’s first two novels, seem to glow with a calculated (dare I say perfect?) patina in his latest – absent mothers and their replacements, lost lovers and their substitutes, damaged children and their substantial metamophoses. Regardless, I’m committed to whatever will come next bearing his name … until then, I remain devotedly resigned to wait (and wait and wait).

Tidbit: One of my most insightful BookDragon followers messaged me recently with “Has Hosseini become a savvy sentimentalist?” – that ‘savvy’ resonated with my own ‘sheen.’ He continued, “I also wondered if [Hosseini] had become the ‘Amy Tan’ of Afghan Americans.” In order not to bias that observation with any further personal elaboration, I invite (hope, plead, beg?) others to join in and comment.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Afghan, Afghan American

A Bed of Red Flowers: In Search of My Afghanistan by Nelofer Pazira

In September 1978, three months before her fifth birthday, Nelofer Pazira went to visit her father on the third day of what would become a five-month unjust imprisonment; his alleged crime, like thousands of other Afghans at the time, was not supporting the Communist government. His angry admonishment of “‘I didn’t raise you to cry on such a day,’” would shape the rest of Pazira’s life: she knew that she would need to be unfalteringly resilient and brave.

For Pazira, the privileged daughter of a medical doctor and a schoolteacher, childhood ended that day. For the next 12 years, her extended family would suffer an odyssey of uncertainty, oppression, violence, and death. Her country would become a hellish battleground, decimated by the Soviets and the mujahidin (supported with US dollars). In spite of her father’s stern protestations, the family finally escapes to Pakistan, where they live as unwanted refugees, until they are suddenly allowed to relocate to Canada in 1990.

Having endured a youth filled with repression, Pazira does not merely assimilate into the relative comfort and safety of her new country. Her connection to her homeland never wavers, driven by her search for a childhood friend, Dyana; she returns multiple times after 9/11 on journeys both professional (as a journalist and filmmaker) and deeply personal. The most touching (and surprising: SPOILER ALERT) of her journeys takes Pazira to Russia where she confronts, face-t0-shattered-face, her country’s former enemies.

Pazira’s memoir is a heart-thumping, page-whipping journey of both brutality and hope. For every faceless official with unjust power, Pazira brings to life the selfless friends and strangers who enabled her immediate family to survive, especially the impossibly young, inspiringly courageous Naseema who guides the Pazira family to the Pakistani border.

And yet, as a piece of literature – while told well-enough overall – a stronger editor might have made it a more flowing read, with less back and forth chronological jumping in the first third, and a few more details in the last third, especially during the family’s initial relocation in Canada. That said, readers will undoubtedly remember vivid chunks of Pazira’s experiences long after the final page. In a near-demonized post-9/11 world, Pazira offers an upturned, open face and humanizes her country’s troubled story.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2005

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Afghan, Afghan American, Canadian

One Story, Thirty Stories: An Anthology of Contemporary Afghan American Literature edited by Zohra Saed and Sahar Muradi, foreword by Mir Tamim Ansary

The title of this diverse anthology is taken from the opening line of Afghan fairy tales, not unlike ‘once upon a time.’ In this case, afsanah, seesanah – one story, thirty stories – “acknowledge[s] the significance that storytelling has had in our lives, its impact on our memories as Afghan Americans,” write the two editors Zohra Saed and Sahar Muradi. Serendipitously, a few weeks before picking up Story, I experienced the stupendous three-part theater marathon, The Great Game: Afghanistan, which with its 150-plus years of Afghan history culled into some 11 hours, surely enriched my reading of this collection.

Comprised of poems, short fiction, essays, excerpts from two blogs, and rich appendices (including a “Themes Index” and “Chronology of Afghan American History” – bet you didn’t know that dance legend Robert Joffrey was hapa Afghan American, or that an Afghan American invented the cooking method that became “Minute Rice”!), Story gathers the work of one of America’s newest ethnic groups. Afghan Americans number “just several hundred thousand people distributed across the country in scattered pockets, a community born of disaster halfway around the planet: in the last decades of the twentieth century, a revolution, an invasion from the north, a civil war, and finally a descent into chaos, utter chaos, which drove millions of refugees out of Afghanistan,” explains Mir Tamim Ansary in his “Foreword.”

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on December 25, 1979 looms large as the catalyst for many of the writers’ immigration memories included here. So too, of course, does 9/11 which changed for many the concept of what it means to be ‘American’; ironically, 9/11 eventually opened the door for 1.5-and second-generation Afghan Americans to return to their ancestral homeland to visit, reunite with family, to work, to even help rebuild the war-torn country.

