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Q&A with best-selling author, Mohsin Hamid

Posted By Julia Hess | October 2, 2015

During their four years at Siena, many students are able to see what they’re learning in the classroom come to life through research, internships and programs on campus.


The First Year Seminar (FYS) program wanted to jump-start the academic year by showing the Class of 2019 this Siena tradition. The FYS program brought best-selling author, Mohsin Hamid, to campus from his home in Pakistan to speak to the group about his book, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, which has been a staple on the FYS reading list for the past few years.

Hamid spoke about his book, and gave the students advice about going after their passion. Although he is a best-selling author now, Hamid wasn’t always sure which path he would take. He studied English at Princeton and then moved on to Harvard Law School before working in the management field in New York City. Just like many students in the Class of 2019, Hamid had to test out a few paths before he found the right one!

Students go away to college at such a young age and many don’t fully know what they want to do as a profession until much later in life. Was this the case in your experience, or did you always know what you wanted to do?

I didn’t know that a person could be a writer. Growing up I loved to read and I liked to tell stories and I sometimes wrote my own stories. As a kid, I remember writing this illustrated, with stick figures, intergalactic space opera from watching Star Wars when I was six years old. So, clearly there was something there. But, I guess it never dawned on me that someone could be a writer for a living, or even publish what they wrote. I had no idea until I arrived at college and heard about people taking creative writing courses. I thought it sounded a bit too good to be true!

Something that Siena provides to the students, especially through the First Year Seminar Program, is professors who will be mentors during their four years here. You also had a few very important mentors during your time at Princeton.

I wound up studying with writers like Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison who are proper award- winning famous writers. Having them read my work, respond to it and take it seriously let me begin to imagine that maybe I could do this. And so, arriving at college with no idea that I wanted to be a writer and spending four years there on the course of that journey, the result was that I left college thinking, ‘yup, I want to be a writer.’ (Mohsin started writing his first novel, Moth Smoke, while still in college!)

Siena is a liberal arts college, so our students here are required to explore each of the main subjects that we offer. It seems as if you adopted this type of education as well, you studied English, attended Harvard Law School and also worked in the management field. Do you think these diverse experiences have been beneficial to you as an author?

I think yes, it’s not that having worked in business is exactly training to be a writer but, what are you going to write about? So, having lived the life that has taken me to different cities and different countries and different jobs informed my writing. Especially this book, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, is about a career, among other things, different levels of a career.  I don’t think that I could write this book if I hadn’t worked in business.

You’ve earned degrees in both Pakistan and the United States. Why do you think that it is important for young people to incorporate travel into their education at some point in time?

I think that traveling is an education. If I had to decide between sending my child to a four year university and having them never leave their hometown or not going to university and spend four years traveling the world, it would be a tough one to say which would be the better education. Ideally, you do both but I’ve learned an enormous amount just seeing how different people do things, how they approach life, what their philosophies of life are, their religions, cultures, even how they build their buildings or eat their dinner. Along the way you meet people and they humanize the world for you. For your students here, whenever possible, go!

Speaking of travel, you’ve traveled very far to be here! Why do you enjoy speaking to young college students?

In some ways, there is nothing that I really enjoy more, once I’m done writing a book, than speaking about it with young people who have read it. As a college student you may think, oh cool that I get to meet someone who has written a book that I’ve read. But, as a writer it’s the reverse. College students are sort of like the perfect reader. These are people who actually care and are passionate and are hopeful and take things personally. To have that kind of engagement with your work, to have people that were really shaped by it, or were touched by something, or annoyed by something but just really engaged by something, it’s a gift as a writer.

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