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No prize can take the place of conversations around books: Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid, shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize, speaks of prize culture, the rise in dystopian literature and his utopian dream for the future

Mohsin Hamid doesn’t see ‘Exit West’ as a dystopian novel, but about a future with new possibilities. Photo: Mark Davis/Getty Images
Mohsin Hamid doesn’t see ‘Exit West’ as a dystopian novel, but about a future with new possibilities. Photo: Mark Davis/Getty Images

It’s likely that Mohsin Hamid will be telling us tomorrow’s news today; his fiction unfailingly, urgently pulses with the here and now. His fourth novel, Exit West, hailed as “the first post-Brexit novel", and published shortly after the announcement of US President Donald Trump’s travel ban in January, is topical in true Hamid style. A representation of the current refugee crisis, Hamid’s work, which charts the multiple migrations of its couple-protagonist, Saeed and Nadia, and where magical doors open to de-territorialized worlds, has secured him a spot on the 2017 Man Booker Prize six-strong shortlist (the winner will be announced on 17 October).

This is Hamid’s second Booker shortlisting; the British-Pakistani author was a finalist for The Reluctant Fundamentalist in 2007, and is excited about this year’s recognition too. “I mean it’s kind of like a dream situation as a writer. And, there’s a lot of good fortune in it." It’s noteworthy that this year’s longlist featured two other South Asians, Arundhati Roy and Kamila Shamsie, where last year there were none.

On the phone from Lahore, Hamid talks about the politics of prize culture, Trump’s travel ban, and his indifference towards genre indicators. Edited excerpts:

Have you read Amit Chaudhuri’s recent essay in ‘The Guardian’ about The Man Booker Prize? Do you agree with him?

I haven’t only read it; I discussed it with Amit over coffee. I think Amit’s central point is that what we need is a robust conversation around books, around literature, around what’s happening with the form, what’s happening with language—and that we can be distracted from that conversation if we focus only on prizes. And I think that’s correct.

I think that prizes have a potentially positive role in that they bring readers to books, and when one has the good fortune of being shortlisted for a prize or winner of a prize then that’s something that one appreciates. But I think Amit’s underlying point, that we mustn’t mistake a conversation about the prize as a solution for the deeper issue of a rigorous conversation about books and literature, is true. No one prize can take the place of that conversation, and if we allow only one prize to dictate how we think about books, there’s the danger that many books don’t get noticed. And so, in a sense, I understand where he’s coming from.

With the Booker open to Americans, and author descriptors such as “British-Pakistani", do award institutions function differently for those who in academic circles are called “third-world" or “postcolonial" writers?

I think many times in the British press I was described as a British-Pakistani writer, which struck me as interesting. In Pakistan I’d be referred to as a Pakistani writer, and I take that for granted. In Britain, though, because I am both, I would expect to be referred to as a British writer or a British-Pakistani. But initially, both Kamila (Shamsie) and I, when on the longlist, were referred to as Pakistani writers (it’s been rectified now).

The prizes that can genuinely bring readers and attention around the world to books should be more open to people from all over the world, and not just Americans or writers from Britain.-

As for Americans being eligible for the prize: I think, in a way, you have to ask, what is the purpose of the prizes? Ideally, the purpose of prizes should be to bring attention, and readers, to good books—to books that are formally, linguistically, stylistically inventive, that are powerful stories. And no one prize can do this. But, hopefully, across the constellation of major prizes, something can happen that increases peoples’ engagement with books. At the moment, if you think about what those major prizes are, there are many of them that are open only to American writers, like the Pulitzer or the National Book Award, and fewer still that are open to writers from places like India or Pakistan. In a way, you can tackle the question of the Booker in two different directions: one would be to say that it’s unfortunate the Booker has been opened up to American writers, but the other would be to say that if this is part of a process that opens up prizes like the Pulitzer and the National Book Award to writers from all over the world, then it could potentially be a good thing. The prizes that can genuinely bring readers and attention around the world to books should be more open to people from all over the world, and not just Americans or writers from Britain—people from Africa, Asia, Latin America, from everywhere.

Your novel was published in the wake of Trump’s travel ban...

I don’t like travel bans. I honestly believe that human beings have a right to move wherever they want, and that in two or three centuries it’ll be commonly understood that discriminating against somebody on the basis of where they were born, or the citizenship they were born with, will be thought of as barbaric in the same way that we see discriminating on the basis of race or gender as barbaric. And so the long-run direction for humanity is one where people are treated equally—doesn’t matter if you’re born in Mumbai or Mogadishu or Madrid or Minneapolis. And so things like a travel ban and this sort of backlash is against the longer course of history. And even if in the near term we do see setbacks to people being able to move, I think eventually we’ll live on a planet where they can.

We’re witnessing the return and rise of dystopian literature in the age of Trump. Would you situate your novel in this space, or are you more hopeful as a storyteller?

I don’t think that Exit West is a dystopian novel; I think it’s a novel about a future which is different, but that difference contains within it new possibilities. It’s not a utopian novel, but it is a novel that says we can imagine into being new realities, and quite possibly better than the present ones, even if the changes along the way will be jarring. And so it is more optimistic, at least for me, than a dystopian novel. I guess it looks into what many people think of as dystopia, a world of uncontrolled migration, but it tends to investigate whether that might not be a dystopia at all.

Why write the very timely ‘Exit West’ as magical realism, and not a collection of political essays?

There are two parts to your question: One is the question about essays versus novels, and the second is what kind of novel. For the former, I think they work in different ways; I think that a novel invites us to pretend that we are different people, that there are other people inside us, and to see how that makes us feel. And that vocabulary and emotional register of how we feel gives us a different basis for thinking about politics. And that is something quite removed from the approach taken by a political essay. So I do both, but this novel is very much a novel. It’s about how readers feel.

In terms of what you call magical realism, I don’t necessarily think of this book as magical realism or science fiction, but I’ll accept that it can be called those things. I don’t object to those labels; I don’t really seek them out either. For me, the effect of technology in our present historical moment is to collapse distance. And the doors in the novel are basically a manifestation of the emotional reality of what our contemporary technology is already doing. They may not be realism in the sense of physics, but I think they are a kind of realism in the sense of it happening to humanity in our emotional reality. So, the doors, to me, weirdly enough, feel in some sense, very real.

I understand that the film rights were bought recently. Will you be involved?

It’s too soon to say, but I would hope to be involved. I think there is for me a kind of sweet spot where they ask me for my advice and I can give it, but I don’t get sucked in so deep that it becomes a continuous struggle between my vision and somebody else’s. Morten Tyldum, who’s the director, has had a number of conversations with me, and I’ve come to have a great deal of respect for his point of view… It’s like sending your child to school: you pick the school that you think is best for your child, then your child has to go! You hope for the best.

Are you working on something new?

I’m thinking about stuff. I don’t have the next novel, yet. Part of me thinks maybe I will do a book of essays, part of me thinks perhaps a children’s book (because my children are still young enough to want to read one that I might write), and part of me thinks another novel so…at this stage I’m kind of in flux.

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