Guernica

Mohsin Hamid: Denuding Purity

© Jillian Edelstein.

The task in writing, Conrad announces in Under Western Eyes, is to render “the moral conditions ruling over a large portion of the earth’s surface.” Mohsin Hamid is one of the few writers whose books meet this exacting standard. His four novels and an essay collection render our world of abstrusely complex systems and forces that seem to be inexorably diminishing the human position in ways that feel wise, intimate, and complete.

Hamid’s first novel Moth Smoke—published in 2000, two years after Pakistan and India’s first successful nuclear test—is a sweltering account of fin de millénaire anxieties in which the threat of nuclear war looms large and global meltdown is imminent. In Pakistan, Moth Smoke was a seismic cultural event for denuding false myths of national purity to reveal a culture that had become deeply cynical of its own virtues, and characters subsisting on a diet of nihilism, whiskey, cigarettes, hash, and sex. Seventeen years later, the novel stands as a tested prognosis of the changes in Pakistani society during the first decades of the new millennium, complemented in this way by Hamid’s third novel. But while Moth Smoke has endured as a classic of the South Asian English canon, it is Hamid’s second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which came out in 2007 at the denouement of the Bush era, that Western readers are most familiar with. The novel (in part a love letter to America, part complaint, perhaps even a threat) tells the story of the violently intimate relationship between empires and subjects, power and its agents, centers and peripheries. It, too, denudes a myth and challenges a moral vantage: that of American exceptionalism.  

Hamid’s most recent novel, Exit West, looks at migration in our dystopian present. Like its predecessors, it is a sly and intelligent book, written with Hamid’s extraordinary eye for character—their desires, hopes, grudges, and disappointments—all those “faulty human things” that keep us alive and make us real. But what truly sets the book apart, both in Hamid’s oeuvre and contemporary fiction, is it’s warmth and generosity to its readers—something we need more of from books in our morally exhausting times.  

— Umair Kazi for Guernica

Guernica: You just completed a quick and busy book tour in the US. How would you gauge the public temperature this time compared to your previous visits?  

Mohsin Hamid: I felt a warmth from people, much more so than any other book during the first month. I met so many people who are becoming politically active. The personal reactions of readers towards the book were very positive. The immigration process was surprisingly smooth, even though I was prepared for a secondary inspection as any brown-skin man with a Muslim sounding name expects. But in the end I did leave America, after visiting over a dozen or so cities, with a sense that people were very anxious.

Guernica: The exchange between fantasy and “reality” in Exit West is louder than your previous books. Is it possible that this treatment of a reality that’s hard to witness through the fantastic had something to do with the unusual warmth?   

Mohsin Hamid:  The fantastic elements, the doors, are a minor feature in terms of how people have reacted to the book. If you look back at my four novels, they’ve each been weird and unreal in different ways. In Moth Smoke, the reader is cast a judge and all these characters are coming to you and testifying. In Reluctant Fundamentalist, you have a conversation and an American who sits there listening. These things don’t happen in “reality.” The doors don’t seem that different from what I’ve done before. My books never felt to me as though they were entirely in the domain of realism. But this book has felt different in the sense that, it’s formally not contained within a framed narrative. It’s just a story. The other ones are a story of the story, and then there’s a story, which creates a destabilized reading experience. It’s possible that serving up the story in a more straight-up fashion has something to do with people having the kind of feelings they’re having. There must be something about straight-up storytelling as opposed to the formal untrustworthiness of my previous books that made a difference. In writing this book, I actually did want to be trustworthy: I wanted to say what I meant as opposed to creating a dynamic where what was being said and what was meant could be two different things.

Guernica: One of the wonderful things about Exit West is that while you describe the quotidian details of Saeed and Nadia’s journeys, their mode of international travel is through those uncanny black doors. This rings true when I think about my own migration from Pakistan to the US and of the psychological disorientation and amnesia that’s part of the experience; I think of migration as a kind of dimensional leap, which makes the seemingly uncanny doors not so uncanny after all. Did you feel that you needed to mute the descriptions to fully realize the experience of migration?

Mohsin Hamid:  I wanted to reveal the weirdness of migration, yes. We settle into these tropes of how we talk about migration. This meant that I had to describe the experience without using the language we use to talk about migration. I couldn’t use the normal journey language. In another sense, these doors are popping up everywhere because of our technologies. That someone within a few blocks of where I’m talking from Lahore to you in New York is watching “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” is pretty weird. The techno-cultural reality of our moment is as though these doors are opening up and so they became a way for me to express that reality: to capture the emotional quality of this experience correctly even if the physics of it are somewhat suspect.

