Friday, October 25, 2013


My eyes are red and scratchy.

My mind and fingers are itching, too.
Itching with new writing possibilities

I stayed up late last night finishing  Moth Smoke, the first book by Mohsin Hamid, author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

I  visited a high school English class a couple of weeks ago to observe and debrief with students teachers who were teaching lesson from my book.

The host teacher asked me to bring  a book to trailer for her students.
I chose The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Several students asked about the book later--  letting me know that in my attempt to present an unfamiliar book, I had chosen well.

This book has everything I love--experimental structure (written as a dramatic monologue), fluctuating perspectives (which force us to question our own identities), complex layers of progressively unfolding meanings (like a slow, savory meal) , historical and political developments as a backdrop for personal and individual developments, multifaceted characters, and open ended resolution.

I love Hamid's writing--I discovered sometime after reading the book that Hamid was a student of Toni Morrison, one of my favorites.

He is also a South Asian Writer (writing in ) English ( SAWE ). Again he is in the company of favorites of mine--Salman Rushie (Midnight's Children) and Arundhati Roy ( The God of Small Things).

Hamid's book was completed before 9/11, but following that horrific event he revised and rewrote.
So in the wake of 9/11, we find our protagonist telling his story to an unnamed American--his story about his life in the US before attacks and after-- his successes at Princeton, then later at a prestigious corporation.

As we read The Reluctant Fundamentalist, as we listen to Changez, we are invited to make judgements :
  • Is he telling the truth?
  • Is he dangerous? A killer?
  • Who is the predator? The prey?
  • What is he not saying?
  • Who am I in the story? 
  • How am I similar to each character?
One of the things I love about Hamid's writing is the unique way he brings his characters to life.  He stands them before us, strips them bare, then reclothes them in unlikely costumes that surprise us because they fit, and then strips them bare again.

The opening pages of The Reluctant Fundamentalist present Changez and his appraisal, his portrait of the American:

How did I know you were American?  No, not by the color of your skin; we have a range of complexions in this country..... nor was it your dress that gave you away; a European tourist could as easily have purchased in Des Moines your suit...Instead it was your bearing that allowed me to identify you...
So we have a compelling framework:
How did I know you?  No, not because.... nor was it....  nor was it.. but because of your.....

Click here to read the first few pages of The Reluctant Fundamentalist  and notice this unique structure.

I challenged the students I recently visited to play with that structure as a way of writing about either themselves or someone else, peeling back the obvious layers to a core essence that makes a person who she is.

Moth Smoke offers the same reading work, the same delightful challenges.  Again, we are invited to ask questions of the characters and ourselves-- the same ones we asked above  about Changez.   Hamid holds each character up in turns to the light --and slowly turns them--so that we see  the prism within. 

Each character narrates his version of the events.  Each writes his or her chapter.  Each tells the story.  At the conflicting intersections, we are left to judge and make meaning.

The chapter that made me want to stop reading and start writing was  Chapter 8: What Lovely Weather We're Having (or the Importance of Air-conditioning).

This chapter illuminated each character's relationship to air-conditioning and the role that air-conditioning played in the events in the book. This chapter catches you by surprise, when in the middle of quite serious developments we digress to this seemingly unrelated  subject. 
But it serves as a catalyst for knowing more, deepening our insight into each character. investigation was conducted into the role air-conditioning may or may not have played in the lives of the various witnesses expected to testify before your Lordship during the course of this trial.  Clearly, the importance of air-conditioning to the events which constitute the substance of this case cannot be overestimated. 

The remainder of the chapter explains everything from social class structure, the breakdown of a key marriage, business considerations, and two deaths in relationship to air-conditioning.

What unsuspected factors in our lives determine the course of events?

I added a note on my iPad immmediately seeing a writing invitation:
Write about the influence of an unlikely element on an event or series of events. 

In checking  a detail for this post, I  discovered Hamid's new novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia: A Novel.

 It promises the same exhilarating reading experience.  Detailing an unnamed  boy's journey from village to city, in second person , imitating a self-help book structure.

It seems worthy of another late night reading. 

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Think about the novel you are currently reading or have recently read.
How does that book present its characters?
How does the author provide depth and flesh?

Write about one of the characters using the following structure borrowed from The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
How did I know you? 
 No, not because.... nor was it....  nor was it.. (continue as needed)... but because of your.....
 You may also want to try writing about  someone your know or yourself using this same framework.

Consider an unlikely element or factor (such as air-conditioning) and its affect on each character and role in the story as a whole.

Write an essay or official report detailing  your reflections 

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