Monday, August 13, 2007

Man, It's the Bookers

For you literary types, the Man Booker longlist is up. Here's the list.

· Darkmans by Nicola Barker (Fourth Estate)
· Self Help by Edward Docx (Picador)
· The Gift Of Rain by Tan Twan Eng (Myrmidon)
· The Gathering by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape)
· The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (Hamish Hamilton)
· The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies (Sceptre)
· Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones (John Murray)
· Gifted by Nikita Lalwani (Viking)
· On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape)
· What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn (Tindal Street)
· Consolation by Michael Redhill (William Heinemann)
· Animal's People by Indra Sinha (Simon & Schuster)
· Winnie & Wolf by A.N. Wilson (Hutchinson)

It's the first year, I'm proud to say, that I interviewed one of the nominees. Before the book was even published, I had a fascinating conversation with Mohsin Hamid, the articulate and thoughtful author of the conflicted fictional memoir The Reluctant Fundamentalist as well as the equally well-composed and popular Moth Smoke. The Reluctant Fundamentalist was featured in a very short spotlight for a Kirkus Reviews special earlier this year. My sincerest congratulations to the author on his achievement.

It seems a worthy moment to share a few insights into the creation of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Here's a roughly edited adaptation of the original interview.

An Interview With Mohsin Hamid, January 2007

by Clayton Moore

Tell me about your new book. The Reluctant Fundamentalist seems to be about a man divided by his devotions.

It’s about a lot of things. It’s about the Muslim world in America. It’s about a Pakistani man, specifically, who lives in America and is very much in love with an American woman but who feels compelled to leave. It is an emigration novel, I believe. The typical immigrant novel about America tells the story of coming to America. This novel is the story of leaving America.

In a way, I believe it fits with a number of changes that have happened within America itself. America has historically been this beacon of opportunity for people all over the world. At the moment, particularly in the Muslim world, there is a feeling of being unwanted and being pushed away from America.

My understanding is that you started the draft and then 9-11 happened in the midst of it, which fundamentally changed the book?

That’s absolutely right. The idea for the book - about this Muslim Pakistani man living in America and feeling a degree of tension about where he is – was there before. My agent saw it at the time and said I’m not sure about this, why would this Muslim man feel this kind of tension in America? And then the whole world changed. It became a question of how you cope with something that has so overwhelmed your novel. It took a few years to process it.

How did the book change for you after 9-11?

I started by resisting 9-11 and tried to write the novel by setting it before 9-11. I struggled with that for a couple of years and eventually, it just seemed impossible. Then it became a question of writing this story yet dealing with the world we live in. 9-11 is in many ways the backdrop but it’s certainly not the story. It has huge impact on these characters but their story is not the story of what happened on 9-11. It’s just something which has happened in the world.

Do you have any concern that it might be perceived as autobiographical?

I’m not heavily worried about it being perceived as autobiographical. To a certain extent, the only reason an author worries about a book being perceived as autobiographical…one reason is this notion that autobiographical fiction isn’t ‘real’ fiction, that if you make something up, it makes for better fiction. I don’t know that notion is true. Secondly, I don’t want the book to be seen as a veiled autobiography because I don’t want people to think that the political views of this character are my personal political views.

Did the experience of living in America inform the book?

If I had to think over the last decade of my life of the issue that has most preoccupied me as a person, it has been negotiating this tension between the very American side of myself and my Pakistani and Muslim origins.

Moth Smoke was a book I wrote when I was largely in America. It began in my last year of college so I had only been in America a short period of time. I wrote this novel largely after leaving America although it was began before I left. It reflects on the experiences I had before I left, to a large degree.

Both novels were about a reality which I had passed through. It seemed only natural to write about America, having lived there for so long. In fact, it would have been a bit odd to insist on writing something about Pakistan.

The challenges of writing about a self divided have to be challenging as well.

It is more complicated. It’s very difficult to remove a part of yourself. What Changez has found in America is that this kind of Muslim-ness or Pakistani-ness, this tribal identity that he was not at all aware of – he was trying very hard to be an American – suddenly surged back up when he becomes threatened. Yet when he goes back to Pakistan, his love for America, and Erica, who is obviously part of America - that doesn’t go away. I think in many ways, he’s been penetrated by both of these cultures. Wherever he goes, he will always be torn.

(We discuss contemporary politics and culture in America for a bit.)

Bill Clinton’s America felt to me like a place where that tribal identity was more subdued. There was almost a common goal: the world looked at America and saw the Internet and saw lots of other things. There was a sense that we could all move in the same direction together. It felt like something that we could all be part of. Whether you like or dislike Bill Clinton, his America and the direction it was headed felt like something that everyone could join.

America today is moving in a much more non-inclusive direction. It seems to be about being the strongest and that strength not being defined as “one among many,” but really about being the strongest one, alone. In that environment, people feel threatened because America suddenly seems to threaten other places where before, America was much less threatening. America was always militarily powerful but you did not get the sense that American would suddenly launch all of these military adventures. Now that it has recently proven itself capable of those actions, the tribal identity is invoked. We can forget about our tribes if people welcome us and say that we can all be part of the same movement. But if we’re not welcomed and the tribe comes under attack, then the tribal identity comes back even in the most cosmopolitan people.

