In The Last White Man (Hamish Hamilton, Rs 599), his fifth novel that will release at the end of the month, Mohsin Hamid throws up an interesting proposition — what happens when a White man wakes up one morning and realises he is no longer so. That his deracination is part of a great changeover taking shape in his city. How would the future unspool? Can one really become the Other? In this interview, the Lahore-based writer, 50, known for novels such as The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) and Exit West (2017), speaks of nurturing this story since 9/11, thwarting bigotry with empathy and writing less to say more.
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What led you to this story?
This story was born, in a way, by my own experiences of living in the West, particularly in America. In the first 30 years of my life, I spent 18 years there. Having gone to elite universities, worked in well-paying jobs and living in a cosmopolitan city like New York, I experienced, I guess, some degree of discrimination, but it had felt relatively minor. After 9/11, suddenly, I was being stopped at airports and pulled aside for extra screening, I would fly into the country and be called up at immigration and kept for hours. I’d get on to a bus with a backpack, a bit unshaven on the weekend, and people would look uncomfortable, and, sometimes, they would switch their seats. I felt this profound sense of loss. I wanted things to go back to how they were before 9/11. I didn’t want to be this person of suspicion or threat. I started thinking, what have I lost exactly? In a way, even though I’m a brown-skinned man, with a Muslim-sounding name, I had benefitted in many of the advantages of a kind of Whiteness, of being just a person treated as a regular person, quite significantly. I started to think, should I actually want to go back to that way of seeing me? Or, should I, instead, ask myself, what was the system that I was complicit in? What did it mean, to be treated this way in a world where clearly many people are not? Decades since, I eventually stumbled upon this idea of a man who had thought himself as White, and then he suddenly isn’t. And I thought, that’s my way into this book.
The idea of inhabiting someone’s skin requires empathy, and this has been at the core of many of your novels. Does that come from your peripatetic life, the realisation that we fit in in far more identities than one, or is there something else to it?
I’ve lived between the US, the UK and Pakistan most of my life. If you live between two or three countries, you realise that the dominant ways of seeing things are always contingent, and that, based on cultural peculiarities, even within those places, there are differences. I suppose partly what happens when you move around as a child is you don’t want to stand out. At least, I didn’t. There’s a feeling of threat from being the kid in class who is different from everybody else. So, you quickly learn to become a kind of chameleon. When I moved from Pakistan to California, at the age of three, within a month, I was speaking only English and had stopped speaking Urdu. When I moved back to Pakistan at the age of nine, I had to relearn Urdu and find a way to fit back in. That kind of experience made me, and I think makes many people, very sensitive to what other people might be thinking or feeling.
But you don’t always have to move countries. Within countries like Pakistan and India, you see different groups of people interacting, you learn to pick up on these cues. That is how I find my way. Empathy is part of it, but an enormous part of fiction has to do with not just telling my story or the story of my people, it’s also wanting to be somebody else. That is hugely attractive — imagining our way into other experiences.
But we are also at a juncture where reinforcement of singular identities is on the rise among nations across the world. What does it mean for you to be a novelist in such a world?
You’re right. We are living in a time where there is a pressing imperative to sort people into groups. Attempts are being made to assert a kind of dominant group identity in countries all over the world, whether that’s India, Pakistan, Britain or America, Turkey, Brazil and Russia. It’s worth asking why this has happened. One part of it is that in history, we know that whenever a powerful empire begins to recede, these kind of sub-nationalistic or nationalistic impulses start to assert themselves. So when the Ottoman Empire ended, or, in our own experience in India and Pakistan, the British Empire in 1947, we had Partition. Now, as America’s dominance seems to be diminishing, we are seeing a similar effect.
But alongside that, there’s also a technological reality that we inhabit that is very algorithmic. The impulse to give a person a thumbs up or thumbs down, and then be increasingly sorted into people who have given similar votes to similar things is what technology is telling us every single day. It intensifies the idea that we are all different, and that we should focus on particular aspects of ourselves — our religion, skin colour — when we could easily focus on, say, our dal preferences or literature preferences. But we are being culturally, technologically driven towards these anxiety-inducing elements of identity.
The third thing is that the pace of change is accelerating. The future is looking increasingly dystopian to many, and, because of this, we are being drawn to nostalgic appeals. We are being told that we should go back to the great days of the past of our people. Those great days never really existed. They were incredibly problematic, the past that we all come from. So, as a novelist, what for me is very interesting is to try to imagine differently, to remove, for example, the ease of a binary sorting mechanism on the subject of race; to say, what if it wasn’t possible for us to sort each other? Or, to take a dystopian concept and to say, look, what if we were to allow this to happen? What if migrations were to sweep the world? What if the race that you imagine yourself to belong to disappeared? And, to go into these dystopias and imagine a way out into a more optimistic potential. Because unless we can begin to imagine something optimistic, we are really condemned to a politics rooted in pessimism and in a very dangerous tribal identity.
At the time of the release of How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013), your third novel, you’d mentioned how the conciseness of your books helped draw in many first-generation English readers in the subcontinent who wanted to partake in the literary experience. In the decade since, with the rise of social media and OTT platforms, the nature of readership has quite changed. As a writer, how do you compete with that world now?
In a sense, it’s not about competing as much as it is understanding what the space is. The dominant mass-produced, mass-reproduced storytelling form is now televisual. In those forms, we encounter worlds that are quite comprehensively imagined for us. The viewer, in that sense, is a viewer. But in the novel, the reader is not a viewer. You are animating words into people, into feelings, into an entire imaginary landscape. So, I think of what the novel can do as something very different. The novel invites every reader to be a co-creator, a director of their own film of the book. The novel is like a screenplay for a reader. One thing I’ve done is to move away from dialogue. It (The novel) doesn’t even need to have scenes to enact events. It can, instead, function as a way of allowing the reader to imagine. So, in a sense, the craft of writing my novels has become one of trying to create gaps, coupled with imaginative catalysts. Lots of things are unsaid and not specified and they work in an interior domain that hopefully allows the reader to create something.
Is that why you tend to leave out geographical and cultural specificities from your works?
When I moved back to Pakistan in 2009, after The Reluctant Fundamentalist, there were many people who thought that there was something pernicious about a novelist taking on a representative role. Now, I’m the first to admit that I’m not representative of anything. But I could see how people would think you’re engaging in a cultural strip-mining, where you exploit the landscape of Pakistan and sell to the culture industry abroad. It’s not a critique that one can dismiss lightly. The economics are certainly interesting — so many of one’s readers are not in South Asia, so much of the publishing industry is not in South Asia, the language that I write in is English. So, am I really innocent and how do I respond? I thought, let me begin by trying to impose a certain rigour towards myself. Maybe what I’ll do is I won’t use any names at all. I’m not going to call the place Pakistan, I won’t say this religion is Islam, won’t name these characters with Pakistani names. I won’t allow easy representative moves to determine how I’m writing or reading. When I began to do this, I discovered there’s enormous power in it. As I began to circumscribe my own representational aspects as a writer, I found that I was also opening something up — an imaginative space for the reader.