Author Q&A: Mohsin Hamid
The Last White Man (Penguin)
The Last White Man (Penguin)
One morning, Anders wakes to find that his skin has turned dark, his reflection a stranger to him. At first he tells only Oona, old friend and now lover. Soon, reports of similar occurrences surface across the land. Some see the transformation as something to be resisted to a bitter end. In many, like Anders’s father and Oona’s mother, the sense of loss conflicts with love. But as the bond between Anders and Oona deepens, the changes offer a chance to see one another, face to face, anew. Best known for The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Hamid, who has lived in Lahore, London and New York, examined global migration in his last novel, Exit West* and now turns his attention to race and the possibility of its absence in this slim, affecting novel.
When we spoke five years ago you said you were “often deeply depressed, very worried and sad and frightened” about the state of the world. That seems to prefigure the current book. How has your own state of mind changed and was that the origin of the idea for the current book?
You’ve reminded me that five years ago I was already feeling much less hopeful than I had been 10 or 15 years ago before that. If anything I think my anxieties have become more pronounced in the five years since we last spoke. At the time the Obama presidency had given way to the Trump presidency; in the UK Brexit was taking place and in many places there was a slide towards authoritarianism and intolerance. Now five years on those tendencies have intensified, it seems.
Wars are breaking out, there’s hunger, inflation, increased inequality, increased polarisation and discrimination. If in my last book I was trying to address the issue around the movement of people, how migration is an essential safety valve for the human species – but also it’s part all of our histories and all of our present-day lives because we migrate through time as we live – the new book is a response to how our sorting mechanism has gone out of whack.
Likes the screens we stare into all the time and the social media that we follow we have started to sort one another into like or not like, and follow or unfollow, and if they’re not liked it’s quite quickly hatred. I wanted to play with what happens when you start to disarm that sorting function. If you can’t attribute people by race, what happens to society? Where do you go from there?
I won’t be the first person to think of Kafka when I immediately started reading the book, as Anders wakes up changed, but this is a much less angst-ridden book than Metamorphosis. This was a conscious direction for you, was it?
It was. I’m wary of pessimism because I’ve come to believe the when we think pessimistically about the future politically what occurs is that we empower people who peddle nostalgic political visions, who say that we need to go back to the past. Britain before migration or America in the 1950s, the golden age of Islam, Hindutva before the Muslims came to India, Putin’s idea of a Russia before the demise of the Soviet Union – all of these are essentially nostalgic visions, of saying our best days were in the past, let’s go back there.
I think that’s very dangerous. I think the past was probably not as good as we imagine, and also you can’t go there. That’s not a direction that’s open to us. So for me it’s become important to try and imagine that critical optimism, which is not the same as naive optimism – the optimism that takes the position that things will be fine. For me a critical optimism is things can be fine if we work hard to make them fine and to do that we have to imagine what fine might look like. That’s the animating experience of what I was trying to do.
People will read this as an optimistic counter to what emerged as the “great replacement” theory in the US. When you analysed whiteness for the book were you able to distil it down to anything or was it more what it was in opposition to?
In a way you think of whiteness, as I approached it in the book, as a certain absence of things: the absence of the supposition of threat or suspicion or inferiority. It’s as though whiteness means you can just be human and the other things qualify humanity. But because we have this system of whiteness and non-whiteness – which I think is an imaginary system; we’ve imagined it into being and now it exists it has a terrible force – for Anders, as he experiences one morning waking up dark, he discovers that he’s no longer just a person, that there’s a suspicion around him, that he starts to pick up that something is amiss, that people don’t regard him in the same way.
He thinks, underneath the skin I’m still the same. But the problem is that he isn’t because human beings are relational beings. If someone thinks of you as something else it’s very hard for you to resist that. So you begin to over-compensate, you begin to communicate that you are unthreatening, that you are still the same person. And when you do that you become self-conscious and you become strange in a way, and people react to that. And so Anders finds that although he hasn’t changed on the inside he has in fact began to change on the inside.
The theme came first – of people losing their race, losing their sense of whiteness – and then the story that would make this possible took a bit longer.
And he changes again towards to end of the book.
Yes, the book is in a sense a book about loss and so much of human existence is characterised by loss. But we have in contemporary culture orientated ourselves to not recognise that – to imagine that we will live forever, to imagine that the goal in life is acquisition, is consumption, whereas of course every organism consumes things but it is also consumed and we have evolved in our current hyper-capitalist world this relentless focus on a self-interested actor that is acquiring things.
The problem in reinforcing this idea of the self is it leaves us completely paralysed and terrified at the notion that the self will cease, and of course the self will cease, so the novel is really about loss, how to find meaning in loss, how to find dignity in loss and also something new in loss. And that happens to Anders and the other characters in the book.
That was enhanced for me by the idea that so much of the action in the book takes place off stage whereas it’s actually more about the domestic setting. It seemed you were using that to highlight the eternal verities of loss and death and also the renewal of Anders’s and Oona’s love. Is that fair comment?
I think it is. And a lot of it takes place off stage because it’s left to the reader’s imagination. The town isn’t named, the other characters aren’t named, there’s lots of gaps in what’s going on. The reader can animate that and create their own reading of the novel.
There’s a distinct style to the writing – long sentences, rhythmic paragraphs, almost a beating heart aspect to it. Was it a technical challenge you set yourself or did it emerge from the story naturally?
Partly every book for me is this challenge of figuring out theme and story and form. What story supports the theme, what form supports that story. How do the form and theme relate to one another, etc. It’s a bit like a Rubik’s cube – you have to get all the sides right to make it work.
The theme came first – of people losing their race, losing their sense of whiteness – and then the story that would make this possible took a bit longer. And then this notion of what is the form that enables this story? As I began to get into it I thought I like the idea of these long sentences because on the one hand they enable me to move perspective in the course of a sentence, so we’re in Anders’s head and then his father’s head and then a third person, which reflects the way the characters’ points of view are shifting during the course of the novel or even how the reader’s point of view might shift during the course of the novel.
And it’s also a way of writing where something’s said and then it’s qualified and we’re moving forward by rethinking and qualifying what we’re saying, which I think is how human thought works. These days we’ve a very performative notion of what we think, that we’ll say something and, because we’ve said it, perhaps on Twitter or some other very public space, we feel we must defend thought. But oftentimes, if we’re left to our own devices and we’re in a comfortable place with our friends, then we’ll say something and if we’re chatting it over we’ll say, well, that’s not quite right. It’s more like this and then it’s more like that. And then a friend will say, well, I think this, and then you’ll say, you know what, I think you’re right. We have a lot more fluidity in our thought processes than we do sometimes when we commit something to a page or screen. These sentences are meant to be fluid like that.
And lastly when you write these long sentences you set up certain rhythms and cadences and the effect of that is to continue to bear the reader forward. You don’t have full stops where you can stop and pause and think, I agree with this. The comma is a pause that continues to lean forward so you keep going and when you reach the full stop you’ve already gone through the idea that perhaps troubled you. You’ve already read it and it’s already made its way a little bit in before you stop to think about whether you want to accept it. So all sorts of reasons were behind the sentences.