I Don’t Believe in Reality: An Interview with Mohsin Hamid
By Anis ShivaniJuly 14, 2013
MOHSIN HAMID HAS WRITTEN a nearly flawless third novel. His first novel, Moth Smoke, was a young man’s overly jaded representation of his generation’s depravities in a transparent act of purging. The second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was similarly purgative, as he sought to distance himself from his engagement with the West’s capitalist project, punctuated by his return to Pakistan. In this third novel, he could not care less about explicating modern Pakistan’s pathologies, though that is ostensibly the scaffold. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is Hamid’s first truly mature book, and the confidence he shows in not desperately needing to represent Pakistan to any particular constituency is reflected in the innovative form and structure.
ANIS SHIVANI: I prefer to read your three books as parts of a sustained trilogy. Many connections between the books become apparent once one does so. Do you see the books as a trilogy too?
MOHSIN HAMID: Yes, in a way I do. There are thematic and stylistic links between all three books. Obviously, it isn’t the plot of each book that is connected to the others. But there’s a worldview and an attitude to life and to writing, a kind of sustained enquiry, that builds across the three as a whole.
AS: Among your intentional incongruities in this book is a telescoping of time. It’s almost as though you’d compressed 100 years of the history of urbanization and modernization within the scope of one person’s lifetime. To make sense of it chronologically, we would be looking at the narrator’s agedness some time well into the 21st century. Could you comment on this?
MH: I don’t believe in “reality” as such. What we call “real” is something our minds create. So the whole notion of “realism” is an interesting one. In my novels, I have tended to build seemingly “realistic” narratives inside “unreal” frames: the trial of Moth Smoke, the cafe conversation of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the self-help book of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. The tension between the real and the unreal excites me. So in the latest novel, I wanted to depict a near-century of time in the life of “you” the character, but also to adhere to the time of “you” the reader, which is the present moment. The result is that an entire lifetime passes in the novel, but the period in history is always now: the start of the 21st century.
AS: I’m sure the questions most often asked of you have to do with the second-person format, the simultaneous mockery and exaltation of the self-help manual, the choice not to name the country or any of the characters. I will refrain from the obvious questions, but simply want to comment that the “you” seems to become “I,” which then becomes “we,” which in turn becomes “he.” That is to say, there is at first the distance necessitated by “you,” but then it seems like it’s a first-person story, once we get intimate enough with the character. Later still, however, despite the persistence with “you,” there is increasing distance between the story and its teller, so that it becomes something we have all collectively participated in.
HM: I agree that there are many different registers in the novel, including the four you mention. There is a character called “you.” The perspective of the story of that character is sometimes almost internal, like an “I,” and sometimes very removed, like a “he.” And there is also a collective experience, which you have identified, the experience of a “we.” In addition, there are at least two more. There is a “you” who is actually the reader reading. And there is an “I” who is actually me, the writer, writing. For me, the great beauty of the second-person form is that it is so supple and can support so many registers.
AS: In the same way, from a story of material success it becomes one about the philosophical meaning of togetherness and eventually about the preparation and conditions for death, the ideal death if you will. I was reminded very much of J.M. Coetzee’s work as I read this book of yours, which wasn’t the case for your earlier books. In fact, Filthy Rich seems to me closest among any modern writing to Coetzee’s preoccupations and even mannerisms. Are you conscious of this resemblance?
HM: I agree with your description of the story’s progression. On Coetzee, I am too ignorant to be able to say much. I have read Life & Times of Michael K and Disgrace and think Coetzee is a very fine writer.
AS: It is possible to derive a great deal of hope as well as a great deal of pessimism about the prospects for Pakistan (and rising Asia in general) from this book. Would you comment on that?
HM: I can’t say I disagree. I feel both hopeful and pessimistic, and often at the same time. I suppose for me that’s what it’s like to be alive. Imagining infinity, aware of mortality. I’m not sure if my view of the world is accurate or just a reflection of the self out in the universe. I try to stay positive, and sometimes I fail.
AS: As a novelist, how did you position yourself differently (if you did at all) for this book as opposed to your earlier books, in terms of audience, expectations, performance, reliability? Did the great global success of Reluctant Fundamentalist free your writing in any way? Or did you face any new constraints?
HM: I’m a different person now than I was six years ago, when my last book was published. We all are. I’m 41, not 35. I’m a father, not childless. I live in Lahore, not London. Those things shape my writing much more than any active sense of “positioning.” I never want to write the same book twice because each book is trying to figure out things that I don’t understand. If I knew what I was doing, what would be the point? But in two senses I have been freed a little. I can now write for a living, which is to say I can be unemployed. And I no longer feel as upset about being totally lost in the first three or four years of writing a novel. I expected that to be the case in my first novel. In my second, I didn’t, and when it happened, it was difficult. But in my third I was ready for it. I realized it was normal for me.