Guernica: You mentioned earlier how in this book you wanted to be trustworthy. How was writing Exit West different?

Mohsin Hamid: At a moment when so many of us are feeling dispirited, lost, and cynical, I wanted to do something different from what I had been trying in my earlier novels. For instance, when I was writing Moth Smoke, Pakistan had just emerged from the shadow of the oppressive cultural puritanism of Zia-Ul-Haq’s 1980s, so it felt like a radical and necessary gesture to write about characters that were debauched and self-centered and cynical. When a fake purity is being shoved down your throat, to write about characters that are vibrantly impure, but also alive, seemed like an appropriate response. But in this moment, when there’s so much cynicism and falseness and degraded moral behavior, when human beings are not being allowed to escape from deadly situations because of our collective loss of empathy and generosity, it felt like the opposite response was necessary: to write about characters that are trying to be decent; to say that there is a kind of moral universe; a humanity, despite how people are being dehumanized. Trying to say, here’s what I think is true about the world, at least emotionally, was important.

Guernica: This passage arrested me in a profoundly emotional way: “…[t]he arc of a child’s life only appears for a while to match the arc of a parent’s, in reality one sits atop the other, a hill atop a hill, a curve atop a curve, and Saeed’s father’s arc now needed to curve lower, while his son’s still curved higher…” Has fatherhood changed the way you write and look at the future?

Mohsin Hamid: Fatherhood has changed me a hell of a lot as I’m sure it changes anyone who experiences it. My wife and I and our kids live right next door to my parents; my kids play every day with their grandparents. When I was growing up here in Lahore, I used to be in the youngest of the three generations, so I’ve now moved a up spot and a lot has changed with that: the sense of mortality, the way you think about people, your fears, hopes, and intimacies. I can’t think of an experience that has changed me as much. It has hugely affected what I want to write about.

Fatherhood has made the theme of migration all the more powerful to me, especially, this notion that we’re all migrants through time. I’ve left the world before children, where I’d lived my entire life. About eight years ago, I moved to this new and profoundly different place called fatherhood. Like anyone else who moves, I sometimes feel homesick, sometimes alien, sometimes thrilled, sometimes feel like I’ve arrived where I am supposed to be. It’s also interesting when you think about different cultures. I don’t want to generalize about Pakistani culture—I don’t think there’s such a thing—but in my experience of living in Lahore, family is at the center of my life and in the lives of so many of my friends. I may go to as many birthdays as I do funerals in any given month. And so, I really wanted to examine those connections emotionally in ways I hadn’t done before. In How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, there were beginnings of a way of looking at family, but in Exit West, family became a core subject.

Guernica: I went back to Pakistan in 2015, after being absent for ten years, and was struck by how much of a ubiquitous force family is: it could really be its own separate branch of government.

Mohsin Hamid: It is! If you consider how families impose restrictions and allow certain freedoms.

Guernica: This is probably an awkward confession, but it was hard for me not to fall in love with Nadia. I’d say the same about Erica and Mumtaz. I can’t think of many male writers whose female characters are as dynamic and real as yours.

Mohsin Hamid: My mother’s family, which I grew up spending lot of time with, was a huge source of strong women in my life. My father’s sister was the chairperson of APWA (All Pakistan Women’s Association). I have a sister, I have a daughter; I have been surrounded by forceful women most of my life, which may be the reason why that character type keeps expressing itself in my books. Which is not to say that they’re necessarily strong—you can be outwardly strong and internally fragile. But in terms of forceful dynamic women, my life is full of them. A funny thing happened to me recently: on this book tour, my wife forwarded me a Whatsapp exchange between her and a friend about the time I was giving a talk on Moth Smoke in Lahore. This friend had asked me after the reading, “So who is Mumtaz?” and I’d responded, “I haven’t met my Mumtaz yet,” and she’s said, “You needs to meet Zahra” (Mohsin’s wife). I’d actually met Zahra when I was giving a talk on Moth Smoke at Mount Holyoke, where she was a student, though we hadn’t really talked—it was just a random encounter. In this bizarre way, writing the character of Mumtaz has a relationship to me finding my wife. One is trying to write in existence this fictional reality and it sometimes pans out unexpectedly.

Guernica: Resentment often accompanies migration. This includes the resentment of being absent from narratives of the place one has come to inhabit. When I first read The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I felt my grudges as an outsider being verbalized in a radically empowering but also deeply discomforting way. Do you approach writing as a response to dominant narratives? To even out grudges, historical or otherwise, and to make your experience legible to Western readers?

