The Danger of a Singular Story

Momina Aijazuddin Saeed went to the Washington book launch of Mohsin Hamid's latest book, Discontent and Its Civilizations 

The Danger of a Singular Story
The talk of layered and multiple identities is not new. One often reads and hears about artists, writers, dancers or singers wanting to be recognized as being more than just representatives of their ethnic or national identity. In everyday life this is also the case. We are shaped by our various experiences and places we have spent time in our lives, and as such are composites of those different worlds.

Mohsin Hamid’s latest book of essays strongly reflects that notion. Last week when he launched his latest book of non-fiction essays “Discontent and its Civilizations” in Washington DC, he spoke articulately to a packed crowd in one of DC’s few surviving bastions of independent book selling; ‘Politics and Prose’. The space overflowed with young and old, men and women, Americans and foreigners. Pakistanis constituted a fraction of the audience. Hamid clearly came across as a global citizen much more than a critically acclaimed Pakistani writer.

In his own words he sees himself as a "migrant across time"

In Hamid’s essays, this concept of multiple identities is powerful. In his own words he sees himself as a “migrant across time”. This book covers different phases of his life – of growing up between the US and Pakistan, of studying and then working as a professional in the US and England. It documents his life journey from a young and single man in New York and London to a happily married father of two in Lahore. Having seen him over the years in those different avatars, I identify strongly with what he has gone through in both fiction and non-fiction. Mohsin shared a story of how a young blond man with dreadlocks came up to him after his last reading at ‘Politics and Prose’, convinced that the story in the Reluctant Fundamentalist was about him – of an idealistic young American graduate who joined the corporate world and was then disillusioned by it. It resonated in a different way with me: I have spent the last two decades between various continents, going back and forth to Pakistan and living in cities asking myself similar questions as Hamid’s protagonist.
In a way the book shows his own journey - of opinions which have changed over time and been tempered by his experiences

The essays are divided into three parts; life, art and politics. Deliberately, he left many of these untouched in the process of compiling them into a book. In a way, the book shows his own journey – of opinions which have changed over time and been tempered by his experiences.

Hamid at Washington DC bookstore 'Politics and Prose'
Hamid at Washington DC bookstore 'Politics and Prose'

Hamid’s dispatches from Lahore, New York and London – skillfully written and superbly crafted – are also a way to enter his world and understand his story. Reading these essays reaffirms the power of words, of telling our own stories so people can understand our world better.

Pakistanis are not alone in this struggle. If one listens to the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (an Igbo name as undecipherable and butchered as ours tends to be in the West), she argues along the same lines. Her fifteen minute talk on the TED platform is easily accessible on the internet and well worth watching. She explains that it is dangerous to hear just one story about a person or a country or in her case a continent, Africa. At college in America, her writing was critiqued for not being authentically African. The rationale? She wrote about educated Africans who could read or write or drive a car and not the rural poor and disenfranchised. Her writings are an attempt to share those stories about Africa which are not often seen, not only in the West but in other regions of the world.

Her anxiety is familiar to those of us who have faced such situations. I was first made aware of this at university at England when one of my close English friends confided in me: “Well we never think of you as being Pakistani... you are like one of us.” In his mind that was the ultimate compliment and in mine a huge eye-opener as to his perception of me. I remember arguing for hours, as one only can during university, when one has the luxury of time and the energy for long debates. I explained that my country was like his in many ways. It was full of the equivalent of beautiful young debutants dancing at weddings and young men going hunting and shooting birds at the weekends. We had nationalist movements and foods like Mulligatawny soup or Chicken Tikka Masala, ironically one of the most popular dishes in England. Even the Scottish dish haggis has a desi equivalent (ojjeri) that children move around on a plate and hide under the table to avoid having to eat.

Taiye Selasi, the Ghanaian-Nigerian writer writes in a similar vein. In a very popular literary essay called “Bye Bye Babar” that went viral, she coined the term “Afropolitism” of Africans who had spent time in different places and were therefore shaped by them. In her own words:” There is at least one place on The African Continent to which we tie our sense of self: be it a nation-state (Ethiopia), a city (Ibadan), or an auntie’s kitchen. Then there’s the G8 city or two (or three) that we know like the backs of our hands, and the various institutions that know us for our famed focus. We are Afropolitans: not citizens, but Africans of the world.”

Hamid’s book is useful not only for explaining Pakistan to the world but also to show Pakistanis as citizens of the world. The essays, some of them very personal, show that we should not only be seen through the prism of bomb, terrorism and massacres in the West. We are a messy mix of multi- plural, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic identities.

We need more voices like Hamid or Selasi or Adichie to remind us of this notion of global citizens who can express themselves with a strong sense of self and an authentic voice. We want to be seen as individuals struggling within ourselves, with each other and with the wider world around us. That struggle to express ourselves and make others understand our unique and authentic stories makes us more similar than the differences that divide us.