“I’ve been a fantasist my whole life,” says Mohsin Hamid, author of the cult novel Moth Smoke (FSG, 2000), a gritty, urban tale of crime, love, and drugs set in Lahore, Pakistan. His bestseller The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007) follows a young Pakistani man working in New York City’s corporate world, and his third and latest, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, (Riverhead), has an unnamed narrator working his way from his village to a successful life in the big city of an unnamed Asian country.
Hamid, born in 1971 in Lahore, spent part of his early childhood in California, where everyone he knew was obsessed with science fiction and Dungeons and Dragons, which he describes as “similar to building the architecture of a novel, mapping out what a world would look like.” Returning to Lahore when he was nine, Hamid continued to write illustrated sagas about other worlds, creating different scenarios. “Looking back,” he says, “I suspect a lot of it was a desire to reconcile this rift in my life, being in America and then Pakistan.”
Hamid went through the language barrier twice, and while he calls English his strongest language and notes it’s the language he writes in, still, he says, “I don’t know if I’m truly at home in any language.” At 18, Hamid left Pakistan to attend Princeton, majoring in international relations and also studying writing with resident novelists Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison. He wrote a draft of his first novel there, but although he loved writing and thought it was what he should do, he also thought about making a living.
He took a year off after college and returned to Lahore, where he wrote a second draft of his novel, but followed that with Harvard Law School, law being a deep-rooted tradition in his family. Next was working as a management consultant in New York to pay back student loans, but he negotiated three months off a year to write. A few years later he moved to London, and worked in banking with four-day weeks so he’d have time to write. It took Hamid seven years to complete Moth Smoke, about a banker in Lahore who loses his job, falls in love with his best friend’s wife, the beautiful Mumtez, and wallows in a life of decadence.
Much of his inspiration, Hamid says, comes from being part of a large extended family. His characters’ stories are not his own—what happens to them has not happened to him—but his work is autobiographical in the sense that “the tensions in the novels are tensions in my own life.”
“I’ve seen these worlds, I’ve felt these pressures, but I’ve taken a different path,” he says. Although Hamid has only one sister (a film professor), he has somewhere between 30 and 35 cousins and through them observed the many different paths a life can take. “You see people who drop out, who succeed, people who are happy with their successes—and unhappy. You see people marry, divorce, die…. You see violence and addiction. All of these worlds show up in my books.” Being a teenager in Lahore in the 1980s under a dictatorship meant that many young people reacted by behaving wildly, “having adventures which involved pot and sometimes heavier drugs.”
About The Reluctant Fundamentalist Hamid says, “I wanted to write about America as an insider, but also someone who is Pakistani.” In 2012, the novel was made into a film, which he had input into and enjoyed. “I love seeing other artists create,” he says. And in Pakistan Moth Smoke was made into a tela-novel, showing the first real kiss (in silhouette) on television in that country.
Hamid now lives in Lahore with his wife and two children, and while he calls Lahore “one of his homes,” he says he feels nomadic. For Hamid, living in Lahore, although frustrating and frightening at times, is really wonderful. He and his wife, a classical Pakistani singer, have deep connections to the country, and both sets of their parents live there. “It certainly fuels writing,” he says. “Tension fuels writing, and if I didn’t feel these tensions and concerns, I wouldn’t be a writer.” Writing has helped him make sense of his life, he says, comparing it to a love affair. “There are times when it’s easy, and times when it’s a disaster, and you have to work through it.” When he doesn’t write for more than a few months, he says, he becomes very unhappy. This new novel took Hamid six years to write. (“I’m speeding up,” he jokes.)
Having his own family has changed his writing; he is very influenced at the moment by being a father. He describes his new novel as a family novel; it follows its main character from birth to age 80. He asked himself how he could write about Pakistan in a different way; with so much being written about terror and war, how could he give his viewpoint? Following the protagonist in How to Get Filthy Rich throughout his entire life gave Hamid a large canvas and allowed him to “look at a much broader section of Pakistan.”
Hamid decided to not name the country or the narrator, although the story does take place in Lahore. “It could be many cities in the Third World; many places look like this,” he says. His goal was to explore what was universal in Pakistan rather than focus on the headlines and also to examine “the crisis going on where religion is being politicized.” Adds Hamid: “Spiritual questions such as how do we live and how do we deal with death are not being answered.” He wondered if a novel could address these questions, if literary fiction can take up these spiritual themes. “I intended this novel as a kind of secular, spiritual investigation. As a writer and a reader, how can we approach these ideas of mortality and death and living?”
“One of my missions and aesthetics as a novelist is to write novels that are hopefully complex and uncompromising by virtue of being quite short and by having a strong narrative and story at their heart,” Hamid says. He explains his process: “I write each book as if it’s my first, and I forget what’s been said before; that’s partly why it takes me as long as it does.” Although not his only goal, writing for Pakistanis is certainly one of his goals. Hamid is interested in readers not inclined to read literature and works very hard to win them over and “capture their hearts.” He also insists he doesn’t really believe in genre, and while his writing is characterized as literary fiction, he says, “Moth Smoke is also a crime drama, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is also a political thriller, and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a family saga.”
Ultimately, Hamid describes himself as “geographically transgendered,” saying, “I’m not really male or female from an East/West standpoint.” In short, he feels comfortable in his own skin despite the pressure to choose.
“For a long time I felt I should be one or the other, and The Reluctant Fundamentalist is about a guy who decides to abandon America and become Pakistani again,” he says. “But for me writing that book was more about accepting that I didn’t have to be one or the other.”