Refugees, optimism and literary roots: Viet Thanh Nguyen and Mohsin Hamid in conversation
Among critic at large Viet Thanh Nguyen’s many accomplishments is his acclaimed short story collection “The Refugees.” In April he spoke to Mohsin Hamid, whose novel “Exit West” was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and winner of the Los Angeles Times book prize for fiction, at the L.A. Public Library’s ALOUD series in April. This is an edited excerpt of that conversation.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: “Exit West” is a book that’s near and dear to my heart. It’s partly about the global refugee crisis. So let’s start off with an easy question. How do we solve the global refugee crisis?
Mohsin Hamid: Well, I think that there’s a long-run solution and a short-run solution. In the long run, I think that the notion that people should be entitled to fundamentally different rights, including where they should live or can live based on where they were born, will no longer be accepted as humane by our species in a century or two. You know, if we think that men and women are equal and that people with dark and light skin are equal and that gay and straight people are equal and religious and nonreligious people are equal, the notion that somebody born in Mogadishu and somebody born in Milwaukee have fundamentally different entitlements to whether they can live safely strikes me as unlikely to be maintained. So I think eventually we’re going to figure out that we cannot have equality unless we really have equality. And that means not denying it to people on the basis of where they come from.
But that’ll take a while. And, in the meantime – the short-term part – we need to begin to articulate optimistic visions of where we can go together. We are failing to say that, if these people come to America, they do not rob America and threaten America; they add to America and replenish America and make a better America possible. And similarly in Europe, etc. So I think starting to recognize that every migrant, every refugee, brings with them the possibility of a future and articulating what kind of futures they could be and why those futures are better than the totalitarian police states that we’ll have to become to prevent them from coming – to me, that’s at the heart of what we have to do now.
Nguyen: I’ve read many of your interviews and so on, and you’re an optimist when it comes to this question of human progress. And you’ve stated that it’s more of a natural human inclination to focus on the negative things that are happening and not recognizing how we’ve changed and progressed as a species over the past several thousand years. We’re no longer killing each other because we come from different city-states, we’re just doing it because of religions or national identities and so on. So yes, we’ve made some progress. It’s good to be optimistic; I’m optimistic too. I actually do believe that that is true. But the pessimistic part is also what I find really interesting and, as a novelist, the pessimistic part is the more fun part. So, pessimistically, how difficult is it going to be to prevent these things that lead to refugee crises in the first place? As writers, we have autonomy, we can write our books, we can be as optimistic as we want, or we can extol the virtues of literature – and that’s all very crucial in changing the human imagination. It’s part of what we do as writers. But in the meantime, we have to worry about war machines and climate catastrophes and things like that. Are we going to survive these things before literature can do its work? Because literature takes a while.
Hamid: Well, I think that we’re not going to survive actually, as individuals. But, as a species, we are likely to. Part of what’s happening is there’s a disconnect between the individual plight of the human being, which is that none of us get out alive, and what happens to our species. And I think that very often what’s occurring is that each generation that passes – in general, over time – is a little bit less comfortable with difference. Partly these things take time because people have to go and have to grow up. But also, I think, as far as pessimism and optimism is concerned, I don’t think we can just sit back and be optimistic. I think that optimism has to be fought for. We have to articulate optimistic visions, we have to address pessimistic concerns, we have to be realistic about the kind of politics and the kind of writing and the kind of engagement, the kind of people we have to be.
Optimism isn’t that I’ll live forever; optimism is, in the face of a recognized temporary life, I can still find beauty and meaning and connection.
But for me, there’s one very big thing with the whole notion of optimism and pessimism. A central theme to the two sides of this coin is the question of transience and impermanence, right? Becoming comfortable with transience and the fact that everything ends is very important. This is part of every human culture since the beginning of human history: How do we become comfortable with everything changing and the fact that we will lose everything we have by the end of our individual lives? Part of the problem at the moment is that we are being promised permanence and we are being told that impermanence can be denied. We are being told that Islam can be again the way it was a thousand years ago or America can be again the way it was 50 years ago or that we can be young forever or if we eat vegan and do our Pilates we can just live to be… forever, perhaps. And we are failing to reckon with, accept temporariness. It’s a huge cultural, civilizational failure and it’s happening partly because some of these mechanisms, like religion, that we had to deal with this before are being tribalized and politicized and despiritualized in the process. And then the nonreligious mechanisms that are going so strong very often are about either a kind of marketing to our insecurities, which is what the market tends to do, or the creation of some kind of national objective, which doesn’t really address our personal needs and concerns.
How do we once again become comfortable and honest with a state of impermanence, which changes the dynamic of what optimism and pessimism actually mean? Optimism isn’t that I’ll live forever; optimism is, in the face of a recognized temporary life, I can still find beauty and meaning and connection and something worthwhile. And for me, that kind of shift is actually very important.
