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)

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis