Neither aboriginal nor postcolonial - An interview with Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid and I sat in the semi-dark café of Nairang Art Gallery and talked literature and politics for more than two hours. Many people had described him as an enfant terrible of Pakistani literature in English. I wanted to know his position about the politics of literary writing in English from this region. This is the conversation I had with him. He also talked about his forthcoming novel. Here the interview is presented as the anticipation for his second novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist grows globally since the manuscript copyrights have been recently purchased by Hamish Hamilton, a major British publisher.

Q: Do you think there is something called the postcolonial condition?

A: Yes, there are societies that were formerly under the colonial rule. But the word ‘postcolonial’ is tricky. You can say American literature is ‘postcolonial’ because it is literature of a society which used be a British colony. British literature is postcolonial because the people of the British Isles were colonised by the Angles and the Saxons coming from Germany. Our colonial condition in Pakistan goes back to the beginning of time because we have always been occupied by invading people.

Q: So you are saying only Dravidians can produce postcolonial literature?

A: Yeah (laughter). Basically, that is what it boils down to. You can either have aboriginal literature or postcolonial literature. But, definitely, the experience of the modern European imperial enterprise has had effects on Pakistani society but I don’t think it is the defining characteristic of our people or our literature. I also think that the term ‘postcolonial’ describes the generation before mine. I was born in 1971 and my parents were born around 1947. Their generation was definitely postcolonial but my generation was very different. We had no direct experience of the colonial occupier. I did not even have any experience of the West Pakistan and the East Pakistan problem. Now that is even more confusing. Somebody from Bangladesh can think of themselves as postcolonial in relation to Pakistan. For me, I have always seen Pakistan as a place run by Pakistanis, often run badly but not for reasons that are postcolonial but our own structural and social.

Q: Some theorists argue that though we are independent we are not really that independent. We are influenced by American intervention in our region, etc. What do you think about this position?

A: I don’t think that necessarily differentiates us from any other country except for America. Certainly Britain's affairs are influenced by America and so are those of the Philippines and Thailand. Japan's policies are dictated by America. We are living in a world which has a superpower but whether that is the defining or most important characteristic of our lives is debatable. Whether we can put a prefix before literature is open to question.

Q: Are you saying we cannot blame everything on our colonial or neocolonial experiences?

A: We have to determine the motives of doing this. To me the purpose of using phrase ‘the postcolonial condition’ is laying a certain form of blame on the colonial enterprise. Even this can be fine if it results in a proactive agenda in literature or politics or economics. But it is not fine if it becomes an excuse for inaction and saying “we are like this because we were colonized or we behave this way because America interferes in our lives.”

Q: You are right. So many countries were colonized and still they are doing much better than we are.

A: Exactly. Within this postcolonial condition there is so much variation that we have to ask ourselves “Are we like the way we are because we are less “post” than the other postcolonials or were we more colonised than the other decolonised societies? If we are neither less “post” nor more colonized than the components of the postcolonial condition do not help us understand why we are the way we are. I think the term ‘postcolonial’ is applicable only in the situations where the sources of power are the former colonial structures. If you are a South Asian academic in America, England or Australia, you want to use the term postcolonial to intrigue the former colonizer and you explain everything from the vantage point of that relationship. You can discuss the relationship between Pakistan and the West. By inserting itself in a relationship with the former colonizer, the word ‘postcolonial’ acquires its current power. Here in Pakistan, you may not want to use the term postcolonial. You may be interested in studying the dynamics within the country. You can say you are interested in the Saraiki and Punjabi relationship or the Indo-Pak problems for example. These interactions may describe our literature better than the global academic terms but studying these dynamics may not get you tenure at Harvard.

Q: Yes, there are things that we have done which the colonizers did not want us to do. Is our nuclear bomb postcolonial?

A: Yes, the term postcolonial is a limiting one. It means that you continue to define your identity in relationship to colonisation and, as long as you do that, you are, to a certain extent, colonized.

Q: It means that this term limits the ways your identity can be defined. You are always referring to the colonisers and not dealing with the current economic dominance of China.

