The Books Interview: Mohsin Hamid
You've moved around a lot. Has that had an effect on your fiction?
I've lived almost a decade in the UK, a decade and a half each in the United States and Pakistan, a year or so in the Far East and in the Mediterranean. Currently my home is in Lahore, so I suppose I'm part of a reverse diaspora - the diaspora of members of the Pakistani diaspora who live in Pakistan. All of it, every life experience, affects my fiction, because my fiction comes from who I am.
What made you move back to Pakistan?
Ever since I left Pakistan to go to college in the US, I'd planned to go back. And I did, several times, for year-long stays. But I never relished the idea of working for someone else in Pakistan. The professional scene here can be frustrating. I also never relished the idea of having children who would grow up far from their grandparents in Lahore. Recently I became able to make a living from my writing, and last year my wife and I had a baby girl. The time had come to move back.
I come from an enormous and very close family. I have over a dozen aunts and uncles in Pakistan, dozens of cousins. I have many close friends. I have received so much love in Lahore that the city always pulls me.
How does Lahore's cultural scene differ from London's?
There are many cultural scenes in Lahore, just as there are in London. And there is a celebrity culture here, just as there is in London. But in Lahore, the celebrity scene doesn't drown out the rest quite so much. Lahore is much cheaper than London, so money is less of a crushing pressure on culture. There are incredible things happening here in cutting-edge music, conceptual art and experimental fiction. It's difficult to compare the cultural scenes in the two places. I love both. But there is something earthy about Lahore. When a poet says something that is true, people spontaneously grunt their agreement, and that moves me.
But there is a long tradition of Pakistani authors writing in English.
English has been a part of the land that is now Pakistan for over a century and a half. Even if only a couple per cent of the Pakistani population reads it regularly, that's still the same as the entire population of Ireland. And as many people of Pakistani origin live in places like the UK, US, Canada and Australia. So it's no surprise that Pakistanis have been writing in English. English is a Pakistani language now, and has been for
a very long time.
What role does literature have to play in the context of Pakistan's troubled political situation?
The imagination matters. Yes, Pakistan's political situation is troubled, and so it is important to be able to see things differently, to look through other eyes, to break out of tyrannies of habit. Literature helps us transcend ourselves.
Do the international media treat Pakistani writers differently from Indian writers?
Certainly, historically, there has been more attention given in the international media to Indian English-language writers than to Pakistani English-language writers. But that, in my opinion, was justified by the sheer number of excellent writers coming from India and the Indian diaspora. Now the number of superb Pakistani-origin writers is growing quickly, and international attention is growing, too. I've never felt disadvantaged in any way
by being a Pakistani writer, not since my first book, Moth Smoke, was published a decade ago. Quite the opposite.
Are Pakistani writers pigeonholed?
I don't feel pigeonholed. I've written one novel about a hash-smoking, heroin-addicted, Lahori man who is having sex with his best friend's wife. And one about a Pakistani man who grows a beard and discusses his reasons for leaving the US. The two novels had formal similarities, but they were also very different in many ways. I've had people come to me and tell me they loved the opening joint-rolling scene in Moth Smoke. And a blonde American guy with dreadlocks told me he thought that The Reluctant Fundamentalist was about him because he worked on Wall Street before giving it up to teach yoga.
Mohsin Hamid's most recent novel is “The Reluctant Fundamentalist" (Penguin, £7.99)