Nguyen: In Pakistan, do Pakistani literary people call you a Pakistani writer or do they call you something else? Like a Pakistani writer with a qualification of some kind? Because in Vietnam, when I won the Pulitzer Prize, they were like, he’s a Vietnamese writer! But they also more often talk about me being a Vietnamese writer living in the United States. You have this interesting background where you’ve been back and forth in many different countries: You live in Pakistan but you write in English, which I assume is the language of the elite. How are you seen as a writer?
Hamid: Well, I think that it sort of depends. People who like me often think that I’m a very Pakistani writer. People who don’t like me think that I’m this foreign-influenced whatever. But I make it a point to assert that I’m a foreign-influenced whatever whenever I present myself. If I do interviews where I speak, I say, look, I’ve lived abroad half my life. I speak English better than I speak Urdu or any Pakistani language. I’ve had a particular experience. I’m really not more Pakistani than I am potentially American, even though I’m not a U.S. citizen, or British. I try to assert my own mongrelness in Pakistan. But I, at the same time, try to remind people that Pakistan is a mongrel country; that, yes, English is the language of the elite but so is Urdu. Most Pakistanis at home grow up speaking Punjabi, Saraiki, Hindi. By the time people get to college, they have recognized that English is the language of the constitution, it’s the language of business, if you want to work abroad or get out of Pakistan, it’s the language that’ll get you out. So on college campuses, much of the education is in English. My readers in Pakistan are not elite, ex-New York consultants like myself. They are very often college students who maybe have read no other novel in their lives. I can’t tell you how many times I meet someone in Pakistan and they say, “Oh, I liked your book very much, it’s the only novel I’ve ever read.” I find that actually wonderful in a sense. I think that, and I say this very often in Pakistan also, I accept that I am a very atypical Pakistani, but so is everybody else. I don’t accept that because I write in English, I am somehow inauthentically Pakistani. I am inauthentically Pakistani because I’ve lived outside of Pakistan a lot. But no one’s authentically Pakistani. In Pakistan, for me, we systematically deny people’s Pakistani-ness on the basis of the religious group or the religious subsect or the linguistic group or this or that or the other. I’m entirely opposed to that position. For me, if you live in Pakistan, I don’t really care what passport you have, if you say you’re Pakistani and you live there, I think of you as Pakistani. For me, if a refugee is living in Pakistan but is not a citizen and wants to be Pakistani, they should be. And then when I meet these young readers, very often they are from very non-elite sort of backgrounds.
The place in the world where I am most likely to be recognized by a reader and come up to and spoken to is Pakistan, particularly a campus in Pakistan. So I feel part of that place. That said, because I don’t write in Urdu, and Urdu is the dominant literary language in Pakistan, there is this kind of, you are an upstart, you belong to something else, we’ve done it better, you’ve only been recognized because you write in English. And part of that’s sour grapes and partly that’s true. Partly it’s like, we wish we had gotten this international acclaim, and partly it is that there is actually amazing Urdu-language fiction and other language fiction, which is not getting this acclaim because it’s not in English. So there’s truth to the criticism as well as a sense that this isn’t fair, which it isn’t. Writing in English, in that sense, opens up an international audience for you.
Nguyen: In “Exit West” and your previous novel “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia,” there’s a very deliberate stripping of specificity from locales. There are no names for the cities, for example. I think I understand why you’re doing that, but is this also a trajectory in your work toward deliberately writing a more global novel?
Hamid: It’s not so much that I believe in the global novel. Partly, my move to namelessness has been dictated by making evident, in an environment that compels self-censorship – self-censorship is going on – and if we can’t say what we want, which we cannot say in a place like Pakistan, then let us make blanks very clear. This country shall not be named. This religion shall not be named. These things shall not be named. Why? Because we cannot speak freely of these things. So let’s not name them and speak as freely as we can in an unnamed world. In “Exit West,” partly the namelessness was because I didn’t want to contribute to the narrative of Pakistan going down to decline and collapse and my city, Lahore, turning into this terrorist thing because there’s so much of that about Pakistan. And yet, I wanted to use Lahore as my template to start off. I think, for me, globalism is less attractive than looking for universals in particulars. It’s less that I’m trying to write about the globe and more that I’m trying to write about individuals. But in those individual human beings are hopefully just things people can recognize in themselves. Going forward, will I write nameless novels? I don’t know. I will hopefully try to write very particular books. And the last thing I want to say on this is I think that we live in a world where branding has utterly changed language and where words no longer mean what we intend them to mean. We use words that have been given meaning, proper nouns in particular, by other people and it can be useful to take away the proper nouns and describe the thing for what it is, because words like Islam, America, Pakistan, etc., have been hijacked. We cannot use them anymore and have them mean what we intend, so let’s not use them sometimes and describe these things in our own words.
The full conversation between Mohsin Hamid and Viet Thanh Nguyen, as well as ALOUD’s other programs, can be found at lfla.org/media-archive/.
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.