‘Yes, well, I’m terrified’
Our ‘default future’ seems to be dystopia, says Mohsin Hamid. Why else would people peddle nationalistic, xenophobic visions?
It’s 8 a.m. in Philadelphia when I speak to Mohsin Hamid. He’s been in a different city every night, promoting his latest book, Exit West,which is being hailed as the first post-Brexit novel. Hamid has lived large parts of his life in the U.S. and the U.K., but returned to his birth city of Lahore seven years ago. Arriving in the U.S. for the first time since Trump’s election, he tells me he was nervous coming into JFK. “I had letters and pictures of me in magazines, book copies, phone numbers, and it was the quickest entry ever. Breezed through in 15 minutes.” Still, he admits to a change of mood, an obsession with the news. “For those of us in Pakistan and India, who have had at times been despairing about our own political directions, America in a strange way seems a bit more desi at this moment. But the good part about all this is that so many people are getting politically engaged, there’s a rousing political counterforce to the depression.”
Hamid has a touch of the prophet about him, consistently offering us novels that capture something of the zeitgeist. He claims that his first novel, Moth Smoke, about Pakistani pot smokers having sex, was of interest only to a certain set of South Asians, but his successive novels have been increasingly relevant to the global conversation. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is one of the great post-9/11 novels, and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, styled as a self-help manual, can be read as a post-financial crisis satire of the perils of globalisation.
In Exit West, Hamid takes on migration and imagines a world where most people are refugees. The language is spare, fable-like, but there are also elements of magic realism in the form of mysterious black doors, which act as passageways from one country to another. Hamid compares the migrant’s passage to both dying and being born. “When we migrate, we murder from our lives, those we leave behind.”
As a self-described nomad and geographically polygamous person, he believes migration is a fundamental human right. He thinks it should be compulsory for Indians to visit Pakistan regularly, and vice versa, to “cure us of our weird delusions that the world to our east in Pakistan’s case, and to our west, in India’s case, stops at the border.” Travelling, each to the other, is the only way of understanding how your country exists and works. He also admits that the India south of Bombay is as unknown to him as Antarctica. Clearly, a lacuna, in his otherwise expansive travels. Excerpts from an interview:
I want to ask you about fear. It seems to be the underlying thread in all your books. Would you agree?
Yes, well, I’m terrified, basically. I think to be human is to have a sense of terror that manifests itself as soon as we can think and speak, because we’re aware of the fact that we’re going to end. In nature, fear keeps animals alive because it makes them much more alert and attuned. In humans, fear makes us much more distracted. It can make us miserable, and it can make life much less fulfilling. That’s the price you pay for consciousness and self-awareness. So, as a terrified human being, one of the projects in writing is finding ways to deal with it.
In Exit West, the fear that’s being looked at is the fear that our societies will descend into anarchy, or a situation where they are no longer welcoming to us. At the same time, it’s a fear of transience. I think one of the most important projects for us humanly, civilizationally, politically, but also personally, is to be able to be as human as possible, as beautifully engaged as possible, while accepting transience. And that’s very hard to do, at least for me. So this novel is about that, and in a sense my other novels have been in different ways about a similar thing.
So writing fiction helps alleviate your fears?
I hope as I get older my ability to master fear will increase, but even the mastery is transient. Mastering fear is not something you figure out once and then you’re good for. It’s something that happens on an ongoing basis. So, writing and coming up with these stories is the attempt in the moment, and hopefully along the way one does learn, and is able to be comfortable and less frightened.
Would you call Exit West a dystopic novel?
Ideally, you want your future to be neutral or utopian, but our default future seems to be dystopia, which is why whether you’re in Pakistan, India, America or Britain, people are peddling nostalgic, nationalistic, xenophobic visions, because the future seems not to have much potential for us. So we want to make a future that is like an imaginary great past. In my novel I try to bring the immigration apocalypse of the next few centuries forward in just a year or two. As sea levels rise and climate patterns are disrupted, billions of people will move. That may feel to some as dystopic but the novel is intended to show that despite that, hope would continue, beauty would continue, new hybrid forms we can’t imagine will come into existence. So for me, it’s not a utopian novel, but a novel that attempts to offer a hopeful antidote to the disease of dystopic pessimism.
