It’s not often that teachers sit in rapt attention, listening to a student.
Yet that was the case Sept. 10 at the Student Union, where novelist Khaled Hosseini received the John Steinbeck Award: In the Souls of the People from the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State.
In the audience were his mother, a teacher of Farsi and history while the family was living in Afghanistan; his English teacher from Independence High School after his family sought asylum in the United States; many more school teachers; and of course faculty members from San Jose State.
I don’t think teachers understand the extent of the influence they have on their students, especially after the class is over, when it all comes echoing back,” Hosseini said.
The author refused to be compared with the great Steinbeck in terms of their stature, but during an on-stage conversation with KGO’s Pat Thurston, he did describe a direct connection between the migrant farm workers of Salinas, described in the “Grapes of Wrath,” and the refugees Hosseini follows in his bestselling novels: “And the Mountains Echoed,” “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” and “The Kite Runner.”
His comments were timely, given President Obama had just a few hours earlier addressed the nation about deteriorating situation in Syria and neighboring countries, which will most certainly unmoor even more refugees.
“If John Steinbeck was alive today, he would really be in his element in Afghanistan,” Hosseini said.
Gathering Stories, Experiencing Lives
Like Steinbeck, who once lived and worked as a migrant farm worker to, as Hosseini said, “gathering their stories and experiencing their lives,” the author has returned many times to his homeland to see how the wars of the past three decades have impacted everyday people.
“I really wanted to understand on a human level what had happened to my country, to gain that human dimension,” he said. “It was through their stories that I began to understand what really happened and some of their stories were so vivid that they landed in the pages of my book.”
Working with the United Nations Refugee Commission, he observed that like migrants escaping the Dust Bowl, the refugees in the Middle East–mothers, fathers, children and grandparents–are packing their belongings on their backs and leaving their homes because they can no longer forge a living there.
I suspect there are a lot of Ma Joads in Afghanistan right now, trying to keep their families together,” Hosseini said. “Every tent is occupied by a human being” he continued, who wants the same things we do, “a sense of predictability, a place you call home.”
At one point, eight million people in Afghanistan were displaced, one-third of the population. Ethnic groups had a long history of clinging together, and the warlords who emerged to fill the vacuum when the Soviets left plunged the country in chaos until the Taliban dominated.
A Higher Purpose
“I’m not a politician. I’m not a bureaucrat. My role is to be a storyteller,” he said. “I try to remind people that there is a human behind each one of those statistics. Refugee crises happen because of very complicated conflicts that have no easy answers…At the end of the day, it’s people who have to flee across the borders.”
During the award presentation, Nicholas Taylor, associate professor of English and director of the Steinbeck Center, noted it was fitting that on the 75th anniversary of the publication of “Grapes of Wrath,” the Steinbeck Award was going for the first time to a novelist.
Authorized by the Steinbeck estate, the honor is presented to artists and activists whose works exemplify the spirit of Steinbeck’s social engagement. Previous recipients include Bruce Springsteen, Ken Burns, Rachel Maddow, John Mellencamp and Michael Moore.
Hosseini did not intend to become a published author when he began writing for the pure joy of it as a teenager, first in Farsi, then French when his family lived in Paris, and finally in English. Yet he acknowledged that he recognized a higher purpose in his novels, which he resumed writing after graduating from the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine.
Much as Steinbeck opened a window into a world unacknowledged and unfamiliar to many Americans, Hosseini “understood as I was writing that these books, if done right, if I am honest about the storytelling, then these books can be a kind of a window into Afghan life, into its culture, its religion.”