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The Reluctant Fundamentalist


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Author Q & A

Interview with Mohsin Hamid, author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Q: The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a monologue about a young Pakistani's experiences in America at the time of the 9/11 attacks. What made you choose this format, which has the Pakistani telling his tale to an American whose voice is never actually heard?

A: The form of the novel, with the narrator and his audience both acting as characters, allowed me to mirror the mutual suspicion with which America and Pakistan (or the Muslim world) look at one another. The Pakistani narrator wonders: Is this just a normal guy or is he a killer out to get me? The American man who is his audience wonders the same. And this allows the novel to inhabit the interior emotional world much like the exterior political world in which it will be read. The form of the novel is an invitation to the reader. If the reader accepts, then he or she will be called upon to judge the novel's outcome and shape its ending.

Q: Your protagonist, Changez, faces both internal and external pressures as a foreigner living in a country that's shocked into a volatile patriotism. What was your biggest challenge in writing about his experience?

A: My biggest challenge was not having the delicate architecture of the novel — its plot and characters — be overwhelmed by the enormity of the political events that occurred as I was writing it. The first draft — about a Muslim man working in corporate New York who decides to leave America for Pakistan — was completed in the summer of 2001, before September 11. The catastrophe that followed swamped my story; it was years later that I had something that could be salvaged, and more time passed before it took on its current form. The novel was written over seven years and in as many drafts. Then again, so was my first novel, Moth Smoke, so it may be that this is how I write.

Q: Changez's reaction to the September 11 attacks is likely to surprise some people. Did you worry that a tale of someone who is, on some level, sympathetic with the attackers would strike a sensitive nerve in some readers?

A: I did worry about it. I have lived much of my adult life in America and have enormous affection both for the country and for my many, many friends who live there. I didn't want to write something that was gratuitously offensive or, even worse, something that could prevent me from visiting the United States due to the current environment of government-erected walls. I feel I have written from a stance that is both critical of and loving toward America. I hope that readers will feel my affection and see that my intent is not to gloss over the very real pain of September 11 but rather to reconnect parts of my world, and myself, that have grown increasingly divided.

Q: Personal and public mourning run side by side in this story of raw emotions. Changez loses his footing when he is unable to separate the two. Was it difficult to find balance as you simultaneously probed the intimate pains and passions of one man's loss and explored an entire nation’s tragedy?

A: I believe that the personal and the political are deeply intertwined; in my own life I certainly experience them as such. I don't set out to find a balance between the two in my novels. Instead, I try to explore the places where they intersect most powerfully. People and countries tend to blur in my fiction; both serve as symbols of the other. Which is not to say that my characters are chess pieces: I see my characters as fully human, not as mere motifs. The countries in my fiction are far from monolithic and are capable of envy, passion, and nostalgia; they are, in other words, quite like people, and I try to explore them with that sensibility.

Q: The stunning ending of The Reluctant Fundamentalist leaves room for speculation and debate. Were you deliberately working toward a surprise ending when you first started the novel?

A: I certainly was working toward an ambiguous ending, one that would reflect the reader's own view of the world back at him or her. Depending on how the reader views the world in which the novel takes place, the reader can see the novel as a thriller or as an encounter between two rather odd gentlemen. Because the journey I am asking readers to undertake is emotional and troubling, I knew I wanted a strong narrative pull, a mystery that would add urgency to their reading. The ending, I hope, is the culmination of those efforts.

Q: Both you and Changez grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, attended Princeton, and worked in America for a time. How does setting your stories in familiar locales influence other story elements for you, like plot and characterization?

A: I am not as much a researcher as a novelist. I tend to write about what I know. I have done much of what Changez has done: I have worked in New York and in Lahore, and I have spent time in Chile and in the Philippines. His story is not my story, but I certainly have inhabited the geography of his world. I find knowing a milieu intimately very useful as a writer: it frees me from having to prove that I know it and allows me to harness it to the purpose of my story. If I can believe in my characters and in my plot, if I have seen evidence of them in the world and in myself, then I feel a certain power comes to my prose without which it might be insincere.

