Perspective: Khaled Hosseini, Moral Psychologists, and the Power of a Good Story

By Kimberly Collins, Global Competency Intern

Friday evening the Indianapolis Public Library Foundation honored best-selling author Khaled Hosseini with the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Literature Award. Because of our involvements with the library, The International Center was given two tickets to the lecture and backstage reception. And as an avid proponent of the mantra “read a zillion books,” and especially as one of the many who has poured over The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and And the Mountains Echoed time and again, I snagged them right up.

Khaled Hosseini Indianapolis USA
Khaled Hosseini and Kimberly

Dr. Khaled Hosseini was remarkably personable and spoke with a gracious, eloquent ease. It was a joy to share several minutes of conversation with him before heading into the lecture hall, where I feverishly scribbled four pages of notes.

At one point he said, “One of the real gifts of literature is to allow you to climb over the wall of yourself and inhabit someone else’s story for a while.” This resonated with me deeply, both in my personal experience and in my work with The International Center. Stories connect with humans in a way other information doesn’t and can’t. The power of good literature is that it triggers a change in worldview, in interests – it connects with people and exposes them to countries and cultures of which they were ignorant or perhaps woefully mistaken.

Similarly, psychologists and neuroscientists have been exploring the notions of reason, intuition, and unconscious, automatic processes. And they are finding that we humans are far less rational than we are rationalizing. We have automatic, instant reactions to things, and then we reason to defend those reactions.

Hosseini published a book about Afghanistan in 2003, when many Americans bled patriotism and had a deep, visceral hostility toward the Middle East. But The Kite Runner is a universal story and, while it is set in an unfamiliar place for many readers, it is woven with familiar themes of friendship, family, courage, struggles, betrayal, guilt, and loyalty. Hosseini himself expressed his surprise that it did well at all – the main character is weak and not likable, all the good people die. But like his other writings, the story is one that resonates with people.

Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes in his book, The Righteous Mind, “The main way that we change our minds on moral issues is by interacting with other people. We are terrible at seeking evidence that challenges our own beliefs, but other people do us this favor, just as we are quite good at finding errors in other people’s beliefs.” When interactions are hostile, psychologically we immediately go on the defensive, frantically searching for reasoning to rebut our opponent’s charges, and the likelihood of change is minimal. But “when reasoning is embedded in friendly conversation, or an emotionally compelling novel, movie, or news story,” our intuitions can change and we can begin to see truth in that other person’s argument, experience, or story.

Hosseini begins his most recent work, And the Mountains Echoed, with Rumi’s verse: “Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

And indeed that is a goal of his literature – to expose readers to a side of Afghanistan we can’t see from the news, to jar our previous impressions enough to dismantle misconceptions, to take us outside the wall of ourselves for a while. He shows readers the Kabul of his childhood, one that was peaceful, lovely, and undergoing a cultural, economic, and intellectual resurgence. Women were professionals. Kabul was progressive. He describes his childhood a little like Amir’s – upper middle class, liberal, well-educated, semi-aristocratic, full of great parties. He never heard a gunshot in the eleven years that he lived there, and what it has become today is radically removed from his memories.

The biggest misconception of Afghanistan, Hosseini said, is that it is stuck in the 13th century – this is a very lazy way of looking at a country. Yes, you may see an old man sitting by a creek, but if you look closely, you’ll see he has a cell phone, which he probably used to vote for his favorite singer in the Afghan Idol. “There’s so much going on in Afghanistan that’s good,” he emphasized. People used to die at age 40, now it’s age 60. A decade ago they had ~10% literacy, now it’s 30%, and projected to be 90% by 2050. In 2002 there were 30 miles paved, now there are 8000. Even in 2003, when he made his first visit back to Afghanistan, he said that despite the devastation – the hordes of orphans and beggars, the missing limbs, the displacement, the entire neighborhoods razed to the ground – he recognized something that had remained the same: the character of the people. In spite of the atrocities they had lived in the unraveling of their country, the Afghan people remained generous, kind, and humble, showing him no hostility, inviting him to tea when they had so little for themselves, and opening their homes and hearts to him. This is the Afghanistan he seeks to convey in his stories.

And it is precisely these stories, his raw, provocative, emotionally compelling narratives, that have driven his novels to a cumulative total of 180 weeks on The New York Times bestseller lists and that have sold tens of millions of copies worldwide. For all who dip in politics, business, religion, negotiations, or the simple desire to be a good, informed global citizen, his disarming, familiarizing approach can be a lesson in how to reconsider preconceptions, climb outside the wall of ourselves, and inhabit another story, another perspective for a while.

For more information on Khaled Hosseini, his works, and his foundation, visit www.khaledhosseini.com, and www.khaledhosseinifoundation.org