Entering a writer's world

Mohsin Hamid

At the recently concluded Singapore Writers Festival, bestselling author Mohsin Hamid shared how he still struggles with writing.

BOOK buying and book signing queues are always an indication of whether a session worked.

Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid clearly pulled it off as readers rushed to buy his books and waited for more than 30 minutes for their turn to get books signed and photographs taken.

He had charmed them as he delivered the Singapore Writers Festival lecture, “I Don’t Believe In Reality”, an attention-grabbing title drawn from one of his own lines.

Hamid used it skilfully for an exploration of the literary style he has adopted in his three novels: Moth Smoke (2000), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) and How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia (2013).

He characterised reality as “something our mind creates”, and spoke of how in his writing he likes to build “realistic narratives inside unreal frames”.

In The Moth Smoke, he does it through a trial. In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the literary device he uses is a cafe conversation, while his latest novel is presented as a self-help book but is a much deeper exploration of issues ranging from religion to spirituality. How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia tells the story of a penniless protagonist who struggles to make it big in his city.


“The tension between the real and unreal excites me,” he told a rapt audience of about 200 people at the Drama Theatre of the School of the Arts in Singapore.

Exploration of this tension has also meant he has had to struggle with some of his writing.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist was written two months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks in America in 2001, but it took Hamid the next seven years and several drafts to rework the book and get it out in the present form.

The novel, about an American-educated Pakistani man who becomes disillusioned with the United States after 9/11, begins in Lahore’s Old Anarkali district, when a native Pakistani strikes up a conversation with “you” – an American stranger in the street, whose speech is not reported in the novel.

Hamid called it a “thriller in which nothing thrilling happens”.

Politics, religion and personal crisis combine in the book, which has been made into a film by acclaimed India-born director Mira Nair. Starring Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland and Liev Schreiber, the 2012 film has been generally well received for its exploration of themes of faith, alienation and radicalism.

Speaking of books and film, Hamid said cinema “takes the world and re-creates it”, while “books are an invitation for readers to imagine worlds”.

His latest book has also been optioned by a Mexican filmmaking team.

Hamid noted that a “film is not a book”, but he called the journey of a book making it to film “a wonderful adventure to have been on at least once in life. It is kind of cool to see Kate Hudson speak lines from your book.”

Over 80 minutes, through his calm, composed manner and often poetic turn of phrase, Hamid helped the audience imagine a writer’s solitary life and shared his initial struggles with the English language.

The articulate 41-year-old moved back to his hometown of Lahore in 2009 after spending nearly a decade in London. He first lived in the United States from the ages of three to nine, when his father was pursuing a PhD at Stanford University. He later returned to America to attend Princeton University and then Harvard Law School.

He then worked as a management consultant for global consulting firm McKinsey in New York before moving to London in 2001. He and his wife, a former actress and university lecturer who is now in the restaurant business, have a three-year-old daughter.

He also spoke movingly of the bond his father has with his baby girl and how witnessing different types of love helps him explore questions such as how people live and love, who they love and how they die.

“There are different kinds of love. When you witness those loves, a lot of other things become inconsequential. Becoming a father has made me look at life differently.”

As a writer, he likes exploring these relationships to create what he so eloquently calls “dance partners for readers”.

Singaporean commodities trader Imran Jehangir Nasrullah, 42, who attended several sessions at the festival, called Hamid “witty, global, smart and considerate. Great qualities for a very modern sub-continental writer”.

It was a sentiment shared by writer and editor Atiya Qazi, 40, who has read all of Hamid’s books. She called the author “charming and witty”, adding, “Mohsin delivered a flawless lecture which took us, the readers, into the writer’s world – his ideas, imagination, struggles and finally the story that eventually makes it.”

Public relations consultant Mansi Maheshwari, 28, said: “Mohsin delivered a top-class lecture. For me, the biggest take-aways from the lecture were the things he said about the relationship between a writer and a reader that make you want to co-create the experience with him.” – The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network

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