Mohsin Hamid’s fifth novel, The Last White Man, starts with a distinctly Kafkaesque sentence: “One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown.” The short but profound book is an allegorical tale of race, loss, love, hope and mourning—relayed in beautiful, paragraph-long sentences that force readers to shape and reshape their ideas of the world.
Over the course of the novel, more people change colour; their struggle to grapple with this change and deal with the new world order it leads to is at the heart of the novel. It is also a tight domestic drama about a couple, Anders and Oona, his father and her mother, set against this backdrop.
Like his 2017 novel, Exit West, The Last White Man, too, is an interesting blend of the real and the extremely fantastic, set in an unnamed city at an unknown time that uncannily mirrors our current reality—think violence, race politics, irrepressible change, the desire for a lost golden age, and conspiracy theorists.
“Some readers feel it is set in America, others in Britain or Northern Europe or South Africa,” says the Pakistani writer, who has always believed that the relationship between reader and writer is central to how novels work. This is clear in his first three novels: Moth Smoke (2000), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) and How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia (2013), all use a second-person narrative to build an intimate relationship between reader and text. “The novel is fluid about these things (because) it leaves a lot of space for the reader to imagine their version of the novel,” Hamid adds, referring now to The Last White Man.
Ahead of the book’s release on 29 August, the author speaks to Lounge on Zoom about the genesis of the book, how the pandemic fed into it, and how the many commas—36 in one place—allow readers to experience the various ideas in the novel, unencumbered by too much judgement.
Let’s talk about the idea of whiteness. When Anders wakes up brown, you are playing with the cultural construct of whiteness and the identity built around it. How did your post-9/11 experience shape this?
Whiteness in a place like the US, the UK or Europe (means) that you just get to be a person, there is no additional suspicion, threat, inferiority or ostracisation (attached). Whiteness is the default; everything else is something less than or different from the default.
When 9/11 happened, I was 30 years old and had lived 18 of those years in the West—mostly in California and New York—gone to elite universities and had a well-paying jobs. Discrimination was not one of my main challenges. But after 9/11, suddenly, I was being stopped at the airport, questioned at immigration for hours, and saw people getting nervous when I got onto a crowded bus carrying a backpack.… I hadn’t changed, but, almost overnight, this new racial and ethnic category had been imagined onto me.
This has very real effects. The emotional jumping point (for The Last White Man) was this experience, but it is not my story.
Big ideas of race, religion and nationalism are always central to your writing. But there is also a strong focus on transformative love.
This comes down to how I think of my origins (and influences) as a writer. There is this whole strand of writers like Saadat Hasan Manto, Chinua Achebe, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and thinkers like Edward Said, all of who thought that fiction could play a political role. Then the formally inventive modernist writers like Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Albert Camus and Italo Calvino; they have had a big impact too.
(In addition, I have always found interesting) the Sufi tradition of love poetry - a living tradition about a particular sort of love that helps us transcend limits. The idea that when you consider love, it has the potential to make us less focused on the self. Every religious and philosophical tradition has ways of reminding us that over-investment in the self is not a (successful) strategy because the self ends. This Sufi idea of love has always been present in my writing.
In this novel, there is the love between Anders and Oona, between Oona and her mother (who have differing views), and Anders’ father, who is upset about what happens to Anders. These are all different love stories against the backdrop of this social and racial change.
You have paragraph-long sentences with many commas within which so much happens: Different ideas, voices and perspectives all flow effortlessly.
All punctuation is a kind of pause, and each is a different kind of pause. Parenthesis are two pauses that lean towards the other. A full stop is a pause where you really stop.
But a comma is a pause that slows you down without stopping. When encountering ideas that may seem strange, troubling, or something you may disagree with, a comma (may slow you down but invites you to) keep going past the thing that may have troubled you or bothered you.... Long sentences built on commas allow the reader to agree to suspend their judgement of the sentence until a few seconds after. I think that is useful.
Also, the point of view shifts within sentences. You may be in Anders’ head as he goes to see his father, then in his father’s when he sees Anders, and later in a third-person perspective, all in one sentence. This gets the reader accustomed to the idea of points of view changing.
Hopefully, the effect is to create a space where perspectives can change, where judgement is not done away with but is slightly slowed down.
Did the pandemic influence the novel? The premise of something going wrong with one person, patient zero, so to speak, and it then spreading to others feels similar to how the great plagues and diseases of the last 1,000 years, including covid-19, have spread.
The thing that is common between the pandemic and the novel is the ripping open of this gash in what we imagine to be reality. Schools were all shut, millions of people were going back to their villages, flights were banned, and offices were closed—who could have imagined that? It reminded us that what we called reality was just a thin veneer that could change in a moment. The book was in conversation with that feeling.