Tag Archives: Pakistani literature

Mohsin Hamid Rises to the Occasion

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Discontent and Its CivilizationsMohsin Hamid’s second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), gained the Pakistani writer a measure of well-earned global notoriety and indicated the scope of both his ambition and his ability. But, really, it was only a jumping-off point. Hamid has a great deal more to say than he has said in three short novels to date, or really than is possible to say in novels.

A writer’s occasional pieces are the flip side or reverse image of his or her fiction. As such, they hold a legitimate and even important place in his or her body of work, which can be defined as the statement that he or she spends a lifetime striving to make. Hamid’s novels are concise literary gems, self-consciously crafted in a manner reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro, and therein lies not only their durable merit but also their limitation. Hamid’s un-Ishiguro-like willingness, between novels, to put himself on the line by writing explicitly about current events brings to mind a truly great writer who for many decades wrote exquisite novels of global and lasting value with one hand and, with the other, stood always at the ready to leap into the breach with what one critic approvingly called “thin-skinned responsiveness”: Graham Greene.

Like Greene, Hamid rises to the occasion. At 44 he is still young, which bodes very well because his wonderfully-titled new collection Discontent and Its Civilizations suggests the potential for him to give us books of even greater importance, both literary and topical, for many years to come. And we will need him in those years, just as we need him now. For now this book is plenty important enough, and for David L. Ulin in the Los Angeles Times to praise it faintly as a “mash-up” lacking “weight” and “staying power” is to miss the point that rightly compelled its publication now. The times we’re living through are not conducive to staying above the fray, and indeed the relative slightness and datedness of some of the book’s pieces are also very much to the point; to read them collected in book form serves as an apt reminder of just how fast history is moving these days, how alert we must try to be.

The world’s peace party needs for its thought leaders to be as active and assertive as the bullies among both the terrorists and the imperial apologists. Mohsin Hamid’s reputation as a novelist grants him presumptive access to an American audience beyond the usual suspects of East Coast and academic “policy” types – those intellectuals who sell or rent their brains and command of language to the North American imperial state – and he puts that access to good use. I remember only too well my own lunch with a literary agent in New York circa 2004, soon after my book Alive and Well in Pakistan was published in London (that book could not have been published in New York). When I told him that I had written a book about Pakistan, the agent’s immediate question was: “What’s your argument?” As if writing about Pakistan required having an argument. The rejoinder that I lacked the presence of mind to offer at the time was: I’m not making an argument; I’m telling a story.

Pakistan deserves more telling of its stories, and far less hard-nosed, bloodless analysis. There is no half-baked notion in today’s world that’s more tiresome, indeed pernicious, than the notion that Pakistan exists primarily as a policy puzzle or problem for D.C.-based think-tank thinkers to think about. Pakistan – good, bad, and ugly – exists in its own right. I know this because, over two decades of traveling (and, for one five-month stint, living) there, that messy, damaged and complicated but fascinating country and its peoples have earned my love and respect.

Mohsin Hamid knows it more fundamentally because he is Pakistani, and he writes about it as a stubbornly hopeful liberal patriot. He loves his country; he is entitled to do so; and he is generous enough to take time out of his busy novel-writing schedule to explain to us the nature and meaning of that love. In today’s world Pakistani patriotism is a very important subject for us to understand. If Mohsin Hamid is kind enough to help us try to do so, the least we can do is to meet him halfway by hearing him out with curiosity and without prejudice.

The real problem, as Hamid rightly says, is that “both sides of the alliance between the U.S. and the Pakistani military share blame for the violence currently afflicting Pakistan.” An ancillary problem is that until we Americans are prepared to accept this correct premise, we will fail to understand well-informed explanations like this one Hamid offers:

By backing the Northern Alliance against the Taliban and then failing to include a meaningful representation of Pashtuns in a power-sharing deal in Kabul, the U.S. not only sided with India in the Indian-Pakistani proxy war in Afghanistan, it also elevated a coalition of Afghanistan’s smaller ethnicities above its largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. Conflict was inevitable, and since twice as many Pashtuns live in Pakistan as in Afghanistan, it was also inevitable that this conflict would spill over the border.

Or this one:

The problem, for those who wish Pakistan to take more responsibility for itself, is that these conspiracy theories [cherished by many Pakistanis] are not necessarily false. Indeed, many have elements of truth. India likely is striving to exacerbate the violent discontent in Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province, to the south of the tribal areas. (That discontent is rooted in the Pakistani state’s long-term mistreatment of the province’s local population.) Afghanistan has in fact refused to accept the territorial integrity of Pakistan. Saudi Arabia and Iran do back Sunni and Shia militant proxies in the country. The U.S. has used a vaccination campaign as cover for an intelligence operation on Pakistani soil.

It’s a shame, but a sign of the times, that I have felt compelled to give over the lion’s share of this review to topical subjects rather than literary ones, such as Hamid’s admiration for Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami, and Antonio Tabucchi, the Italian author of the unjustly obscure anti-fascist novel Sostiene Pereira (“I have never agreed with the claim that art must be kept separate from politics,” remarks Hamid in his piece on Pereira).

The particular value of Discontent and Its Civilizations is the way its selection and arrangement highlight the way Mohsin Hamid’s occasional writing has concerned itself with both literary and topical subjects, and how those interpenetrate and overlap. That, combined with the remarkably cosmopolitan perspective he brings to his humane concerns, is the sweet spot that defines his special value as a writer in these times.

