Mohsin Hamid in The New York Times:
At the end of Nell Freudenberger’s second novel, “The Newlyweds,” we encounter the following sentence: “I believe that it is only by sharing our stories that we truly become one community.” A worthy objective, surely. Nonetheless we’re on tricky ground here, and a little probing on our part is called for. The sentence quoted above is in fact part of a Starbucks “Reach for the Stars” writing competition entry attributed to the novel’s protagonist, Amina, a Bangladeshi woman who has immigrated to America. But Amina’s entry, it turns out, was not actually written by Amina. It was written, and submitted, by Kim, an American cousin of Amina’s American husband, George. Kim is a yoga instructor. She is a storyteller, a bit of a liar. Like Freudenberger herself, she has spent time in South Asia. And Kim is held up, at least partly, as a stand-in for the author: “ ‘But you always wear Indian clothes,’ Amina said. “Kim laughed. ‘I wear my own version. This kind of thing.’ She indicated the bulky sweater she was wearing over an unseasonable cotton dress and a pair of black tights. ‘But trust me — I look stupid in a sari.’ ”
Freudenberger is aware of the pitfalls she faces in telling us Amina’s tale, and she wants us to be aware of them too. If Kim has invented a competition-winning story as Amina, about Amina, without Amina’s permission, and with various inaccuracies, what, Freudenberger invites us to ask, has Freudenberger done? At stake here isn’t — or shouldn’t be — the question of authenticity, which is a red herring: nationalities, ethnicities, genders and even species do not “own” the right to fictional narratives spoken in what purport to be their voices. Such a proposition, taken to its logical extreme, would reduce fiction to autobiography, and while fiction may well be alive and kicking in the belly of many an autobiography, to confine fiction solely to that domain would be madness. No, the more pressing issue is that of verisimilitude, truthlikeness, the illusion of being real, a quality without which fiction that adheres to the conventions of what is commonly called realism (a problematic term, but useful shorthand for the more cumbersome “let’s try not to draw attention to the fact that this is all made up”-ism) starts to feel to its audience like an ill-fitting and spasmodic sock puppet.
About Mohsin Hamid:
By THE EDITORS
This week, Mohsin Hamid reviews Nell Freudenberger’s novel “The Newlyweds,” about an American man and a Bangladeshi woman who meet over the Internet and, despite the geographic and cultural gulfs between them, decide to marry. Hamid, the author of two novels, is himself a traverser of borders, having grown up mostly in Lahore, Pakistan, where he now lives, with stints in London and the United States. In addition to writing fiction, he is a prolific essayist on culture and politics for publications including The Guardian of London, Time magazine and The New York Review of Books. “I’m a political animal,” he told us via e-mail. “How the pack hunts, shares its food, tends its wounded — these things matter to me. So I write about them. Fiction and nonfiction are just two different ways of lying to try to get at truths. Fiction lies by fabricating what isn’t there. Nonfiction lies by omitting what is. Doing both is useful: it keeps me aware of sentences, a novelist’s obsession, and the power of the void that surrounds them, a preoccupation of journalists.” Hamid’s third novel, which he described as “a love story and a meditation on the nature of fiction” that “pretends to be a self-help book about how to get rich in 21st-century Asia,” is scheduled to be published next spring. At press time he was also preparing for the birth of his second child. How has fatherhood affected his writing life? “It’s been fantastic,” he said. “My 2-year-old daughter has started knocking on my door every day, coming in and sitting down in silence until I finally say, ‘What are you doing?’ And she answers, ‘I’m working, Baba. Working.’ She makes me laugh every time. To write, you have to deal with solitude. And to become a father, at least for me, is to have a powerful enchantment enter your solitude, a new smile you get to smile when you’re alone.”