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

“One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find himself undeniably dark and brown.” So begins Mohsin Hamid’s fifth and latest novel, The Last White Man. The thin episode imagines a world in which whites lose their chastity. Anders is the first to undergo this transformation, followed by his girlfriend, Oona, and her racist mother, until only his dying father, who gives the novel, remains. Borrow the title of the novel.

amid (50 years old), born and now living in Lahore, Pakistan, has spent nearly two decades in the US, and the idea for the book came from his experiences after 9/11.

“A key component is how I feel after 9/11, coming from someone who doesn’t see discrimination as a big aspect of my life. Obviously, I ran into it, but I’m living in these cosmopolitan cities, I’ve gone to elite universities and have this well-paying job; in general, it’s not that big of a deal,” he said during a stopover in London, formerly his home for 10 years.

“Then, all of a sudden, at the airport, you’re pulled out of the line, and then on entry, you’re put in the crosshairs for hours and asked to register your address, and then you Get on an unshaven bus, and everyone looks annoyed with your backpack.

“I remember feeling for a long time: ‘I want everything back to the way it was before 9/11’. I feel lost, and I don’t really know exactly what I’m going to lose. I started to think, what I’ve really lost is the feeling of being a ‘set by default’ person who doesn’t have a specific sense of threat. “

As the years passed, Hamid wrote Reluctant fundamentalist, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and made into a film; with How to Get Dirty Rich in Rising Asia and Exit West, the work has finally made Booker’s shortlist and is being turned into a film by production company Obamas. While finishing Exit West in 2016, that feeling he found after 9/11 took on a “higher importance”.

“All these strange things started happening. There was the Brexit referendum, and then the downhill Brexits were as hard as possible. In America, Trump comes, says and does things that have never been seen before. You are seeing similar developments around the world: in Bolsonaro’s Brazil, in Duterte’s Philippines, in Erdogan’s Turkey, in Hindutva [Hindu nationalism] about Modi’s India, Putin’s Russia,” he said. “I started to feel that there was real revenge going on. I wanted to write a novel that explores what happens when people find an identity so important to them seemingly at stake. “

Write The last white manThat’s how he works, says Hamid, to overcome his fear of “the rise of these kinds of minority identities.”

“I previously believed that we were on a trajectory where, in countries like the US and UK, discrimination would naturally decrease and feelings of racial difference would diminish – in the early days of the world. Obama presidency, conceivably that’s a path we’ve taken. After the Brexit referendum and Trump election, it is clear that may not be the case. I find that very destabilizing, so I wanted to explore some of the roots of that and figure out how to get out of it. “

Racial identity, in Hamid’s view, is “a flattening phenomenon” and “a deeply limited form of identity”. “Being a novelist, or enjoying sushi, those are different types of identities, because we can opt in and we can opt out. But a person’s racial identity is often something that is imposed on you from the outside and so I think it turns identity into nasty shapes,” he said.

That’s why The last white man presents an optimistic vision of a post-racial world. “I learned that it is pessimism about the future that gives power to those with nostalgic political ideas,” says Hamid. “If we can’t imagine a future we want to work towards, we’re left with people who say how we need to go back to things, and I think that’s very dangerous. dangerous. It’s not naive optimism that says ‘everything will be okay’, but a more critical optimism that says, ‘things most likely won’t go well, but conceivable you our way to a better place’. “

In The last white man, Hamid seeks to reflect this sense of fluency in fluent sentences, often long paragraphs, filled with degrees and inversions. He mentioned a lesson he learned while writing his first novel Moth smoke 30 years ago, studied at Princeton under the direction of Toni Morrison.

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“She said, ‘Keep the reader half a heartbeat before the action of your novel. They shouldn’t know what’s going to happen next, but when it does, they feel inevitable,” he recalls. “Much of that work is done by sentences. The sentences in which the perspective changes – you are in the head of Anders, the head of Anders’ father – suggest a flexible perspective that the characters begin to encounter in their own lives, and hopefully, readers begin to encounter. “

Although one of his characters is named Oona, Hamid says he doesn’t suggest Irish in her name, noting that it occurs in the eastern Baltic states and the Una River between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. The Irish personality, however, offers a “reminder” of imaginary racial formation.

“Even during the migration of the Irish to the Americas, those who were now considered white were not necessarily considered ‘proper’ white for a time. For me, that was exciting, because it evoked the imaginary nature of the entire business,” he said. “I think that’s also why there’s a lot of interesting writing from Ireland, partly because the Irish are very talented writers, but partly because I think it’s because there’s a lot of fertility in the area. That mind, can be viewed in both directions, as those who had been under colonial impulses, and also engaged in a colonial enterprise. “

Reduce anxiety

Hamid points out that some critics have questioned his focus on the views of white characters in the film. The last white man, leaving the thoughts of dark-skinned characters, such as a cleaner at Anders’ gym, in the reader’s imagination. This was a deliberate formal choice, he explained.

“It creates a kind of destabilizing 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 was happening, it would relieve the reader of the anxiety that comes from creating this experience for themselves, and without any sort of anchor like , ‘Is this okay? Is it possible to empathize with someone as deeply racist as Oona’s mother? ‘ Who knows, but it’s better for readers to be left with that discomfort than another character is provided to alleviate that discomfort. “

It speaks to Hamid’s perception of the written novel as an “imaginative partnership” between writer and reader. “A novel is like an invitation to play to build trust, like two children saying, ‘Let’s be a pirate,’” he said, noting that this is what distinguishes literature from film and television.

“I made the very conscious decision to abandon the idea of ​​seeing the novel as a cinematic transmission. Almost all of my books have been selected, and turning them into movies is always a disaster, because I don’t see the reader as a viewer, I see the reader as a director, a cinematographer. movies and selectors. director and location scout… That for me is the power of literature – it allows the reader to have an experience that is not available in any other setting.”

With reading rates declining, writers face new challenges to capture readers’ attention. Hamid notes that while this is a source of anxiety, it presents “an enormous opportunity as an artist”.

“How do you invite readers into this imaginative co-creation space the way they want to?” he says.

“Part of what makes writing fun is that you don’t know how, and so each novel is an attempt to figure out how it can be done. Because the race field is such a difficult one, it’s an intimidating space to reach, but I think it’s essential to reach out – even at the wrong cost, even if People say, ‘I think you’ve got the wrong thing’.

“It’s entirely possible that I didn’t do it well or the right way, but the target is trying to figure it out, and some other writer will probably learn something from the experiment and do it well. than. And then we’ll have something more useful. “


Mohsin Hamid’s Last White Man

‘The Last White Man’ by Mohsin Hamid Published by Hamish Hamilton Mohsin Hamid on how his post-9/11 life inspired The Last White Man and what makes Irish writing different

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