Novelist Khaled Hosseini began life as a privileged young Afghan. The son of a diplomat and a teacher, he was born in Kabul and spent the first decade of his childhood in Afghanistan before moving to Paris and then to California, where he still lives.
“People write to me from virtually every corner of the world, and for many of them, Afghanistan prior to 9/11 was sort of this anonymous place,” Hosseini, 47, says by phone. After the terrorist attacks, the country of his birth was perceived to be “essentially synonymous with a decade of war, the opium trade, and the Taliban. That’s really all that people thought of.”
Hosseini’s 2003 novel, “The Kite Runner,” presented a different image of Afghanistan and its people, and became a best-seller in the early years of the US-led war there. As the military conflict drags on, the stage adaptation of Hosseini’s tale begins performances Sunday at New Repertory Theatre.
“One thing I came to really love about this book as I was writing this play was that it has a wonderful degree of humanity, and it’s very unapologetic about that,” playwright Matthew Spangler says by phone from California. “There’s hardly a cynical beat in the book or in the play, and I thought it was worthwhile to tell that story in a time of deep cynicism.”
At the center of “The Kite Runner” is Amir, also a privileged young Afghan, who was forever changed by events in 1975, when he was 12. He failed to save his friend Hassan, the son of his father’s servant, from an act of brutality, and he compounded his cowardice with a lie that split them apart forever. Amid the tumult of Afghan politics, Amir and his father lose their comfortable existence and come to America to start from scratch. As an adult here, Amir is haunted by his boyhood failure, until he is called to return home. There is no miracle happy ending, but there is a chance at redemption.
Likewise, there has been no happy ending to the troubles in Afghanistan. But Hosseini, who last visited there in 2010, says that despite the daily drumbeat of bad news, there are signs of hope. He sees progress in health, life expectancy, infant mortality, and the millions of children now in school, including girls.
“I am not naive, and I fully recognize the challenges Afghanistan faces,” he says. “But at the same time, things have improved, and sometimes we do lose sight of some of the good stories that get trampled underfoot by news of the suicide bombings and the green-on-blue attacks,” perpetrated by members of the Afghan security forces against Western coalition members.
The play, Spangler says, is “well-positioned to counter some of the stereotypes that persist in American popular discourse even after we’ve been there for 11 years. Specifically, that it is a country of poverty and violence. It is that, of course, but it’s other things, too.”
Notably, a country that was very different in the 1960s and ’70s.
“Kabul was a thriving, cosmopolitan place. There was a middle class that thrived. It was a very colorful place where women actually had a lot of freedom that they don’t have now,” says Elaine Vaan Hogue, who is directing “The Kite Runner” at New Rep. “That’s one of the heartbreaking things about this story, that Afghanistan is lost; it was destroyed. But this brings into focus that that’s not always the way it was, and I think that’s important for us to know.”
Spangler’s other plays are also adaptations, among them “Tortilla Curtain,” based on T.C. Boyle’s novel of the same name, and “Paradise Hills,” from John Cheever’s short stories. Then there’s “The Kite Runner.”
“This one’s a really epic novel, covering 28 years and two continents and two very different cultures,” Spangler says. “There’s also a lot in it in terms of themes. It speaks to immigration. And ultimately it’s a story of redemption. A guy does something when he’s young and essentially spends the rest of his life trying to set that straight. It’s a story of father-son relationships, it’s a story about friendship in some sense, it’s also a love story, and it’s a story about global politics in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.”
Later he circles back to add, “Class! I forgot class. In some ways the class difference between Amir and Hassan is what propels the entire narrative.”
The novel had not yet been turned into the 2007 film when Spangler had a mutual friend introduce him to Hosseini. Both living in the San Francisco Bay Area, they met at a Starbucks in San Jose, and Spangler convinced Hosseini that he was the right man for the job. Courses Spangler teaches at San Jose State University focus on adapting non-dramatic material for the stage, and he also teaches a class called Performing Immigration, which looks at varieties of immigrant experience onstage and in film.
Spangler spent eight or nine months on research before he even began writing his “Kite Runner” adaptation. He says he prefers to upend that adage about writing what you know, “but of course you need to enter into that with a sense of respect, and you need to understand the responsibility you have when you’re representing another culture that’s not your own.”
His play, which had its world premiere in 2009 at San Jose Repertory Theatre, is more faithful to the novel than the film could be, Hosseini says.
“There are passages in the book that are dear to me, and the language matters to me, passages that I worked very hard over, that survived and are spoken by the actors,” Hosseini says.
“We’re approaching it as a memory play,” Vaan Hogue explains. “Amir is telling us the story of what happened, and as he remembers it, he is going deeper and deeper into his own memory, journeying toward the interior of himself, and in this way he is really bringing it into the present moment. So when we first see Hassan, Amir brings him alive for us. When we first see his father, he brings him alive for us in the present.
“He has to tell his story in order to find redemption in the end. And he needs to tell his story in the presence of witnesses, those witnesses being our audience,” she says.
It’s a narrative that brings Afghanistan to outsiders in a way that the nightly news doesn’t, and can’t.
“I think part of what [‘The Kite Runner’] has been able to do is get past those stock images and allow people a different point of entry,” Hosseini says, “and allow them to experience our culture and our people in a way that’s recognizably human and intimate and familiar.”
Boston Playwrights’ Theatre’s 31st season begins in earnest with “The Company We Keep” by Jaclyn Villano, Oct. 4-21 at BPT’s Odyssey Theatre. “The Sussman Variations” by Richard Schotter plays Nov. 1-18 at the Walcott Theatre. And “Legally Dead” by Dan Hunter plays Feb. 7-24, 2013, at the Walcott. But first there’s one performance of “No Room for Wishing,” about Occupy Boston, written and performed by Danny
Bryck, on Sept. 24 at the Odyssey, in between its runs at Company One and Central Square Theater. Single tickets and subscriptions are available at 866-811-4111 and www.bostonplaywrights.org.