Novelist Mohsin Hamid's ''Reluctant'' success
London-based author Mohsin Hamid talks about his surprise at America's response to his politically challenging novel, ''The Reluctant Fundamentalist,'' his thoughts on the morning of 9/11, and studying with Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison
One of this year’s least likely best-sellers is The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid’s slender, smart, and subversive second novel. The narrator, Changez, is a Pakistani who went to Princeton, took a top job in finance, fell in love with a troubled young American woman — then watched his warm feelings for his adopted homeland cool after 9/11. In a Lahore cafe, he tells his story to an unnamed American who may or may not be a spy, just as Changez may or may not be a terrorist. EW book critic Jennifer Reese recently talked by phone with the 35-year-old author, who lives in London.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How startled have you been by the success of The Reluctant Fundamentalist?
MOHSIN HAMID: It has been something of a surprise, as I was a bit nervous about how it would be received in the States in particular. Part of it is good timing. A novel like mine published a few years ago would have had a much more difficult time. Now, I think, there’s a hunger to hear these kinds of stories.
Did you encounter much hostility from American readers, given that your novel’s hero smiles as he watches the Twin Towers collapse?
Every so often there was someone at a reading who would take a starting position that was quite hard. But once you began to talk to people they softened quite quickly. I wouldn’t call them confrontations, but some people were angry or upset and wanted an explanation and the explanation I tried to give them was, please don’t mistake the views of the narrator for the views of the author. I wrote from a position of great affection for America, and I think that saying these things to an American audience is helpful to America. A lot of people get that. I don’t want to be a Michael Moore-style artist, which is not to disparage Michael Moore. But he seems rather unsuccessful at winning people over who don’t already agree with him.
You must get asked this a lot: Changez smiled when the Towers fell — what was your personal response?
I felt frightened. I was 30 when 9/11 happened and I had lived exactly 15 years of life in America, so I was half American. I was a full-fledged New Yorker. My ex-roommate worked in the World Financial Center, and my first thought was: What happened to him? I hoped people I cared about weren’t dead, and then I thought: My whole world is about to change. I had this gut feeling it would be some kind of Muslim terrorist group, and after that who knew what would happen? My mother was in Pakistan and when she witnessed it she started crying hysterically. She used to visit me for a month every year and she’d fallen in love with New York. I had to console her.
What’s the significance of ”Changez,” your protagonist’s name?
Many America reviewers said it meant ”changes.” But it’s the Urdu name for Genghis, the Mongol conqueror who attacked the Muslim world. And with this name Changez can’t really be a religious fundamentalist.
Do you think the title of this novel is a little misleading, given that the main character isn’t a religious fundamentalist?
First, all Muslims are suspect to a certain extent. We’re all fundamentalists until we prove otherwise, until we order that beer, or our girlfriend shows up in a miniskirt. I think we’ve all felt it. Second, even though he’s not particularly religious, Changez begins to act in ways we think of as fundamentalist. Reluctantly, he starts following a fundamentalist path, though he’s a secular guy — a good yuppie. He’s becoming a Muslim nationalist, and that’s a term we don’t hear.
NEXT PAGE: ”People are confused as to their identity and try to cling to one aspect of that identity to describe what they are: American, Republican, Muslim. These are really incomplete.”
You grew up in Pakistan, spent many years in the United States, and now live in England. What do you call yourself?
I’ve realized that it’s important to stop trying to think I’m any one thing. People are confused as to their identity and try to cling to one aspect of that identity to describe what they are: American, Republican, Muslim. These are really incomplete. I’m a guy who spent a lot of time in Pakistan, in America, lives in London, likes sushi, writes books. And unlike Changez, I don’t want to pick ”Muslim” and ”Pakistani” and say: ”That’s it.” I want to pick the complicated name for what I am and have a calm inner life, rather than pick the simple name and deal with all the tensions of leaving everything else out.
What are you reading lately?
I’m really bullish on American fiction. Recently, I took on Underworld by Don Delillo and I was blown away. I read [Jonathan Franzen’s] The Corrections and I loved it. And I’ve started reading Cormac McCarthy as well — incredible. I’m a big fan of British writers in terms of sheer narrative prowess and the use of language. But there are amazing things happening in American fiction, both in the younger and the older generations, I think because the novel is having to find its own space in a narrative world so dominated by film. And I like how it’s grounded in reality. When I read The Corrections, I have no doubt I’m dealing with actual human beings, that they are intimately known by this writer. I think there’s a growing courage among the younger generation of American writers. Because of the more superficial treatment of characters taking place in cinema, they have had to deal with that by digging deeper into who these people are.
What did you think of John Updike’s Terrorist?
What Updike did so well in Rabbit, he failed at in Terrorist. Here’s Updike, this master, who is so good at getting to the core of who a human being is, utterly failing to create a believable protagonist. He didn’t do what we must do, which is to be that character. If you can’t be that character, don’t write about him! He doesn’t want to empathize with this guy, he can’t let himself be that guy.
You studied with Joyce Carol Oates at Princeton. What was that like?
She was fantastic. I was fortunate in that she was very supportive of my writing, she got to the nitty-gritty of the edits, helping me see how to improve. She was also utterly destructive and a very tough critic of those whose writing she didn’t think was up to scratch. I think that was a good thing, looking back. The one thing you don’t get as a 20-year-old student is the honest response. You have the weird semi-jealous, sometimes-complimentary student response and you don’t know what to do with it. I should put this in context: She wasn’t a terror. Whatever she said had a lot of resonance for us and what she thought was a gentle comment was the most important thing you’ve ever heard about your writing in your entire life. It’s hard to be gentle when you’re Joyce Carol Oates.
Another professor of yours was Toni Morrison.
I wrote my first novel, Moth Smoke, for her, in 1993. What I remember about her, first, was that she was a brilliant editor. Second, she could read your work aloud and in the cadence of her voice you began to hear how it should sound.
I’ve bought a notebook and I’m letting the new thing take shape in my head. I want to push myself and try something very, very different.
Can you imagine living in the United States again?
If they’ll let me back in. I keep trying to think of ways to come back. I cannot recall a week that’s gone by in the six years since I left America that I haven’t thought about moving back.