“People often ask me if I am the book’s Pakistani protagonist. I wonder why they never ask if I am his American listener. After all, a novel can be a divided man’s conversation with himself.”
Discontent and Its Civilizations is a collection of essays spanning the past fifteen years by globe-trotting novelist Mohsin Hamid. Born in Pakistan, he spent his childhood in California, his teen years in Lahore, and returned to America to study first at Princeton, and then Harvard Law School. When the twin towers fell on 9/11, he had just moved from New York to London. The essays are divided into three sections entitled “Life,” “Art,” and “Politics,” but of course the three are inextricably bound. A date is provided for each piece, but for the venue of original publication, the reader must refer to the acknowledgements at the end of the book.
Thematically, the book addresses the liminality of being from many places and nowhere at the same time. Hamid has lived at various times in Lahore, New York, and London, as he is of all of them, and none of them. The tension is heightened by the ongoing disagreements between the West and Islam, and Hamid finds himself cast as an unlikely interpreter between the two. While there are a few essays from the turn of the millennium, most of this work addresses a post-9/11 world. Many of the pieces first appeared in The New York Times, but others were published in Pakistani magazines or Indian newspapers so that we see Hamid speaking explicitly to both sides. The pieces range widely, but it is to this interpretive role that he returns again and again. In the end, you will know a bit about him as a person and as a writer, and how these identities have informed his view of the world.
Centrally, Hamid is concerned with breaking down the barrier between the two identities of Westerner and Muslim. It is the main thrust of the essay from which this collection takes its name, and pertains to many of the other pieces as well. The first draft of Hamid’s second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was written before 9/11, but had to go through four drafts because Hamid was resistant to the idea of updating it to incorporate—and somehow bear the weight of—this monumental event which so profoundly drove a wedge between the two identities in the public mind. He found the reaction to the final book telling, for though he was frequently asked if the book’s Pakistani narrator was based on himself, no one ever thought to ask the same question of the American listener who forms the other half of the frame narrative.
For the reader who has never shared Hamid’s hybrid existence and transient lifestyle, one of the most pressing questions in all of this will likely be why? Why move back to Pakistan at all, let alone with new baby daughter? One of the most lucid passages on this topic comes from the essay “Feverish and Flooded, Pakistan Can Still Thrive,” which was published in The Financial Times in 2010. In it he addresses his decision to return to Lahore with his wife and daughter, even as Pakistan exemplifies “extremes of hope and despair.” The passage reads “Recently I met a woman visiting Lahore from Hong Kong. Friends of hers abroad asked her why she was traveling to such a troubled country. She said it was like visiting a loved one when they were sick. No one relishes exposing themselves to illness, but when a parent or sibling is unwell, human instinct is to be with them until they recover. Pakistan is feverish these days. But I find much to admire and keep me here, and I hope for the sake of my daughter’s generation that one day soon the fever will break.” It is these moments of utter clarity that prove that Hamid is a deft interpreter, however reluctantly he took up the role.
Beyond this fundamental why, Hamid tries to introduce the reader to a Pakistan that has depth and colour, the details that are so easily effaced from a cursory news report, or a media briefing about a distant war. He revisits significant political events and international affairs, from the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, to American drone strikes in the Middle East, to Benghazi, but also the mundane things, like Pakistani pop music, the experience of the monsoon season, or a visit to the market. Since he has edited little, “each of the pieces remains of its place and of its time.” He has a deep seating optimism and hope for the future of the country of his birth, even as he acknowledges in the introduction that some of the hopeful signs he pointed to in early essays did not end up bearing fruit.
Long and short, dated and still-relevant, the essays form an interesting reflection on the type of hybrid, pluralistic identity that is becoming “increasingly universal” thanks to globalization. And like his hopefulness towards Pakistan’s future, Hamid regards mixed identities with optimism. “Hybrids do more than embody mixtures between groups. Hybrids reveal the boundaries between groups to be false.”
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