Mohsin Hamid: I don’t really believe in the “Western” audience. You’re in America right now—you’re part of the Western audience. And I’ve lived in America for several years which makes me as much part of the “Western” audience, although I happen to be in Pakistan. I think the same way about a Pakistani audience—it’s way too diverse and different. When you look closely at the idea of any monolithic audience, you see that it immediately starts to collapse. I don’t try to write for an audience as such; I try to write the books that I need to read because I’m wrapped up in knots over some question. In Fundamentalist, Changez isn’t me: I’ve chosen a very different path for my life. I don’t think you can re-purify yourself once you become “mongrelized.” In fact, I think it’s a very dangerous course, psychologically, to refine the complexities of identity to a single thing. But it was important to explore the road not taken and my own impulses that manifest in similar ways. Although Changez isn’t me and his life isn’t mine, I can imagine being him very easily. I also wanted to write it not as a critique of Changez’s position—but as a way to see what happens if we privilege this voice. It was important to me in a sense to address what I think are Changez-like positions in popular culture and mass media.

Similarly, in Exit West, I didn’t want to just write a critique of the anti-migration position in the West regardless of how awful that position is. People should be allowed to move wherever the hell they want, and I think, in a few decades that will be the case, and we’ll look back to this time and find it ridiculous that someone who is born in Mogadishu should have different rights than someone born in London for no other reason than being born in Mogadishu. I think this is an unsustainable position. However, the same debate is happening here in Pakistan, where we’re about throwing out millions of Afghan refugees who’ve built their homes here, which is not at all unlike the anti-migrant sentiment being expressed in the West and other places. The British are trying to become more purely British by restricting migration or expelling migrants, the Americans more purely American, the Dutch more Dutch, Pakistanis more Pakistani, and so on and so forth.

I wanted to write a novel to say: look, this widespread anti-migrant sentiment that has reared up all over the world is very dangerous. We need to look at this migration apocalypse that seems to be terrifying everybody and ask: what if this apocalypse doesn’t turn out to be so apocalyptic? At the same time, I was thinking about people who have never left their countries and yet are “culturally mongrelized,” these “Westernized” kids in Pakistan, for instance, who seem to anger our jihadis and extremists. I needed to write this book because as a mongrelized person, I feel personally threatened when everybody around me is seeking purity and certainty. I wrote the book I needed. The same impulse has guided me in these twenty odd years of writing; the audience has always been secondary. So many of us become writers because we need for certain books to exist that no one else is writing; especially, those of us who have migrated or have been dislocated. If you need a book to exist badly enough, you’ll write it. People who talk about writing, but never do, are not literally dying for that book’s existence; if they did, they would have written it.

Guernica: The prose in Exit West is remarkably different from your previous novels. Not to say that your previous novels collectively adhere to a uniform style; rather, the sentences have evolved from short and direct sentences to a longer, curlicue form in Exit West. I’m reminded of this line from William Gass’ Cartesian Sonata—“Every sentence is a passage.” The sentences in Exit West very much felt like journeys in themselves, which seemed appropriate for a book about migration.

Mohsin Hamid: I didn’t plan on writing long sentences, but as the book progressed, the writing began to feel like an incantation, like a prayer, or spell, a sort of rhythmic expression, and as the book began summoning for a new future and a new way of being, the sentences started doing that too. They became longer and started moving in a different way. I liked what they were doing, the way they were gradually starting to disappear inside the paragraphs as if the paragraphs were continents and the full-stops were the borders of countries disappearing inside the paragraphs, just as the sentences were growing and taking the space of entire paragraphs. They were long sentences if you look at them in the way they’re written down, but not necessarily in the way they sound; the cadence and rhythm had to be natural to readers. I was moving towards longer sentences while wrapping up Rising Asia four or five years ago. The last few pages have sentences that sort of go on and on, and it might be that when I sat down to write Exit West I just started where I’d left of.

Guernica: It sounds like even after twenty years and five books, you find writing to be no less mysterious for the ways in which it yields epiphanies about itself long after you’re done writing.

Mohsin Hamid: It’s very much like life. A lot of thought goes into what the formal structure is and how the language works and what the books are about; but despite the thought and planning, things go completely awry and stuff happens that you don’t expect. And then once you’re done people ask you things like, what’s up with Mykonos? It’s showed up twice in your books now! It’s really weird.

Guernica: I have it here in my notes to ask you the same thing about Chile! What’s up with Chile?

Mohsin Hamid: Yes! We’ve had two Chiles and two Mykonoses. I hadn’t consciously thought of having Mykonos and Chile of The Reluctant Fundamentalist mirror the Mykonos and Chile of Exit West. Who knows what’s really happening at a subconscious level. The fact that these two novels of migration—one from West to East and one from East to West—mirror each other this way is a little bizarre.