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Mohsin Hamid on how his post-9/11 life inspired The Last White Man and what makes Irish writing different

The author on his new novel about white people turning brown, and why it’s an optimistic vision

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Author Mohsin Hamid. Photo by Leonardo Cendamo/Getty

Author Mohsin Hamid. Photo by Leonardo Cendamo/Getty

The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid

The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid

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Author Mohsin Hamid. Photo by Leonardo Cendamo/Getty

‘One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown.” So begins Mohsin Hamid’s fifth and latest novel, The Last White Man. The slim volume imagines a world in which white people lose their whiteness. Anders is the first to undergo this transformation, followed by his girlfriend, Oona, and her racist mother, until only his dying father, who lends the novel its title, remains.

Hamid (50), who was born and now lives in Lahore, Pakistan, spent nearly two decades in America, and the idea for the book is rooted in his experiences after 9/11.

“One important component was the feeling I had post-9/11, going from somebody who didn’t consider discrimination a huge facet of my life. Obviously, I’d encountered it, but I was living in these cosmopolitan cities, I’d gone to elite universities and had this well-paying job; by and large, it wasn’t such a big deal,” he says during a stop in London, formerly his home for 10 years.

“Then suddenly, at the airport, you’re being pulled out of the line, and then at immigration, you were taken for hours for questioning and told to register your address, and then you get on to a bus unshaven, and people look uncomfortable with your backpack.

“I remember feeling for a long time: ‘I want things to go back to the way that they had been before 9/11’. I felt a sense of loss, and I didn’t really know exactly what I’d lost. I started thinking, what I lost was really that sense of being a ‘default setting’ human being who comes with no particular connotation of threat.”

As the years passed, Hamid wrote The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and adapted into a film; along with How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia and Exit West, the last of which was also Booker shortlisted and is being turned into a film by the Obamas’ production company. While finishing Exit West in 2016, that feeling he noticed post-9/11 took on a “heightened significance”.

“All of these weird things began to happen. There was the Brexit referendum, and then the descent into the hardest of all possible Brexits. In the US, Trump comes in and says and does things that were unprecedented. You’re seeing similar developments all over the world: in Bolsonaro’s Brazil, in Duterte’s Philippines, in Erdogan’s Turkey, in the Hindutva [Hindu nationalism] of Modi’s India, in Putin’s Russia,” he says. “I started feeling that there’s a real retribalisation happening. I wanted to write a novel that explored what happens when people find an identity that’s very important to them seeming to be under threat.”

Writing The Last White Man, Hamid says, was his way of working through his fears about “the rise of these kinds of ethnonationalistic identities”.

“I previously believed that we were on a trajectory where, in countries like the US and UK, discrimination would naturally decrease and the sense of racial difference would diminish — in the early days of the Obama presidency, it was possible to imagine that was a path that we were on. After the Brexit referendum and Trump’s election, it became quite clear that that may not be the case. I found that to be very destabilising, so I wanted to explore some of the roots of that and imagine a way out of it.”

Racial identity, in Hamid’s view, is “a flattening phenomenon” and “a profoundly limiting form of identity”. “Being a novelist, or liking sushi, those are different kinds of identities, because we can opt into them and we can opt out of them. But one’s racial identity is so often something that is imposed upon you from the outside and, as a consequence, I think it funnels identity into uncomfortable shapes,” he says.

It’s why The Last White Man presents an optimistic vision of a post-racial world. “I’ve come to understand that it’s a pessimism about the future that gives power to people who peddle nostalgic political ideologies,” Hamid says. “If we can’t imagine a future we want to go to, then we are left with people saying that we need to go back to how things were, and I think that’s very dangerous. It’s not a naive optimism of saying ‘everything is going to be fine’, but a more critical optimism of saying, ‘things could very well not be fine, but it’s possible to imagine our way to a better place’.”

In The Last White Man, Hamid seeks to reflect this sense of flux in fluid, often paragraph-long sentences, filled with qualifications and reversals. He mentions a lesson he learned when writing his first novel Moth Smoke 30 years ago, studying at Princeton under Toni Morrison.

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“She said: ‘Keep the reader a half heartbeat ahead of the action of your novel. They shouldn’t know what’s coming next, but when it happens, it should feel inevitable,’” he recalls. “A great deal of that work is done by the sentences. Sentences in which perspective shifts — you’re in Anders’s head, Anders’s father’s head — already suggest a fluidity of perspective that the characters are beginning to encounter in their own lives, and hopefully, the reader is beginning to encounter.”

Although one of his characters is named Oona, Hamid says he wasn’t suggesting Irishness in her name, noting that it appears in eastern Baltic states and the Una river between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. However, Irishness does offer a “reminder” of the imaginary construction of race.

“Even in the migration of the Irish to America, people who are now thought of as white weren’t necessarily thought of as ‘properly’ white for a while. For me, that’s interesting, because it suggests the imaginary nature of the whole enterprise,” he says. “I think that’s also why there’s so much interesting writing from Ireland, partly because the Irish are very talented writers, but partly I think it’s because there’s enormous fertility in that position, of being able to gaze in both directions, as people who have been subjected to a colonial impulse, and have also participated in a colonial enterprise.”

Relief from anxiety

Hamid points out that some critics have taken issue with his focus on white characters’ perspectives in The Last White Man, leaving the thoughts of dark-skinned characters, such as a cleaner at Anders’s gym, to the reader’s imagination. This was, he explains, a deliberate formal choice.

“It creates a kind of destabilising impulse. We have to step in and imagine, what is this character thinking?” he says. “If I were to present non-white characters observing what’s going on, it gives the reader relief from the anxiety that comes from generating this experience yourself, and not having any kind of anchor like, ‘Is this OK? Is it OK to be sympathetic to somebody as deeply racist as Oona’s mother?’ Who knows, but far better that the readers are left with that discomfort than that another character is provided to ease that discomfort.”

It speaks to Hamid’s perception of written fiction as an “imaginative partnership” between writer and reader. “A novel is like an invitation to play make believe, like two children saying, ‘Let’s be pirates’,” he says, noting that this is what distinguishes literature from film and TV.

“I’ve made a very conscious decision to move away from the idea of novels as cinematic transmissions. Almost all of my books have been optioned, and it’s always a disaster trying to convert them into film, because I don’t view the reader as the viewer, I view the reader in a way as the director, as the cinematographer and the casting director and the location scout... That for me is the power of literature — it allows readers to have an experience that is unavailable in any other setting.”

With reading rates in decline, writers face new challenges to command readers’ attention. Hamid notes that although this is a source of worry, it offers “an enormous opportunity as an artist”.

“How do you invite readers into this imaginative co-creative space in a way that they want to come?” he says.

“Part of what makes writing interesting is that you have no idea how to do it, and so each novel is an attempt to figure out how it could be done. Because the domain of race is such a fraught domain, it’s an intimidating space to approach, but I think it’s very necessary to approach — even at the price of making mistakes, even at the price of people saying, ‘I think you’ve got things wrong’.

“It’s entirely possible that I’ve not done it well or properly, but the objective is trying to figure that out, and some other writer will learn something maybe from the experiment and do it better. And then we’ll have something that is more useful.”

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The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid

The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid

The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid

‘The Last White Man’ by Mohsin Hamid is published by Hamish Hamilton


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