Pakistani Author Mohsin Hamid And His Roving 'Discontent' Mohsin Hamid combines the personal and political in his new book, Discontent and Its Civilizations. NPR's Scott Simon talks with the Pakistani author about his new collection of essays.
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Pakistani Author Mohsin Hamid And His Roving 'Discontent'

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Pakistani Author Mohsin Hamid And His Roving 'Discontent'

Pakistani Author Mohsin Hamid And His Roving 'Discontent'

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Mohsin Hamid has been called a water lily who's grown and thrived in three separate places between Pakistan, London and New York. Of course, he is best known as the author of the huge international bestseller "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," which has been published in 30 different languages. He has a new book of essays out now which explore some of his thinking, reflection and recollection over the past 15 years, during which he's become one of the best-known writers in the world. His new book, "Discontent And Its Civilizations: Dispatches From Lahore, New York And London." Mohsin Hamid joins us in our studios.

Thanks so much for being with us.

MOHSIN HAMID: Thank you.

SIMON: You say in your introduction you've always felt, wherever you were, to be half an outsider.

HAMID: I was born in Pakistan and came to America when I was 3, and I spoke Urdu fluently. But I arrived in America and quickly discovered from the kids around me that I didn't know how to speak because I couldn't speak English. I learned English, forgot Urdu. Went back to Pakistan at 9, discovered of course that once again, I didn't know how to speak properly, so I learned Urdu. And I bounced around between America and Pakistan and Britain for most of my life. So I'm somebody who can blend-in usually quite quickly, but inside, continues to remain - retain a sense of feeling foreign.

SIMON: You have an essay in here called "International Relations." You describe how difficult it was for you to get a visa at the Pakistani consulate in New York. Give us some idea of what happened.

HAMID: Well, it was at the Italian consulate in New York. I was...

SIMON: Your girlfriend - I'm sorry.

HAMID: ...I had a Pakistani passport and my girlfriend at the time was Italian. And I was going to see her for the umpteenth time in Milan, where she lived. I'd met her when she was doing a summer job in New York. And the Italian Embassy, you know, said that well, even though I had a job in New York and a U.S. visa and really no plausible reason for wanting to give that all up and become an illegal unemployed immigrant in Italy, that I didn't have enough documentation. And so they insisted on a letter from my girlfriend sort of explaining our relationship. And I remember thinking like, that's - it feels like such intrusion into one's privacy and one's life. And also, I was a bit nervous about having this girlfriend have to put down, you know, in words how she felt about me, or at least, what she thought our relationship was because...

SIMON: For governmental authority.

HAMID: Yes. I mean, who knows if she started writing it down, she says, you know, I don't believe in this, this guy isn't...

SIMON: Come to think of it - forget it.


HAMID: So, perhaps the craziest thing about that was, this occurred about a year before 9/11. So this is the world that we were living in before September 11th made us much more fearful of each other.

SIMON: I've got to tell you, I was surprised when I finished the essay to see the publication date was 2000, a year before 9/11 because I - we so often hear of the world change substantially, but you're talking about, the world was on that track anyway.

HAMID: That's right. I mean, I think that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 did change the world, but it caused the world to split and move along fissures that were already there.

SIMON: We speak in a week in which the ISIS terrorist known as the Jihadi John has been identified by British sources. You have an essay in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death - raises the question, why have we seen people from pretty privileged backgrounds fall into that kind of life? Does this destroy the whole narrative about terrorism is the poor man's politics?

HAMID: I don't think terrorism is only the poor man's politics. I don't think that that narrative is complete, so it's probably worth us re-examining it. But I think at a deeper level what we see is people are becoming hybridized, mongrelized. They're becoming Western, Muslim, American, Pakistani at the same time. And if we can encourage that kind of hybridization, mongrelization, and look at it as a good thing, I think we're relatively safe. But if we start looking at it as a bad thing - and many people do - then a desire is born to try to separate one's self, one's different parts, to not be Pakistani and American or Muslim and European, but to pick sides. And when that happens, you see young people feeling they have to reject what they think they were becoming. They were becoming tainted by becoming Westernized. And so in a way, their war is a war with part of themselves. And it's a war born of a refusal by themselves to accept that they're becoming, but also a refusal about the society around them to accept what they were becoming.

SIMON: You have a devastating essay here on drones.

HAMID: Yeah. I think that it's completely understandable that the United States would wish to deploy drones in the borderlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan. However, I think that they're deeply counterproductive, for a number of different reasons. One is, of course, they do kill innocent people. Two is that even when they kill people who aren't innocent, they have the effect of allowing, in a country like Pakistan, the continued view that America is to blame, that America's intervention is to blame for extremism in Pakistan. And of course, America has played some role in extremism developing in Pakistan. But I think Pakistanis have to recognize - and many do recognize - that the most important role has been played by Pakistanis themselves. And so the drones prevent Pakistan from basically taking the lead in its own effort to eradicate these extremists. Nobody from outside can police it. Pakistanis have to come to the conclusion that they have to fight this fight for themselves. And drones, I think, prevent that from happening.

SIMON: Can a great novelist who happens to be from Pakistan in this time just get by writing romance novels or family sagas or love stories?

HAMID: Well, you know, all of my novels are love stories, in a way.

SIMON: Yes, of course they are.

HAMID: And I think, in a way, I think love is kind of the plot in our lives, you know? The early loves we have, the early loves for our parents when we're kids, the loves for our friends, the romantic love, love for children, you know. All of that, that's what provides the structure on which human lives are built. And so for me love stories really are, in a way, the only stories. But they are not the only part of those stories. And so I think that there's a real power in the notion of love, and it's in a way embedded in the culture and even religion of the part of Pakistan I'm from, which is that one of the ways in which we can confront the horror of being mortal and dying one day is to love enough that we're not so central to ourselves that we can't face the fact that we're going to end. And I think in these times when you see politicized religions and all kinds of extremisms and the market taking over everything, love in a way, it sounds like a soft thing to say, but I think the ability to feel for others is a potential way out.

SIMON: Mohsin Hamid - his new book, "Discontent And Its Civilizations: Dispatches From Lahore, New York And London" - thanks so much for being with us.

HAMID: Thank you.

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