Personal standouts include Yasmine Delawari Johnson’s “The Girl with the Green Eyes,” a poignant comparison of Johnson’s own life to a life she might have lived as she identifies with Sharbatgul, the National Geographic cover girl with the legendary piercing eyes; Khalida Sethi’s “My Mother,” in which she asks questions of her mother that Sethi answers through her own experiences that reflect her growing admiration and gratitude for her immigrant mother’s sacrifice and dedication; Sahar Muradi’s “The Things They Wait For,” which follows the quiet life of her displaced elderly grandparents; and Waheeda Samady’s “The Cab Driver’s Daughter,” which proudly honors her gentle father who bears no resemblance to the stereotypical labels of an “oppressor.”

While the contents of the collection are somewhat uneven and overall not yet mature, its absolute significance in the development in Afghan American literature cannot be diminished. With the exception of perhaps Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns) – whose work is not included, although referenced several times – who seems to have entered the literary canon fully formed, the writers here are still in the midst of finding their voices while their journeys are driven by challenging self-identification and transformative exploration.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Nonfiction, .Poetry, .Short Stories, Afghan American

However Tall the Mountain: A Dream, Eight Girls, and a Journey Home by Awista Ayub

“However tall the mountain, there’s always a road,” so goes the Afghan proverb that opens Awista Ayub‘s inspiring memoir. Thank goodness for the energy of youth to actually find the right path, then get to the top, which is just what Ayub did.

With the official fall of the Taliban in 2001, Afghanistan was suddenly open for travel: “I didn’t want to be a tourist in my own homeland,” Ayub writes in her prologue. “I wanted to make a meaningful contribution to the country in which I’d been born.” Still in her mid-20s, Ayub – who fled Afghanistan with her family when she was just 2 years old – left her comfortable chemical engineering job and founded the Afghan Youth Sports Exchange in 2003. She chronicles her debut exchange effort here … from identifying eight Kabul girls whose love of soccer burst through strict cultural restraints, who were able to travel to the other side of the world to learn to play a better game and eventually compete in the 2004 International Children’s Games in Cleveland, Ohio.

Woven into the narrative of the six weeks the Kabul girls spent Stateside, is Ayub’s own family’s escape from certain death in their native country and building an unfamiliar new life thousands of miles away. Ayub splices the girls’ American trip with some of their individual stories: Samira whose return home proves to be an unexpectedly difficult readjustment; the sisters Laila and Freshta and their family’s reverse emigration from Pakistan back to Afghanistan; Miriam’s fight with her own brother to play the game she so loves; and Robina, the oldest of the girls, whose sense of responsibility bolsters the team in the U.S. and continues back at home.

Ayub’s vision, and the lives of her eight girls, undoubtedly make for a powerful read. As the Taliban resurfaces in parts of (still) war-torn Afghanistan, the small window of relative freedom Afghan women recently regained is under threat once again. That potential loss certainly makes this title all the more poignant. In spite of the occasional stumbles with chronology and sometimes disjointed representation of the girls’ stories, overall, Ayub has managed to climb one hefty mountain. Indeed, her actual achievement in creating and shepherding this remarkable exchange overshadows the quibbles within her book.

Tidbit: Interestingly enough, the title from hardback to paper changed to Kabul Girls Soccer Club, with the same subtitle. I haven’t seen the new edition (out June this year), but I definitely prefer the original title!

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2009

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Afghan, Afghan American

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Kite RunnerA resonating, breathtaking first novel that chronicles the relationship of two boys, born and raised in Kabul, Afghanistan – both motherless, both nursed by the same woman and both lives inextricably linked, even in separation.

Review: “New and Notable Books,” AsianWeek, May 30, 2009

Tidbit: Long, long ago in a place not so far away – the Barnes & Noble store in downtown Bethesda, Maryland to be exact – a dear friend and I went to meet an unknown debut writer whose book I swore (because I had been lucky enough to read the galley months before) was going to make publishing history. His publicist in NYC begged me to just go and take some friends. I could only get dear friend Sogand to go. When we got there, our writer was very nervous, and seemed a bit distracted. Back then, he didn’t present very well at all. Of the seven people in his audience, only Sogand and I were not relatives. He probably sold ONE book that night that wasn’t to a relative, and that was to Sogand. He complimented her on her Farsi as he had her write out her name for him before he signed her copy. Since then, Khaled Hosseini has become virtually untouchable. Someday, somehow, we would LOVE to get him to a public program at the Smithsonian APA Program … Sogand and I, of course, would get first dibs on him!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2003

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Afghan, Afghan American

Vestiges of War: The Philippine-American War and the Aftermath of an Imperial Dream 1899-1999 edited by Angel Velasco Shaw and Luis H. Francia

Vestiges of WarAn overwhelming, necessary, eye-witnessing anthology of the legacy of a century of colonial – political, economic, and especially social – occupation of the Philippines by the United States.

Review: “New and Notable Books,” AsianWeek, February 28, 2003

TidbitLuis H. Francia was one of our informative Smithsonian APA Program guests for “Filipino American Literary Writers” on December 8, 2006.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2002

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Nonfiction, Afghan American, Filipino/a, Filipino/a American, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American