The Kite Runner is set in Afghanistan against a backdrop of the country’s tumultuous history—from the fall of the monarchy to the rise of the Taliban. The book, published in 2003, became a New York Times best-seller; it has since been published in 40 languages and sold over 8 million copies. It was also challenged after its release for offensive language and scenes depicting sexual abuse. Here’s what you should know about Khaled Hosseni’s debut novel—which was also the first novel written in English by an Afghan author.
1. The Kite Runner started as a short story inspired by news reports.
In 1999, Hosseini was watching the news when he saw a story about the Taliban banning kite flying in Afghanistan. The report “kind of struck a personal chord for me, because as a boy I grew up in Kabul with all my cousins and friends flying kites,” he told RadioFreeEurope. He wrote a 25-page short story—which “became this kind of a much darker, more involved tale than I had anticipated”—and submitted it to The New Yorker and Esquire, both of which rejected it. In 2001, he found the short story in his garage and, at the urging of a friend, decided to turn it into a novel.
2. Hosseini wrote the novel in the mornings before going to work.
Hosseini came to the United States as a refugee in 1980 after a communist coup in his home country of Afghanistan. He was just 15 years old and only knew a few words of English. He and his family settled in California, and though Hosseini wanted to be a writer, “it seemed outlandish that I would make a living writing stories in a language I didn’t speak,” he told The Atlantic. So he eventually chose a more “serious” profession, becoming a doctor. Later, he wrote The Kite Runner in the mornings before going to work as an internist at a hospital in Los Angeles.
That hard work paid off: The Kite Runner was a huge success, paving the way for more novels. Hosseini hasn’t practiced medicine since 2004, but there are elements of his life as a doctor that still come in handy as a writer. “Qualities you need to get through medical school and residency: Discipline. Patience. Perseverance. A willingness to forgo sleep. A penchant for sadomasochism. Ability to weather crises of faith and self-confidence. Accept exhaustion as fact of life. Addiction to caffeine a definite plus. Unfailing optimism that the end is in sight,” he told The New York Times. “Qualities you need to be a novelist: Ditto.”
3. September 11th and the war in Afghanistan piqued interest in the novel.
In an interview with Salon, Hosseini said that he was challenging himself to write a novel with The Kite Runner. Then, after 9/11, “my wife really started talking to me about submitting a novel. I was reluctant at first, but eventually I came around to her way of looking at it, which was that this story could show a completely different side of Afghanistan,” he said. “Usually stories about Afghanistan fall into ‘Taliban and war on terror’ or ‘narcotics’—the same old things. But here’s a story about family life, about customs, about the drama within this household, a window into a different side of Afghanistan.”
Those geopolitical events helped the novel get published, but Hosseini didn’t necessarily credit them for his novel’s success: “Being published and having people still embracing the book four years later are two very different things. People read the books and tell their friends to read the book because they connect with something in the story.”
4. The character of Hassan was (subconsciously) based on a real person.
When Hosseini was a child growing up in Afghanistan, he struck up a friendship with a Hazara man who worked for his family; the man taught Hosseini how to fly kites, and Hosseini helped teach him how to read. Readers of The Kite Runner might notice some similarities between that man and Hassan—also a servant belonging to the Hazara people, a large but persecuted ethnic group in Afghanistan—but according to Hosseini, that wasn’t on purpose: “The really striking thing was that I finished [writing] the entire novel without once consciously thinking of him,” he told Salon. “And then when I was done I said, ‘Oh my God, of course that's where this character comes from!’—which was startling to me, the powers of the subconscious.”
5. Hosseini was criticized by some Afghans for how he portrayed Afghanistan.
Hosseini told The Atlantic in 2013 that he had heard from “older, more conservative, religious members of my community” that his books “have somehow blemished the reputation of Afghanistan in Western eyes.” But he doesn’t see it that way, and doesn’t think his Western readers do either.
“Most readers have come away with a sense of empathy for Afghanistan and its people; there’s been awareness of the richness of its culture, its heritage, and its history,” he said. “And as a result of connecting with the characters of my novels, they have achieved a more nuanced understanding of Afghanistan, and they certainly feel a sense of personal stake when they hear about an Afghan village being bombed. I’ve received emails and letters to this effect.”