You shared stage with Pankaj Mishra last night. Both your books (Mishra’sAge of Anger) seem so of the moment…
Pankaj’s book is hugely important. Yesterday there was an interesting parallel, as though Pankaj had brilliantly explained how we got to where we are looking back at the last couple of centuries, and what I was trying to do is to suggest where we might go from here.
The truth is, a Western model based on the rational self-interested consumer as an economic actor and a kind of certain limited equality and democracy has run its course. Unless we’re prepared to take equality further and say that these discriminations on the basis of where you were born is as abhorrent to us as discrimination on the basis of race or gender, then you’re stuck in a kind of half equality state and we’re not going to get much further, and we’re going to have retreat into our xenophobia and our bigotry.
The apotheosis of the Western model is the way we are all in our homes consuming things constantly, where artificial intelligence is this super rational post human creation of humanity, which strikes me as an existence which would be fundamentally miserable.
There are so many older and different traditions that we can tap into that would help us navigate transience, whether it’s exploring Sufism’s potential for love-based transcendence, with or without religiousness, or a Zen-like focus on the present moment.
Each of your novels has had a different narrative structure. Is this one of your early considerations?
I usually write a bunch of drafts with different narrative structures, which all fail. This novel has been a little different because the first approach I tried was the final approach. That’s never happened to me before and that’s partly why this novel took four years instead of my usual six or seven. The idea of the doors, and the children’s literature inspired narrative stand, by which I mean a narrator who is both omniscient but also partisan, and the idea of a love story between two different types of people—these were the elements that made the book.
In the past I’ve usually been building some kind of structural frame, inserting a narrative inside that, having the two operate at a skew from each other, which destabilises the book and then having the reader play a kind of active role in trying to stabilise the narrative themselves.
In this novel I wanted to say exactly what I meant, and that’s a big departure from the first two books for which the untrustworthiness is a way of getting at honesty. In this one, I’m trying to be honest by trying to be honest.
The whole book feels very architectural. Do you see it that way in your head or do you find out as you go along?
That’s exactly correct. I think of my books in architectural terms. The reason why I’m drawn to building books that way is because I don’t think of books as objects, like a shoe or a telephone. I think of books as an environment. The reader enters into this environment, which has been half-created by the writer, and in this environment the reader plays around and has experiences and together we play at make believe. So, I’m building a space for that encounter to occur, but leaving lots of room for the reader to do different things and to have different kinds of experiences.
So when you finish a novel, is there a sense of wonder when you look back at the structure, that it turned out that way?
It’s more a sense of relief—the damn thing stood up, and I could walk all the way to the end. Often, in my novels, I’m walking along a structure and I wind up in a no-man’s land. The thing doesn’t work and I have to tear it down and start again. I think when you feel you have a certain rhythm, a cadence, when you feel that in whatever you’re creating, that really is the guide post, and the structure is a way to allow those cadences and rhythms to manifest themselves. And as a novel reaches the end… you know in that sense it’s not so different from a life, or from a dance, or from a sexual act, or any of these biological manifestations of how we feel something. Either it reaches that point and you can say, whew, it’s done. Or it doesn’t, in which case you have to go back and start over.
You mention the reader a lot. What’s your relationship with your reader?
I think novels are a way for writers to not feel alone in solitude. You’re by yourself, but when you’re writing a novel, at least for me, I’m not alone, because there’s this imagined reader.
But this reader, is what? Is it an imaginary beloved? Is it my wife? Is it another me? Is it that I’m writing the book that as a reader I most need to have exist in the world? It may be all those things, but I’m certainly not thinking about a particular reader sitting in Delhi or Karachi or North Carolina. It’s a much more intimate thing.
The first reader for my last few novels, since I met her, has been my wife, Zahra. After Moth Smoke, one of Zahra’s friends wrote to her and said, I went to this talk Mohsin gave, and someone asked him, who is your Mumtaz? And I answered, I haven’t found her yet. That friend wrote much later to Zahra and said, I think he wrote that book to find you. And I thought, that’s probably true. It’s strange how that works.
Tishani Doshi is a writer and dancer. Her most recent book is The Adulterous Citizen: Poems, Stories, Essays.
Credit: The Hindu