Bookforum talks to Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid published his second novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist in 2007. This year will see the release of Mira Nair’s film adaptation of that book, as well as Hamid’s follow-up novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, which NPR called a “globalized version of The Great Gatsby.” Hamid talked with us about the enduring appeal of The Reluctant Fundamentalist as well as comic books and writing in the second person.

Bookforum: The Radical Fundamentalist has been used by colleges to teach diversity to incoming freshmen. What do you think it might tell us about religious fundamentalism, or about any kind of fundamentalism?

Mohsin Hamid: I started writing The Radical Fundamentalist before 9/11. It originated as the story of a guy from Pakistan working in the corporate world in New York who decides to go back home. When I finished a draft and I showed it to my agent, I remember him saying, “You know, this story about a Muslim guy who has a tense relationship with America, I don’t really buy it.” Then September 11th happened and my quiet little fable of corporate disenchantment was overtaken by this huge catastrophic event. For several years I insisted on setting the novel before 9/11, but eventually I decided to set it in and around the 2001 attacks. And when it finally came out in 2007, everybody interpreted it as a 9/11 novel. But I think there are different ways to read it: one way is as a novel written about 9/11, another is to see it as about religious extremism or Muslim religious extremism. It’s interesting, though, there’s not very much religion in the book.

Bookforum: Do you consider Changez, the novel's protagonist, a religious extremist?

Mohsin Hamid: Well, there’s nothing particularly religious about him. He doesn’t quote scripture or envision his life in any particularly Muslim way. He just grows a beard and goes home. And from that alone I guess it’s possible to read some kind of religious journey in the book. But in my mind the novel was not about a religious journey, it was more about belonging to a different race or ethnic group. By the end of the novel Changez is somebody who is clearly saying some politically strong stuff, but as far as we know he’s not advocating violence or talking about religion as a way of running a country or society.

Bookforum: Why did you write the novel in the second person?

Mohsin Hamid: Technically speaking it’s a dramatic monologue, a cousin of second person, because the main character isn’t being referred to as “you.” But the main character is speaking to somebody, and that person is being addressed as “you.” It’s a half-conversation designed to destabilize the reader.

Bookforum: Whereas with your new book, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, you actually use the full-McInerny second person.

Mohsin Hamid: Well, it’s different in a way. Second person is often used in the way it was used in Bright Lights Big City, which is kind of like a first person. If you replace the you with I, it has no affect change. In my novel the second person is closer to a third person, more like a he. But also there is a second person that is a second person. You (the reader) actually makes an appearance in the novel by the end, and I (the writer) also makes an appearance. So they become a specific you, not just a character you. And so it’s slightly different, I would say.

Bookforum: One of your reviews in The Guardian couldn’t decide if How to Get Filthy Rich was a satire or not. It reminded me of Nathanael West’s A Cool Million, which is a satire on Horatio Alger novels.

Mohsin Hamid: The novel does satirize the get-rich-quick ethos and self-help books, but it’s also sincere about them. It mixes jokey self-help with earnest self-help, but underneath it all, the novel believes that literary fiction can be a kind of self-help. So in that sense the book takes it all very seriously, though it may not be the kind of self-help that it pretends to be on the cover.

Bookforum: Do you consider English your first language?

Mohsin Hamid: I don’t know about first language. I spoke Urdu first and came to America at age three with my parents when my dad got his Ph.D. at Stanford. I then forgot my Urdu and learned English. So English is my best language, but it’s not the language I learned first. I relearned Urdu when I went back to Pakistan at age nine.

Bookforum: Are there other authors in or around Pakistan you'd recommend who are covering similar themes to you?

Mohsin Hamid: There are lots of interesting writers in Pakistan right now; they’re all doing different things though. There are people writing short stories about the countryside, there are people writing Catch-22-type satires, there are different tones, different styles, lots of writers writing different things.

Readers looking for fiction should check out Mohammed Hanif, who wrote a book called A Case of Exploding Mangoes, which is very good; and Daniyal Mueenuddin who wrote a collection of short stories called In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. And there are other writers like Kamila Shamsie, Nadeem Aslam, and H. M. Naqvi. Naqvi wrote a book called Homeboy, which is set largely in New York City.

Bookforum: And which American writers do you like?

Mohsin Hamid: Well, I studied with Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison, and they are both phenomenal writers, and I probably wouldn’t be a novelist today if I hadn’t studied with them. I loved reading Hemingway, James Baldwin, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, particularly Gatsby.

Bookforum: I never really liked Gatsby.

Mohsin Hamid: Really?

Bookforum: Well, in high school it was kind of shoved down students' throats.

Mohsin Hamid: Yeah, Gatsby is a book you discover by yourself. I don’t like the idea of shoving it down people’s throats. Let students read whatever stuff they want to read, comic books, sci-fi, fantasy. That’s what I did; I just read a lot, but I also read a lot of stuff that wasn’t literature.

Bookforum: What kind of comics were you into when you were younger?

Mohsin Hamid: I read a lot of European comics, like Tintin, Asterix and Obelix, and a little bit of the superhero stuff. Green Lantern I particularly liked.

Bookforum: Do you ever look to film to inspire your writing?

Mohsin Hamid: With my first novel, Moth Smoke, I think I was formally influenced by Pulp Fiction. Similarly, Reluctant Fundamentalist borrows from movies like High Noon, in which there’s a gun fight at the end and all the time preceding it is spent waiting for it to happen. I don’t try to write cinematic novels, however, I try to write novels that are very bookish.

Bookforum: Your nonfiction is heavily influenced by current events, and I understand there was just a big election in Pakistan.

Mohsin Hamid: Yes, the big thing that’s happening right now is that for the first time ever an elected civilian government served out its full five-year term and stepped down.

Bookforum: It seems like whenever change happens abroad the United States immediately tries to figure out how to use the developments for its own advantage.

Mohsin Hamid: Well I think America’s weight in the world is getting smaller and smaller. Other countries are getting richer, their populations are growing, they’re getting bigger. Soon China will be the biggest economy in the world, and then India will be the next biggest. The good news there is that I don’t think that people can continue to blame America for everything; America is smaller than it used to be. But also I think that there is a kind of rebalancing happening. The notion that the world can support one superpower and lots of small countries is going away.

Bookforum: It’ll be hard for us to accept that, I think.

Mohsin Hamid: Well these things happen gradually, I’m sure it was hard for Britain to accept it. And I don’t think America will suddenly become this third-rate tin pot country. It’ll still be a very successful country, a very wealthy country, a very exciting country.

Chris R. Morgan is the editor of Biopsy magazine.