Let me say first of all that when I read The Kite Runner for our college’s Common Reading a couple of years ago, I was not the only person to say, “But what about the women?” So it’s good to see a book in which Hosseini answers that question. Well, good and bad.
I sat down to write an essay about the emptiness of Hosseini’s novels, A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Kite Runner. I was going to talk about how I know they highlight really horrible things that have happened in Afghanistan, but that I wish they did more than that. As novels, they’re just okay, and I’ve read other novels that were about really horrible social situations (Small Island, A Fine Balance) which were also, well, novels. And then I remembered that I don’t have to write this essay because James Baldwin already did it for me.
If you Google “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” you will get lots of references to the role this essay played in estranging James Baldwin from Richard Wright. Understandable, as Baldwin basically argues that Wright’s Native Son was just a continuation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and that Bigger Thomas and Uncle Tom are two sides of the same coin. If you have never read a James Baldwin essay, go and do so, right now. He is, to my thinking, America’s best essayist, and the best essayist on the subject of America. Not the best on the subject of race in America, but just on what it means to be American. This is in part because Baldwin understood that those aren’t two different questions–what it means to be American and what race means to America.
Baldwin says this much better than I’ll ever be able to, but in sum, protest novels are not really novels and they cheat us all in falling short. He says, “The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.” Literature and sociology, Baldwin tells us, are not the same thing. If you want to write sociologically about the plight of women in Afghanistan, you can certainly do that. But what you cannot do if you’re writing novel is create characters whose purpose is to represent categories of people or experience. I’m a sociologist, and I like categories. They’re neat and useful and can prove very powerful at times. But what Baldwin’s saying is that there’s a kind of truth that can be portrayed in a novel that is not necessarily best portrayed through sociology, and I believe he’s right.
The “truth” that novels deal with is the “power of revelation.” Novels should not be concerned with “causes,” but with a devotion to the human being. Novels should be where we embrace the paradox. “Tell the truth, but tell it slant/ Success in circuit lies.” When a character is nothing but a representation of a category (slave, or poor black man, or Afghani woman), we have refused to acknowledge the paradox and turned our backs on our humanity, which is more complex than any category or categories could ever describe. Think about it. Are you reducible to the particular set of categories you occupy? Certainly, categories help to understand who you are, but we are all more than the sum of those categories alone. Does it actually help us to see other people’s experiences in this way?
Life is messy and weird and complicated and novels are all about trying to get that across. Hosseini’s novels, like Stowe and Wright’s before, lapse into sentimentality, and sentimentality represents an “aversion to life” and “fear of experience.” Sentimentality leaves unanswered the important question, “what it was, after all, that moved [people] to such deeds.” Do you walk away from either of Hosseini’s novels with a better sense of why the bad people in his books are bad? Do you come away with some insight into the very thin line between people who are good and people who are bad? Do those categories start to become kind of blurred and fuzzy, because that’s what a good novel should do.
Baldwin says in the United States, where we are devoted to the death of the paradox, “The ‘protest’ novel, so far from being disturbing, is an accepted and comforting aspect of the American scene.” It feels wrong to criticize Hosseini’s novels, because what’s happened in Afghanistan and what continues to happen in Afghanistan are violations of humanity. But do they really challenge people to action, or do they actually just comfort us. “Tsk, tsk, look at that unpleasantness over there,” we say to ourselves. “That’s really too bad.”
I’m glad that through Hosseini’s books, more people probably know more about Afghanistan than they would have otherwise. And perhaps these are the only books that Hosseini could write; I have no idea what it would be like to have been born and raised in Kabul during the time period in which Hosseini lived there. But in the end, I want something more than what Hosseini’s two novels could give. I want a different kind of truth, the kind hinted at in truly great novels, the kind that Baldwin argues cannot be told in a protest novel.