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Where Is the American Writer Writing about America in Pakistan?

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Here I am. That’s my short answer to the Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie’s rhetorical question the other day in The Guardian. Here I am, an American, living in America, writing about America’s involvement – as well as my own – in Pakistan, and trying to catch the passing attention of some measurable fraction of the great distracted American public.

Shamsie’s words, at the tail end of a profile pegged on the release of her latest novel, were understandably exasperated. But they were also exasperating, because her question was used as the article’s attention-grabbing headline – it certainly grabbed my attention – and because, well, here I am.

It’s not about me, of course; I’m not saying that Kamila Shamsie should promote or even necessarily notice my writing in particular. But if someone like her is going to say things like what she said to The Guardian, then it’s both fair and, I hope, helpful for someone like me to point out that for her to paint with such a broad brush is both unfair and unhelpful.

What she said was: “I am deeply critical of American writers for their total failure to engage with the American empire. It’s a completely shocking failure, not of any individual writer … but it’s the strangest thing to look around and say, ‘Where is the American writer writing about America in Afghanistan, America in Pakistan?’ At a deep level, there is a lack of reckoning.”

The phrase “not of any individual writer” functions as a caveat, but otherwise her claims are un-nuanced to the point of being aggressively unequivocal: “total failure to engage … completely shocking failure.” I share Shamsie’s dismay, but I think it’s important to retort to her that it’s easier for a Pakistani writer living in London on a British passport to prescribe engagement with the American empire, than it is for an American writer living in America to practice it.

I’m not excusing anyone’s failure to engage, but several points need to be made. One is that America’s empire is not only global but also internal, and there are many examples of heroic American writers engaging with that, from Larry McMurtry to Octavia Butler to the great Peter Matthiessen, who just passed away at age 86. Two of Matthiessen’s most powerful testaments are the great Shadow Country trilogy, about the colonization of Florida, and the nonfiction feat of literary courage In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, about the notorious persecution of the Native American activist Leonard Peltier, the publication of which was suppressed for some years by legal action.

Another point is that the American public is supremely difficult to interest in anything, much less to mobilize. This profoundly frustrating phenomenon is easy to disdain or rage against, less easy to engage or challenge in any sustained or effective way. It’s like wrestling with a giant ameba. In fairness to Shamsie, this might be what she was getting at in saying that “At a deep level, there is a lack of reckoning.” It’s like the proverbial tree falling in a forest: If an American writer engages with the American empire, but no American readers read it, is the writer still engaging with the empire?

The American public’s chronic disengagement is a big part of what any American writer is up against. I deal with it myself, from the woman in the back of the room at a church in Seattle who – bless her heart – raised her hand to ask, “What’s a drone attack?” to some guy named Earl who, reviewing my book Home Free: An American Road Trip on Goodreads, quite inaccurately complained that I did not seek out white people and/or Americans with right-wing views: “the people that Mr. Casey talks to are either liberal intellectuals or poor, downtrodden, and minority.” It’s apparent from internal evidence that Earl did actually read my book, which I appreciate, but his review is a telling confirmation of George Orwell’s observation that reviewers will find bogus literary excuses to dismiss books that challenge their ideological predilections.

But it’s important for us pointy-headed coastal and transatlantic types not simply to write off Middle America as a lost cause. This is personal to me, because Middle America (small-town Wisconsin) is where I come from. It’s also a big part of the reason that, having engaged at book length with the American empire in Pakistan and Haiti, I left the comfy liberal enclave of Seattle, where I live, to spend 3 1/2 months driving all around Middle America during the 2012 election season.

Finally, Shamsie’s privileging of fiction over nonfiction needs to be challenged. “I don’t think there’s anything like the novel for empathy,” she told The Guardian. “… If you write non-fiction it’s as though you are from the outside looking at something. But if you write fiction, you are behind someone’s eyes looking out, and that’s the difference.” Shamsie is a veteran novelist, and I’ve never seriously attempted to write fiction, but I don’t buy it. There’s a whiff of condescension in the claim, as if by definition nonfiction cannot be as serious or deeply engaged as fiction. As a veteran traveler, reporter, and writer of engaged nonfiction, I endorse Norman Mailer’s much subtler and truer claim that “there’s no clear dividing-line between experience and imagination.” For proof, and indeed for a supreme instance of an American writer’s engagement with the American empire, one need look no further than Mailer’s own nonfiction masterpiece The Armies of the Night.

Granted, that book was published 46 years and several wars ago. Which supports the point of Shamsie’s question: Where are the equivalent American books today? My point is that such books do exist, but it’s perpetually difficult for any writer to slip any message or story that Americans don’t already want to hear past the cacophony of American culture and through the fetid miasma of American nationalist pieties. And browbeating doesn’t work; I’ve tried it.

And “rage” – admittedly not Shamsie’s word but interviewer Natalie Hanman’s – is less useful than candor. It’s both possible and desirable, even necessary, to be at once candid and calm. This is why – if I may end as I began, on a self-congratulatory note – The Daily Telegraph‘s Alex Spillius identified the true subversive quality of my book Alive and Well in Pakistan (which I’m just now republishing in an updated 10th-anniversary edition): “The author’s real journey is a search for common humanity.”

Ethan Casey is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004; updated 10th-anniversary edition 2014), Home Free: An American Road Trip (2013), and Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti (2012).

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