There are writers who move beyond story. They are neither poets nor novelists, neither playwrights nor screenwriters, neither essayists nor critics. When I think of this kind of writer, I am thinking of one who crafts thought in such a way that it is not only expressive but provocative. Such a writer embodies and emboldens readers, perhaps to write themselves but most specifically to revise their own thought and ethic.
I’ve always been wary of memoirs. As a misanthrope, I have a deep contempt for anyone who feels the need to tell me about themselves. It always feels like a crass egoism. Recently, I’ve read some particularly well-crafted and moving writing that has made me realize this is an unfair assessment.
Our mind is constantly revising our personal history, our memory, and what we know about the world around us as we experience it. Habituation allows us to navigate the world and others. A big part of this is prejudice, by which I mean pre-judgments rather that the usual pejorative connotations of the word. Every moment through an infinite series of prejudices I am able to move through the world, one at once of my own making and of others. It is an excruciatingly mundane task that is simply astounding.
A memoir, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, true or Truth, has meaning to the degree it allows writer and reader to be cognizant of prejudices while actively honing those prejudices toward not a more utile or successful end but rather to a more adept, full comprehension of the world. A world where each immersed in as well as an intimate part.
After reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a novel that gripped me in the same way Albert Camus had (Hamid’s novel is written in a similar 2nd-person style as Camus’s The Fall), I became an admirer of Mohsin Hamid’s fiction. However, I was never fortunate enough to encounter any of his nonfiction writing. Finding Discontent and Its Civilization (a pun on a canonical work by Sigmund Freud that’s still inflicted on first-year college students throughout the United States) was a boon.
“We are told to forget the sources of our discontent because something more important is at stake: the fate of civilization.
Yet what are these civilizations, these notions of Muslim-ness, Western-ness, European-ness, American-ness, that attempt to describe where, and with whom, we belong? They are illusions: arbitrarily drawn constructs with porous, brittle, and overlapping borders. To what civilization does a Syrian atheist belong? A Muslim soldier in the US army? A Chinese professor in Germany? A lesbian fashion designer in Nigeria? After how many decades of US citizenship does a Spanish-speaking Honduran-born couple, with two generations of American children and grandchildren descended from them, cease to belong to a Latin American civilization and take their place in an American one?
Civilizations are illusions, but these illusions are pervasive, dangerous, and powerful. they contribute to globalization’s brutality.”
The essays contained are brief but resonant. Divided into three sections (Life, Art, and Politics), the pieces are true journalism rather than mere reportage or the casual hypocrisy of investigative or ‘watch-dog’ media. Appearing in such papers of record as the New York Times and The Guardian as well as a slew of other prominent and intellectually sharp outlets, these essays move away from their topical impetus to occupy a space of lasting import. Hamid articulates not just his own thoughtful distillation as a writer but also a global ethical stance: “Our words for hybridity are so often epithets. They shouldn’t be. Hybridity need not be the problem. It could be the solution. Hybrids do more than embody mixtures between groups. Hybrids reveal the boundaries between groups to be false. And this is vital, for creativity comes from intermingling, from rejecting the lifelessness of purity.”
In the opening articles of the ‘Life’ section, hybridity is given a tangible and personal form. It is when he is talking about Pakistan that Hamid’s writing comes the most alive. But I would suspect that this is due in large part to my own lack of knowledge about just what Pakistan is. Hamid’s brief autobiographical accounts of his childhood and adulthood in Pakistan aren’t meant as local color or to present himself as some kind of flimsy native informant. Rather, he it writing to show how the familiar became strange, how what was foreign became natural to him. This is perhaps best shown in Hamid’s relationship to Urdu and English. In the early pages of the collection, he writes about losing his ability to speak Urdu after his family moved away from Pakistan to California. His return to Pakistan as a young adult is one marked by having to re-learn what could be called his native tongue:
“I just started picking up Urdu on the go. Eventually I could tell a joke and sing a song in it, flirt and fight, read a story and take an exam. I could speak it with a foreign accent. But my first language would be a second language for me from then on.
English fractured for me, too, coming in distinct Californian and Pakistani varieties. (Later, in adulthood, Mid-Atlantic and British English would be added to the mix.)”
This perceptual oscillation and adaption is what hybridity is all about, it is what gives it its strength.