6. The author knew The Kite Runner was a hit when he saw someone reading it on an airplane.
The Kite Runner had been out for a year before its author really had a sense that the book was hit—and it happened while he was on an airplane. “This lady sitting next to me whipped out a copy of my book out of her bag. I was like, ‘This is weird.’” the author told Rotten Tomatoes. “She started reading it and was obviously enjoying it and was misty eyed. That’s the moment when it hit me that people were actually going to read this thing. … It was kind of sobering, leading up to the publication of the book; you think that everyone is going to read your book. The reality is that a few people will, if you’re lucky. Then that thing happened where suddenly everyone was reading it, but that was the first time it hit me.”
7. Hosseini didn’t think The Kite Runner would make a good film.
The Kite Runner was adapted into a 2007 film directed by Marc Forster with a screenplay by David Benioff—but Hosseini wasn’t always sure his book would actually make a good film. “I had my doubts,” he told Rotten Tomatoes . “I always felt a lot of the novel is internal, the push and pull inside Amir’s mind.” Those doubts were assuaged by Benioff’s screenplay: “Once I read [it], I remember thinking, ‘There’s a real movie in this story.’” (The film is rated 7.6 out of 10 on IMDb and 65 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.)
Hosseini didn’t want to step on the filmmakers’ toes while the film was being made, but offered himself up in a consultant capacity. “I knew I could provide a unique perspective as the guy who wrote the story,” he said. “They would consult me on a variety of things, like religious issues, dress issues, food. One of the dramatic examples was when I flew to Los Angeles and sat with the producers for a few hours and literally looked at hundreds of pictures of various locations around the world, trying to recreate 1970s Kabul. When I saw the pictures of Western China, I said, ‘This is it!’”
8. The Kite Runner has also been adapted into a graphic novel.
In 2011, a graphic novel version of The Kite Runner hit shelves. Hosseini told Book Passage that his Italian publisher approached him with the idea, which he jumped at because he’d been a fan of comics as a kid; Fabio Celoni and Mirka Andolfo created the illustrations, and the author himself adapted the text. “The aim was to use the existing dialogue in the novel to advance the story, complemented of course by Fabio’s artwork,” he said. “Some of the dialogue has become familiar to readers of the book, and is essential to the story. Baba’s speech about sin, for instance, Rahim Khan’s ‘way to be good again’ line. In other instances, there were scenes that naturally lent themselves … to visual interpretation. For those, we did not need dialogue or narration at all and relied on imagery. I spent pages in the novel describing the kite fighting scenes, for instance, but Fabio did such a wonderful job of capturing the energy and excitement of the tournament, that there was no need there for much dialogue at all.”
9. The Kite Runner is often banned or challenged.
The Kite Runner has shown up on the American Library Association’s list of frequently challenged books four times since it was published—in 2008, 2012, 2014, and 2017—for reasons ranging from “offensive language” to “unsuited to age group” to “it was thought to ‘lead to terrorism’ and ‘promote Islam.’”
“Books remain our most powerful teachers of empathy. They allow us into the lives of others and open our eyes to realities far different from our own,” Hosseini said in response to bans of the book. “High school students are far more sophisticated thinkers than these parent groups give them credit for. We should be encouraging our students to take the opportunity to grow and develop empathy for others, instead of of imposing our own biases and insecurities on them. Banning books like ‘The Kite Runner’ is a tragic, misguided disservice to students, and I applaud all those fighting for the freedom to read and learn.”
10. Hosseini would make extensive edits to The Kite Runner now.
It’s probably true that every writer looks back on their previous work and finds at least a few things they’d change, and Hosseini is no exception. In speaking to The Guardian about The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini said the books seemed like “the work of somebody younger than me,” adding, “I think if I were to write my first novel now it would be a different book, and it may not be the book that everybody wants to read. But if I were given a red pen now and I went back … I’d take that thing apart.”