Mohsin Hamid chats with his readers at the Lahore Literary Festival | Irfan Aslam
Mohsin Hamid chats with his readers at the Lahore Literary Festival | Irfan Aslam

On March 23, Mohsin Hamid was awarded the Sitara-i-Imtiaz [Star of Excellence] by the government of Pakistan for his services to literature. This followed his latest novel, Exit West, being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and being selected by Time as one of the top 10 novels of 2017.

Hamid is a recluse of sorts. He avoids social events and is hard to spot in Lahore where he has been, in his own words, “as settled as he can be” for the last many years. Sometimes he can be seen at literary festivals, but usually he is standing on the margins, observing life in the city as it goes on. He leaves his publishers to manage social media activity, while he himself tries to “disappear into my writing for a while.” He can be hard to pin down. Eos finally caught up with him on the sidelines of the recently concluded Lahore Literary Festival, away from his selfie-obsessed fans.

Your debut, Moth Smoke, was set in Lahore. Since then there’s been a shift towards so-called international themes. Is this an attempt to cater to an international readership?

The Pakistani reader ‘is’ the international reader. It’s not that Pakistanis living in Lahore just want to read a novel that talks about Gulberg; Pakistanis want to explore what it means to be a human being, what it means to leave a place, to face capitalism, to die. People don’t always want to look into a mirror and see exactly themselves. My fellow Pakistanis and Lahoris are my readers, but they are not my only readers. I don’t write for a foreign audience and I don’t write for a Pakistani audience. I write for human beings. Yes, Moth Smoke was a novel about Lahore, but it was a very narrow social slice of the city, people in the middle and upper-middle class having drugs, sex and all. It was a very specific reaction to Gen Ziaul Haq’s Pakistan that I grew up in; these things were not spoken about, but they were happening and I wanted to explore this.

And your other novels?

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is about leaving the West which I myself was grappling with. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is my most Lahori — or rather, most Pakistani — novel because it’s about many different social classes sliced and divided. You can say it is about one person’s life, or the lives of 12 different people in a village. A super cool young child comes to the city, goes to school and college, gets a job, joins a company, goes from poverty to the middle class to wealth. It is a way to look at the society around me from different levels, a much more holistic look at Pakistan and Lahore than Moth Smoke. Filthy Rich is an attempt to explore a sufi philosophy because it is a love story where the question being asked is: what can give meaning to life? How can one be comfortable with the end of life? On the one hand is this capitalist model our character must engage with, on the other is the beloved and the character’s relationship with her. The novel examines these two aspects and juxtaposes the sufi concept of love with contemporary Pakistan’s economic reality. In that sense it’s fundamentally Lahori and Pakistani, but instead of saying that Lahore and Pakistan are unique and strange, it says that Lahore is a universal city and every city in the world is like Lahore. It’s not that I have decided I should write something for the West; I’m saying if the West presumes to speak of universal themes, I will take the right to speak of universal themes here in Lahore and Pakistan. Because why do we think that London, New York and Paris are going to explore universal themes and Lahore is there to explore exotic strange themes? It is much more interesting to imagine that universal themes are happening in Lahore because most big cities of the world — Sao Paulo, Lagos, Bangkok, Jakarta, Mexico City, Delhi and Mumbai — are far more like Lahore than New York or London.

What about Exit West?

Exit West is truly international, but it is also born out of Lahori or Pakistani feelings. Particularly, the feeling of what if we have to leave suddenly, as so many people we know had to for various reasons, or so many Hindus and Sikhs had to in 1947. What if something happens which forces you to flee? What if the whole world experiences it? In a sense, it starts the journey from Partition or the nightmare of the Taliban takeover and then imagines the whole world migrating, not towards some new kind of hell, but something better. Exit West is, again, ground in Lahori or Pakistani reality, but exploring themes of the world. It’s not that I’ve moved on to Western themes; I just no longer want to depict a particular slice of Lahori life like I did in Moth Smoke. I want to explore fundamental human themes using this place as a starting point.

But there are no specific names and places that can be identified in later novels.

I don’t often use the words ‘Lahore’ and ‘Pakistan’ for a reason. It means that, for example, a Syrian can relate to Exit West and many Syrians and Bosnians have come to me at readings saying it describes their country or their father’s country. Another reason is that I don’t want to say, “Listen to me, I am going to tell you what Pakistan is.” How do I, or anybody else, know what Pakistan is? When you don’t call a place Pakistan, you are not representing Pakistan; you are just writing what you see, feel and think. So partly it is to avoid this false representation. In Exit West, for example, I did not want to write a narration of the decline and collapse of society in Pakistan. So many people are talking about how Pakistan will collapse. I did not want to write a novel about Pakistan collapsing. The last reason is that there is so much censorship and self-censorship in Pakistan that many things can’t be said, just signalled. The country has no name, characters have no names, religion has no name because if we write these names, then we arrive at a point where we can’t speak in this country. So by having a nameless world one is pointing out that there is censorship all around us, yet also — hopefully — subverting this censorship and saying things that you otherwise could not say.

How deeply are factors such as literary agents and marketing involved in selecting themes for novels?

