Mohsin Hamid and Akhil Sharma's conversation about writing, literary labels, and how illness challenges narrative.
Photo by Bill Miller
Every writer has a different process, and for about thirteen of the almost twenty years that I have known Akhil Sharma, I’ve been hearing from him about Family Life. Writers who spend so much time on a book end up overwriting, and at some point I began to fear that Family Life was one of those novels that would never be completed.
When Akhil emailed me and asked me if I would read his manuscript, a part of me was afraid. I read his manuscript as I walked around my yard in Lahore—I do much of my reading while walking back and forth—and reading it, I began laughing. I hadn’t expected the book to begin with so much joy. And then instead of stopping laughing, I continued. It is amazing that a book which contains so much heartbreak can be this funny.
When we sat down for an interview in Akhil’s two-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side, the laughter continued. Not much of the laughter is captured because I focused our conversation on technical questions about Akhil’s writing and life. Still, we laughed so much that sometimes we lost our breath.
—Mohsin Hamid for Guernica
Guernica: Family Life is the story of an Indian family that immigrates to America in the late 1970s as part of the first large wave of Indian immigration to the US. They come for the opportunities that the country offers for the family’s two children. At first everything they hope for occurs: the older of the two sons gets into the Bronx High School of Science. Soon, though, after they have been in the country for two years, the family suffers a tragedy: the older son has an accident in a swimming pool. He dives into the pool, strikes his head on the bottom of the pool, is knocked unconscious, and remains underwater for three minutes. When he is pulled out, he is severely brain damaged.
I know that this story is very similar to your life. Could you give me a sense of how much of the novel is autobiography?
Akhil Sharma: This is one of those questions that novelists hate to answer.
Guernica: I know.
Akhil Sharma: Novels should be judged rigorously. Either a book works or it doesn’t. The fact that something is true in the real world should not lend authority to it in fiction.
Guernica: I know. I ask because I have a second question based on your answer.
Akhil Sharma: Almost everything in the novel is true. In the novel, though, things do not occur in the order that I describe them as occurring in. There are also many things which I left out which were important to my formation.
Guernica: Why did you not write a memoir?
Akhil Sharma: For me, a memoir is nonfiction and nonfiction has to be absolutely true. I can’t have composite characters. I can’t attribute dialogue to someone based simply on my memory and not based on notes taken at the time that the words were spoken. I also need to tell the things that are important but which don’t make sense in terms of the narrative, things that would destroy symmetry or narrative pace. This is my personal belief about what it means to write nonfiction. I felt that I could not leap all these hurdles and still write something that would have power.
Guernica: You said that you left out things that were important to your formation. Could you name one?
The gravitational pull of that was the most important aspect of my childhood and youth. To describe it truthfully would be to foreground it. Despair is repetitive and dull.
Akhil Sharma: The constant despair of living with someone ill, of having no hope. The gravitational pull of that was the most important aspect of my childhood and youth. To describe it truthfully would be to foreground it. Despair is repetitive and dull, however. Not only is it boring but it also kills the reader’s interest in the other strands of the narrative.
Guernica: Twice now you have suggested that you are writing about a character’s formation. Could you talk a little bit as to what you think the novel is about?
Akhil Sharma: To me the novel is about a child in a claustrophobic family turning into a self—and about the grown-up going back and trying to figure out what happened. This as you know is a traditional thing for a modernist novel to do. I would compare Family Life to The Way of All Flesh, for example, or to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which was inspired by The Way of All Flesh. But to me it is also the story of my generation of Indian Americans. My sense is that this is something new: a rigorous modernist novel of the childhood self that deals specifically with the Indian immigrant experience.
Guernica: Do you expect the book to be called an immigrant novel?
