Was there ever a more intimate way to narrate a novel than to use the second person? Riverhead Literary Fiction author Mohsin Hamid has written three award-winning novels in the second person, and all to great effect. Here he tells us why he loves using “you.” This post will inspire you to try “you” in your own writing, too.
I think I’ve always been drawn to the second person. When I was growing up and playing with my friends, the usual way we interacted with imaginary worlds was as characters: a bench was “your” boat, leaves on a lawn were the fins of sharks out to get “you.” Make-believe storytelling, which is to say fiction, wasn’t exclusively about being an observer—not for me, at least. There was this other strand as well, of being a participant.
As a nine-year-old in California, just before my family moved back to Pakistan, I encountered Dungeons & Dragons. That fantasy game was spellbinding for me. To understand the rules, you had to read books. But then you were free to create. It was collective imagining with a shared narrative. The Dungeon Master—a figure somewhere between an author and a referee—set in motion a tale that players spun together. It was as a DM, I’m pretty sure, that my proto-novelistic skills were first honed.
Of course, I read a lot too. There seemed to be a constant stream of asides directly addressing the reader in children’s books, a sort of conspiratorial “you” that cropped up again and again. Then there were those hybrids of role-playing game and children’s book: game books like the Choose Your Own Adventure series, which briefly, in that time before computers were readily available, occupied a full shelf of my neighborhood bookshop in Lahore.
Slowly, from comic books and sci-fi and swords and sorcery, my reading interests stretched out in my late teens to encompass Hemingway and Tolstoy and Márquez. When I moved back to America for college and signed up for a creative writing course, I had no idea I wanted to be a writer. When the semester ended, I didn’t want to be anything else.
In my final year, as I was starting my first novel, I read THE FALL by Camus. It is written as a dramatic monologue, with the protagonist constantly addressing the reader as “you,” and it changed how I thought books could work. I was amazed by the potential of the “you,” of how much space it could open up in fiction.
The book I was writing then, back in 1993, became MOTH SMOKE, the tale of a pot-smoking ex-banker who falls disastrously in love with his best friend’s wife. You, the reader, are cast as his judge. The story has what might be called a realistic narrative—there is no magic, no aliens—but the frame of the trial that it uses isn’t realism. It is something else: make-believe, play, with “you” given an active role.
In my second novel, THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST, I wanted to explore this further, push the boundaries of what I knew how to do with “you.” Camus’s novel was a guide, but my project was my own: to try to show, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, how feelings already present inside a reader—fear, anger, suspicion, loyalty—could color a narrative so that the reader, as much as or even more than the writer, is deciding what is really going on. I wanted the novel to be a kind of mirror, to let readers see how they are reading, and, therefore, how they are living and how they are deciding their politics.
Mohsin Hamid’s latest book is HOW TO GET FILTHY RICH IN RISING ASIA, which comes out from Riverhead in paperback on March 5, 2014. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, and via his author website. Be sure to check out his recent contribution to the Book Ends column in the New York Times Book Review, on the subject: “How Do eBooks Change the Reading Experience?”
Have thoughts, feelings, opinions, or questions about what type of POV is best for your book? Join the discussion here.