Much has been said about the solitary nature of writers and readers and the therefore seemingly contrary nature of a literary festival. Towards the end of his speech-in-six-chapters, Mohsin Hamid speaks of reading in a different way. Not a solitary pursuit, but ‘a new and familiar experience’ where you enter ‘inside another’s consciousness’ in a way reminiscent of a return to the womb, the aquatic life we’ve all had but cannot remember. Through reading, ‘boundaries shimmer and dissolve’ which Hamid suggests boundaries must do in order to create peace, to escape from the Permawar. As the opening address to the 17th Sydney Writer’s Festival, Mohsin Hamid made a powerful, lyrical statement about mortality and immortality and a way forward for a war ravaged humanity.
After a procession of speeches and a stirring Welcome to Country from Matt Doyle, Mohsin Hamid finally took the stage. After a short acknowledgement of the audience, the organisers and the city itself Hamid began to ‘read (us) a speech’, Life in time of Permawar. Hamid made no pretence that this was in any way unprepared. This was a recitation, more a book reading than a speech. Being read to is a curious experience, you cannot go back, linger, or race forward, but must simply be pulled along in the current. You hear the writer’s every intention, every comma and colon is used as it was intended. Hamid’s speech was a sort of non-fiction narrative and used the second-person you. This ‘you’ typifies Hamid’s approach to books as a collaboration between writer and reader and the style of his third novel ‘How to get filthy rich in rising Asia’ . This ‘you’ also gives you experiences not your own, I have never illegally downloaded BDSM pornography over Pakistan’s heavily censored Internet, nor listened to drones in the night sky, nor danced at a Sufi festival.
In lulling prose, Hamid told us a story whose overarching premise is humanity’s mass-murderer, Death, and our failure to band together to face this enemy. Instead of fearing this invisible, inexorable enemy we fear each other and kill each other. The first chapter is aptly titled ‘Fear of Cannibals’.
Hamid spoke of the war on terror, of schools that had become ‘inside out jails’ with barbed wire fences and patrolling guards, of drones, ‘unseen but not unseeing’: an un-Westernised view of the war on terror and a snapshot into a life lived in Pakistan. He spoke of our increased and increasing dependence on technology, the difference between faith and religion and finally he spoke of the wonder of reading. He spoke of how you ‘found yourself intimate’ in the act of reading. This is the kind of intimacy, of empathy, he believes humanity needs; the understanding that everyone else, all the other seven billion are ‘just as tiny, just as vast’ as ourselves.
Stay tuned for more Sydney Writers’ Festival coverage from Writer’s Edit.