An interview with the author of the book How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, a novel that explores the quirks of modern South Asia
Fiction fans should be grateful Mohsin Hamid left his New York corporate cubicle to pursue his grand ambitions of becoming a novelist.
During his undergraduate Princeton days, the Pakistan-born writer honed his skills with creative writing courses taught by Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates. In 1993, at the age of 21, Hamid began his first work, Moth Smoke, the fatalistic story of Daru, an intelligent, frustrated, middle-class banker seeking entrance to the naval-gazing, materialistic power-web of the Lahori elite. Eventually published to acclaim in 2000, Moth Smoke heralded Hamid a rising star with a keen ear and mature understanding of modern, post-nuclear Pakistan.
His second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, published in 2007, caught the world's attention and was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. The brisk, intense, post 9-11 novel is a dramatic monologue told by Changez, an American-educated Pakistani Muslim, to a silent, unnamed American sitting in a Lahore café.
However, it seems Hamid's latest, highly anticipated novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, has assured "his place as one of his generation's most inventive and gifted writers," according to the New York Times' recent rave review. Although structured as a "self-help book" written entirely in the second person, the satirical journey of the protagonist, simply known as "You," gradually evolves into a moving and hopeful meditation on mortality and a layered, empathetic dissection of an increasingly complex, modern South Asia.
"This headlong rush in Pakistan has negative effects in that spirituality and decency have leached out of the culture due to the distortion of religion."
I spoke to Hamid last month about his latest novel and life in Pakistan.
(Also in The Atlantic: Why Mohsin Hamid exercises, then writes.)
The book is written in the style of a self-help book with a great title, How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, which could almost pass off as a real book title in Delhi or Karachi. For your third novel, why'd you tackle this particular subject?
The story behind the title of the book comes from when I was with a friend, an editor of a literary magazine, in New York and we were talking about books. We're talking about fiction and how it basically deals with "self-help" because we (as a society) think you should read a novel if it's "good for you." So we were laughing about that idea and I said, "Maybe I should be explicit about it and write a literary novel that is a self-help book."
When I returned back to Pakistan, I couldn't shake this idea that there is something vaguely "self-helpy" about literary fiction.
In writing literary fiction, you are trying to help yourself. And readers are going to literary fiction not just to be entertained, but because they feel something else will happen; that the experience will take them beyond themselves and show them something they haven't seen before.
What started as an ironic joke became a serious proposition. Maybe this could work. As soon as I started writing it as a self-help book, I found it opened up lots of different ways to relate to the reader, to be honest with the reader about my motivations, and to examine reading and writing in a way that I hadn't been able to do in my previous books.
And in regards to the title How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia, it's exactly what you said - those sorts of books are the ones people are reading in Karachi, Delhi, and Lahore. There are more self-help nonfiction books being read than literary fiction.
So, I'm willing to play with this idea. In a sense the book is about how to get filthy rich in rising Asia, but it also isn't.
In South Asia, I've noticed that language is a differentiation between classes. English is worn like a Prada bag. The characters in the first two novels belong to the privileged class. How are these class divisions manifested in your novels and modern South Asia? It's a theme that reoccurs in all your work.
I think there's really strong social stratification in South Asia. I lived in California for part of my childhood, from 1974 to 1980, when my father was doing his PhD at Stanford. I spent formative years in America. I remember America at that time being much less stratified than compared to today. Now it feels there's a wider and wider gap between those who are rich and poor. But even today America doesn't come close to the level of stratification we see in South Asia. It is really overpowering here. People can move up, it's not that they're permanently stranded, but it's enormously difficult.
When I first moved back to Pakistan in 1980, I came back at age 9, and I remember coming to my grandparents' house. The first day back I went to my mom and asked are these people (the workers) slaves? She said no, they are servants.
The fact that I - by my American context - would have thought of them as slaves is revealing. To my 9 year old eyes I saw "slaves!" For me, it was shocking. And I've never lost that sense of shock when I look around at the society around me.
This shows up in all my fiction. The earlier books are really about middle class, upper middle guys, economically middle class guys who want to break into the rich, elite class.
This time, I wanted to take a bigger canvas in a way that sliced society into almost 12 different socio-economic levels: from "dirt poor" to " village boy" to "quite poor city dweller" to "relatively poor" to "middle class entrepreneur" to " middle class guy with his own business" to "well off guy", etc., etc. I also wanted to chart a life to old age. I thought if I could chart Pakistani society up in terms of a life and socio economic categories, I could try to capture a bigger canvas of what a society looks like.
Novels that try to do this are usually huge, sprawling stories of hundreds and hundreds of pages. I didn't want to write a huge book in part because it's not my inclination and also smaller books are easier to get non-readers to read, and most people I know in Pakistan are non-readers of literary fiction.
I asked how I could take on such a big scope with a small scale, and that's how I came up with the idea to follow this character through different slices, which would allow a small book to capture a bigger picture.
The book is also about getting older and me getting more experienced and feeling that I don't just have to write from my own personal experiences. Realizing I'm getting more comfortable at writing about experiences I've seen but haven't yet lived.
In the book you write "Getting an education is a running leap to becoming filthy rich in rising Asia." The characters in your earlier novels nonetheless become victims of their environment despite having upper-middle class status or privilege. In this book, we chart the rise of a character from dirt poor beginnings to relative success. Unlike those novels, however, this one ends on a more hopeful note. What evoked the shift in tone?