Sunday, November 15, 2009

Alumni Remembrances: Mohsin Hamid '93

This week, we have a contribution by Mohsin Hamid '93, author of Moth Smoke (2000) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)!

By Mohsin Hamid

One day in the spring of 1993, Toni Morrison took me out for lunch. It was my last semester at Princeton, and I was in her long-fiction creative writing workshop. I'd done two semesters of short story work with Joyce Carol Oates, and I hoped to be a novelist. So I was writing fast. I think we had to produce thirty or forty or fifty pages for Toni. I'd hit a hundred and was still going.

We sat and chatted and ate (what I don't remember, but it included fries). I told her I'd gotten into law school. I told her I was planning to take time off first, to head back to Pakistan and write. I told her I'd been cooking for myself this year. I told her I made a mean pasta and she ought to give it a try. Really? she said. Yeah, I said. I invited her down to the basement kitchen of Edwards Hall and told her she wouldn't be disappointed.

To my surprise, she said she'd come. It better not be over-boiled spaghetti in some sauce out of a can, she warned me. I smiled. Confident. As we left the restaurant she noticed a paperback hidden between notebooks and printouts in my hands. She asked me what it was. I told her it was Jazz. She asked if it was the first of hers I'd picked up. I confessed it was. She signed it for me. Then she said, Read Beloved, it's good.

I still remember how she said it: good. Drawn-out. Beautiful and powerful, the way words she spoke often were. When she read our stuff out loud to us in class, it sounded like literature. So I picked up Beloved next. And she was right. It was good.

I thought I was pretty good myself back then. I thought the novel I was writing was good. I thought my cooking was good. I was twenty-one years old and didn't know better, thank goodness. And luckily for me, Toni never showed up for that pasta.

Instead, I got a message on my answering machine from her assistant. Toni couldn't make it that day, sadly. John Updike (I think it was Updike) had come to campus. I hadn't yet read Updike but the name sounded familiar. I called back and said no problem.

It wasn't until later that it occurred to me my cooking might not have been quite as good as I thought it was. My pasta was indeed spaghetti. It was probably over-boiled. And while the sauce didn't come out of a can, it did come out of a bottle. All I really did was add some hot chillies to it. And maybe a couple of other spices. But maybe not.

Why I was so proud of it, I can't now for the life of me recall.

As for the novel I was writing, I finished a draft for her class. Toni liked it enough to ask me to read from it at the annual end-of-year creative writing event. I still have a manuscript with several pages of her exquisitely fountain-penned suggestions on the reverse. I figured I was almost done.

It wasn't ready for publication for another seven years.


09 said...

This is beautiful. Thank you.