Mohsin Hamid has three novels to his name – most significant is his The Reluctant Fundamentalist. That same calm, measured voice marks his journalism as distinct in this collection of essays where the personal becomes the geopolitical, where defence of the Kindle as a reading format mingles with passionate pleas for journalistic voices to continue, and discussion of religion.
Hamid’s essays span a decade or so – most written in the head-clearing time between novels and as the book’s title tells us in a state of travel and flux, between countries and continents – in the wake of September 11 which looms large here – as it has in his fictional writing too.
Hamid’s essays here are newspaper grabs, think-pieces, columns – many of them are short and easy to bite here, and (it’s worth pointing out) are never aiming to be more than that. It’s sometimes the worry that placing them in a collection suggests a higher, deeper context. That said, having them all to read in one book (36 short pieces in a slim volume) does show the emotional weight of constantly observing things as an outsider. When Hamid considers New York his home it is taken from him – when he returns to Lahore it’s a different place altogether, London is never his home and sometimes it’s the place that makes the most sense. These are subtly passionate pieces, never do they overwhelm with the urge to spell out that race, religion and belief is a huge part of perception. They also work well in reminding that reading is a key part of any writing.
That same thought has gone into these short pieces, those same wise hallmarks. But it’s also urgent journalism, reminders of how identity is shaped by events – and by movement, reaction to events; as well as the baggage of history, the reminders of cultural differences.
Arranged in three sections – Life, Art and Politics – it becomes more and more obvious as the collection reaches its conclusion that the three, if not quite inseparable are the main focuses of Hamid’s writing – if not his (actual) life. He’s most successful here when he engages around the subject of Pakistan, breaking down the (American) assumptions made about the country – and the problems facing his home country/one of his home-countries.
And if the lighter pieces, that only flirt with cultural criticism and skirt around the arts as much as ever celebrating them, seem trivial by comparison I still enjoyed them. Such is his skill, his craft, as a writer.