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'Discontent and its Civilizations' highlights the intertwined Pakistani, British, and American roots of Mohsin Hamid

In 36 nonfiction essays, Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid offers readers a chance to 'hang out' and deepen their relationship with him.

At the Asia Society on February 23, 2015.

Thanks to Haruki Murakami, we won't have to wait as long for Mohsin Hamid’s future novels. Hamid's acclaimed first two, "Moth Smoke" and "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," took seven years each. His lauded latest, "How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia," took six, after he discovered Murakami’s "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running" and learned that Murakami “runs like a fiend” – marathons, ultras, triathlons.

Why? According to Murakami, “Writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.” Hamid surmises if Murakami runs to write long novels, then Hamid can walk for his short novels: “Walking unlocked me.” Grateful readers: His daily five-mile habit should soon beget us “novel four.”

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Because writing is “solitary work,” Hamid reads other novelists’ nonfiction – memoirs, essays, interviews – “to hang out with them.” Discontent and Its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London – a collection of 36 essays previously published between 2000-2014 with a new Introduction – is Hamid’s own invitation to “hang out.”

Hamid is an admitted water lily, “a rather unmacho sobriquet (unlike, say, ‘masters of the universe’).” Water lilies have roots, but living in ponds and streams, they drift. Hamid’s roots began in Lahore, Pakistan, but his last four decades have drifted through the US as a California child, Princeton University undergrad, Harvard Law student, and New York professional; London as a temporary resident then a British citizen; and most recently, back to his multigenerational family home in Pakistan.

Organized into three sections – Life, Art, Politics – Hamid intends “the experience of reading this book to be like developing a relationship.” We get to know Hamid “a little.” He boasts to Toni Morrison about his culinary skills. He gets a free taxi ride from an empathetic “driver who looks like a terrorist” after applying for an Italian visa. He tries for the first time “living in a country and writing about it at the same time” – "Moth Smoke," set in Lahore, was written in New York; "Reluctant Fundamentalist," set mostly in New York, was written in London. But "Filthy Rich" was Pakistani writ-and-set.

In “Art,” Hamid shares how he “think[s] about and approach[es] the task of writing.” He extols his “thing for slender novels,” especially "Sostiene Pereira" by Antonio Tabucchi. From his vantage of being Pakistani-born, American-raised-and-educated, he questions, “People often ask me if I am [The Reluctant Fundamentalist]’s Pakistani protagonist. I wonder why they never ask if I am his American listener.” He reveals his “proto-novelistic skills were first honed” during his childhood experiences of being a Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master. He “advocate[s for] the death of the Great American Novel” as being “needlessly exclusionary, and … unfortunately parochial.” He eschews “intrusive technology” and therefore prefers printed books to e-counterparts.

Hamid’s “Politics” section showcases some of the collection’s sharpest, smartest segments, but it’s also the most uneven – the longest essay, “Why They Get Pakistan Wrong,” for example, reads more like a dry book report than Hamid’s usual pithy, erudite observations.

That said, Hamid adroitly elucidates on Pakistan’s relationship to the US, its bloody history with India, its many governments, changing leaders, unjust treatment of majority and minorities. As in the previous sections, his words resonate most when he shares the personal: being the last passengers to pick up “a lonely set of suitcases and a foldable playpen” after being needlessly detained (again) at JFK; or considering the need for blast-resistant film for his daughter’s bedroom windows because they face a busy Lahore street.

With patience and frustration both, he reminds, “Islam Is Not a Monolith.” While outside powers have played a significant role in depleting his birth country, “Pakistanis must realize that we have been our own worst enemies.” Foreign intervention provides convenient scapegoats rather than demand that leaders address the country’s problems internally. Yet Hamid remains hopeful, not only for Pakistan, but all of Asia: “Our continent may still be a mess, but it is a mess with incredible potential.” 

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"Incredible" and "potential" are certainly applicable to describe Hamid himself. While his novels might prove preferable, to appreciate his assessments and judgments, his humor, irony, even the snark in his nonfiction writing, enhances the pleasures of his fiction: “Maybe novels are where our selves get to put up their feet, take off their clothes and makeup and dentures, cut loose with an echoing fart, and be a little truer to what they are for a bit, before they are once more pressed into service, sealed in their uniforms, and dispatched to face a reality in which they can’t, for good reason, entirely believe.”

Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book review blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

[Editor's note: An earlier headline for this story misstated the title of the book.]