3 years


The Conversationalist

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Mohsin Hamid talks about his new novel, the inevitability of acknowledging the reader, and how his writing has been changed by fatherhood

Mohsin Hamid, best-known for his Man Booker shortlisted second novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, describes himself, by turn, as playful, curious and eclectic. Among influences, he cites Toni Morrison, JRR Tolkein and Tintin comics, Coltrane, Katy Perry and the soundtrack of Silsila. His new book, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, is a kind of quick survey course on contemporary South Asia, told as a self-help guide. With each new book, Hamid speaks more and more directly to his reader, a tendency he explains as a difficulty pretending he’s just ‘playing’ all by himself—“I want to be playing with somebody else.”

Q What was the germination of this book?

A I wanted to write something different from what I’ve written before. I moved back to Pakistan about four years ago, and I’d just become a father. I was living in Lahore, in a tri-generational household again after a couple of decades of living mono-generational lives in New York and London, and I wanted to write a story that followed the full arc of life, from infancy to death. Since I was back in Lahore, I used the place around me as a template, but I didn’t necessarily want to write a Pakistan book, or ever a Lahore book. It was inspired by and based on those places, but also looking for a kind of universality. As opposed to saying ‘Our little corners of South Asia are these exotic, peculiar places’, saying, ‘They can be as much templates for humanity in the world as any other place can’. Why couldn’t Lahore be a model of the global city as much as New York or London? In many ways, Lahore’s more like many cities.

I wanted to write a story about a particular boy who grows up, becomes a man, goes from rural poverty through lower-middle-classdom in the city, becoming relatively well off. But also, I wanted the reader to be that character. As the novel progresses, the ‘you’ of this character and the ‘you’ of the reader blur, and the ‘I’ of the writer begins to make an appearance. I wanted the story to function and also to have a place for the reader and for myself to introduce ourselves to each other.

Q Each of your novels has a direct interface between the reader and writer, a pretty specific ‘you’ for the reader to step into.

A In Moth Smoke, you’re cast as the judge of a trial—the characters will tell you a story, and you have to come to some judgment. In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, you aren’t necessarily cast as the American listener. You might be the observer of a conversation between a Pakistani and an American, where the American doesn’t get to speak. You are hearing a monologue, and whether you choose to cast yourself as the listener or not is up to you. In this novel, however, you are the character. This is second-person, whereas that was dramatic monologue. There’s a difference between those two forms.

I have never spoken as ‘I’—not a character but the writer, me, Mohsin, actually a person—in my novels before, but I do in this book. As the novel evolves, and as a relationship begins to develop between reader and writer, we appear in our own roles increasingly, explicitly as reader and as writer. That never happens in the previous books. Whereas in Moth Smoke, the reader’s being asked to judge, in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the reader is being asked to complete an incomplete story. In this one (Rising Asia), the reader is being invited to, hopefully, by the end of the novel, be [him or herself] and allow me to be myself.

I would agree that the ‘you’ exists in all my novels, but I think it does different things. And the reason why it keeps coming back is because the novel is a unique thing. It’s the only time we take the thoughts of another human being into the place where we contain our own thoughts, and allow two different human beings’ thoughts to co-exist inside our head simultaneously. I guess what is customary is for us to not draw attention to the fact that we’re having a moment of intimacy, but I don’t think that custom needs to be abided by. Therefore, in my books, I’ve been evolving different ways of not just having that relationship [between reader and writer], but looking at that relationship as a relationship. In this novel, particularly, there’s a certain honesty to it—I am actually writing this, you are actually reading this. The character ‘you’ is a fiction we’ve created between us, but there is a ‘you’, the reader, and there is an ‘I’, the writer, and we are interacting.

Q Are these formal choices already made when you set out to write a new book, or do they emerge during the writing process?

A Form must come from function. It must function effectively to further the novel. A lot of the stuff I tried didn’t do that, but the self-help book form suddenly unlocked the potential of this book, like having Changez talk to an unnamed silent American unlocked The Reluctant Fundamentalist about four years after I started working on it. Or having Moth Smoke be told as a surreal trial where the characters came to speak unlocked the potential of Dara Shikoh’s narrative.

It’s the Douglas Adams school of writing. Douglas Adams, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, says the secret to flying is throwing yourself at the ground and missing—that’s my approach to writing novels. I throw myself at the ground and hit several times, over several years, and eventually, I miss. I set out with ideas, but then I usually go nowhere, and eventually, I find something that does go somewhere. I had no idea this book was going to be like this six years ago, when it started. The first two or three or four years of writing normally don’t have any appearance in my novels, but about three years ago, it took on this shape and it became what it is.

