They are some of the defining images of our times. When the unbearable pictures of a three-year-old Syrian boy, lifeless on the shore of a Turkish beach, made the front pages of every newspaper across the planet in 2015, it felt as if the cruel reality of the Syrian war had finally grabbed the world’s attention.
For novelist Khaled Hosseini, it was no different. “I had a really strong, visceral reaction – like I imagine millions of people around the world did when they saw that photograph of Alan Kurdi,” he says from his home in North California. “As a father, I just kept imagining what it would be like to see my three-year-old face down on a beach and being lifted by a stranger, and having to see those pictures again, and again, and again. How do you endure that, how do you live? I just couldn’t comprehend what that would feel like.”
Hosseini tried making sense of the little boy’s death in the only way he could; through writing. The result is the heartbreakingly brilliant Sea Prayer, published last week as an illustrated novella/prose poem that explores the despair that, as he puts it, “still corners families into crossing the very same waters that swallowed [Alan Kurdi] up and spat him out”.
Doing so through the viewpoint of a father, as he waits to make a dangerous sea crossing with his son, felt like the most natural connection for Hosseini, and one of this short book’s most poignant sections sums this feeling up:
“It slays your father / your faith in him / Because all I can think tonight is / how deep the sea / and how vast, how indifferent / How powerless I am to protect you from it.”
It won’t surprise anyone who has loved Hosseini’s multimillion-selling novels that he should take this approach – The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns and And The Mountains Echoed all focus on relationships between parents and children.
“Family is at the core of all my books,” he says. “I’m from Afghanistan, where family is how you understand yourself and your place in society. It’s integral to who you are and how you function. Sea Prayer was a family story from the very start, because when these boats capsize, largely the people on board are families who have been forced into agonising choices.”
And though the number of arrivals of refugees by sea has dropped from more than one million in 2016 to less than 50,000 so far this year, this summer, dead children were still being picked up by coastguards on a regular basis. Sea Prayer gives a human face to the stories behind the numbers, and begs people to think again when they look the other way or deride refugees as opportunists – or worse.
“The way we are wired as human beings means that we can understand something intellectually, but we are truly changed when we feel something emotionally that we can connect to,” thinks Hosseini. “That’s what stories can do, they are the best teachers of empathy. It’s how we understand each other.”
The author heard plenty of stories when he went to Sicily earlier this year to meet refugees as part of his role as a goodwill ambassador for UNHCR – the United Nations’ refugee agency. Visiting a community centre for young African migrants, he was bowled over by the warmth, kindness and generosity of the local people.
“I have to believe that the vast majority of us would feel that same empathy they did if we were exposed to these situations,” he says. “Working with the UNHCR has been eye-opening and so rewarding. Because of the success of my books I have the privilege to travel and meet refugees, and I feel enormously connected to people on these missions, whether it’s in Jordan, Uganda, Iraq, Lebanon, Sicily or Afghanistan. I see so much that we have in common – these refugees are shopkeepers, bicycle repairmen, teachers, IT people. They once had a place in the world and no longer do. I’ve learnt a lot from every one of them.”
All of which inevitably made its way into Sea Prayer. Interestingly, the ending is open to interpretation – whether the crossing is successful or not is up to the reader – which came directly from his discussions with refugees who had made similar journeys.
“Before the crossing, their stories are open-ended, too,” he explains. “When they board these boats with their families, along with pregnant women, the disabled, the elderly, unaccompanied children, they don’t know if they are going to make it. I spoke to an Afghan woman in Sicily who crossed the sea over eight days with her elderly mother and two children. None of them could swim. She told me the smugglers said that their odds of actually making it were significantly lower than dying at sea – and despite that she still paid them. So when I was writing this, I wanted to reflect that reality.”
That open ending arrives less than ten minutes after the first page. Given it is so short on text but so powerful in message, a lot of the potency also comes from Dan Williams’s remarkable illustrations. Hosseini didn’t work directly with the British artist, but trusted his evocative body of previous work. “Boy was that a good decision,” he laughs. “I think Dan has done an unbelievable job; his work is so gorgeous and it perfectly captures the plight of the characters in this story. It really elevates Sea Prayer to an entirely different emotional level; I don’t even have to read the words to feel moved by this book.”
And talking of words, Hosseini says there’s been a slight managing of expectations required for his huge fan base who have eagerly devoured information about a new Hosseini story. He had to take to social media to explain that his latest release wasn’t a full novel – but a short, illustrated book. “I’m blessed with an incredibly loyal readership who have enormous faith and goodwill towards me – I value, cherish and respect that greatly,” he says. “So I did feel the need to be transparent – although people so far have been very kind anyway.”
And what does he hope his fans will take away from Sea Prayer?
“I just hope they will understand that every single person who makes this attempt at crossing is doing nothing more than trying to find a more dignified and secure future. They have fears and hopes, impulses and instincts just like anybody else. Numbers and headlines shield us from that human experience, an experience which is painful but also can be uplifting, moving and transformative. That’s the role of this book, I hope.”
Sea Prayer is out now
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