Thursday

Mar. 4, 2010

Cecil

by Stephen Dobyns

How calm is the spring evening, and the water
barely a ripple. My son stands at the edge
tossing in pebbles, then jumping back. He knows
that someplace out there lies Europe, and he points
to an island to ask if it is France. Here
on this beach my neighbor died, a foolish man.
He had fought with his daughter, his only child,
about her boyfriend and came here to cool off
when his heart stopped. Another neighbor found him
and thought him asleep, so relaxed did he seem.
He had helped me with my house, gave me advice
on painting, plastering. For this I thank him.
As I worked, we discussed our plans, how he wished
his daughter to go to the best schools, become
a scientist or engineer. I said how
I meant to settle down and make my life here—
My son asks me about the tide, why the water
doesn't keep coming up the street to wipe out
the house where he lives alone with his mother.
Is he scared, should I console him? Should I say
that if I controlled the tide I would destroy
that house for certain? Our plans came to nothing
and now, a year later, I'm just a visitor
in my son's life. We walk down to the water,
pause, and look out at the world. How big is it?
he asks me. Bigger every day, I answer.

"Cecil" by Stephen Dobyns, from Cemetery Nights. © Penguin Group, 1987. Reprinted with permission (buy now)

It's the birthday of English novelist Alan Sillitoe, (books by this author) born in Nottingham, England (1928). He worked at a series of factory jobs, and got to know writer Robert Graves who suggested he write about his hometown of Nottingham. He did, and the result was Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958).

It was on this day in 1952 that Ernest Hemingway (books by this author) wrote a letter to his publisher saying he'd just finished a new book — The Old Man and the Sea.

It's the birthday of Khaled Hosseini, (books by this author) born in Kabul (1965), author of the runaway best-selling novel The Kite Runner (2003), which has sold more than 12 million copies around the world.

He's the son of a diplomat, and his affluent family immigrated to the United States around the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, receiving political asylum as members of Afghanistan's government were being executed. They landed in San Jose, California, when Khaled was 12 with nearly nothing.

His diplomat father found work as a driving instructor in San Jose, and the family was forced to go on welfare. Khaled deferred his childhood dream of being a writer, feeling like he had to have a career that guaranteed a healthy income. So he went to medical school, made it through his residency, and had settled into a job as an internist when he began to think about writing again. He got up at 5 every morning so he could write for two hours before he went to the hospital. He wrote about his memories of Afghanistan, which were all good; they'd made it out of the country just before the Soviet invasion. He wrote a story about a friendship between an eight-year-old boy, the son of an Afghan diplomat, and one of the family's servants, an illiterate man from an ethnic minority group. The young prosperous son teaches the servant to read and write, and the servant teaches the child to fly kites.

When the book was all written and in the publisher's hands, he took a trip back to Kabul, for the first time in 27 years. When he'd left, it was a thriving affluent cosmopolitan city, but it had since spent decades in war. He knew it would be bad, but what he found was even worse than he expected. He walked the streets of his old hometown, now ravaged by war and with burqa-clad women and children all over the streets begging for money, people paralyzed by shrapnel, prevailing destitution and despair. He said, "I felt like a tourist in my own country."

He said that because his first book had been so phenomenally successful and expectations were so high, with a book contract and anxious publishers and booksellers, he had a bit of a hard time getting started on the writing of his second book. He was plagued by self-doubt about his literary capabilities and whether he could measure up to his debut success. He said that he has "this almost pathological fear of boring the reader." But eventually he found his way into the rhythm of the story, and into the inner lives of his characters. His second novel is a more ambitious book then his first, with lots of main characters, not at all autobiographical, multigenerational, and told from alternating points of view of two female narrators, their thoughts intertwined with a historical narrative of Afghanistan's past three decades. The women weren't based on anyone he knew, exactly, though were inspired by stories of people he'd encountered on his trip to Kabul. To get into his protagonists' mindset, he even tried on a burqa when no one was around, "just to see what it felt like." He said, "It steals your breath away. It's really hard to get used to."

A Thousand Splendid Suns, the story narrated by Afghani women Mariam and Laila, was published in mid-2007. The book was also hugely successful and was Britain's best-selling book in 2008. The title is an English translation from a 17th-century poem in Farsi; the Persian poet had written verses describing the splendor he'd experienced upon journeying to Kabul.

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