One of this year’s least likely best-sellers is The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid’s slender, smart, and subversive second novel. The narrator, Changez, is a Pakistani who went to Princeton, took a top job in finance, fell in love with a troubled young American woman — then watched his warm feelings for his adopted homeland cool after 9/11. In a Lahore cafe, he tells his story to an unnamed American who may or may not be a spy, just as Changez may or may not be a terrorist. EW book critic Jennifer Reese recently talked by phone with the 35-year-old author, who lives in London.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How startled have you been by the success of The Reluctant Fundamentalist?
MOHSIN HAMID: It has been something of a surprise, as I was a bit nervous about how it would be received in the States in particular. Part of it is good timing. A novel like mine published a few years ago would have had a much more difficult time. Now, I think, there’s a hunger to hear these kinds of stories.
Did you encounter much hostility from American readers, given that your novel’s hero smiles as he watches the Twin Towers collapse?
Every so often there was someone at a reading who would take a starting position that was quite hard. But once you began to talk to people they softened quite quickly. I wouldn’t call them confrontations, but some people were angry or upset and wanted an explanation and the explanation I tried to give them was, please don’t mistake the views of the narrator for the views of the author. I wrote from a position of great affection for America, and I think that saying these things to an American audience is helpful to America. A lot of people get that. I don’t want to be a Michael Moore-style artist, which is not to disparage Michael Moore. But he seems rather unsuccessful at winning people over who don’t already agree with him.
You must get asked this a lot: Changez smiled when the Towers fell — what was your personal response?
I felt frightened. I was 30 when 9/11 happened and I had lived exactly 15 years of life in America, so I was half American. I was a full-fledged New Yorker. My ex-roommate worked in the World Financial Center, and my first thought was: What happened to him? I hoped people I cared about weren’t dead, and then I thought: My whole world is about to change. I had this gut feeling it would be some kind of Muslim terrorist group, and after that who knew what would happen? My mother was in Pakistan and when she witnessed it she started crying hysterically. She used to visit me for a month every year and she’d fallen in love with New York. I had to console her.
What’s the significance of ”Changez,” your protagonist’s name?
Many America reviewers said it meant ”changes.” But it’s the Urdu name for Genghis, the Mongol conqueror who attacked the Muslim world. And with this name Changez can’t really be a religious fundamentalist.
Do you think the title of this novel is a little misleading, given that the main character isn’t a religious fundamentalist?
First, all Muslims are suspect to a certain extent. We’re all fundamentalists until we prove otherwise, until we order that beer, or our girlfriend shows up in a miniskirt. I think we’ve all felt it. Second, even though he’s not particularly religious, Changez begins to act in ways we think of as fundamentalist. Reluctantly, he starts following a fundamentalist path, though he’s a secular guy — a good yuppie. He’s becoming a Muslim nationalist, and that’s a term we don’t hear.
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