Akhil Sharma: Philip Roth and Saul Bellow were called Jewish novelists for the longest time. Faulkner was called a Southern novelist. Virginia Woolf was called a woman novelist. People often need to describe things quickly and so they use a shorthand. The problem is that after they use a label, they begin to think only in terms of the label instead of the totality of the experience a novel provides. It is like how in relationships we can focus on only one thing to the detriment of all the other aspects of a loved one.
Guernica: Labels are also used by people to decide whether or not they will read a novel.
Akhil Sharma: Yes, but the reality is that shorthand is necessary.
Guernica: One of the things that is interesting about you is how quickly you move between the specific and the universal.
Akhil Sharma: I tend to think that we are all pretty much alike. We all feel despair. We all have problems with relationships. We all become afraid. We all look at others and think these other people are more fortunate than us. Certainly the details of our life are unique. Spending time thinking of how I am different from someone else, however, does not tend to be very productive.
Guernica: What about the details of your novel and of your life? They seem unique in ways that are not universizable. The strange miracle workers, for example.
Akhil Sharma: They are not unique. I hope you never suffer from a grave illness, but if you were to do so, you might end up looking everywhere for help.
Guernica: And what about the people who think the mother is saintly and come for her blessings?
Akhil Sharma: Isn’t that common in Catholicism; all the martyrs who are considered holy?
Guernica: On a slightly different topic, you spent thirteen years on the novel.
Akhil Sharma: I cringe when you say that.
Guernica: Is that number correct?
Akhil Sharma: It is correct, although I have been saying twelve because for some reason that number feels less painful.
Guernica: Did the autobiographical nature of the book cause you to take so long?
Akhil Sharma: Because I don’t want the book to be treated like a memoir, let me first discuss the book as fiction, as a constructed reality.
The book was an incredible technical challenge to create. I hope the solutions I invented don’t show, but they were hard to develop. One challenge was that it is hard to write about physically difficult things without causing the reader to disengage. The reader reads about a character becoming blind and this is so wrenching that she wants to put the book down. I had to create a solution to this.
Was my mother selfish? Perhaps she was ignorant? If she was ignorant, was she willfully so? These sorts of questions bedeviled me through the writing of the book.
It is also hard to create a first-person narrator that can be a child and yet is able to take in enough information for the narrative to be legible to the reader.
Finally, in a situation of long-term illness like the one that I am writing about, there tends not to be plot. Mostly what happens is that time passes. This is tremendously boring and so I had to create a series of small narratives so that the reader would keep reading.
Guernica: And what about the autobiographical elements? Did they make the book hard to write?
Akhil Sharma: I had a hard time coming up with a stable point of view on the various events that I describe. My mother had various kooks come to our house to wake my brother. I feel great sympathy for this. I also feel that doing this created hurt for me and my father. Was my mother selfish? Perhaps she was ignorant? If she was ignorant, was she willfully so? These sorts of questions bedeviled me through the writing of the book. I hope that my struggle with the characters, the way that they pull at me and also push me away, is something that the reader also experiences.
Guernica: I noticed that pull-push. Can you compare this book to your earlier one (An Obedient Father)?
Akhil Sharma: I think this book is much more tender.
Guernica: I noticed that as well. My heart went out to each of the characters.
Akhil Sharma: One technical difference between Family Life and An Obedient Father is that I use much more exposition in Family Life. To me exposition always contains tenderness. While a dramatized scene is a way of proving and guaranteeing an emotional experience for the reader, exposition assumes that the reader is sophisticated and can see the universal. Exposition suggests a great trust in the reader, and this expression of trust makes a book feel tender.
Mohsin Hamid is the author of the novels Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia: A Novel. His award-winning fiction has been featured on bestseller lists, adapted for the cinema, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and translated into over 30 languages. His essays and short stories have appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, The New Yorker, Granta, and many other publications. Born in 1971 in Lahore, he has spent about half his life there and much of the rest in London, New York, and California.
Akhil Sharma is the author of An Obedient Father, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Best American Short Stories, and O. Henry Award Stories. A native of Delhi, he lives in New York City.