I never pitched my novels so I was never in a position where my agents told me what kind of book I should write. I have always written the kind of novels I wanted to write. I wrote Moth Smoke for seven years and after six years of writing I showed it to the agent. New writers have to convince agents and publishers that their books will sell, but you always have the power to write the book that people don’t think they want. When I wrote Filthy Rich, perhaps the agents/publishers were shocked and horrified at what I had done, but they were fine with it. But the underlying question of to what extent do sales or the market play a role in what you write is very difficult to answer because it’s like questioning the importance of money, the friends your pick, the city you live in and the job you choose. We would like to say that money plays no role, but that’s not true. It plays some role, but hopefully not a very big one. When I write a novel, I am not aware of some market analysis such as who will read this. We can think, “Oh, everybody wanted a novel about 9/11”, but there were thousands of stories about 9/11. Why would they want The Reluctant Fundamentalist? And this book came six years after 9/11. Similarly, for Exit West you can say people wanted a novel about migration, but there are thousands of novels about migration. It’s a mistake to imagine that one picked the theme of migration to make the book successful. For me, it’s all about the most important issue I am confronted with. In Moth Smoke, this issue is ‘what is Lahore?’. I lived in Lahore and abroad, it’s a weird place; I needed to explore this to understand it myself. Regarding The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I had lived in the US for a long time and was thinking of leaving. The question then was, what do we do in this post-9/11 world? Where is my place in the world?

Have the various phases of your life had an impact on your writing?

All four books are very personal projects. Moth Smoke is born out of a kid who had lived in Lahore, now living in America, missing Lahore, thinking about this place, but also not sure what he thought about it. That’s what I had to write in an attempt to understand where I came from. The Reluctant Fundamentalist was written as I had left America. Why am I leaving? Should I leave? Where should I go? These were the questions whose answers I was looking for. I began writing Filthy Rich when I got back to Lahore. By then Lahore and Pakistan had transformed from the place I had left as a child into an uber-capitalist, ruthless, hard society where money was the only guiding principle. People pretended that religion or something else was more important, but it seemed money ruled this country. I was trying to make sense of this situation. Then there were questions about the old sufi Lahore and sufi Pakistan that I was familiar with, so I had this idea of a money-obsessed place and a sufi love story and putting them together. Now, living in Pakistan and seeing what happened in Allepo, Kabul, Damascus and Baghdad, and seeing decent people flee for their lives, was a nightmare. The question was if this happens in Pakistan, what would we do? Living in Pakistan sometimes you have this nightmare about things not working out, and this nightmare gave birth to the book. When I wrote Exit West, I was a father thinking of my offspring. I tried to make a dream out of a nightmare.

There is news of Exit West being turned into a film. Do films serve your purpose and depict what you want to depict in novels?

Getting involved with a film is like sending your child to school. All you can do is pick a good school, send your child there, let the teachers do what they have to do and hope for the best. You have to pick good people whom you can trust. The film is not your book; it’s someone else’s creative work. It’s a different medium and different artwork. Norwegian director Morten Tyldum has made several good films, such as the Oscar-nominated Imitation Game. He approached me to make a film on Exit West. I asked him why. He said, “Look, I am also a migrant. I have experienced this situation and am always grappling with it. This love story speaks to me powerfully.” The production company is Russo Brothers who made the Captain America films. They said they wanted to change the conversation about migration and tell a universal story. I felt that aesthetically and politically, their hearts were in the right place. I also thought this would be a different kind of venture as compared to Mira Nair’s who made The Reluctant Fundamentalist as she had a desi connection and related to many themes in the book. But here are people who have no such connections. Hopefully, things will work out smoothly as in films you don’t know until the thing happens and I almost prefer not speak much of it, but I am excited. They are having the screenplay written right now.

Being a professional writer in Pakistan is difficult; one must have other jobs to earn a livelihood and write on the sidelines. How do you manage with only writing?

For almost my entire writing career I had a job until Filthy Rich and Exit West when I was living in Lahore and did not have a job. It is possible that my novels might stop selling and I’ll have to get a job, though that would be disastrous. It’s better to have a job and write what you want to write about, rather than trying to make your novels support you. If your novels happen to support you while you write the kind of books that you want to write, that’s fantastic. But if you write novels that you want to, but they are not going to support you, then you should get a job. I used to be a consultant for many years and sometimes do a little bit of consultancy even now. But I do that also because I like to get out of my room. It’s horrible to be at home all the time and writing. My job is that I am a father. My wife works and when the kids come from school, I am the house-spouse and I do homework with them. That’s a job and somebody has to do it. Often in a family, a woman does that; in my case I do it. From a financial point of view, it’s complete luck. Who knows what books will sell or not. For me, it’s working because my books are sold in 40 languages and published in 45 countries. One big advantage is that I write in English; I don’t have the kind of issues Urdu writers face. That’s how it has been possible for me to write fiction. It’s also sheer luck because there are a lot of amazing books and writers who don’t sell much, and lots that are not good yet sell very well.

What is your writing routine?

I wrote Moth Smoke from midnight until dawn as I was a student. Now I write when the kids go to school. When asked about his writing process, Israeli writer Amos Oz said, “I’m a shopkeeper. Every morning I put up my shop and I sit there until 5pm. Some days, no customers come, but if I sat there with my shop open I have done my job.” It’s the same with me. I open the shop at 8 or 9am until 1 or 2pm. Many days I don’t write, but my shop is open. People talk of writer’s block. There is no such thing. There are days when you are trying to write and there are days when you are not trying to write. The days when you are trying to write are success. If you keep working, something will happen eventually.

The interviewer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 1st, 2018