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‘Dishonesty Comes Through Omission’: An Interview With Mohsin Hamid
The Booker Prize nominee talks Trump, refugees, and truth.
Novelist Mohsin Hamid is no stranger to being an immigrant. In fact, he says he has been one all his life. The writer, whose latest novel, Exit West, is a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, which will be awarded Tuesday evening, has moved from Pakistan to California to London, only to find himself back in Lahore.
His novels examine the feeling of being an outsider: be it a Muslim immigrant in Manhattan dealing with xenophobia after the 9/11 attacks, a rural village boy trying to make it as a businessman in a swiftly developing, unnamed Asian country, or — most recently — a refugee trying to find a home in strange lands where host communities are hostile at best.
Exit West tells the story of two refugees, Saeed and Nadia, who flee an unnamed, war-torn country only to find they are far from welcome anywhere else. Published at a time of rising humanitarian crises as countries shut their gates to those fleeing war, the novel examines what it means to flee, what it does to the community that is so hesitant to welcome you, and ultimately what it does to yourself and your most treasured relationships.
Back in August, Hamid spoke with Foreign Policy about migration, the media, and how the rise of President Donald Trump has colored his optimism.
Foreign Policy: Were you driven to write Exit West because of current events more so than the other novels that you’ve written?
Mohsin Hamid: I wouldn’t say I was more driven. A lot of my writing has to do with events and how they impact me personally. The anti-migrant, anti-immigrant, sort of xenophobic feelings that you’re seeing right now have been bubbling up for a very long period of time. And in my life I moved from Pakistan to California when I was 3 years old, back to Pakistan when I was 9, to America 18, London at 30, and back to Pakistan in my late 30s, and I live in Pakistan now. I am a fairly mongrelized person — you know I’ve been a migrant my whole life, and it’s hard to think of myself as any pure one thing. And so I take it, I guess, very personally — this notion that migrants are bad and that mixing is bad and that people from other places are bad.
FP: Do you think the mainstream narrative when it comes to the migrant crisis is too focused on these photos of refugees fleeing in bright orange rafts or refugees driving in Toyotas across the Sahara?
MH: It’s not that it’s not the real narrative — it’s that it is one that is so skewed in terms of its focus. The way in which I think nonfiction tends to be dishonest most often isn’t the sort of Donald Trump allegations of simply making up lies. It’s not that the New York Times is lying about Trump. I think, actually, that happens very rarely. What happens much more often, especially concerning places like Pakistan as I’ve seen, is that the dishonesty comes through omission. What part of the story do you not tell? So my mother was part of a large all-women’s peace rally in September 2001 just before the bombing campaign in Afghanistan began, after the World Trade Center attacks, 9/11. And there were thousands of women protesting, and a small group of men came across and burned flags and chanted, “Death to America.” And my mother saw on the news channel this small group of men creating a raucous. And the way these shots appeared it looked like it was all these men burning flags and shouting. And the fact is there’s a lot of people around who assume that’s what happened. That isn’t a lie in the sense that, yes, those men did do that thing, but the omission of the fact that on that particular set of city streets, 95 percent of the people were actually part of a peace rally and 5 percent or 10 percent were part of this anti-American mob. If you don’t say that, you’ve committed an enormous dishonesty. And I think the focus on the stories on the rafts, people crossing in rafts, allows us to willfully blind ourselves to the story of why they are coming and what happens when they arrive. So when one sees important components of stories being omitted, it’s important to try to tip the scales a bit the other way.
FP: What is it like in Pakistan since the U.S. election? Is there support for Trump?
MH: It’s a tricky one because I keep contact with a tiny, statistically insignificant minority of the Pakistani population. But of the folks who I talked to and spent time with — be they in shops or restaurants or a taxi driver or a teacher or my friend, whatever — I think that many people seem to believe that Trump has revealed an aspect of America that they always believed to be there. Trump has revealed a fundamentally intolerant, racist, aggressive, ignorant strand of America that they believe has always been part of America but has been successfully camouflaged by previous occupants of the Oval Office. And for someone like me, his rise was both frustrating and surprising because I would say, “Well, look, I’ve lived in America for almost 20 years. I can tell you Trump will never win the Republican primary.” And I said even then he won’t win the election. And it was that I trusted these American institutions to contain some of his extreme impulses. And on that the jury is still out.
FP: I wonder what you think the protagonist of your third novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, would think of Trump? They do seem to have the same “make it at all costs,” “deal-making” attitude toward life.
MH: There’s a real brutal nature to the capitalism practiced by the main character in How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. And I think playing dirty is certainly part of that. And that is perhaps something that the character might recognize in President Trump. But I think that there is a degree of petulance around President Trump and also a degree of sort of blundering incompetence, which is unlike most businesspeople.
I mean, Trump inherited his money and certainly made more of it. That’s not the same thing as somebody who starts with nothing and has to build a business from scratch. It’s a very different thing. But more than that, I would say in my other experience working in New York for many years, and London, and elsewhere, Trump is a very atypical businessperson. In my experience with people in business also in Pakistan, and the characters who are certainly models for the protagonist in How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, there are many different kinds of people who are successful at business, but very, very rarely does one encounter somebody who seems so unable to understand their own mistakes or to empathize with other human beings or to understand how systems work and work with those systems or to build an institution or to collaborate or be a team leader. So many of these things that are required in businesspeople Trump seems to lack.
And the basic thing is that so many people who are good at business are good at building teams — people want to follow them. And then they do well by those people and they build institutions. In the last few months, what we’ve seen in the Trump administration is the complete failure to do that. The team is dysfunctional. It looks very unlike a businessperson’s world. And so, in that sense, I think the protagonist in How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia wouldn’t see himself in Trump, but rather would see Trump as one of those children of billionaires who people like our protagonist is rising up to subvert.
FP: We’ve had, in some ways, a pretty depressing conversation. And it doesn’t look like there’s much confidence in what’s to come.
MH: Well, I’d like to offer some confidence. The reason why human beings don’t divide in half and form two separate human beings is because there’s inherent experimentation that occurs in each strand of DNA between two different parents who create a child. That is nature’s expression of creativity. I think that it is the interaction of different types of people that gives us so much of human creativity. And I think migration, communication, connection are likely to provide us with all sorts of breakthroughs, not just from an ecological, cultural, artistic perspective but even from a political perspective. At a certain point, we will outgrow the narrow definitions of tribe that are holding us back and are trying to make our future very dangerous. I think it is likely, in two or three or 400 years, people on planet Earth will think back about our time and think that those who thought it was right to prevent someone from moving from one country to the other simply because they were born in one place are as barbaric as we think slaveholders are today. Along the way, a lot of things will have to change — among them, this notion that a country that stands for equality can deny the equality of people on the basis of where they were born.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for publication.