People & Society

Willing representatives: Mohsin Hamid and Pakistani literature abroad

Published 19 Jan, 2019 03:38pm
At the announcement of the Booker Prize Shortlist in 2007 | Courtesy Mohsin Hamid
At the announcement of the Booker Prize Shortlist in 2007 | Courtesy Mohsin Hamid

In 2010, the UK magazine Granta published its only Pakistan issue. The magazine’s cover was decorated by an artist from Karachi, Islam Gull, and celebrated a Pakistan that seldom travels far from our borders. There were no explosions, beards, or ominous men with guns at their back, but only natural scenes of lakes, tigers and birds. Flipping through, one could have been impressed. The contributors were diverse enough – 19 in all – with a good mix of ‘international’ and ‘local’ voices. A flaw, if there was one, was never particularly noticeable: out of the 18 pieces of poetry, fiction and reportage, just three had been written in local languages.

Admittedly, Pakistanis writing in English have had it good for almost two decades now, long before the 2010 issue of Granta was produced. However, surprising though it may now seem, English literature classrooms have historically not wandered outside the boundaries of British or American writing, and certainly not in any substantial way before the 1970s. If Pakistani literature in English now has some global importance, this has happened very much within living memory – with the creation of a World literature canon starting in the 1960s, the setting up of postcolonial studies as an academic discipline in the 1980s and the collapse of the twin towers in 2001.

Of the present crop of renowned Pakistani writers in English, most of whom came of age in the early-to-mid 2000s, Mohsin Hamid is perhaps the most famous. Writing regularly for publications like The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Guardian, and with internationally acclaimed novels like The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Exit West to his credit, Hamid has established himself as an authority figure on Pakistani culture and politics. Together, Hamid’s rise and the publication of Granta**: Pakistan, form a window into the development of ‘Pakistani literature’ as a category abroad, subject to its own selective politics and institutional pressures.

Hamid’s writing really took off in the post-9/11 era, when the world once again became obsessed with the Middle East and a static idea of ‘Islamic civilization’. This obsession, mixed with fascination and terror, was more than anything else a desire to know ‘the Muslim’ and the possible dangers he could pose. The Reluctant Fundamentalist stoked this desire and thus launched Hamid to the stature of a literary celebrity. The novel’s protagonist, Changez, promised entry into a world where, in academic Peter Morey’s words, “conclusive lessons about Islamic radicalisation [would] be forthcoming”. At the same time, Changez played with and frustrated the idea that his real thoughts could actually be known. Supposedly a believer in American ideals, he always acted overly formal with his interlocutors, appearing calculated, and even devious.

Changez was well received by English readers and academics, because his dubious character allowed readers to re-enact and discuss both postcolonial hybridity and the wider context of Islamophobia in the 2000’s. At the same time, few have taken seriously, the appeal of a character like Changez; the image of a dangerously Eastern or ‘Muslim’ inscrutability inadvertently relies on a one-dimensional image of Muslim religiosity that broadly typifies Hamid’s work.

Exploring the many worlds of Mohsin Hamid’s fiction, the reader finds little room for a nuanced Muslim subjectivity. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, like much of Hamid’s writing, is obsessed with the image of a Muslim man’s beard and how this could signal latent danger or radical conservatism. True, Hamid’s writing is at times self-reflexive on this point, but this is usually not the case. In his first novel Moth Smoke, for example, the main character Daru sits alone in the cinema when a man approaches, prompting Hamid’s protagonist to immediately note his “thick black beard”. Predictably, this man turns out to be a “fundo” just as Daru had expected “from the moment [he] saw him”.

At the Lahore Literary Festival in 2014 | Courtesy Mohsin Hamid
At the Lahore Literary Festival in 2014 | Courtesy Mohsin Hamid

Fundo’, short for fundamentalist, is an important category, used indiscriminately by Pakistan’s elite Anglophone class to describe any person with deeply or sincerely-held religious beliefs, and certainly anyone who chooses to keep a beard for reasons of this sort. ‘Fundos’ litter Hamid’s fiction: there are few, if any, religious characters that are not either ‘dangerous’, or at least thought to be so. True to form, Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia has its own violent and coercive “university organisation”, which the main character “grows a beard” to be able to join.

These patterns continue in A Beheading, Hamid’s short story contribution to the Pakistani Granta, in which the protagonist is a nameless first-person narrator who is, it seems, randomly attacked, kidnapped, and eventually beheaded. Interestingly enough, the assailants in this story are not just unknown and dangerous, but also entirely un-decodable, speaking not even “Arabic or Pashto” but what the narrator can only compare to “f***ing Chechen”. Like the majority of dangerous figures in Hamid’s fiction, these strange, malevolent men are coded as religious: the protagonist, in trying to receive forgiveness, can’t remember how to say his prayers. Yet he wishes he could. “I’d ask them to let me pray,” he says. “Show them we’re the same.”