AS: Would you say something about the brief prefaces to each of the 12 chapters, which seem to me to mock the earnestness of the self-help book, acting as pseudo-philosophy, illuminating the ridiculousness of actual self-improvement books?
HM: The funny thing is, many of those intros are intended to be simultaneously ridiculous and true. In other words, if you want what they claim to be offering, the advice isn’t bad advice. What makes them humorous, hopefully, is a combination of tone and the bizarreness that people actually want what they seem to offer.
AS: How would you react if I suggested that the narrator’s love interest is intentionally incongruous in many ways? For example, in the way she chooses freedom over security again and again. She seems more idealized than real. Is there an issue with presenting heroic women from rising Asia because there currently isn’t a model removed from both traditionalism and capitalism? Do novelists have to help create the ideal woman in rising Asia into existence?
HM: My mother is one of seven sisters. My grandmother was a chairperson of the All Pakistan Women’s Association. I had lots of female cousins and second cousins. I grew up surrounded by very strong and often very independent women. Some never married. Some divorced. Some liked to party. Some abandoned all sense of Lahori propriety and lived “outrageously” far, far away. So the women characters I write don’t seem idealized to me. But maybe my background is a little weird.
AS: I really liked it when toward the end of the book you started taking a more panoramic view of things. The surveillance section, for example, as if the camera eye were observing the camera at work. That really worked for me. How have other readers responded to this shift in tone, and what you were trying to do with that mood change?
HM: I think some readers have really liked it. Others maybe find it jarring when conventions are broken. I don’t know, honestly. I was trying to free up space for the riff of the final chapter, to spread the novel’s wings a little wider every chapter so eventually, by the end, it could fly.
AS: The observations of place and social milieu are as precise as in your earlier books, but tinged this time with a greater element of Nabokovian edginess. The description of the cantonment would be an example, but the book abounds with such passages. Do you agree with this comment about change in style?
HM: The big difference this time was that I was liberated from trying to present the world through the voice of a character. I could use any voice I wanted. And so stylistically, I was free to do things I hadn’t been free to do in my previous novels, with the exception perhaps of the “trial scenes” in Moth Smoke which were similarly not from a character’s first-person point of view.
AS: Some of the best writing in the world currently seems to be coming from Pakistani novelists. I think Pakistanis have been doing more original fiction in recent years than even Indians, which is something I would never have expected a decade ago. There seem to be some obvious reasons for this development, but would you care to add your opinion?
HM: I agree that there’s a lot of good fiction coming from Pakistan these days. But novel-writing isn’t a team sport. It’s hard for me to do more than just speculatively muse about why it’s going on. People are more interested in writing from Pakistan these days, more Pakistanis are recognizing that it’s possible to make writing a career, the “real world” of Pakistani life isn’t swimmingly wonderful (which makes fictional worlds attractive), and a handful of really talented people happen to be working at the same time.
AS: Finally, how do you keep your sanity as an internationally recognized writer in Pakistan? What are your work habits and conditions like, what is your support system, how do you confront the odds of doing something creative in a society that has traditionally placed little value on such endeavors? Do you miss the infrastructure of the Western literary establishment in Pakistan or have you found other durable substitutes?
HM: I think Pakistani society places enormous value on creative endeavors. Kings and invaders and viziers and presidents may have been forgotten, but everyone knows the names of our great poets. There’s a huge amount of respect for the arts among people. There may not be much support from the state, but there’s popular respect. When I go onto a university campus here, people don’t tend to say, “How the hell do you support yourself?” They say, “You make us proud.” Just by writing. I’ve had my eyes tear up at lectures. That doesn’t happen to me easily. It hasn’t happened to me anywhere else. People here care about fiction. And, personally, I’m happy to stay mostly out of the public eye when I’m writing. I spend my time with my friends and my family. And then, once every six or seven years, I step out into full-blown publicity. Like I’m doing now.
Anis Shivani’s new story collection The Fifth Lash and Other Stories, focusing on Pakistan, has just been longlisted for the 2013 Frank O’Connor international short story award. His other books include My Tranquil War and Other Poems (2012), Against the Workshop (2011), Anatolia and Other Stories (2009), and the forthcoming novel Karachi Raj (2013). His work appears in The Georgia Review, Southwest Review, The Antioch Review, The Iowa Review, The Threepenny Review, Boston Review, Harvard Review, Epoch, Agni, Fence, The Times Literary Supplement, The London Magazine, The Cambridge Quarterly, and many other journals. He won a 2012 Pushcart Prize, and is currently writing a novel called Abruzzi, 1936 and a book called Plastic Realism: Neoliberal Discourse in the New American Novel.
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