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Original Essays | September 9, 2013 5 comments
Editor's note: Chris Bolton is not only a former Powell's employee, he was also once the primary writer for this blog. So we are particularly proud... Continue »
My Reluctant Fundamentalistby Mohsin Hamid
The choices I faced were confusing. New York or Lahore? Novelist as my entire profession or as only a part? And the choices were related. If I left my job to write full time, I would lose my employment-based work visa and be forced to depart permanently for Pakistan. As I had done once before, I turned to my writing to help me understand my split self and my split world. Moth Smoke had for me been a look at Pakistan with a gaze altered by the many years I had spent in America. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I thought, would be a look at America with a gaze reflecting the part of myself that remained stubbornly Pakistani.
By the summer of 2001 I had produced a draft. I had consciously moved away from the multiple first-person narration and freestyle riffs of Moth Smoke. I had instead written a stripped-down, utterly minimalist love story of a young Pakistani man in New York who is troubled by the notion that he is a modern-day janissary serving the empire of American corporatism. The style was that of a fable, of a parable, the kind of folk or religious story one looks to for guidance, because of course guidance was what I needed.
But upon reading it my agent told me he was puzzled by the protagonist's inner conflict: why would so secular and westernized a Muslim man feel such tension with America? I told him there was deep resentment in much of the rest of the world towards the sole remaining superpower, and I resigned myself to a process of writing that would mirror that of my first novel, which took some seven drafts and seven years to complete. I also accepted a temporary transfer to my firm's London office as a way of deferring my life decisions, thinking the city lay geographically and culturally midway between New York and Lahore. I left America shortly after my thirtieth birthday in July, and so it was from across the Atlantic in September that I watched the World Trade Center fall in a place I still thought of as home.
The rest of that year was one of great turmoil for me. Muslim friends of mine in America began to be questioned and harassed; I was upset by the war in Afghanistan; traveling on my Pakistani passport became increasingly unpleasant; and then, following the December terrorist attacks on India's parliament, it looked as though India might invade Pakistan. Lahore sits on the border, just a few miles from what would have been the front line. I knew I needed to be there with my family. So I took a leave of absence and went back, moving into my old room.
That crisis eventually passed. But my novel made little progress. I had chosen to keep it set in the year before September 11, so that my characters would not be overwhelmed by an event that spoke so much more loudly than any individual's story could. I grew personally more divided, saddened and angered by the heavy-handedness of the Bush administration's conduct abroad. I decided to make my transfer to London permanent. I then met the woman I would later marry while she was visiting the city on a holiday and was inspired to quit my job. Until she moved to London after our wedding, I was often on airplanes between there and Lahore.
Eventually, I realized that, just as in my exterior world, there was no escaping the effects of September 11 in the interior world that was my novel. The story of a Pakistani man in New York who leaves just before that cataclysmic event would inevitably be bathed in the glare of the reader's knowledge of what would happen immediately after. I also felt enough time had passed for me to have something of the distance that distinguishes a novelist's perspective from a journalist's. So I re-wrote the novel once again, this time set around the period of September 11, and I finished early in 2005.
The novel was still short, and the basic arc of the plot was unchanged. But I had chosen to shift the voice into an American-accented first person. My intention was to tell a story that felt, for the first one-third, deceptively familiar, a tale of the sort of American dream now so often told that it lulls us into a lazy complacency. Then, relying on the strength of that bond between reader and narrator, I would venture into more and more emotionally disturbing territory.
This did not entirely work, unfortunately, as my agent and former editor made clear to me when they read it. But I could see I was close to something now. For me, writing a novel is like solving a puzzle. I had tried variations of minimalism in the third person, with voices ranging from fable to noir. I had tried the comforting oral cadences of an American accented first person. But there was not enough of Pakistan in my novel, and it felt wrong somehow both to my ear, in its sound, and to my eye, in its architecture.
But I was energized by this near miss, and I soon had my answers: the frame of a dramatic monologue in which the Pakistani protagonist speaks to an American listener, and a voice born of the British colonial inflections taught in elite Pakistani schools and colored by an anachronistic, courtly menace that resonates well with popular western preconceptions of Islam. Even as I wrote it I knew it would be the final draft. I was done a year later, in February 2006, and it sold almost immediately.
Writing now, in March 2007, as The Reluctant Fundamentalist is finally born, I feel its difficult gestation has helped me. I am still split between America and Pakistan. But I feel more comfortable with my relationship to both places than I have in a long time. 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 often be a divided man's conversation with himself.