In an increasingly globalized and interconnected world, the concept of a homeland is becoming more vague. Is home where you came from or where you live? How do you understand your homeland after you leave? Novelist Mohsin Hamid explores these difficult questions and examines the relationship between his various homes across the world in his perceptive and inspiring new collection of essays, “Discontent and Its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London.”
Hamid maintains a special balance between a novel and political science report, sharing stories and commentary on the three cities that he has called his home. He introduces the book saying, “I recognize that I have always felt myself a half-outsider.” Hamid has been to many cities and connected to them, yet has never been fully comfortable with any one city. Instead, he compares himself to a water lily—constantly floating, but with roots. Over a span of 15 years Hamid floats from Lahore in Pakistan, to the United States, then back to Pakistan, then to New York and London, and finally back to Pakistan. Consistent with this, he divides the book into three sections—life, art, and politics—that organize the book thematically rather than chronologically. These three parts, mostly well-written, translate into Hamid discussing himself as a man, as an author, and as a political commentator, respectively.
Hamid’s multiple selves are accompanied with multiple musings on different topics in his moving, snapshot-like essays. From (almost) making Toni Morrison dinner to Hamid’s favorite novel, Antonio Tabucchi’s “Sostiene Pereira,” the subjects of the selections are well-varied. While the latter portion is a bit of a departure from the rest of the book, the essays are amusing and inspirational. In his description of “Sostiene Pereira” Hamid writes, “Here was novel with the courage to be a book about art, a book about politics, and a book about the politics of art.” Like Tabucchi, Hamid manages in his own work to progress from art to politics and to determine his role as an artist within a political context. He compares and contrasts his experiences of different cultures, relating them to his mother country Pakistan.
Finally the book transitions to an interesting exploration of the good and the bad of the Pakistani government. Hamid, having frequently written on this subject for “The New York Times,” “Washington Post,” and other well-known publications, feels like a credible narrator. He conveys both how important the issues facing Pakistan are and also how everyday life continues amidst the violence and political strife. He speaks with candor about problems within Pakistan, claiming that “Pakistanis must realize that we have been our own worst enemies.” However much Hamid criticizes his homeland, though, he also remains optimistic for the future of the country, and in his book he achieves a balanced account that is filled with constant love and support for Pakistan as well as incisive criticism.
Another one of the book’s refreshing aspects is the way that Hamid manages to handle serious issues while maintaining a readable and relatable tone. He presents an enlightening perspective on how the United States’ treatment of Pakistan has affected his daily life and the lives of so many of his fellow citizens. For example, he makes the strong claim that “America’s 9/11 has given way to Pakistan’s 24/7/365,” and he reminds readers that, while the death of Osama bin Laden was a victory in the United States, it complicated Pakistan’s relationships with its neighbors. This kind of engaging political conversation touches on points that are often absent from the mainstream news. While Hamid criticizes the United States, he goes beyond citing statistics and uses personal anecdotes to show today’s Pakistan, encouraging Americans to sympathize with his story and perhaps even alter their thoughts on the politics of the region. At one point he tells a story about a man comparing the movie “Avatar” to the relationship between the United States and Pakistan. The pop culture reference makes the Pakistani victim a recognizable individual.
The few weaknesses in the book arise largely from Hamid’s confusing use of pieces he wrote separately over time. Despite the way he edits the essays, there are portions of the same stories in different places. The topic of the 60th anniversary of Pakistan occurs both towards the beginning and the end of the collection, and Hamid’s commentary about the event in both places is, disappointingly, very similar. Additionally, while the three thematic sections are a great way of categorizing the essays, at times the collection seems more like a set of unrelated descriptions rather than a cohesive and evolving book.
Another threat to the unity of the book comes from the discussion of politics at the end, which feels less integrated with its overall feeling. While Hamid’s personal relationship to Pakistan is appealing, the final essays deal solely with the relationship between America and Pakistan and rely extensively on discussions of military strategy and political compromises or solutions. The stories here still read like engaging articles. However, they are an ineffective departure from the concept of homeland that is so prevalent throughout the rest of the book. The ending would have been stronger if it returned to this concept of the various civilizations where Hamid lived.
Hamid discusses “homeland” throughout the book, and finally determines that he can find pieces of true “‘homes,’” along with beauties and faults, in all the places he has lived. In this sense, “Discontent and Its Civilizations” tells a story, or perhaps a series of mini-stories, that may feel relatable, especially to those who have had the experience of feeling like an outsider and wondering where they belonged. Perhaps there is no perfect home for such individuals, and the feeling of being an outsider will never leave. One may join Hamid, though, in concluding that there is a way to call many places home.