A: I think we should use new terms for our literature: pre-independence literature and independent literature or pre-liberation literature and liberation literature.

Q: If this is liberation.

A: Yes, if this is liberation and if that was colonization. No one knows what these terms mean but the point is that the phrase the postcolonial condition clings to the idea of colonisation as the most significant thing and thereby continues to perpetuate colonisation.

Q: Why don’t we discuss Arab imperialism and its effects on this region?

A: I think the difference is that there are some colonisers who leave and some who do not. People accept those colonisers who never leave and ultimately accept them as their own selves. Had the British stayed on in this region, they would also call themselves postcolonial in relation to the American intervention in this area. I think this is very interesting. That is why in my first novel Moth Smoke I don’t lay any blame on any actor outside Pakistan. I focused on local day-to-day lives of the people. My second novel (The Reluctant Fundamentalist), on the other hand, is much more about the relationship between Pakistan and America. It is situated largely inside America but I would not look at it as a postcolonial novel as much as it is an American novel. Both of my novels are not postcolonial. One is a Pakistani book and the other American.

Q: What do you think about the use of the English language as a medium of creative expression?

A: English is by far my best language. I could never write a novel in any other language. I can read a newspaper in Urdu but I would struggle with a novel in Urdu. I certainly could not write in Punjabi. I know a little bit of Italian and Persian but I would not be able to write more than two or three decent sentences in these languages. I write in English because it is the only way I can.

Q: Some scholars argue that if you write in English, your books become globally marketable but you are not contributing a lot to local languages and traditions.

A: Well, for me English is the only choice. But even if I could write in Urdu, I would still want to have more readers through the global readership of English books. The novel has always been an elitist form of expression because very few people could read and write. Even today, when more people can read and write, many people prefer television and film over the novel. It remains an elitist form. Does it, then, make more sense to engage with the local elite through their language or with the global elite? For many writers, it is not a matter of choice. They are simply good at writing in one language. But those who write in local languages are not paid very well and lack international readership.

Q: There may be other reasons for not writing in Urdu. For example, we do not have fully operational copyright laws. Publishers do not pay the writers well.

A: And we do not have readers, if you compare the number of novels sold country by country. Pakistan has 150 million people. That is more than the population of France and Germany combined. Compared with France and Germany, we have a tiny number of readers. Here publishers only publish one thousand books per edition in contrast to say India where one edition is of a hundred thousand copies. There is something else too. The awareness of local and global issues that different literary communities possess varies. The literary communities of, for example, Sweden or Greece know about Pakistan and its political and literary problems. Our indigenous literary community does not know about the political and cultural preoccupations of others.

Another consequence of defining ourselves as a postcolonial literary community is ghettoisation. What does one’s writing have to do with one’s place of origin? For example, when I am dealing with an American immigration officer, for him the most important thing about me is that I am a Muslim. But in fact, this is one of many facets of my identity. I am also a man, 34 years old, a writer and of Pakistani origin. These parts of my identity are not ranked above or below my religion. So when you enter the global market for ideas, you had better be recognized on your own basis not because of your place of origin or your religion. Many writers love the ghetto but not me. I want to be recognized just because of my writing.

Q: What is your new novel about?

A: It is about a Pakistani living in New York, working in the corporate field. The novel tries to deal with very political and controversial topics without resorting to preaching. It is about going to America and coming back. You can call it a postcolonial novel or an American novel. The majority of the events take place in New York, unlike Moth Smoke where you have only four or five pages dealing with the life of Mumtaz and Ozi in New York before their arrival in Pakistan. That is all I can say at this stage about my new novel.

Q: Why do you think Pakistan lacks the figure of the public intellectual and a public that responds to intellectuals?

A: We are under-performing in virtually all categories. The question why we do not have a Jean-Paul Sartre is irrelevant at this stage. We need to ask whether we are evolving as a society. I think we are evolving. The electronic media is evolving. The channels are growing. Something is happening. We have an independent media. Many countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, do not have that. I think we are going in a very good direction. In a generation, we may see a very vibrant cultural scene where one intellectual makes a statement and everybody trembles at the sheer wisdom. We do not have this today but we may have it soon.