In its three brief pages, A Beheading captures the tendencies in Hamid’s representation of the Muslim and the ‘fundo’. Religious men are imposing and cunning, even terrifying. In the story, they do not have any identifiable reason for attacking the main character, nor do we get a real sense of why they have come to be the way they are. There is little room for these descriptions, which is partly the point: in most of Hamid’s stories and novels, religious belief (and the beard in particular) has little other function than as shorthand for signalling possibly-hidden Islamist sympathies or terrorist leanings.

It is strange that the fiction of an author typically held representative of a country with nearly 200 million Muslims – an ostensible ‘Islamic Republic’ no less – furnishes little nuance in relation to this religion. Islam in Hamid’s fiction is tritely homogenous, and the tensions it implies are those produced in relation to ‘Western modernity’ and the interpretations of liberty and individualism associated therewith. This does not mean that Hamid is himself an unqualified flag-bearer for these ideals, especially as The Reluctant Fundamentalist also critiques capitalism as another form of fundamentalism. At the same time, though, Hamid’s fiction gives us no real sense of Muslim existence apart from the oft-repeated associations with the war-on-terror and the clash-of-civilisations thesis.

Part of the problem is that Hamid has achieved success as an international author through the publishing centres of New York and London, with the support of pertinent political currents, and a global audience to which he has tailored his writing. Unfortunate as it may be, contemporary literature from the so-called ‘third world’ is often picked up and read, especially by casual readers, for the ‘authentic’ or ‘true’ view it gives of political crises in these places. These books are read less for their literary or aesthetic value and more as reportage revealing the ‘real’ conditions of a place and its people. Given that the spike in interest in Pakistani literature post-9/11 resulted from our involvement in the war on terror, these perspectives mean that Hamid’s limited engagement with what it means to be a Muslim makes him more appealing to the wide readership. It makes him more likely to be published, and reviewed, and to be considered for international prizes.

It is not surprising that Hamid’s most successful novels have also been his most topical ones: The Reluctant Fundamentalist, released in the context of the war in Iraq, and Exit West, published during the international refugee crisis, were both short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Still, Hamid’s rise to fame has obviously not been a simple matter of selecting the right book for the right moment. With his growth as a writer has come not just a more assured command over style, but also, and more importantly, a profound understanding of the English publishing world and the Anglophone universities, both of which have been integral for opening his work to non-Pakistani audiences.

Photo by: Murtaza Ali, White Star
Photo by: Murtaza Ali, White Star

It is not controversial to say that Hamid’s first novel has been his least well-known. Moth Smoke focused on the lives of several people living in Lahore: its plot revolved around the main character Daru’s relationship with an old friend, Ozi, and his wife, Mumtaz. Hamid’s setting was local, and so was his conflict, to a degree. The plot unravelled mostly in Lahore as the novel criticised the habits and prejudices of the city’s upper classes. However, though it was well received and appreciated by the likes of Anita Desai and Jhumpa Lahiri, Moth Smoke never became the massive cultural event Hamid’s future books would be. This would start only a decade later, when massive fanfare would greet The Reluctant Fundamentalist in 2007.

It was with his second novel that Hamid became a renowned ‘Muslim’ and ‘Pakistani’ novelist, at the same time as his rootedness in Lahore began to fade. Hamid’s new novel gave up the resolute Lahori focus of his earlier work and instead became equally attentive to both Lahore and New York, Pakistan and the US, ‘the Muslim’ and ‘the West’. It was at this point that the author’s language changed too: acutely aware of his reception abroad, Hamid wrote a book that spoke directly to an American audience, engaging them in conversation. “Do not be frightened by my beard,” says Changez, “I am a lover of America.”

By his third and fourth books, Hamid was well on his way to becoming much more than a Muslim or a Pakistani novelist. At this point it had become clear that to be canonised as a great, world-renowned author, he had to further supersede the relative rootedness of his earlier works. To be famous within the newly ascendant category of a ‘global author’, his concerns needed to be wider, grander and responsive to developments and politics that spoke to audiences in the US and UK. Effectively, his writing needed to interest the North American publishing industry, its casual readers and attentive universities.

The politics of How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Hamid’s third novel, were not identifiably Lahori or Pakistani, but avowedly ‘South Asian’ and ‘Asian’. Focusing on a nameless protagonist – you – the novel’s plot unfolds in an unnamed ‘Asian’ city and country. In this way, Rising Asia’s politics and aesthetics rely on the idea that all people and places in Asia are interchangeable and can be spoken of generally – sans the specificities of language, religion, and culture – since they share the experience of development (or underdevelopment) on an increasingly neo-liberalised continent.

