Not so long ago, readers of English-language fiction from Pakistan expected tales simultaneously traditional and exotic, concerning old family feuds, perhaps, and replete with the sensuous cliches of the east – especially mangoes.
Renowned novelist Mohsin Hamid almost single-handedly transformed that image. His protagonists are not aunties and uncles but drug addicts, refugees, business analysts and tycoons. His concerns – from terrorism through to climate change – are urgently relevant to our contemporary moment, so much so that in 2013 Foreign Policy magazine named him one of the world's 100 Leading Thinkers.
His four novels, each formally inventive, are international best-sellers, and have been shortlisted for a string of major prizes. Exit West – the most recent – is in the running for this year's prestigious Booker Prize.
How did you become a writer? Put another way, why do you write?
I've always been a fantasist. Like many children, I used to play make-believe, and I still spend several hours a day living in my imagination. Why didn't I grow out of it? Most people do, or at least are happy for their imaginings to be guided – they enter worlds made by others, in books or films. I suspect it's because I'm uncomfortable with the world as it is. I am mixed and mongrelised. I've lived my life between Pakistan, the United Kingdom and the United States, so I'm foreign everywhere. Then, as I get older, my parents' generation is passing away. Like everyone, I can't provide the level of security for my children I'd like to. I experience the vulnerability that we all share. I'm the type of person who requires unreal activity in order to function. If I don't write fiction for extended periods, I become unsettled, anxious, uncertain. I'm less of a pain to be around when I'm writing.
Your writing is distinguished by its clarity. The prose seems effortless, and the volumes are fairly thin. Yet, once you told me a novel takes seven years to write. So how much rewriting is necessary?
My first two novels took seven years each. The third took six, and the fourth only four. I start with some ideas. I explore and build them up. I write an outline and fill notebooks. I even write a draft. Oftentimes these ideas don't work, or they lead to a dead end. Then I may write a draft which shares no words with the first, but is nevertheless influenced by it. The first draft of Exit West looked like the final product – the first time that's happened – though many ideas from the draft were abandoned. I start with something that demands engagement. I write half-novels if you like, not very long, which leave space for the reader to react and imagine.
Your writing, though very accessible, is often formally adventurous. What does form mean to you?
Form is the starting point. I use it in the same way poets used to use metre and rhyme, not as a restriction, but as a set of rules to produce inspiration The correct form depends on the nature of the story. This is what I must figure out: what's the story about? What form suits it? What language fits the form? You see, I don't accept the notion that there is a stable thing called reality which the novel simply reflects.
Humans are complex bio- chemical machines, and reality blurs quickly. What parts of me are talking to what parts of you? My construct of myself is a fiction. I often behave in ways that contradict this fiction. Through form, the novel can reveal the way in which reality is constructed, and how our selves themselves are constructed. Form allows the writer and reader to enter a shared domain. We are aware it's made up, so it can be more potent than what we call reality.
Exit West contains sci-fi elements.
The exponential rate of technological and political change means that the current moment feels very like science fiction. I think the sci-fi aspects of Exit West bring it closer to our contemporary world. Sci-fi is our lived emotional reality. I recently read Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows, which uses hard brain science to confirm what we already suspected – the internet is making us more distracted, less capable of deep reflection or empathy. The default setting of our species is towards the merger of humans with machines.
We've outsourced our memory, and the determination of what inputs will interest us, to the internet. Separation from our phones causes great anxiety, as an addict feels when separated from the object of addiction. Soon, we may choose to link our brains directly to machines. Machines think differently to us. Just as the machines must become more human for us to use them, so we must become more machine-like. The human that will eventually be capable of merger will perhaps be less empathetic and less spontaneous. Is this what we wish to become? The emotional answer is no, yet, as a herd, we're galloping towards it. The danger is that this is happening with so little awareness or consent. Our democratic structures no longer map onto technological reality.
The title 'How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia', unusually, is written in the second person, suggests a capitalist self-help manual, but the novel is very different to that.
That was inspired by Sufi love poems which are addressed to the divine beloved as 'you'. There's a grappling between the cultural origins of the setting and current materialist economic realities.
Globalisation is a theme running through your novels ...
And it's not a new concern. None of us comes from where we're from, genetically speaking. Our history is of dispersal, and of other peoples imposing on our lives. What's new is that societies which previously globalised outwards are now being globalised inwards, and this makes them uncomfortable. But the discomfort is based on a false view of history. Donald Trump's ancestors, for instance, arrived in America very recently.
But beneath the surface, I think your key theme is love.
Life is finite. Rapid change causes anxiety. So what really matters? There are various answers. Living in the moment, for example, or accepting suffering and thereby transcending it. The answer I'm most drawn to is emotional connection to others. Through connection we become less constrained, less finite. I find this approach – which is found in the Sufi tradition – both intriguing and compelling. Love is perhaps the most potent response to the anxieties of a globalised and shifting reality, and it continues to appear in my writing.
Discontent and its Civilisations – playing on Freud's Civilisation and its Discontents – is a collection of essays. How does your non-fiction relate to your fiction?
The book includes a section on personal experiences, a section on art, and one on politics. It's a gathering of my thoughts. It certainly influenced Exit West. The narration of my previous novels was always in some way unreliable, but this was a novel that said what it meant.
You live in Lahore. How does the location influence your writing?
I returned to Pakistan in 2009. This is the only place where I can see my parents and my kids every day. I grew up in an extended family. I dislike and resist many aspects of contemporary Pakistani culture, but the extended family works for us. I'm not pessimistic about Pakistan, but the optimism I felt in 2009 has been beaten out of me. There are more art galleries, PhD programmes, interesting musicians than before. There's also a diminishing of democratic space and a reduction of tolerance. Pakistan influences my experience of the world, but I'm not a spokesman for Pakistan.
Exit West is to some extent a locationless novel...
I used the specificities of Lahore as a jumping-off point to talk about the universal city. Lahore has equal claim to template status with any large city, including the imperial metropoles. To live in any city today is to live with precariousness and a sense of impending apocalypse – through political, economic or climate change. So my place is as universal as any place.
Exit West: A Conversation with Novelist Mohsin Hamid is being held at NYU AD Institute on September 5 at 6.30pm. To register, go to nyuadi.force.com