Q: Changez tells the American visitor that knowing history helps put the present into perspective. In your first novel, Moth Smoke, the 1947 partition of Pakistan and India directly influences contemporary characters and events. How do you hope The Reluctant Fundamentalist might influence readers' perspectives on the present state of American/Muslim relations?

A: I believe that the core skill of a novelist is empathy: the ability to imagine what someone else might feel. And I believe that the world is suffering from a deficit of empathy at the moment. The political positions of both Osama Bin Laden and George W. Bush are founded on failures of empathy, failures of compassion toward people who seem different. By taking readers inside a man who both loves and is angered by America, and by allowing readers to feel what that man feels, I hope to show that the world is more complicated than politicians and newspapers usually make it seem. We need to stop being so confused by the fear we are fed; A shared humanity should unite us with people we are encouraged to think of as our enemies.

Copyright © 2007 Harcourt Questions written by Deborah Halverson

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Marci San Francisco, November 7, 2013 (view all comments by Marci San Francisco)
Read this book. Read it if you already doubt the nature of American foreign policy in Asia. Read it especially if you cannot fathom why anyone would question the rightness of American foreign policy in Asia. Read it if you just want a fascinating read. Wonderful writing: articulate, intriguing, suspenseful. And amazingly brief for the punch it delivers.
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Grady Harp, June 8, 2007 (view all comments by Grady Harp)
A Brilliant Novel That Affords the Reader the Stance of an Outsider

Mohsin Hamid writes so well that were it not for the propulsive force of his quietly building suspense story, the reader would be tempted to linger over passages of elegantly beautiful prose. THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST is a timely book, yes, but it is far more: the novel underscores the talent of a superlative writer unafraid to place before the public a story that is bound to create a disturbing response at the end of the roller coaster ride.

Cleverly written as a monologue from a Pakistani young man named Changez (a name when pronounced delivers major clues to the story!) as he joins an American in a cafe in Lahore, Pakistan. The story reveals a young lad from a family once well to do in Pakistan, but fractured by the political changes suffered by that country, a lad who goes to America to attend Princeton University where he transforms himself into an 'American stance', performs exceedingly well academically, and joins the wealthy American classmates on jaunts where he encounters the beautiful but mysteriously aloof Erica. Changez and Erica become friends and were it not for Erica's recovering from a loss of her previous lover Chris who died of cancer, the two seem to be destined to become lovers. Erica is from a wealthy family who accepts Changez even more readily when upon graduation he is awarded a position with the prestigious firm Underwood Samson. Changez learns the feeling of the American preoccupation with success and wealth while still being committed to his family ties in Pakistan. While Changez is on a business trip to Manila he watches the 9/11 event and he is surprised that he feels a bit happy that haughty America is being brought to her feet.

Changez returns home finding his physical appearance now a cause for suspicion in the bruised country that afforded him success. He attempts to stay connected with Erica but Erica has retreated into her fragile state of melancholia and is eventually hospitalized. Changez continues his successful climb up the American dream ladder of success until he meets a gentleman Juan-Bautista in Chile who admonishes him that his devotion to his work for American companies might force him to forget the importance of home and family. Changez is changed and his decision regarding his employment, his lack of knowledge of Erica's whereabouts, and his growing anger at America preemptive attacks on countries near his home - all result in his returning to Pakistan, and the encounter with the American at the cafe. And Hamid leaves us there, afloat on a sea of questions and new information about the people we have been attacking and the result is a pungent experience in re-thinking the global atmosphere.

