A Novelist Unafraid to Talk About Terrorism
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because writing, after all, ought to teach us about the world.
By Sanjena Sathian and Tobias Carroll
Mohsin Hamid was on track to be a good South Asian boy, at first. Son of a Stanford-educated professor. Princeton grad. Harvard Law alumnus. He’d logged time at the prestigious consulting firm McKinsey & Company, and as a corporate lawyer.
And then he wrote a novel.
Hamid is a resident of three countries, and much of his writing is on this topic. Which might have made him predictable, yet another “ethnic” novelist obsessed with his own exile, with confused identity and a penchant for yearning for the heat of the subcontinent in the face of cruel Western winters. What Hamid has instead become is one of the most celebrated, inventive writers of the times. He has the requisite literary accolades in hand at just age 43: Man Booker short list, New York Times notable, a novel named by the Guardian as one of the best of the century.
Perhaps the zeitgeist is best characterized by Cole’s narrator in Open City: “To be a writer in exile is a great thing. But what is exile now, when everyone comes and goes freely?”
He exemplifies a new generation of writers who celebrate their global identities. Hamid and others of this class — Zadie Smith, Zia Haider Rahman (another former consultant), Teju Cole — have turned their mixed natures into passports, reshaping the tradition of postcolonial writing and casting their global experiences as an advantage. As Hamid speaks over Skype from Lahore, Pakistan, where he and his family moved five years ago, he calls himself a “nomad” and is certainly concerned with what home means. But he is less wandering troubadour than cosmopolitan.
Hamid handles politics and economics with agility, perhaps thanks to his resume, making him stand out in an age when many novelists hail from the literary enclaves of Master’s in Fine Arts programs. Says novelist and critic Alex Gilvarry, “Hamid takes on big, serious subjects … politics, identity, fear and terror.”
Excerpted from Discontent and Its Civilizations, Hamid’s newest book of nonfiction:
“Globalization is a brutal phenomenon. It brings us mass displacement, wars, terrorism, unchecked financial capitalism, inequality, xenophobia, climate change. But if globalization is capable of holding out any fundamental promise to us, any temptation to go along with its havoc, then surely that promise ought to be this: we will be more free to invent ourselves. In that country, this city, in Lahore, in New York, in London, that factory, this office, in those clothes, that occupation, in wherever it is we long for, we will be liberated to be what we choose to be.”
So inevitably, his latest — a book of essays titled Discontent and Its Civilizations — is political, concerned in large part with the war on terror. This time his worries are not just those of a narrator-observer; they’re of a father. He recounts over Skype a massacre last month, in which the Taliban killed a hundred or more children. Schools were closed for weeks. When they reopened, Hamid walked past guards and into the building to drop his son at his classroom — and spied a sniper on the rooftop. “That, you know, is really upsetting.”
The life he’s providing his children is, in some ways, opposite from his own: After moving to Palo Alto, California, from Pakistan for his father’s schooling, he spent his childhood in grad-student apartments, forgetting Urdu — his first language — and spending hours poring over atlases, elaborately imagining new countries in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. A few years later, he moved back to Pakistan, relearned Urdu, and then … sigh … found himself back in the U.S. for college. So at least for now, Hamid and his wife, Zahra, have self-consciously decided to give their children a stable home in Pakistan — a decision, Hamid writes in Discontent, that many of his peers question. It was nearly fated: His daughter was born on Aug. 14, Pakistan Independence Day — and the family took the metaphorical significance seriously. They headed to Lahore from London (where Zahra and Mohsin met and fell in love) shortly after.
He has dedicated the forthcoming book of essays related to everything from politics to literary style — fully titled Discontent and Its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London — to his children: a daughter, Dina, age 5; and a son, Vali, age 3. Though the book’s title is unfortunately academic (a play on Sigmund Freud’s famous Civilization and Its Discontents), it has surprisingly personal roots: He tells OZY he wanted to write the book “as a reader and as a father.” And he wanted to write a book that his kids could read, as though parsing a set of clues to his life.
Hamid likes to speak to you. The “you” being changeable. (Discontent contains an essay self-examining this habit of using the second person.) The Reluctant Fundamentalist addressed itself to Americans; his third, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, followed the style of a self-help book and relayed the plot to a “you” who, presumably, wished to reap the rewards of a booming Asian city.
Of course, there’s the obvious concern. It’s difficult for global writers to pop for a mainstream audience eager for Gone Girl. And when it comes to nonfiction, adds Chad Post, publisher of Open Letter, which translates world literature into English, “we’d rather have an American writer writing about the Iraq War than an Egyptian writer writing about what happened right next door.”
But it’d be impossible to deny that Discontent is far less distinctive than his previous work; it regresses, often, to the familiar terrain of writer-in-exile. It is peppered with somewhat obvious observations about the trouble of being mixed: “mongrel. miscegenator. half-breed. outcast. deviant. heretic.” Even his reflections on the topic of home over Skype — though lovely — feel well trodden. On moving from New York to Lahore: “Having been kind of a nomad my entire life, I’m a bit like a sailor walking off a ship,” he says. “They say sailors have to find their land legs. You feel like it’s still moving around.”
Then again, these musings are only one stop en route to what he does next. And he does like to surprise. “I find it difficult,” he reflects, “to stay in any one place forever.”
- Sanjena Sathian and Tobias Carroll, OZY AuthorContact Sanjena Sathian and Tobias Carroll