The final version of Moth Smoke was very different from earlier versions. There was no Mumtaz, there were no drugs, there was no trial—there was just this guy, increasingly down and out. What began to happen was that, over the course of different drafts, all of which were discarded, I got to know the character and the story I wanted to tell. Four or five years of working on it taught me enough to eventually write the novel, because I was intimately familiar with the characters.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist began as a quiet fable, which I wrote before 9/11 happened, about a Pakistani guy working in the corporate world who grows a beard and goes back to Pakistan after a failed love affair. It’s still that, but it was completely different. It wasn’t until I said I want to give him an accent that sounds like a stereotype of Islam that the voice worked. Islam, to many people, sounds like something from the past, something very rigid and formal, something vaguely menacing. That was where Changez’s voice came from, and that’s how the novel could work—because people are hearing something they think sounds Muslim, even though they’re not meeting a character who is particularly Muslim in any way. And then the frame: the novel is set in Lahore, but almost everything that happens in it is set in New York, and that allowed a cohabiting of space. That’s how it grew up.

This novel didn’t evolve quite that way, because the early drafts weren’t this story. They were very different. But I wanted to follow the sweep of characters from rural poverty to urban middle-class wealth. A sprawling, 1,000-page 19th century epic in condensed form—that was the initial intent. And that’s still what it is, but the way I was getting there wasn’t working. I needed something that would allow me to compress a giant canvas, and what the self-help book frame allowed me to do was, first, introduce non-fiction elements, little mini essays, that cover a lot more ground than fiction can do, because you have to write entire chapters to describe the movement of people in cities, but you can say it in a paragraph—you know, tell, don’t show.

Also, it allowed me to do things like set it all in the present. So I’m not following a guy from 1940s Pakistan to 2013. We’re in a nameless city, a nameless country, it’s all now. There’s DVDs when he’s a child and there’s TV and drones when he’s an adult. No historical time has passed. In the self-help frame, the self who’s being helped is the reader. The reader is in the present moment. So the ‘you’ has permission to exist only in the present moment. Originally, there was no ‘you’ in this novel. There was no ‘you’ in the original version of Moth Smoke, and there was no ‘you’ in The Reluctant Fundamentalist till the final draft either.

Q You have written about being inspired by Haruki Murakami’s practice of running as part of his approach to writing as ‘survival training’. What else helps you write?

A Well, I walk, as opposed to Murakami. He writes big books. I write small books, so walking is enough. For me, writing fiction is about creating a void, and waiting. It’s like digging a well, not climbing a mountain. I tend to think of it as climbing a mountain, but spiritually, I think it’s more like digging a well. A mountain assumes that you recognise that there’s a mountain, and that there are slopes and resting points that you can see. But actually, I don’t think that you can see that stuff. It only feels like climbing a mountain in retrospect, when you can look back and see what you’ve done. But when you’re doing it, you have no idea where you’re going and what’s going to come. That’s why it’s more like digging a well, and it fills with water, which is hopefully sweet and not brackish. Doing it means having a void where you sit in solitude for long periods of time, waiting for stuff to happen. Sometimes you do stuff to try to make it happen, like typing, and deleting, over and over again. But to be sitting there actively doing nothing for years makes novels. And that’s my process.

Q Are there rituals associated with your writing? Where do you write and when?

A I usually write in my bedroom. I wrote Moth Smoke between midnight and 8 am over several years. I wrote The Reluctant Fundamentalist on my days off from work and on weekends while I was working in New York and London in management consulting. This novel, I’ve written mostly in the mornings, when my daughter is off at pre-school, between 8.30 am and 12.30 pm. Nobody else is allowed in my room, but somehow she doesn’t accept that, so she’ll bang on my door, and I’ll open the door, and she’ll say, “Aap kaun ho?” and I’ll say, “Main aapka baba hoon. Kya matlab hai?” She says, “Nahin! Baba, I’m little fish. Are you jellyfish?” And then I recognise that there’s another fictional world that needs to assert itself and my fictional world has to go away, and we play. It’s wonderful. I really enjoy having her as a creator of fiction in my life. Every night she asks me to tell her a story, so I make something up, on demand. She’ll say, “Baba tell me a story about a dog, a cat, a mouse—and a fish!” Or she’ll say a very strange thing, she’ll say, “Tell me a story about a story.” Or, “Tell me a story about nobody.” It’s fantastic. The way a child approaches storytelling, I think, is innately meta. They’re not bound by our constraints. We think that formal experimentation is something willed. Actually, it’s the innate state of storytelling. Constriction inside an accepted form is [what’s artificial]. The natural position is just… let it rip!