With Exit West, Hamid has expanded the premise of Rising Asia yet further, by giving us the story of Nadia and Saeed, two lovers caught in the destruction of their city by militants. In Hamid’s fourth and latest novel, strange, portal-like doors make the whole world’s borders porous: you can now escape to safer places, though the First World will eventually be just as inhospitable as home is now. In his latest book, Hamid is not talking about Lahore, Pakistan, or even Asia specifically, since the novel’s initial logic distinguishes only vaguely between the East and the West. As is the case with Rising Asia, the reader does not get any sense of localised politics nor the diverse kinds of actors that differentiate Lahore from Delhi, Delhi from Kabul, or Kabul from Aleppo. This kind of writing also has connections with how ‘the Muslim’ never takes a detailed form in Hamid’s work. Like these increasingly generalise-able cities, the category of ‘the Muslim’ matters more for the distinction it makes against ‘the West’, rather than for any internal tensions or conflicts it could reveal.

Especially with his last two books, Hamid has increasingly rejected local politics, histories and literary influences, preferring instead to focus on internationally relevant discourses. He has increasingly positioned himself as a ‘global’ author by tying both the content and form of his fiction to prevailing world events, and by making his writing more current, accessible and appealing to both specialised and relatively popular audiences in North America and Europe. In his creation of nameless countries and cities, and his use of broadly homogenising categories like the fundo, Asia, East, and the West, he promises publishers and casual readers writing that requires little previous knowledge or cultural expertise to understand. For academics, he creates novels easily assimilable by a range of disciplines and for a variety of purposes, since local geographies and histories no longer remain barriers to entry.

As an individual, Hamid is perhaps entitled to write the fiction he sees fit and to tackle the issues he values. And yet, it is also unethical to ignore, that to be read outside our borders is a privilege to which only certain writers have access. A look at the Pakistani Granta is proof enough: most of the writers published, and even the few translators present, are those educated and based abroad, or who have at least spent more than a significant portion of their lives in Europe or North America. The point here is power: the individual merits or demerits of English writers notwithstanding, it is really not debatable that they benefit from their generally upper or upper-middle-class status, which allows them to travel to and enter Western language publishing systems directly, to forge connections that help their name and work spread farther and wider.

There is also the question of influence: it is unreasonable to assume that elite education and extended stays abroad do not shape one’s outlook or art. Like Hamid, many of Pakistan’s internationally renowned authors bear the stamp of their experiences in the stories they choose to tell, who the stories are about, the kinds of characters they create, and in what, for them, counts as real conflict and not ‘ideology’. The Pakistani Granta reflects this bias too, as a disproportionate number of stories are standard fare: immigrants abroad, Islamic violence, and the antagonism between tradition and modernity.

Courtesy Mohsin Hamid
Courtesy Mohsin Hamid

Contrary to what a certain brand of intellectuals may argue, Pakistan and its people look very different in its many local languages, which cannot be subsumed by English. This is not parochialism, but an acknowledgement of how the diversity of class, caste, kinship and religious viewpoints shape the texture and value-systems of the languages people have grown up speaking. People’s values and their social and historical experience give meaning to their language.

In Pakistan, the difference between our English stories and those in other languages can be quite stark, because English remains elite and inaccessible, often acquired at the direct expense of Urdu, Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi and Balochi, etc. People from economically modest, ‘traditional’, or rural backgrounds seldom have access to it, while many of our most popular English novelists, on the other hand, do not have deep fluency in local languages or their literatures. Is it defensible, then, that the stories of about 200 million citizens be told by such an insignificant minority, and one that claims a singular Pakistani experience in English, the most elite language of all?

Insofar as the most prominent of our writings abroad are not deeply rooted in the immediate concerns, politics, and languages of the vast majority of Pakistanis, the charge that English writing is not really from Pakistan is perhaps warranted. Nonetheless, the situation is improving and some English-language writers have produced novels that open up an otherwise-limited canon: Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s Between Clay and Dust, Dr Osama Siddique’s Snuffing Out the Moon, and Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi are some excellent works of this kind, as has been the writing of Mohammed Hanif. This distinct body of work is generally produced by the subsection of writers proficient in traditions besides English, though there is still a general bias towards Urdu at the expense of other languages.

Unsurprisingly, however, novels like those mentioned above have as yet been unable to reshape the dominant definitions of Pakistani literature abroad: their excellence and availability in English does not mean they generate significant debate or discussion outside South Asia, and they often fail to reach the shelves of international bookstores, not to mention university syllabi. Under these conditions, it is vital that our most prominent writers move from politics of individualism to one of collective responsibility. Now especially, suggestions that we write only for ourselves will not do.

At the very least, English writers involved in the global literary market need to forge new relationships, making their personal connections and institutional resources available to those from other languages and backgrounds, to those whose politics and concerns differ from theirs. This is certainly a difficult task, as much a social and political project as it is a literary one, made more precarious by how writers, like the rest of us, are not inclined to work against themselves. And yet if they do so, and if we can practically encourage the instruction and integration of various literatures and languages across social classes, it is possible that the Pakistan written in English will become more circumspect, and less sure that it knows itself.

The writer is a graduate student in comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania, where he works on Urdu and English literature. He tweets @ZainRMian.