Does it feel different, living as you do, in London now?

London is very different. In many ways, from global geopolitics, the UK makes more sense in the way that they relate to the world. They know the country is not powerful enough to shape the world so it plays a more participatory role on the world stage. With that sense comes a certain degree of humility. Media – there are many different viewpoints. All of those are positives.

That said, the ability to be British is not close to the ability to ‘be American.’ In my time in America, to feel like I was an American even though I didn’t have an American passport, was very easy. I now have a British passport but I don’t feel completely British. It’s very difficult to integrate fully here. These countries are still tribal countries where there was a sort of dominant ethnic group, which they are not completely beyond. America may not place great value on other cultures but it does allow you to be an American almost completely once you are there.

(We discuss the ups and downs of living overseas).

A lot of my friends in London are Americans and they are ex-pats for the first time, as I was in New York. The ex-pat condition is something that very few Americans have experienced, particularly in London where people come feeling that they won’t feel like ex-pats because you share a common language. But that’s not the case.

Talk to me about why we only hear one side of the conversation between your narrator and his foil.

The key purpose it serves….it tries to have two characters – the narrator and the person that the narrator is speaking to. The way that monologue takes place is like the way the Muslim World and America look at one another. There’s this underlying sense of suspicion in the narrative that arises from the way the story is told. That suspicion is prevalent in Pakistan as well. Is America the country that produces the music that we love or is it the country that is going to bomb us? In America, it’s the question of whether Pakistan is full of normal people just like us or is it full of crazed terrorists? Neither side really knows so there’s this weird suspicion on both sides. By telling the novel in this manner, it tries to capture that suspicion.

It’s like a dramatic monologue, like a one-man play where a single guy is sitting on the stage talking. Maybe he has a conversation but he only tells you his half of the conversation. The other thing I like about the structure is that it allows you to remain within the realm of realism but yet do more broad things and achieve certain effects and have more space to play as a writer. We know the story is real; but the setting requires a certain suspension of disbelief. It allows you to be more playful as a writer.

What would you like readers to experience reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist?

I think if people could wrap their heads around the notion that animosity and love in the world are often very closely related in the world, very often within the same person. We should be very suspicious of attempts to make the world seem simple, because it isn’t. Many people I know in Pakistan who may be very resentful towards American policies went to college in America, or they’re in love with American television shows or films, or even have American friends. The world that we have now with this ‘Axis of Evil,’ or the ‘War on Terror,’ these terms are meant to make things simple. When we make things simple, we end up with very tragic outcomes. Things are more complicated. Love is actually a human instinct that should unite us with people that we may not necessarily expect to like.

It would be nice to imagine that this novel might reach a wide global audience.

It’s an interesting question. Moth Smoke became a cult hit in Pakistan and also in India. It resonated with twenty-somethings and other people who don’t usually read novels at all. It was made into a television miniseries in Pakistan and permeated the culture to a certain extent. I would very much like this book to do that as well in Pakistan and I expect and hope that it will.

But reaching a big audience abroad is a goal as well. As a writer, you’re just one voice in the six billion voice debate. If people get to hear your voice, it’s all for the good.

(We discuss inspirations and the book industry).

I also think, as a writer, I’m very much of the school of trying to exclude a reader. Many great writers that I look up to and respect from Shakespeare on down have tried to craft things that are very complex but also can pull people in. Whether it’s the great religious texts of the bible or the Koran or whether it’s great fictional texts or plays or whatever, you don’t have to alienate an audience just because you want to write something complicated.

How do you tell them? That’s why narrative is important. People tell me that literature is about character-driven thing and genre fiction is about narrative-driven things. I just don’t think that’s true. I think that narrative is a very important way of seducing your audience and hopefully taking your thoughts to places that may otherwise be impenetrable to those ideas.

There is this idea in America that culture should be popular. The Sopranos can be taken seriously as a work of art. In the rest of the world, literary writers stay in a different universe from regular readers. Completely sales figures aside – same number of books sold – if they were read by different kinds of people ranging from very literary-minded readers to people who don’t read much at all, I would be very pleased. The nicest thing anyone ever said about my novel is a guy who came up after a reading and said, “I really liked your novel. It’s the only one I ever finished.” That was great because it’s exactly what I would like to have happen: to have someone who doesn’t read books read one and be slightly affected by it.

Any other messages that you would like to broadcast about the book?

What else would I say? This novel, although it’s told as a story in Pakistan and it’s told in a voice that feels very old-school Pakistani, is really my American novel. It’s very strange, because when I look back at Moth Smoke in the light of this novel, it’s a novel set almost entirely in Pakistan but with a very American sensibility. This novel is set almost entirely in America but with a very Pakistani sensibility. I think only after writing the second one did I realize how essential both those viewpoints are to my identity as a writer.

What’s next?

I have an idea in my head. Part of what I’d like to do is to do something very different. Part of me thinks I need to engage London because I’m living here now. I think about writing something about an American living in London. As a Pakistani writer living in London, writing about an American living in London from an American point of view would be a lot of fun. I think it’s a lovely thing to do. London was well known as being the center of a colonial empire, which colonized everywhere else. Now London is being colonized because so many people from all over are moving here: the most colonial city in the world being colonized by everybody else. I might return to Pakistan for a novel as well. Who knows?

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