It’s rare for a novelist to read their own audiobook. Most authors who step up to the mic are recording nonfiction, with fiction audiobooks typically being performed by a voice actor or full cast. But Booker Prize finalist Mohsin Hamid possesses transportive powers as an audiobook narrator, and with new recordings of his first two novels, Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (4.5 hours), he has now narrated all five of his books.
Told in a first-person monologue by a Pakistani man named Changez to an unnamed American at a cafe in Lahore not long after 9/11, The Reluctant Fundamentalist makes for an especially powerful listening experience as, over the course of one evening, a sense of dread builds and demands a reckoning. For his first ever interview on his work as a narrator, Hamid took a video call at his home in Pakistan to discuss this “one-man play.”
When writing The Reluctant Fundamentalist, how much did you think about what it would be like to step into the role of author-narrator-character?
I sort of wrote all of my books as audiobooks. I didn’t realize this until years later, but I really do think of literature or fiction as something we absorb through our aural circuitry more than our visual circuitry. Many of us read books with our eyes—some people read with their fingers or with their ears, as with audiobooks—but so many of us grew up reading with our eyes, so it’s a very visual experience, and the way things look should be important. But I tend to feel that the circuitry involved is still very much the circuitry of sound and language and rhythm and cadence.
One of the formative moments for me as a writer was taking a creative writing workshop with Toni Morrison back in 1993 spring in college. . . . And one thing she did in her class is that she would read our work aloud back to us. She could make a Corn Flakes box sound like poetry. She was the greatest reader I ever encountered, and when she would read . . . I thought, “Wow, I can really write! I’ve got it!”
She said things like, “You want to keep your reader a sort of half-heartbeat ahead of the action, so that what comes next can be a surprise, but it should feel like it was inevitable.” . . . One of the ways we do that in cinema, for example, is through the soundtrack, which suggests movements and motions and directions even while the visuals are doing something else. In written fiction, cadence and sound and rhythm can begin to establish these sorts of movements and directions, so that you have the chance of this feeling of inevitability.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist wasn’t originally conceived as a 9/11 novel. You finished its first draft prior to that day, but as the world changed, so did your book. Now we have the opportunity to revisit your 9/11 novel with the gift of hindsight. What do you think is its place in our current reading environment?
It’s hard for me to answer that. I remember once being at this literary festival in Mantua, Italy. And as I say this, I should make clear that my life is not spent at literary festivals in Mantua, Italy. It was as exotic for me to be there as it is to say it to you now, but there I was under some clock tower in the open air, the stars above us, and Russell Banks was there. . . . I knew that a book of his had come out recently, and I had asked him if he was happy with how it had done and, you know, the usual chitchat you try to make with some literary icon when you’re this young kid who’s written a book or two. And he said something that stuck with me.
He said, “You know, it’s too soon to say. . . . It’s not until about 10 years after a book comes out that you begin to have a sense of what it’s doing. And the reasons why people are still reading it 10 years on are probably what you actually did. That’s what people got from it.” This is the kind of thing you go to literary festivals for, so that some much more experienced writer can unload this wisdom on you. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is now 15 years old, so it’s past the Russell Banks 10-year law, and I think people still seem to be reading it.
I wrote that book very much with the idea of the reader as a kind of character. Not that the novel is addressed to you, necessarily, but the book is a kind of half novel. We never hear half of the story; we never hear Changez’s interlocutor really say anything. Even more than most novels—or all novels, by virtue of being pieces of ink printed on paper that require a transmutation by the reader that makes them come alive—this book, because so much of it is missing, [forces the reader] to try and restabilize this narrative. The book was intended as a way for the reader to encounter how they feel about the story. What are the instincts that it provokes in them? What are their inclinations? Who do you think is threatening whom? Why? And it leads you, in a sense, to a position that isn’t quite resolved, and so you have to figure out either how to resolve it or what that unresolved state makes you feel. And I think it still does that, I imagine.
The form of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which is this dramatic monologue, is really akin to a one-man play. So in doing an audiobook, I was performing that one-man play. I’d always imagined it as this almost stage story, and suddenly I was on this stage, and it felt oddly like coming full circle.
That dramatic monologue is so effective as an audiobook. The listener is called upon in a very different way than with other novels. We feel like we’re being addressed.
That’s good to hear. It is a very direct form of address. It has to be. And in that book in particular, voice is so important because Changez, we learn, is ostensibly Muslim. But he doesn’t pray, he drinks, he has sex, he doesn’t quote the Quran or think about the doings of the Prophet. . . . His Islam appears to be a sort of tribal [affiliation]. It’s sort of “these are my people, I belong to something,” much more than it is an operating system, you know, like MacOS.
Some people might imagine that Islam has a kind of . . . rigidity or formality, that it has a kind of, you know, menace. I think these sorts of perceptions that many people do have about Islam—who are not Muslims or don’t know very many Muslims, particularly in that post-9/11 environment—the novel doesn’t give those attributes to Changez, but it does use a voice that can invoke those attributes. So you can end up believing things about this guy, not because he thinks in a certain way or even does anything, but just because it sounds like he might.
And so the reading of that book was very interesting and actually fun because Changez speaks in this very formal, kind of anachronistic way, and that formality is also a distancing, and it builds to what feels like a kind of menace because, you know, so often we assume that a more colloquial, friendly form of address is not threatening, but Changez’s quite formal address [makes us wonder,] “Why is he keeping me at a distance? What does he intend to do to me? What kind of person speaks in this way? Why does he think like this?”
I used to talk about The Reluctant Fundamentalist as a thriller in which nothing really happens. And I think that sense of thrill comes from the fact that we are already frightened of each other. There’s a preexisting thrill in the reader—whether it’s a reader who sympathizes with Changez and is frightened of the American, or sympathizes with the American and is frightened of Changez—and the novel tries to invoke within the reader a feeling of that discomfort that we were all encouraged to have in those years, that we belonged to these different groups and that we had to be in conflict.
And as audiobook listeners, we’re even more vulnerable to what the story wants to invoke in us. We’re passive receivers; we’re not even moving our eyes across the page.
Weirdly enough, it’s closer to the experience of Changez’s interlocutor in the book itself. The confined space of this conversation, where somebody is forced to listen to somebody else for hours, is more akin to an audiobook experience, where you’re sort of sitting there and this person is coming at you with their voice.
Are you a frequent audiobook listener?
I tend to feel that the inbound-information-to-my-eyes thing is a little bit overloaded. Either I’m reading stuff online or I’m actually reading a book or I’m writing something, and then when I’m not, there’s a complex series of advertisements directed at me and my kids’ devices, and I think that I long to just have my eyes be free. And that’s when the idea of just listening to something becomes so attractive. My daughter does the exact same thing, but she listens to music for hours every day, and she’s dancing in her room by herself, and she has that relationship with music that teens and preteens sort of have had from time immemorial. It’s just ears. It’s ears and your body in space.
You know, I’m now reminded of this thing that Philip Gourevitch once said to me when he was editor of The Paris Review. He said, “It’s strange, but we get more short story submissions than we have subscribers.” . . . I feel a little bit like that, where I’ve recorded this handful of audiobooks these last few years, but how many have I listened to? I think I’m like the Paris Review submitter of audiobooks. I talk a good game, but I don’t really walk the walk as far as listening is concerned. So it’s a bit shameful, but anyway, I’m a writer, so I make the things. I don’t listen that much.
Photo of Mohsin Hamid by Jillian Edelstein