How 9/11 and the pandemic inspired Mohsin Hamid’s new novel

On the shelf

The Last White Man

By Mohsin Hamid
Riverhead: 192 pages, $26

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Novels about strange, sudden physical transformations are an intriguing subgenre — from Kafka’s 1915 novella, The Metamorphosis, in which Gregor Samsa famously wakes up as a cockroach, to A. Igoni Barrett’s 2016 satire, Blackass, in which a Nigerian Man turns white (except for his behind). While Barrett’s novel poke fun at racist attitudes in his own country, British-Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid’s new novel goes deeper and creates a moral fable for our entire harrowing world in The Last White Man.

Anders, a fitness instructor in his 20s in an unspecified suburb, rises to his own surprising discovery, a conscious echo of Samsas: “One morning, Anders, a white man, awoke to find that he had a deep and undeniable… brown discoloration. So begins the latest from Hamid, who has made a career exploring raw cultural nerves in novels like The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. And just as Exit West, his 2017 bestseller and Times Book Prize winner for fiction, found a new way to rethink the global refugee crisis (hidden portals magically transport people around the world), The Last White explores Man” races tribalism in an eerily familiar alternate universe.

“’Exit West’ was about the migration apocalypse. Everyone was afraid: people are moving! What’s going to happen?” Hamid, 51, explains via a Zoom call from Lahore, Pakistan, where he has lived for the past decade after spending much of his life in the US and England. “And now we’re seeing people on the around the world who are retreating into their tribal identities and there is a fear of losing your identity. “The Last White Man” asks the question: What if we lose our identity?But what if we, after we lose it lost, find something that might be a little bit better?”

Anders is not so open-minded at first. He is confused, horrified, bereft. He broods and rages and mourns the loss of his privilege. And he’s not the only one: soon the contagion spreads across the city as one by one black people wake up. The internet is full of warnings about the coming “final chaos”. White militias are rising to fight signs of “a conspiracy that has been building for years, decades, perhaps centuries, conspiring against their own kind.”

Anders’ initial shock draws in part on Hamid’s recollections of an older crisis – the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. A brown man with a Muslim name, the author felt perceptions around him shifting despite his educated, elite status. Before the attacks, he had felt, at least in part, the benefits of assimilated acceptance; Now he was being eyed with suspicion in airport security lines – and worse. “At first I just wanted to get back what I had lost,” he recalls. “I was hoping that America would come to its senses and that things would be fine, that this was just a passing phase.”

But things remained tense during the Obama years as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dragged on, and grew even grimmer after Trump was elected. Perhaps the future wasn’t as bright as Hamid had imagined. It wasn’t an exclusively American phenomenon, either, he realized.

“I wanted to write about this experience of losing your membership and at the same time I saw people in other places losing their membership,” says Hamid. “Writer friends of mine in India who weren’t on board with Modi’s Hindutva suddenly felt unwelcome – the same goes for journalists in Turkey who didn’t get along with Erdogan, or in Putin’s Russia, or in Britain throughout the Brexit Matter .”

A purple book cover with a silhouette of a man with one huge eye.

But in the novel there is a counter-argument. When Anders, like Hamid, feels something has been stolen from him, his girlfriend Oona sees things differently. In fact, she’s looking forward to getting rid of the “constraint of the past” and historical baggage that has been weighing her down. “There’s a sense of a loss of some kind of privilege,” Hamid says, but on the other hand, “there’s also a sense of liberation that assumes that prison of privilege is being taken away.”

Oona reflects on Hamid’s own development as he began to take a more critical look at his situation: “I remember thinking later, as the years went by, if something was stolen from me, what was stolen from me? What were the conditions that made it possible to exist? Was I robbed or freed?” Hamid, who was born in Pakistan but moved to the US at the age of 3, realized that being part of such an unequal system would become increasingly “overwhelming”.

Anders and Oona’s inner reactions – and the changing nature of their relationships with themselves and others – are exquisitely evoked by Hamid in an intriguing, snake-like style he discovered while writing Exit West.

“As the sentences got longer, they became like this incantation,” he says. “And when I sat down to write ‘The Last White Man,’ I built on that and thought it would be interesting to try and write sentences that create a similar emotional dynamic to the book, where suddenly your racial position will be destabilized. Those long, flowing sentences are sort of the fluid nature of what these characters are experiencing.”

Although the idea had been ripe since the events of 9/11, Hamid only started working on the novel during the pandemic. The surreal tone of the period, he says, reinforced the book’s disbelief. “The pandemic kind of opened that wound in consensus reality,” he says. “And it felt like an oddly fertile moment in the human imagination when we could believe things we hadn’t believed before. It encouraged me to continue with this book because it’s not a fantasy that things can suddenly change.”

While Anders and Oona’s inner workings are closely monitored, their whereabouts remain vague. It could be almost anywhere in our globalized world. “The emotional world is sharply focused, but the outside world – what is this city? Where is it? which country is this? — is intentionally blurred,” says Hamid. “It is very important for me to understand that these trends are happening all over the world.

“I think we’re making a mistake in imagining that there is this white nationalism trend in America that has nothing to do with the Hindutva trend in India, or religious extremism in Pakistan, or Russian nationalism under Putin,” he said he continued. “To me, the contemporary context is remarkably universal. It’s something that’s happening in our world right now, a quarter of the way into the 21st century.”

Ultimately, Hamid argues, fiction can offer a different way of imagining the future, free of backward-looking constructs of race and belonging: “One thing fiction has to do is say, ‘Okay, let’s not deny that a apocalypse could come. But let’s see it critically. Can you imagine anything better? How would it look, how would it feel, how could we get there?’”

“The Last White Man” offers its own little bright spot. “Sometimes it felt like the city was a mourning city and the country was a mourning country,” Hamid writes, “but sometimes it felt like the opposite, like something new was being born.”

Tepper has written for the New York Times Book Review, Vanity Fair, and Air Mail, among others. How 9/11 and the pandemic inspired Mohsin Hamid’s new novel

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