Mohsin Hamid: "I think the personal is political and the political is personal"

The Books Interview.

Mohsin Hamid. Photograph: Getty Images

Your new book addresses the reader in the second person. Is it partly an attempt to break the isolation of the author and reach out?
The process is private but the desire is to share. Writing is one of the few times that people get to take somebody else’s thoughts into the space where they contain their own thoughts. That permeability and access is an unusual state of affairs. But it’s as if we feel that because it’s such a personal thing, it’s best not to make ourselves self-conscious about it. The question becomes, without compromising that intimacy, can you talk about it?

How did you go about channelling the politics of a continent into the mind of an individual?
I think the personal is political and the political is personal. In Sufi terms, there are two very interesting notions of transcendence. One is to gaze out at the universe and to comprehend that what you see out there reflects what you are. The other one is to look inside yourself and recognise that the universe is present there.

The book plays with the self-help genre, which is typically more about “I” than it is about “you”, isn’t it?
It’s all I! For both writer and reader. It’s an incredibly narcissistic genre. Though I’m interested in self-help, it’s more about self-mitigation and self-transcendence. The fundamental problem is mortality – the stronger your sense of self, the more frightening the ending becomes. It’s only various approaches – whether asceticism or mysticism or love – that we have evolved as human beings for millennia and that render the self less central, which make the end of the self less horrifying.

Do you think the communication of self is more prevalent than ever before?
The market works by reinforcing the self, so the most effective market actor is the most self-centred, to understand precisely what your needs and wants are. So as the market gets stronger it reinforces the self, but that troubles us, it makes us anxious. What’s interesting is what can the novel do, because in the novel there is a natural blurring of the self. Where else do you sit in solitude for six hours with your thoughts and somebody else’s thoughts?

Do you dispute the arguments of David Shields and Sheila Heti, then, that the novel no longer adequately reflects life?
When people talk about the death of the novel, they are speaking of the need for the birth of something different. Sheila Heti said that the advent of long-form, character-driven narrative television can liberate the novel in the same way photography liberated painting – it allowed abstract expressionism and surrealism to come into existence. But I go back to where literature comes from. In Pakistan, the dominant literary form of the past 1,000 years has been the Sufi poem. That poetry is often addressed to a beloved who is referred to as “you”, and is preoccupied with the notion that the way to apprehend the divine is to love – not an acquisitive love but a kind of love that says, I desire you to be less lonely.

You’ve written that “you” opened up a wider narrative space – in what way?
Yes, it liberates. The purpose of form is to enable. Any formal decision that I make has to have a reason and it can’t be, oh look how cool this is going to look. There are no sort of gold stars available for form.

Though sometimes it feels as though writers think there might be.
Yes, and I’m sure I do that, too. But I usually throw those drafts away or hope I do. The Reluctant Fundamentalist was at one point not a dramatic monologue and was told entirely straight in an Americanaccented first person. Before that, it was a gentle fable. It failed completely.

How do you know it’s not working?
I show people I trust who tell me this is terrible. For about a day or two I consider ending my relationship with them for ever and then I reflect and say, you know, they might be right.

Interview by Sophie Elmhirst Mohsin Hamid’s “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” is published by Hamish Hamilton (£14.99)