When books remind us of what it is to be human

2015 Opening Address: Mohsin Hamid


Jackie Keast

The theme of the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival is a question with no easy answer: “How To Live?”
 It was a question Mohsin Hamid, acclaimed Pakistani author, ruminated on during his opening address to the Festival, Life In the Time of Permawar.

Speaking to a sell-out crowd at the Roslyn Packer Theatre on Tuesday evening, Mr Hamid talked about how we add meaning to our lives in an era of ongoing conflict and technological disruption.

His speech was not one in the traditional manner, rather a six-chapter story addressed in the second person. At times, as Mr Hamid spoke to “you”, it was unclear if he was addressing the audience, himself, or both; an effect that was equally confronting and personal. The second person is a technique that Mr Hamid commonly uses in his books to consciously blur the line between the reader and the writer.

Mohsin Hamid is the author of the international bestseller, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2007. His other novels include Moth Smoke and How to Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia. His most recent book, Discontent and its Civilisations, is a series of non-fiction essays covering a diversity of topics, such as Islam, fatherhood and geopolitics.

For the last 15 years, Mr Hamid has lived in Lahore, New York and London. Life in his native Pakistan, as well as his experiences as a migrant, have been ongoing themes in his work.

His experience living across multiple continents has given him an unique perspective on what he calls the Permawar: a global undercurrent of fear that has developed in reaction to ongoing conflict since September 11, 2001. It’s a fear created at airport security and on our televisions.

In Pakistan’s Peshawar, it’s a parents’ anxiety as they drop their children off to a school that resembles a maximum-security prison. In a Sydney café or Parisian supermarket, it’s the reason behind the second glance at a “bearded fellow with a backpack”.

“It is the state of fear you slip in and out of; curated by the entertainment business that is the news, produced by politicians who feed on division and starring artists, who understand that horror is the true medium of the avant-garde,” he said.

As a result of this Permawar, Mr Hamid feels people have become further divided and fearful of one another, with traditional sources of solace, such as religion and community, disrupted.

“The fact that religion, including anti-religion, has advanced with religious zeal has been one of the great songs on the soundtrack to Permawar,” he said.

For Mohsin Hamid, faith is no longer a comfort like it was to his grandfather on his deathbed. Instead it is now a tool of fear, a justification to divide each other into different groups and go to war.

You know people who have been killed in the name of religion. Not know of them, but know them. Know them personally. Know them well enough to have been present at their funerals,” he said.

Technology has also disrupted a sense of community. While increasingly advanced phones and computers purport to make us more connected than ever, their use often simply results in a people more connected to technology than themselves.

“You carry a phone on which you enter the instructions that shape how your friends will see you: the well-chosen images of you at your most vital, the amusing quips from you at your wittiest,” said Mr Hamid.

“You stare into this phone, the way that in ancient times – meaning in the times of your grandparents or of your grandparent’s grandparents – people lay on their backs and stared at the stars and saw the immensity of the milk-stained void that is the universe.”

This commentary drew some nervous laughter from the audience, many of whom had been checking their phones and iPads before Mr Hamid began speaking.

However, despite uncertain times, not all hope is lost. Mr Hamid suggested – in what seemed appropriate for a writers’ festival – that fiction remains a means for people to connect. Books allow us to enter into the consciousness of another person with an intimacy that often may not be afforded otherwise. In this way, they remind us of what it is to be human.

“You are a reader, a writer, in this, the time of the Permawar, searching, among other things, for empathy, for transcendence, for encounters that need not divide us into clans, for stories that can be told around the campfire generous enough for seven billion. Stories that remind us we are not adversaries, we are in it together,” he said.

Mr Hamid ended his speech an optimistic note: a poignant reminder that stories can help us work out how to live.

“You do not write in the belief that books can change the world, but you do know that books changed you. So you know that books can change people; and people of course, collectively, can change a world.”