On Global Science Fiction, an Aesthetic of Compression, and Long Form: a Conversation with Mohsin Hamid

On Global Science Fiction, an Aesthetic of Compression, and Long Form: a Conversation with Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid is a busy man these days. The author of Moth Smoke (2000), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), and most recently, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013), Hamid’s award-winning fiction has been featured on bestseller lists, adapted for the cinema, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and translated into over 30 languages. His essays and short stories have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The New Yorker, Granta, and many other publications. Born in 1971 in Lahore, he has spent about half his life there and much of the rest in London, New York, and California.

Hamid will visit American University on March 18 as part of the Visiting Writer Series.

CA: You’ve studied with some remarkable writers (Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates, to name only two) and you have three successful books out. What are the most useful prose techniques you learned from your teachers?

MH: I wouldn’t say they were prose techniques as such; being read by writers of that caliber makes you start to sort of dream a bit more, I think, and you go, wow— Toni Morrison or Joyce Carol Oates is reading my stuff, maybe I really am a writer. And that’s the emotional side to it. One thing I definitely got from Toni Morrison is the value of reading my stuff out loud, and using my ears to edit my work as opposed to just my eyes. She also once said to me that the audience should always be half a heartbeat ahead of the author. In other words, you should be laying the groundwork for the emotional journey you want your reader to take before they actually take it.

CA: I’m trying to think how I would make that actually happen in a piece—

MH: In a way you can do it through tonality— If we’re talking about a couple sitting having a glass of wine in Paris in a sense is a very happy scene right?

CA: Sure, yes.

MH: But depending on the tonality and the foreshadowing and all that stuff you can play around with, you can be hinting that something is amiss, you know, just by sentence structure or imagery or certain word choices. So you put those things in; they will zip right by you first but something has been jarred in you, so that in the character arc, when suddenly one of them stabs the other, or they divorce or lightning strikes, it has been prepared for already—

CA: So that it makes sense emotionally to the reader.

MH: Exactly.

CA: You’ve spoken at length about exploring different perspectives through shifting points of view in fiction. How do you approach non-fiction?

MH: I tend to have an instinct towards the strong “I” in non-fiction, because I’m wary of generalizations. Beyond that I’m happy to try different approaches. In a sense, I approach each piece of non-fiction as if it were a separate performance. And a nice thing about writing non-fiction is that you don’t need to have to be consistent with your oeuvre in the form.

CA: In interviews, you have often faced questions regarding your socio-political views on Pakistan and the world at large, and how your book might relate to these things. You have talked about avoiding the pitfalls of regionalism by speaking to a universal sense in your fiction, and in an interview with the New Yorker in 2012, you used the term “Selective Abstinence” to describe the choices you make to achieve this universal sense. How does this “Selective Abstinence” function in your work?

MH: I do believe in restriction. Improvisation sometimes is easier within structure and I think creativity reacts to structure— at least mine does. For that reason, I tend to feel that the stuff you don’t do is as important as the stuff you do. Now within that, in terms of being a South Asian writer, or any kind of writer, in a sense… there’s this very nice thing Junot Diaz said once, that writing is like building a cathedral. You have in mind that someone is going to enter this cathedral, but when that cathedral is built anyone can enter it, which for me, is a nice way of thinking about it. I build my cathedral a little bit with someone like me in mind. So the way I get around Self-Exotification is, if I wouldn’t want to explain something to myself, or a person like me, why would I bother explaining it to the reader? And that’s sort of my innate position, specifically with Moth Smoke for example. But in Reluctant Fundamentalist on the other hand, where the frame is such that it is actually being told to someone who is ostensibly an American; so the narrator is not going to speak like he is speaking to himself, he intentionally speaks as though he is speaking to this particular American…

CA: Anticipating reactions…

MH: … Anticipating reactions, explaining things, which then becomes a direct address to a particular, imagined audience. And it’s a hard thing to gauge— my imagined audience was one that would be interested in self-help books about how to get filthy rich in rising Asia and I really didn’t think that was the reader I was going to find, but I wanted to write it that way anyway.

CA: And it made sense, because to an extent there was a sense of Oh, I know this tone, I recognize this type of book, so I understand

MH: Exactly, and it turned out that way; so that’s what I try to do— I try for a frame that allows me to have a reference point so that it minimizes the chance that I’m still unconsciously doing what I don’t want to do, such as explaining a point of view. If Faulkner did not overtly explain what exactly was going on in his Southern United States, then why should anyone else?

CA: So about future themes you want to explore: I was really excited when I read the science-fiction piece you wrote for the Financial Times. Have you always been a reader of science fiction? Where did the piece come from creatively?

MH: When I was younger I was a reader of sci-fi, then in the middle for a good twenty years there was a time I didn’t read sci-fi at all, till about three years ago. But I’ve always liked watching sci-fi. I’m a big fan in that sense. The problem I’ve had with reading sci-fi is that the prose is so often clumsy. Lately I’ve been reading more, and I think that it’s interesting because we have a lot of science-fiction today that is not fully sci-fi, you know, just a little off center, and I thought what about full-blown science-fiction with aliens and action? And I was drawn to it, because I can’t remember reading any South Asian, or African or Latin American science fiction. I’m sure it’s out there, but it’s not much. I mean, why are we abandoning our collective literary imagining of futuristic scenarios to people from just a handful of countries or identities? It seems like such an odd thing to have happened. So, I’m very interested in that— I don’t know if it will work, but I’m very interested in doing a sci-fi novel that isn’t understated at all about being set in the future.

CA: The world at the time Moth Smoke first came out was wildly different from the socio-political realities that exist right now. Has the increase in general real-time online communication and collaboration through social media changed the way you think about what to write about, or how to write, or how to reach people?

MH: It hasn’t really changed how I think about writing itself— I’ve always been inclined towards an aesthetic of compression. I like to write books that are as small as I can make them— I think there’s a value in things being small. I think 140 characters is a different form from long form fiction and non-fiction, but not quite as interesting as a form itself. But where it comes from, which is sense of time scarcity, yes, I’ve always loved that, and it is something I’ve always tried to write to. One thing I do like is that it increases the textuality of people’s lives. Many people in Pakistan are writing posts and blogs and such, and there’s a lot of written communication going on, much more than say twenty years ago.  In a way, the culture of language, written language, is expanding. The problem for someone interested in long form like me, is— how do you marry the long attention span that you need to write for a novel with this new environment where there are constant distractions going on? I feel like you can’t demand it; I think you have to earn it.  I try to write novels that can win people over who don’t want to spend time reading them.

From a publicity perspective—I don’t particularly love the form, neither Twitter nor Facebook, but I think having some minimal presence out there is important now because that is how you can connect with readers. In a sense, we’re in an environment where writers are going from being members of an organized clergy to wandering individual monks; the church is disappearing, but religion still exists. And so people are out there doing their own stuff, spreading their own word. I get the feeling that’s what’s happening in a sense to anyone who is a fiction writer now, or any kind of book length writer. I don’t reject that— I think if that’s where the world is going, then so be it.

Priyanka Joseph (@Pjoseph85) is a contributing writer for Cafe Americain and is a second year student in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.

Photo by Jill Edelstein

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