Hamid focuses on personal side of global themes

Having lived in Pakistan, America and Britain, author calls himself 'hybridized'

Mohsin Hamid

In recent years, the complex phenomenon of globalization has become one of the hottest topics on this and many other campuses. Innumerable classes probe globalization’s implications for the cultures, business enterprises and migratory patterns of the world. What does it mean for Africa? For America?

Less focused-upon are the hundreds of millions of individuals whose identities and fates are deeply influenced by the phenomenon. That is where Mohsin Hamid comes in.

The author of the novels “Moth Smoke” and “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” Hamid’s books and short stories bring to life people at numerous strata of the globalizing world, from families in hard-scrabble rural villages, to ennui-ridden twenty-somethings sliding toward failure in the brave new world, to people who are “making it” but don’t like what they are becoming along the way.

Hamid will be at Brandeis Wednesday to discuss his writing and literature in general, contemporary politics and culture in his native Pakistan and broader global themes. His 5 p.m. talk in the atrium of the Mandel Center for the Humanities is one of the Soli Sorabjee Lectures in South Asian Studies. The event is free and open to the public.

Hamid is a thoroughly globalized individual, having lived and studied in the United States, Pakistan and Britain. He was in the United States initially from age 3 to age 9 while his father, a Pakistani professor, did Ph.D. work at Stanford University. He returned with his family to Pakistan, where he attended the Lahore American School, and came back to the United States to study at Princeton, where he worked with fictions writers Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison. His first draft of “Moth Smoke” was for a fiction workshop taught by Morrison.

He also graduated Harvard Law School, but found corporate law boring. He worked as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company in New York City to repay his student loans, simultaneously completing “Moth Smoke” and acquiring experiences that are reflected in “The Reluctant Fundamentalist," whose hero rejects the high life of the globalized world and returns to Pakistan.

Unlike the character in the novel, Hamid says he has never felt a need to pick one or the other. “I’m quite a hybridized person,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “But I’ve seen many people do that – not just in Pakistan but all over world. They go into this cosmopolitan world and then try to redefine selves as not being of that.” He includes former President George W. Bush – “this party boy who redefines himself as abstinent and religious” – in that number. The reasons include “acute discomfort with life, nostalgia for a simpler time and way, feeling or being unwanted or unwelcome in their new state.”

A great concern of Hamid’s now is a number of ways in which America is becoming like Pakistan.

“There a decline in public goods,” he said. “As a child, I was amazed at how much better the highways and airports were than in the rest of the world. My school was amazing. Now, the infrastructure is creaking, while in Europe and Asia it is gleaming. The education system is on the verge of collapse, there’s a general sense that American citizens are being left to fend for themselves.”

When he lectured at Stanford recently, he saw a friend of his father’s, a retired U.S. military man, who used to talk about the draft “and what a unifying feature it was” for American society. Now, the man told him, “we’ve fighting these wars and there’s no way students on campus would know we are at war.”

“America,” Hamid said, “has gone from being a society with a number of equalizing factors to a place where it’s everyone for himself, with a terrible education system and an army of volunteers, where guns are not circumscribed and numerous groups are challenging the state. There’s a sort of convergence with Pakistan taking place.”

Hamid’s forthcoming book, due out in March, is “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.” An excerpt was published recently in the New Yorker.

While those who have been to Pakistan may feel the book is set there, the people and places in the novel are all nameless. “The main idea is I wanted to partly de-exoticize the place and have it seem like it could be anywhere,” Hamid said. “The book is written as a self-help book and that [absence of names] helps it work that way. It doesn’t try not to be Pakistan, it tries to be anywhere. This helps it work as self-help.”

Hamid’s fiction has been translated into over 30 languages, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, featured on bestseller lists, and adapted for the cinema. His short stories have appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, and the Paris Review, and his essays in the Guardian, the New York Times, and the New York Review of Books. His visit to Brandeis is cosponsored by the South Asian Studies Program and the Brandeis-India Initiative.

About the Soli Sorabjee Lectures in South Asian Studies

This lecture series engages with themes of "justice" -- broadly defined to include the interrogation of human rights, historical narratives, literary and political representations, gender and social justice, citizenship and democracy and cross-border connections in South Asia. Its goal is to expose Brandeis students and the broader public to the scholarship being conducted in the multidisciplinary fields of South Asian Studies, both in the United States and in South Asia itself, and to the vast range of South Asian intellectual and artistic traditions. The series is sponsored by the South Asian Studies Program and the Brandeis-India Initiative. It is named for the Honorable Soli J. Sorabjee, former attorney general of India and a friend of Brandeis University.

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, International Affairs

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