The book is relatively short (184 pages) and since it is written as one extended conversation, it is next to impossible not to read the entire book at one sitting: leaving the story even for a moment would be like leaving a personal encounter - rude. The story is superb, written with facile elegance, and contains views from outside our cloistered world that refreshingly informs us to re-examine our point of view. Highly Recommended on every level. Grady Harp
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Product Details

Hamid, Mohsin
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Mountford, Peter
Race discrimination
General Fiction
Psychological fiction
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
from 9
8.25 x 5.5 in 1 lb
Age Level:
from 18

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Related Subjects

Featured Titles » Miscellaneous Award Winners
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » Cultural Heritage
History and Social Science » American Studies » Popular Culture

The Reluctant Fundamentalist Used Hardcover
0 stars - 0 reviews
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Product details 192 pages HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT - English 9780151013043 Reviews:
"Review" by , "A brilliant book. With spooky restraint and masterful control, Hamid unpicks the underpinnings of the most recent episode of distrust between East and West. But this book does not merely excel in capturing a developing bitterness. The narrative is balanced by a love as powerful as the sinister forces gathering, even when it recedes into a phantom of hope. It is this balance, and the constant negotiation of the political with the personal, that creates a nuanced and complex portrait of a reluctant fundamentalist."
"Review" by , "I read Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist with increasing admiration. It is beautifully written — what a joy it is to find such intelligent prose, such clarity of thought and exposition — and superbly constructed. The author has managed to tighten the screw of suspense almost without our being aware it is happening, and the result is a tale of enormous tension. I read a lot of thrillers — or rather I start reading a lot of thrillers, and put most of them down — but this is more exciting than any thriller I've read for a long time, as well as being a subtle and elegant analysis of the state of our world today. I was enormously impressed."
"Review" by , "This novel's firm, steady, even beautiful voice proclaims the completeness of the soul when personal and global issues are conjoined."
"Review" by , "A superb cautionary tale, and a grim reminder of the continuing cost of ethnic profiling, miscommunication and confrontation."
"Synopsis" by ,
Set in Bolivia at the time of the election of President Evo Morales, the novel tells the story of a young man's moral journey as he works for an unscrupulous hedge fund while pretending to be a freelance journalist.
"Synopsis" by ,
"Mr. Hamid reaffirms his place as one of his generation's most inventive and gifted writers." –Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"A globalized version of The Great Gatsby . . . [Hamid's] book is nearly that good." –Alan Cheuse, NPR

"Extraordinarily clever." –Ron Charles, The Washington Post

From the internationally bestselling author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the boldly imagined tale of a poor boys quest for wealth and love . . .

His first two novels established Mohsin Hamid as a radically inventive storyteller with his finger on the worlds pulse. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia meets that reputation—and exceeds it. The astonishing and riveting tale of a mans journey from impoverished rural boy to corporate tycoon, it steals its shape from the business self-help books devoured by ambitious youths all over “rising Asia.” It follows its nameless hero to the sprawling metropolis where he begins to amass an empire built on that most fluid, and increasingly scarce, of goods: water. Yet his heart remains set on something else, on the pretty girl whose star rises along with his, their paths crossing and recrossing, a lifelong affair sparked and snuffed and sparked again by the forces that careen their fates along.

       How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a striking slice of contemporary life at a time of crushing upheaval. Romantic without being sentimental, political without being didactic, and spiritual without being religious, it brings an unflinching gaze to the violence and hope it depicts. And it creates two unforgettable characters who find moments of transcendent intimacy in the midst of shattering change.

"Synopsis" by ,

Now a major motion picture

Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize

New York Times bestseller

“Extreme times call for extreme reactions, extreme writing. Hamid has done something extraordinary with this novel.” —Washington Post

“One of those achingly assured novels that makes you happy to be a reader.” —Junot Diaz

At a café table in Lahore, a bearded Pakistani man converses with an uneasy American stranger. As dusk deepens to night, he begins the tale that has brought them to this fateful encounter . . .

Changez is living an immigrants dream of America. At the top of his class at Princeton, he is snapped up by an elite valuation firm. He thrives on the energy of New York, and his budding romance with elegant, beautiful Erica promises entry into Manhattan society at the same exalted level once occupied by his own family back in Lahore. 

But in the wake of September 11, Changez finds his position in his adopted city suddenly overturned, and his relationship with Erica shifting. And Changezs own identity is in seismic shift as well, unearthing allegiances more fundamental than money, power, and maybe even love.

“Brief, charming, and quietly furious . . . a resounding success.” —Village Voice

A Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year

A New York Times Notable Book

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