Where does the title And The Mountains Echoed come from?
The inspiration for the title came from The Nurse's Song, a lovely poem by William Blake, in which he ends a verse with the line ‘And All The Hills Echoed’:
Well, well, go and play till the light fades away, And then go home to bed." The little ones leaped, and shouted, and laughed, And all the hills echoed.
I changed ‘hills’ to ‘mountains’ partly because of the obvious nature of Afghanistan’s topography, but also because of the pervasive presence of mountains in the book. In fact, the mountains in this book bear sole witness to a couple of key, pivotal events. Just as a mountain would echo back a shout, the fateful acts committed before the mountains too emit an echo. They have a rippling effect, expanding outward, touching lives farther and farther away. I liked the idea of a decision or an act echoing through both place and time, altering the fates of characters both living and not yet born.
Is there anyone you’ve met in your travels as an envoy whose story will stay with you?
I met a pair of young sisters during my last visit in Afghanistan in 2010. Right away, I could spot the powerful bond between the sisters. Saliha, who was five, protectively held her three-year-old sister Reyhan’s hand. Theirs was one of only two families living in a remote corner of the windblown, dusty Shomali plains, north of Kabul, a few miles from the Bagram Air Base. It was a desolate place, empty, hot, windy, everything the colour of dust. The girls’ father detailed for me his decision to leave Pakistan after many years of exile and return home. He chronicled the hard day-to-day challenges his family now faces — the lack of clean water, work, the lack of a nearby school or clinic. The family was, for me, emblematic of the hardships faced by those Afghans who have returned home after decades of war to restart their lives. The sisters broke my heart. As we were leaving, I gave Saliha an apple that I had packed for lunch. She walked over to her little sister and gave it to her. I always kept that image — the simple kindness of the gesture the devotion — in my head whenever I wrote scenes between Abdullah and his sister, Pari, in And the Mountains Echoed.
What has inspired you on your return trips to Afghanistan?
I am forever inspired by the stout sense of optimism, hope, and resilience that I find among the Afghan people whenever I visit. This is remarkable considering the rather devastating track record of the last 30-plus years. Certainly there exist in Afghanistan plenty of reasons to despair — violence, poverty, unemployment, corruption, displacement, lack of basic social services. Yet many polls taken in Afghanistan demonstrate that Afghans feel hopeful about their future and are determined to help rebuild their country, even as they acknowledge the enormous challenges that lie before them. Going to Afghanistan for me is always like receiving a hypodermic injection of perspective.
Your novel opens with a folktale about a giant div (demon) stealing away a child. Were you told similar stories when you were a boy? Do you read folktales to your own children?
One of my most vivid and indelible memories of growing up in Afghanistan is of my grandmother telling my brother and me stories about divs and giants and fairies. Some of them were stories that she had been told when she was a child, and some, I think, she had made up. In the book, I gave the character Saboor my grandmother’s ability to harness your attention and keep you listening, rapt and helpless. I read to my children when they were younger (they are 10 and 12 now), though mostly contemporary writings from the likes of Lemony Snicket and Kate DiCamillo. I did read them classic folktales as well — Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Andersen - but just as often I invented them. I would improvise and always end with a cliffhanger before I shut off the lights to my children’s protests.