“We are culturally and technologically driven towards fear-inducing elements of identity”: Mohsin Hamid – The Indian Express | WHs Answers

in the The Last White Man (Hamish Hamilton, Rs 599), his fifth novel coming out at the end of the month, Mohsin Hamid throws up an interesting suggestion – what happens when a white man wakes up one morning and finds that he isn’t anymore. That his uprooting is part of a major upheaval taking shape in his city. How would the future unfold? Can one really become the other? In this interview the Lahore-based writer50, known for novels such as The reluctant fundamentalist (2007) and West exit (2017), talks about nurturing this story since 9/11, thwarting bigotry with empathy, and writing less to say more.

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Edited excerpts:

What brought you to this story?

In a way, this story came about through my own experiences of life in the West, particularly in America. In the first 30 years of my life I spent 18 years there. After attending elite universities, working good-paying jobs, and living in a cosmopolitan city like New York, I think I experienced some level of discrimination, but it felt relatively minor. After 9/11 I was suddenly stopped at airports and pulled aside for additional checks, I flew into the country and was drafted into immigration and detained for hours. I got on a bus with a backpack, a bit unshaven at the weekend, and people looked uncomfortable and sometimes changed seats. I felt this deep sense of loss. I wanted things to go back to how they were before 9/11. I didn’t want to be that person of suspicion or threat. I started to think, what exactly have I lost? Although I’m a brown-skinned man with a Muslim-sounding name, I had, in many cases, reaped vastly from the advantages of a sort of wisdom of just being treated as a normal human being. I started to think, do I really want to go back to that point of view? Or should I instead be asking myself which system I was complicit in? What did it mean to be treated like that in a world where obviously many people don’t exist? Decades later, I finally stumbled across this idea from a man who thought he was white, and then suddenly he’s not. And I thought, this is my way into this book.

The idea of ​​inhabiting someone else’s skin requires empathy, and this was at the heart of many of your novels. Does that come from your wandering life, realizing that we fit into far more identities, or is there something else behind it?

I’ve lived between the US, UK and Pakistan for most of my life. When you live between two or three countries, you realize that the prevailing views are always contingent and that there are also differences within these countries due to cultural characteristics. I suppose when you move around as a kid, sometimes you don’t want to attract attention. I certainly don’t. There is a sense of threat in being the kid in the class who is different from everyone else. This is how you quickly learn to become a kind of chameleon. When I moved to Pakistan from Pakistan California, at the age of three, within a month, I spoke only English and had stopped speaking Urdu. When I returned to Pakistan at the age of nine, I had to relearn Urdu and find a way to fit back in. That kind of experience made me, and I think a lot of people, feel very sensitive to what other people are thinking or might be thinking.

The Last White ManMohsin Hamid’s latest novel (Source: Penguin)

But you don’t always have to move. In countries like Pakistan and India you see different groups of people interacting, you learn to pick up on those cues. That’s how I find my way. empathy is part of it, but an enormous part of fiction has to do with not just telling my story or the story of my people, but also wanting to be someone else. This is tremendously attractive – imagining our path into other experiences.

But we are also at a point where the strengthening of unique identities among nations around the world is increasing. What does it mean to you to be a novelist in such a world?

You’re right. We live in a time when there is an urgent need to divide people into groups. Countries around the world are trying to assert some sort of dominant group identity, be it India, Pakistan, Britain or America, Turkey, Brazil and Russia. It’s worth asking why this happened. Part of it is that historically we know that whenever a powerful empire starts to retreat, these kinds of sub-nationalist or nationalist impulses start to prevail. So if the Ottoman Empire ended or, in our own experience in India and Pakistan, the British Empire ended in 1947 that we had division. Now that America’s dominance appears to be declining, we are seeing a similar effect.

But there is also a technological reality that we live in that is very algorithmic. The impulse to give a person a thumbs up or a thumbs down and then be progressively categorized into people who have given similar votes to similar things is what technology tells us every day. It reinforces the idea that we are all different and that we should focus on certain aspects of ourselves – our religion, skin color – when we could easily focus on our Dal preferences or literature preferences, for example. But we are culturally and technologically driven towards these fear-inducing elements identity.

Third, the pace of change is accelerating. The future looks increasingly dystopian to many, and for that reason we’re drawn to nostalgic appeals. We are told to return to the great days of our people’s past. Those big days never really happened. They were incredibly problematic, the past we all come from. So as novelist, which is very interesting to me, is trying to think of it differently, for example removing the ease of a race-themed binary sorting mechanism; to say, what if we weren’t able to sort each other out? Or, to take a dystopian concept and say: what if we allowed this to happen? What if migrations took over the world? What if the race you imagine yourself to be disappears? And to delve into these dystopias and envision a way out into more optimistic potential. Because unless we can imagine something optimistic, we are really doomed to a policy rooted in pessimism and a very dangerous tribal identity.

At the time of publication of How to get dirty rich in emerging Asia (2013), your third novel, you mentioned how the conciseness of your books helped attract many first-generation English readers to the subcontinent who wanted to share in the literary experience. In the decade since, with the rise of social media and OTT platforms, the nature of the readership has changed quite a bit. How do you, as a writer, compete in this world now?

In a way, it’s not so much about the competition as it is about understanding what the space is. The dominant mass production, mass production Tell stories form is now televisual. In these forms we encounter worlds that are presented to us in a very comprehensive way. In this sense, the viewer is a viewer. But in the novel the reader is not a spectator. They animate words to people, to feelings, to an entire imaginary landscape. So I think what the novel can do is something else entirely. The novel invites each reader to be a co-creator, a director, of their own book film. The novel is like a screenplay for a reader. One thing I’ve done is move away from dialogue. It (the novel) doesn’t even have to have scenes to stage events. It can instead serve to allow the reader to visualize something. So in a way, writing my novels has become an attempt to create gaps coupled with imaginative catalysts. Many things are left unsaid and unspecified, and they operate within an inner realm that hopefully allows the reader to create.

Is that why you tend to omit geographical and cultural features in your works?

When I returned to Pakistan in 2009, after that The reluctant fundamentalist, there were many people who thought there was something fatal about a novelist taking a representative role. Well, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not representative of anything. But I could see how people would think you were engaging in a cultural open pit mining where you were exploiting the landscape Pakistan and sell to the culture industry abroad. It is not a criticism to be dismissed lightly. Economics is certainly interesting – so many of our own readers are not in South Asia, so much of the publishing industry is not in South Asia, the language I write in is English. So am I really innocent and how do I react? I thought, let me start by trying to be a little strict on myself. Maybe I won’t use names at all. I will not call the place Pakistan, I will not say that religion is Islam, I will not call these characters Pakistani names. I will not allow simple representative movements to dictate how I write or read. When I started doing it, I discovered that there was tremendous power in it. As I began to narrow down my own representative aspects as a writer, I found that I was also opening up something—an imaginative space for the reader.

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