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Speaking at Stanford, novelist Mohsin Hamid shares his international perspective

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Photo of Mohsin Hamid signing a book for a guest
Mohsin Hamid signs a copy of his book for Stanford student Samra Adeni, '14.
Photo Credit: 
Kimberly Ambayec

At the age of three, Mohsin Hamid stopped speaking for a month. Now in his early 40s and a critically acclaimed novelist, Hamid is a virtuoso of language.

Spanning the finance industry in New York to village life in South Asia, his critically acclaimed novels have been translated into more than thirty languages and even adapted for films.

In 1974 Hamid moved with his family from Lahore, Pakistan to Palo Alto so his father could complete a PhD at Stanford. When, as a toddler, he realized that his only language, Urdu, wasn’t spoken around his new neighborhood, he fell silent. 

According to his parents, the next time he opened his mouth, he spoke only English—with an American accent. He would continue to do so until moving back to Pakistan six years later and being forced to re-learn his first language. 

This early experience in negotiating cultures and languages, Hamid explained at a Stanford event on March 12, set the tone for both his current notions of identity and the global themes he explores in his novels. 

Speaking to an audience of Stanford students, faculty and community members, Hamid said, “It’s impossible for me to pretend that I belong completely to any one group. Linguistically I cut across groups, nationally I’ve lived in Pakistan, America, and the UK…and so I’ve always been resistant to the idea that you can take groups at face value. "

In a talk and discussion with the audience, Hamid spoke about the roots of the strong resistance to generalizing groups—whether cultural, religious, or otherwise—that lie at the heart of each of his three novels, Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and his most recent, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

“A lot of what I’ve been trying to do in my writing is to sort of re-complicate what’s been oversimplified,” he said. 

Organized by the Sohaib and Sara Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies, the crowded event was attended by a large contingent from Crothers, Stanford’s global citizenship dorm. 

“I really appreciated how Mohsin Hamid used his novels as a chronology to discuss his experiences and offer insight into the way he views the world,” said Samra Adeni’14, one of the dorm’s academic theme associates. “The best events and speakers are those that truly make you think and spark ideas—and that is what he accomplished,” she continued, adding that students who attended from Crothers spent a long time discussing the event afterwards. 

In his opening remarks, Robert Crews, Associate Professor of History and the Director of the Abbasi Program, said Hamid’s novels are widely celebrated not only for their “stylistic brilliance and comedy” but also for their important contributions to readers’ nuanced understanding of topics such as Islam and the world since 9/11. 

“This is a rare instance in which we have a living author who has so much to say about our contemporary world in a way that’s meaningful for historians and other scholars who search for texts that help students come to grips with our very complex, global present,” Crews noted.

A writer’s thought process

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Photo of Mohsin Hamid reading from his latest book, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.
Writer Hamid Mohsin reads from his latest book, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, during his talk at Stanford.
Photo Credit: 
Kimberly Ambayec

As Hamid discussed the chronological journey of writing his three novels, he revealed the thought process that guided his portrayals of the complex topics that characterize his work. Take, for example, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the book for which Hamid is most known. 

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and adapted into film last year, the novel is a dramatic monologue about a Pakistani man who leaves New York—and his lucrative job in finance and doomed love affair—to move back to Pakistan.  

The novel, which Hamid said took him seven years and seven drafts to write, began in 2000 as a “quiet little fable, almost a parable” about both “love for a place and for a person and the end of that love” as well as an investigation of what it's like to work in a corporate world. 

However, Hamid said the events of 9/11 and the wars that were unleashed subsequently interrupted this quiet parable, compelling him to reconsider the original manuscript. After struggling for a years, he decided to re-structure the book, this time setting it around the period of September 11, 2001.  

Hamid cited two key structural changes that made the revised version work. One was the frame of the dramatic monologue, in which the Pakistani protagonist speaks to an American listener who is never identified and could be anyone from a government agent to a tourist. 

“I wanted to invite the reader to experience a space of ambiguity, which would hopefully allow the reader to reflect upon their own attitudes towards this ‘conflict,” he said. “Half the story is missing—the reader has to supply that half.”  

The other aspect that defined this work was the voice of the protagonist, which Hamid said he crafted specifically so that it would resonate with popular preconceptions of Islam. As a result, Hamid explained, the voice that emerged is old fashioned and formal—and has the potential of being read as dangerous. 

“I asked myself, ‘What would a reader who is not Muslim imagine Islam to be if Islam were a voice? What would it sound like?’ In a sense, that’s an absurd question because there are a billion plus Muslims in the world,” he explained. “There’s ‘no sound of Islam’ in reality. […] The stereotype of Islam is a more coherent thing than Islam itself.”  

“I think it’s very important to not allow there to be this divide between a kind of secular space and a religious space, where there’s two different conversations happening separately,” Hamid later said. 

As evidenced in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Hamid’s works insist on bringing those two conversations together. Turning broad cultural and religious generalizations on their head—and insisting on highlighting the individual humanities of characters—emerged as one of Hamid’s core missions as he continued discussing his books and answering questions from students and community members. That goal, coupled with his writing style, resonated with writers and scholars alike. 

“As a historian, I am really committed to writing compelling and engaging histories,” said Madihah Akhtar, a PhD student in History. “I left the event feeling inspired to write in a way that gets readers excited about historical stories.”

The event was made possible with support from the Center for South Asia, the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, the Stanford Initiative for Religious and Ethnic Understanding and Coexistence, the President's Fund, CCSRE, Religious Studies, and the Taube Center for Jewish Studies.