The ‘Art’ section provides readers familiar with Hamid’s fiction with perhaps the best articulation of his own aesthetic or, at least, one he greatly admires. Discussing the novel Sostiene Pereira (Pereira Maintains in English) by Antonio Tabucchi, we can see how its counterintuitive form has influenced Hamid: “The novel is not a traditional third-person narrative in which Pereira is himself merely a character. Nor is it a traditional first-person narrative in which Pereira tells us the story of his ‘I.’ Instead we have a testimony, with Pereira presumably testifying to an account of his actions transcribed by someone else. The result is mysterious, menacing, enthralling, and mind-bending–all at once.” Anyone who has read The Reluctant Fundamentalist or his most recent novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Asia can see the impact his admiration has had.
When he addresses the questions “Are We Too Concerned That Characters be ‘Likeable’?”, “Where Is the Great American Novel by a Woman?”, and “How Do E-books Change the Reading Experience?”, he crafts a counterintuitive responses. To the first, his response is a sort of bemusement. When discussing the topic with is editor he discovers “One of the things readers discussed a great deal, she said, was where characters were likable–nonlikability being, in the minds of many, a serious flaw. How interesting, I thought then. How different from how I read.” To the second, he quickly dismantles the inquiry: “The problem is in the phrase itself. ‘Great’ and ‘Novel’ are fine. But ‘the’ is needlessly exclusionary, and ‘American’ is unfortunately parochial.” While never dismissing the gendered question, he deftly makes asking the question a chauvinistic act speaking “to a deep and abiding insecurity.” And you can hear exhaustion or bother in his tone when he discusses the false dichotomy of electronic and print books, “often I prefer reading to e-reading. Or rather, given that the dominance of paper can no longer be assumed, p-reading to e-.” The entire section feels as though it is meant to present an artistic view point that is actively inclusive rather than doggedly exclusive; Hamid is making choices and owning those choices to make sure his tastes aren’t needlessly mandarin.
The middle section ‘Art’ seems the necessary transition to the final section “Politics.” Here as in the first section, Hamid calls upon lived experience. And once again we see that although he is often directly addressing a Pakistani issue, he is making a broader ethical case. This is best seen in the one and a half page essay ‘Fear and Silence’ about Ahmadis persecution in Pakistan. Ahmadis are a sect of Islam, one that gets much less coverage than its Sunni and Shia siblings. Hamid shows us the persecution of this sect embodies the danger inherent in the illusion of civilization.
It is not just that Ahmadis are not proper Muslims (whatever esoteric criteria is being applied at the moment to establish this). It is that they are apostates and as such should be victimized. Here Hamid makes it clear that “we are now beyond the realm of personal opinion. We are in the realm of group punishment and incitement to murder. Nor dies it stop here. There is a fourth step. And step for is this: any Muslims who say Ahmadis should not be victimized or killed should themselves be victimized or killed.” Hamid has revealed that the mechanism at work here is the all too common black-or-white fallacy, that someone is either ‘for us or against us’ and that there can never bee any middle ground. His example is Muslims persecuting Muslims, but the rhetoric is the same that Christians use to attack other Christians, that Jews use to attack other Jews, that atheists use on other atheists, that the faithful use on unbelievers, and that unbelievers use on the faithful. No one is immune to the confident and easy stupidity of irrationality, and everyone involved suffers by it.
Hamid’s isolates these stages of persecution to highlight that “coerced silence is the weapon that has been sharpened and brought to our throats.” It is a weapon deployed by the faithful and the irreligious alike. It is a weapon of abuse, a whip used to cow any and all who would suggest that thought, belief, or love can be a multiplicity rather than a singularity, “Because if we can be silence when it comes to Ahmadis, then we can be silenced when it comes to Shias, we can be silenced when it comes to women, we can be silenced when it comes to dress, we can be silenced when it comes to entertainment, and we can even be silenced when it comes to sitting by ourselves, alone in a room, afraid to think what we think.”
Mohsin Hamid is a writer who uses his life and work to dismantle this weapon, to stand against those who would wield it, and to strive to prevent its inception. This is the ethics of hybridity. Revealing “it is we who create the monolith” and it is we who raze it.
