Mohsin Hamid on Race as an Imagined Construct

This week’s story, “The Face in the Mirror,” is about a man named Anders who wakes one morning and discovers that his skin is no longer white. He’s now a dark man. Why did this scenario first come to you?

I spent most of the nineteen-seventies and most of the nineteen-nineties in America. I lived in liberal enclaves, attended prestigious schools, had a well-paying job. Then, after 9/11, I experienced a profound sense of loss. I was constantly stopped at immigration, held for hours at the airport, once pulled off a flight that was already on the tarmac. I had become an object of suspicion, even fear. I had lost something. And, over the years, I began to realize that I had lost my partial whiteness. Not that I had been white before: I am brown-skinned, with a Muslim name. But I had been able to partake in many of the benefits of whiteness. And I had been complicit in that system. Losing this forced me to consider things afresh. And over the next couple of decades that experience was the grain of debris in my mind’s oyster that this work began to accrue around.

Anders is initially reluctant to leave his apartment. Every outing—to the supermarket to buy food, to the gym where he works—has been stripped of its quotidian familiarity. Did you always know how Anders would respond? Did he ever surprise you as you were writing?

Writing Anders, like writing most of my primary characters, is for me both about having a plan and seeing what happens. When I am writing a character, I am trying to be them, I am playing them, the way my son used to play at being a dinosaur. He inhabits his characters with conviction. He is them. The revelation for him is, I imagine, seeing what he does with his dinosaur powers, confronted with his dinosaur enemies. One of the prices of writing is spending so much time alone. One of the pleasures of writing is that while alone one is able to try to be other people, to live other lives. You isolate yourself and then your imagination undoes your isolation. You make a void, and water enters the void, and you have a well.

The story is excerpted from your forthcoming novel, “The Last White Man.” In the story, as in the novel, we gradually realize that the kind of transformation that Anders has undergone is taking place throughout his town. Many white people are particularly rattled, and, as more of them start turning, militias form. Do you think that a violent response is inevitable?

Militias have already formed, and violence has already happened. Militias are forming and violence is happening every day, at every scale, all over the world, in response to all sorts of challenges to people’s sense of tribe and of nation. We are living in a time of intensifying tribalism and nationalism. Change is accelerating, which makes us anxious, and the competition for our attention in the attention economy is defaulting to a mode of fuelling those anxieties. The question is: What other responses can there be? And among those responses, surely, are alternative storytelling responses. As fear of the other grows, stories can venture into that fear, acknowledge it, and seek to allow us to experience the losses that changes bring with less anger and more sadness—but sadness made bearable by hope. Human culture is built upon such storytelling, from Gilgamesh on, and indeed almost certainly from before. We live, we die, this infuriates us—but far better that it sadden us, and that we find ways to honor and transcend our sadness.

Your previous novel, “Exit West,” which was also excerpted in The New Yorker, also took a kind of speculative conceit—in that case, doors that lead from one country to another—and embedded it in an otherwise recognizable world. Did you set out to do something similar here? Do you see any connection between the two books?

All five of my novels operate at a very slight skew from what we might call consensus reality. The first three—I sometimes think of them as my “you” novels—do this, in part, through various experiments that involve addressing the reader directly, of asking “you” to play a more active role in the construction of the novel. My most recent two, “Exit West” and “The Last White Man,” each tweak a rule of the physical universe instead: the former bends the physics of how certain doors work; the latter plays with biology in the sense that certain people change their appearance. So these two books do have a particular kinship. I think fiction can make strange what we take as familiar, and, by making it strange, open up possibilities. Our brains are inventing what we imagine to be reality—blue isn’t blue; blue is how our minds present to us the information that an object is reflecting a certain frequency of light. In my novels, I try to remind us of the fertility of that. We are less constrained than we sometimes pretend to be. We are dreaming while we are awake.

Anders’s father is the last white man of the novel’s title. With his death, everyone who lives in Anders’s town is dark. Will that new homogeneity simplify life for Anders and his fellow-citizens?

I don’t think that a town where people are not being perceived in racial terms is a more homogeneous town. In fact, the opposite: I think that race is an imagined construct that flattens people. Why would we want such a construct? Who benefits from having such a construct? Race simplifies, often in binary terms. It’s the original zero/one, the original binary code. It’s machine language, sorting language, for the most important commodity: human beings. People are far too complex for that algorithm to do anything but harm. That said, we can’t just say, “There’s no race anymore. Move on.” Entire societies have been built upon ideas of race. So we have to imagine our way out of it, excavate our way out of it, and over generations grow our way out of it, because much of human cultural development happens as one generation passes on and another grows up. It’s slow work. But, in the end, it isn’t all that important what I think. As a writer, I build environments out of words that readers enter and make their own—and in that process puzzle out a bit of what it is they think. What might it feel like to live in a town that undergoes the transformation that Anders’s town undergoes? You have asked the writer that question. The novel asks the reader.

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