Thursday, 14 November 2013

In Conversation With Mohsin Hamid

Cover of "The Reluctant Fundamentalist"
Cover of The Reluctant Fundamentalist
I'll have to be honest here: I was dreading meeting Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid. I had read his second novel, the Booker-nominated The Reluctant Fundamentalist, with enormous enjoyment.

Given the man behind the book was a Princeton-educated management consultant (a species for which I have an instant aversion), I couldn't quite imagine what I was walking into when I agreed to host his appearance at the Sharjah International Book Fair, but it was probably something around a bi-cultural jerk in a suit with an affected proto-American drawl and a superiority complex.

Quite why I ever thought that was the case is beyond me, but then I was the bloke prepared to batter the world's most pleasant literary agent on stage with a tyre lever, so I've got form in the 'getting these things horribly wrong' stakes.

Mohsin Hamid turned out, of course, to be charming, affable, witty and passionate - a sparkling intelligence with an abiding curiosity. The accent was more British than anything else, a product of Pakistan's school system. We quickly agreed on how we would structure our chat and took to the two chairs on stage. We ran through Mohsin's motivations in writing, his first book, Moth Smoke, which he had taken seven years to complete and which gained him near-instant prominence before The Reluctant Fundamentalist cemented his reputation as a startlingly original writer who creates strong voices that subtly direct us to ask ourselves difficult questions we might otherwise conveniently avoid.

We talked about using 'voices' in writing and how Mohsin had consistently made life difficult for himself by choosing unusual voices and structures in his writing - about the influence of living in London, the US and Lahore and always writing about the place you weren't in, secularism and Lahore's underground scene and about how you watch your book being turned into a Hollywood movie. The time flew.

Mohsin read from the opening of The Reluctant Fundamentalist and I got something of a shock. I'd seen that voice as a sing-song Pakistani accent but Mohsin cleared that up as completely as he'd confounded my mean-minded expectation of him: from reduced circumstances, our man has a slightly old-school colonial Englishness to him. He's not jabbering, his voice is measured and reflects the reassurance he constantly offers his clearly nervous dinner guest. Given the entire book is a monologue, that voice cleverly modulated between the present day conversation and the reminiscence of a tragic love affair, the revelation was not inconsiderable. As Mohsin pointed out, everyone puts something of themselves into reading a well-written book and thereby changes it and as a consequence takes away something different, too.

We also talked about Mohsin's new book, How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia and how he struggled with the book's format before he came about the idea of writing it in the second person in the style of a self-help book. We timed out - the room was needed for the next gig and we had to cut questions from the audience short all too quickly. I blame the sloppy moderator myself.

If you missed it, you missed a highly entertaining hour listening to a charming, interesting and self-deprecating man whose work is as remarkable as it is readable. So sucks to you.

I would argue SIBF hasn't done enough to promote the author events taking place there - but if you missed Mohsin, you can still catch up with another Pakistani writer from the 'Lahore scene' on Saturday as I try and mess up the launch of Bilal Tanweer's The Scatter Here is Too Great. We'll be doing a fireside chat (minus the fireside, clearly), a reading and generally celebrating the release of this new novel by Random House.

That's November 16th, 7:15-8:15pm, the Book Forum at Sharjah Exhibition Centre in Al Nahda. There's no excuse not to come from Dubai, the traffic's fine on a Saturday evening.
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