We realize in the opening chapter of You’re Not Edith we are going to be experiencing an ethnography. Of what exactly it isn’t clear. How Allison Gruber’s story (‘The Mountain’) of an early crush dovetails with her obsession with the Dian Fossey movie Gorillas in the Mist isn’t immediately obvious, but by the end of the essay, it feels painfully obvious. This is Gruber’s greatest strength as well as one of the best traits of quality nonfiction–surprise and inevitability.
Labels make it easy for us to say something about her writing—a coming of age feminist lesbian cancer survivor memoir. Saying it aloud makes you realize just how stupidly inadequate the terms are. Gruber is a writer. What we have here happens to be memoir. She’ll be a memoirist or creative nonfiction author until you see or read her plays, her poetry, or her fiction. So the ethnography we’re reading is and isn’t about any of those labels, is at once not about her and entirely, exclusively her story.
There is an immediate intimacy in Gruber’s writing, a sort of conspiratorial tone. Where you might expect false modesty, the humblebrag, or puerile reminiscence parading as acute insight (the dominate traits infecting the vast majority of memoir/creative nonfiction). This last trait is perhaps the most difficult to navigate because it’s the most subjective. I know that I, as an ardent misanthrope, find the emotions of others to be, at best, trite if not painfully banal whereas others often see genuine pathos. In her writing, Gruber isn’t trying to be my friend or win me over. Rather, she is writing her way out of reluctance. The recounting of how she was able to become president of her high school drama club without ever being a ‘drama geek,’ she explains the error many and most make regarding shyness:
“Then there’s the other ubiquitous metaphor: You need to be brought out of your shell. Let us, for a moment, consider the metaphor’s implications; consider that to remove a turtle from its shell would be on par with removing a person’s spine, ribs, and all the skin from their arms to their waist—in the fashion of Ed Gein. But the more important way this metaphor fails is that shyness is not a protective layer. Shyness is not a place to hide; shyness I the exposed state of being hidden.”
Writing the speech that wins her the group’s presidency reveals herself not just to the forgettable teen drama geeks but also to herself. She is not embarrassed anymore, she doesn’t blush, and she isn’t exposed any longer but affirmed. She discovers that “In the quiet, white room of the page, I could write beyond my purple face, could string together words that were clearer and more resonant than my voice would ever be.”
Yet Gruber is a realist. The youthful discovery of what would be her vocation is soon tempered. Becoming an adjunct professor is perhaps the greatest test of any one’s fortitude. In her chapter ‘A Lady Professor,’ we see just how the casual collegiate administrators can be as they prey on the contingent. It leads Gruber to offer a testimony, not to herself but to the oft incarcerated on-again/off-again prostitute who she taught however brief. Testimony is what allows the skilled writer to disappear from the story she is telling to let it stand alone in its glory. Her chapter ‘Speaking to Strangers’ is perhaps the best example of this because it is one of the most personal stories in the book. Gruber is the conduit for the story, but what we experience through portraits of an enthusiastic fan from a reading and a cancer care provider isn’t how she has grown. Rather, we experience just how genuine intimacy is achieved, how a friend is formed.
All this is to say, there is significant depth to this slim collection of essays (only 135 pages). Gruber’s humor isn’t dark, but it is delightfully wry and sillier than it lets on. I knew Allison in college; we were friends. As I read her book, I could hear her voice. I could hear her nervous laugh after telling a joke in that instant when she realized it didn’t quite land but was still damn funny. Perhaps this colors the collection for me and chances are I’m doing a ham-fisted job of conveying just how good the work is, how much promise it shows. I can see these stories being translated into a television series. I imagine seven episodes quietly appearing on Netflix starring someone like Hannah Hart or Toni Collette. The foul-mouthed best friend (‘Wedding Town’), a mad extended family (‘Iowa’), and enduring cancer (‘Student Fiction’ and ‘Jesus Never Made Me a Mix-Tape’) all make for a kind of quiet desperation that eventually feels hopeful even after all the traumas akin to her chapter on adopting a dog post-cancer (‘Bernie’):
“’You barfed on my sheets,’ I reminded him as he ate, ‘I’ve been a cancer patient for six months, I’ve taken some potent drugs, and even I haven’t barfed on my sheets.’
‘This,’ I said to Bernie, ‘is some fucked up shit.’”
Fanny Says, Nikole Brown, BOA Editions, 2015