Discontent and Its Civilizations:
Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London
(Riverhead Books, 2015)
In Mohsin Hamid’s new collection of essays, Discontent and Its Civilizations, the author calls for a human population that is both aware and more tolerant of the complexities, intricacies, and pluralities of the human experience in an increasingly globalized world. As Hamid says, “Globalization is a brutal phenomenon.” The author of three groundbreaking novels—Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and most recently How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia—has an interesting way of thinking about writing. For Hamid, it is a collaborative experience where meaning is created between the writer and the reader. He views each of his writings as “co-creations,” something that can be seen especially in How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, a novel that takes on the form of a self-help book. But the concept is particularly important to Hamid with regard to Discontent and Its Civilizations because co-creation mirrors all of the things he calls for: an open dialogue, a plurality of viewpoints, a conversation that will initiate honest self-reflection, and an interrogation of personal and national motivations. As he says, “That’s the thing about co-creation. To exist, it requires the presence of more than one point of view.”
Here, Hamid has collected his “dispatches” from three cities he has called home: Lahore, New York, and London. The essays span the first 14 years of the 21st century—a time that began, of course, with the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 and was followed by a prolonged, vaguely named “war on terror”; which, as Hamid points out, is distinguished by the fact that it is “a war against a concept, not a nation. And the enemy concept, it seems to me, is pluralism.” Throughout the course of this book, the evidence that Hamid provides, both anecdotal and researched, compels readers to see the global need for empathy as well as the need to acknowledge that we are all hybrid beings. And it is this blended approach—personal essays bolstered by research, a tactic that will be especially convincing to the more myopic reader—that makes Hamid’s argument so successful.
The author claims, in his characteristic no-nonsense way, “To be a human being and to be a hybrid being are the same thing,” and convincingly illustrates that our contemporary moment is unprecedented in terms of connectivity. The dominance of our global economy forces citizens of each nation into one another’s lives daily and relentlessly. Thus, Hamid tries to highlight an understanding of plurality. If we can recognize that we all exist in a world where “race has become too clumsy a shorthand for the legal boundaries that divide [us],” then perhaps, Hamid suggests, that is the first step toward empathy and, ultimately, toward peace.
While I read Discontent and Its Civilizations, one thought occurred to me over and over again: this book is essential. In the introduction, Hamid says, “I wanted the experience of reading this book to be like developing a relationship.” And at this, he is most successful. The structure of the book is such that we get to know the author and his thoughts on life, art, and politics in a way that mimics the development of a friendship; we learn about his life as a child, how he met his wife, his struggles and successes as a novelist, as well as his opinions on global politics. And because we get to know Hamid, we also come to trust him, to trust his opinions, and to value his view of the world. This is especially effective throughout the third section of the book, “Politics,” where Hamid investigates the failed governmental systems in Pakistan, Asia, and throughout the world.
It is exactly because Hamid has “tried to advocate the blurring of boundaries: not just between civilizations or people of different ‘groups,’ but also between writer and reader,” that Discontent and Its Civilizations feels important and urgent. Each essay seems like we are merely having a conversation with a good friend, and, as with any good conversation there is an element of self-reflection that occurs. So, even though Hamid doesn’t spend too much time directly addressing racial tension in America, I found myself reflecting on our contemporary moment in the United States, where recent racial conflict and upheaval, like Ferguson, have highlighted that we, as a nation, have not come as far as we may have thought. “A country should be judged,” Hamid says, “by how it treats its minorities.” Here he is talking about the gross and often deadly discrimination religious minorities face in Pakistan everyday. But it isn’t hard to imagine how the United States would fare under such scrutiny.
Hamid, who now lives in Lahore with his wife and children, sees firsthand the injustices of a nation that cannot seem to figure out how to provide a safe environment for its citizens. And because the reader functions as both listener and contributor to this conversation (and through the self-reflection and personal interrogation that inherently occurs while reading these essays), it becomes evident that Pakistan resembles—in at least the diversity and subsequent discrimination of its minorities—the United States much more than we’d like to think. And yet, despite the depth and breadth of violence and struggle around the world that Hamid illustrates, he says, “Our problems are not insurmountable.” Which seems as hopeful a statement as any. And those problems are infinitely more solvable if a dialogue is created around them, an open conversation where different points of view can come together for thoughtful and meaningful gains towards peace, acceptance, and global understanding.
JILL DEHNERT is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY.