Mohsin Hamid on Nationalism and Groupism

Excerpt from an interview with Mohsid Hamin in Wasafari Vol. 23, No. 2 June 2008, pp. 44-49

Amina Yaqin:  On page 45, the narrator says to his interlocutor, ‘Yes, we have acquired a certain familiarity with the history of our surroundings, and that – in my humble opinion – allows us to put the present into much better perspective.’ How important is that longer history to the story you wanted to tell?

Mohsin Hamid: Well, I think it’s hugely important because my own feeling is that there is an oddly ahistorical sense as to how we here related to events over the last six years. The current ‘War on Terror’ is an example of that. There is a loss of perspective. Taking a longer view restores a bit of that perception. For example, if you think of the problem of terrorism in America, there is no denying that it is obviously a serious threat that people in America face. In September 2001, there were 3,000 Americans killed in the terrorist attacks on 9/11. But if you look at the year 2001, there were 42,000 Americans who died in automobile accidents. 2001 was the worst year for terrorist attacks in American history but if you pan back and forwards a few years in American history, what you see is that the ratio of terrorist attacks to automobile accidents becomes even smaller. The foremost story in the world for me is not that people are being killed by terrorism; there are people dying from all sorts of preventable causes of which terrorism is one. And if you take a longer viewpoint on that story, you end up with a different narrative.  

I think that the long view of this is that people are allowing their leadership to exercise power over them on the basis of a proclaimed fear. Since the ‘Cold War’ and now the ‘War on Terror’ etc, etc, India and Pakistan – there are so many contexts where this happens. Basically, we are told to be frightened of something. The thing that we are frightened of is very rarely actually the thing that kills us or affects our lives on a day-to-day basis. And then a great amount of effort goes into confirming that we should be terrified of this thing so that we are as frightened as possible. So for me, the main idea was getting a sense of our surroundings and attempting to understand our story a bit better. That’s where the question of ‘terror’ comes into this novel. The novel is just a conversation, yet so many reviewers, so many readers have called it a thriller. The reason they call it a thriller is that they are already afraid when they start reading the book. So the invitation of the book is to step back from that and say, well, what if it just a conversation? A dialogue? How likely are two people who meet in a bazaar in Lahore to actually kill each other? Why do we have to read so much fear into a few hints and innuendos which suggest that kind of thing. This also applied to prejudgements about America’s relationship with countries like Pakistan. 

The last thing is that, even if we do think about the idea of America or Pakistan or nations inn this way, we have to also remember taking a broader perspective that these are illusions which are beginning to recede. Part of the struggle that we face now is that nations all over world are trying to assert that they exist, but they remain basically imaginary concepts. There is  line between India and Pakistan and I am Pakistani and I support the Pakistani cricket team like a madman when they play India, but that line across which people can’t walk doesn’t actually exist – I mean there may be some fences now, but it’s in our minds and the same thing applies to the UK. Why can’t a Somali person come and live here? There is no real reason except that we have decided to believe in a fiction of a country and that fiction is used to say that some people can’t cross certain lines. So, where that takes us to is a series of global events that we have all been part of. Human beings are coming to recognise the illusion that nations are out there as empty spaces, they are beginning to work against these illusions, whether it’s migration of people across places, terrorists who strike across countries, whether it’s global capitalism, whatever it is. The US is in the same boat. It has 300,000,000 people. All of them are different; it is almost impossible to usefully characterise the nation in any shared sense. The same is true of the billion plus Muslims of the world. If we begin to step back from these groups that we think of as being solid and in opposition to each other, they start to dissolve. These are the ideas that my novel is continually playing with as it creates a sense of trying to negotiate such different and often dauntingly limited perspectives.” 

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