Novel Offers Mock How-to on Finding Success in ‘Rising Asia’

March 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In Mohsin Hamid's new novel, "How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia," a poor young boy from an impoverished village makes his way to a city to find his fortune. Jeffrey Brown talks with Hamid about why the story is told like a self-help book and why he writes to better understand the current culture and conditions in Pakistan.

RAY SUAREZ: Next: a story about love, life and the quest for success in a modern metropolis.

Jeffrey Brown has our book conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: A poor boy from a rural village comes to a sprawling, wild, sometimes violent city and struggles, succeeds, makes and loses a fortune. That’s the outline of a new novel set in an unnamed country, very much like Pakistan, but one told in the form of a self-help book.

It’s titled “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.” Author Mohsin Hamid grew up in and lives now in Lahore, Pakistan. In between, he also lived and studied in the United States.

And welcome to you.

MOHSIN HAMID, Author, “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: First, we should address this great title and the idea of writing — writing the book as a self–help book. Why that approach?

MOHSIN HAMID: Well, it started as a joke.

I was with a friend. And we started talking about novels feeling like hard work sometimes as a reader, and that maybe it was like self-help for us to read it.


MOHSIN HAMID: Yes, for us as readers and also as writers to write them.


MOHSIN HAMID: And the more I thought about that, the more it seemed there was some truth in that, that actually maybe I do write novels as self-help. And maybe I even read them partly for self-help.

So what started as a joke became kind of an earnest approach to thinking about the novel.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I assume that it also was tapping into what many people read, right, I mean, how — especially I think in the countries you’re talking about, sort of how to succeed. Everybody is trying to figure that out.

MOHSIN HAMID: Yes. Well, we’re surrounded by self-help books.

If you walk into a bookshop in Pakistan, or really anywhere in Asia, you will see shelf after shelf full of, you know, how to become successful, how to build a spreadsheet, how to give a good job interview. And newspapers and magazines are full of it, too. So, I think there is a barrage of self-help hitting us all the time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the protagonist here is unnamed.

In that light, he becomes a kind of everyman, sort of striving, right? And it looks as though you really wanted to use this individual life to tackle some very, very big questions of a changing society, migration, for example, from rural to the city. Is that fair, that you were trying to look at all that?

MOHSIN HAMID: Yes, I think so.

I mean, I wanted to look at a big canvas, and in particular the movement of billions of people from the world’s villages to the cities.


MOHSIN HAMID: Yes. It is billions, because something like half the world’s people now live in cities. And it will be more like 90 percent in another 20, 30 years.

And that means billions of people are going to move. My city, Lahore, has 10 million people. When I was born, 41 years ago, it had one million people. So it is now New York size.


MOHSIN HAMID: And it used to be a small, much smaller town.

So I wanted to talk about that huge shift in the human population all over the world, and not just in Pakistan, but equally in Mexico City and Lagos and Bangkok.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the shift, of course, is a kind of rise in affluence, which is what you are talking about, getting filthy rich or at least rising out of the rural poverty, but still all kinds of problems at the same time and rigidities within the society.

MOHSIN HAMID: Well, there’s all kinds of problems in terms of what you have to do to rise up.

It isn’t easy, obviously, and many people don’t make it, even though the middle class is swelling by millions and millions of people. But the other thing which is cutting against it is this sort of market narrative of growth, more money, more cars, a bigger home, is only half of the human story, because the other part of the human story is loss.

We get older. We get more fragile. We lose everybody we loved, and eventually we lose our lives. And that side of the story, how to deal with loss is something that this big economic boom isn’t equipping us for, and I think creates a lot of tension.

JEFFREY BROWN: The self-help book is not written for that one, right? It is for the way up.

MOHSIN HAMID: Well, interestingly enough, I think this self-help book is actually intended for that one.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, I see that.

Well, it’s interesting, because your — every title is a kind of piece of advice. And it starts with move to the city. Get an education. Don’t fall in love, which your protagonist doesn’t listen to that one.

But then it becomes this sort of darker, avoid idealists, which brings in the notion of religious zealotry. Befriend a bureaucrat, the corruption in a society, and then finally be prepared to use violence. So there is a darker side here.


I think — you know, I think the market is a brutal thing. It’s, you know, the law of the jungle with some rules. And in a place like Pakistan or much of the world really, where those rules are pretty flimsy and loosely enforced, it’s a — it’s an often violent and corrupt experience trying to make it up.

JEFFREY BROWN: I read one of your previous novels, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” and now this.

And I — your book and other books helped me understand what’s going on in these countries that we often more on our program are looking at through terrorism and all kinds of bad things. But I wonder, for you as a writer, do you feel a sense of mission, if that’s the word, to try to tell the rest of the world what’s going on in your society?

MOHSIN HAMID: Well, it’s less that I’m trying to tell the rest of the world and it’s more I’m trying to figure it out myself.

So I’m equally confused by what is going on.


MOHSIN HAMID: And so this novel, in trying to chart all the different phases that people move, from absolute poverty up to wealth, and what it takes, and what that might feel like, was an attempt, I think, as a writer, to make sense of this world I’m seeing around me.

JEFFREY BROWN: And without giving away the ending here, but after all the trials and losses that you were referring to, there is a kind of hope and happiness, even if it’s not of the filthy rich kind.


JEFFREY BROWN: Did you — well, go ahead. Is that what you were striving for too?

MOHSIN HAMID: Yes, because the idea is that it is possible to find a certain degree of release or contentment in life, and that, you know, despite sort of the cynical nation of a lot of our art and literature and culture, that effort should remain part of, at least for me, my project as a writer, to try to find that for myself and to try to find that just generally.

It’s easy to end a novel sort of in sorrow and have it be a good literary work. Having it end with a degree of happiness and not be a cliche actually is a lot harder. So only in my third novel did I finally have the guts to try doing that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that is true, you are saying, even in a place that is rife with all kinds of problems that, as I said, we report on all the time?

MOHSIN HAMID: Absolutely, because I think that, actually, if you — the attempt to find some human connection, to find some empathy, to find some way of going beyond yourself is actually connected to all those problems as well, because those problems that you referred to, terrorism, violence, et cetera, come in part from a rampant state of depression and mental illness that has set in as people have lost traditional ways of looking at the world and don’t have anything to replace them with.

JEFFREY BROWN: “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.”

Mohsin Hamid, nice to talk to you. Thanks.

MOHSIN HAMID: Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: You can find Jeff’s extra questions and Hamid’s answers on Art Beat. Also there, Hamid reads an excerpt from his book.