Following the 11 September terror attacks, Mohsin Hamid’s experience of travelling changed dramatically. In 2001 the novelist was 30 and had lived in the West for 18 years. Yet as a brown-skinned Pakistani man with a Muslim name flying between London and New York, he would be questioned by airport staff and searched extensively. He was often taken into a side room for further questioning, which could take hours. “All of this was strange for me,” the novelist said, “because I’d come and gone relatively easily: I had a valid visa and it wasn’t an issue. And now suddenly it was.”
On one occasion he was travelling from the southern states of the US to deliver a university lecture in another part of the country. His aeroplane was on the tarmac ready to take off when security agents came aboard and told him he hadn’t been sufficiently checked, and took him away to be searched further. He was able to get back on the plane before it departed, but was left with “a sense of profound strangeness”.
He would feel a similar strangeness when giving a talk at the US State Department, or appearing on national television, because he would then be detained for hours at an airport the next day. There was a “lacuna”, he said, in which “you could celebrate somebody for something – but systematically you were subjecting everybody like this person to an entirely different category of existence.
“It was a perplexing thing where, in each encounter, I was treated as a potential terrorist. To suddenly be made into this figure of suspicion got me thinking. Initially I was thinking, ‘I hope this ends soon and we go back to how things were.’ But after a while, I started thinking, ‘What does it mean to go back to how things were?’ Because perhaps I wasn’t subjected to so much additional scrutiny, but clearly some people are. There is a ‘person to whom suspicion doesn’t attach’/a ‘person to whom suspicion does attach’ division. Should I be happy to be on the right side of that division or should I be questioning the division myself?”
Hamid, now 51, is the author of novels such as The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) and Exit West (2017). He was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and as a child lived for a time in California. He returned to the US for university and worked for several years in New York City before moving to London, where he lived throughout his thirties. In 2009 he moved with his Pakistani wife back to Lahore, where they are raising their two children, though they return to the US often and spent this summer in Miami.
His is “an enormously fortunate position… in a world where the vast majority of people are denied the right to leave their country”, Hamid said. “It’s also something that I think belongs to a previous era. I grew up in a moment when the world appeared to be globalising: people were moving, citizenships were more easily bestowed. My vantage point feels vaguely anachronistic now.”
For two decades – ever since 9/11 – Hamid has been thinking about how race is “imagined on to us, and how we don’t have to change at all for that imagination to change”, he said as he sat on the eighth floor of the Penguin Random House offices in Vauxhall, London. He wore a white linen shirt, blue jeans and tan trainers; his accent – gently American with a Pakistani lilt – hints at a global life. He was in London to celebrate the publication of his sixth novel, The Last White Man (Hamish Hamilton), but the city felt changed since the last time he visited.
The previous evening he had gone looking for a restaurant still serving food after 8pm, and, fed up at the lack of options, had settled on a Pizza Express, where they didn’t have a chef but were training a man who had been the cleaner. “I just got this feeling that so many people who worked as chefs or in hotels or in the NHS no longer have access to Britain, and so the city is missing an ingredient that makes it hum,” he said. As a result of the pandemic, Brexit and the end of EU free movement, London feels more “subdued” than he remembers it.
Hamid spoke thoughtfully, with one leg crossed over the other, his shoulders relaxed. We talked the day before the Indian-born author Salman Rushdie was attacked at an event in New York state, 33 years after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for his assassination. The then leader of Iran deemed Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, which fictionalises elements of the Prophet Muhammad’s life, blasphemous.
Hamid is a believer in the power of literature to provoke. His debut novel Moth Smoke (2000) contains drug use and adultery, still taboo in a Muslim country such as Pakistan. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007, is a monologue told by Changez, a charming if loquacious Pakistani man who was educated in the US. Changez says he is a “lover of America”, yet when the 9/11 attacks took place, he smiled at “the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees”. It’s an uncomfortable admission to be confronted with – even from a fictional character.
In The Last White Man, Hamid has continued to play with his readers’ expectations of race, of religion, of “these imagined categories that we get placed into”. In the book, a character named Anders wakes up one day to find that his skin has darkened. White people across his town are changing race overnight.
Hamid leaves out many contextual details of the novel. He never states which race the white people change into, though it is notable that they “lose their whiteness”, rather than being brown or black characters who become white (Hamid sees assimilation into white culture as a “false promise” for people of colour). It is even unclear in which country the novel is set: readers have told Hamid they imagine it as Britain, the US, Norway, South Africa. There is an intense focus on domestic relationships, and many of the novel’s events, including lootings, arson attacks and militia violence, happen offstage.
“The novel doesn’t really tell you how to feel,” Hamid said, which can be an “anxiety-inducing experience. The useful thing is for the reader to imagine and then to reflect upon what was imagined: ‘What was I inclined to do? Was I inclined to think of this not as my country, or as my country? Was I inclined to think of these people as decent, or not decent?’”
After his skin darkens, Anders hides in his father’s house for safety from the violence that has taken over the town. But eventually everyone’s skin changes colour and the attacks stop. “Sometimes it felt like the town was a town in mourning,” Hamid writes, “but at other times it felt like the opposite, that something new was being born.”
The end point is a place of “critical optimism”, Mohsin Hamid said, “as opposed to naive optimism. Naive optimism is the idea that things are going to work out. I don’t believe in that at all. Critical optimism is the idea that things can work out if we, collectively, do certain stuff. It’s not ‘do nothing, because everything will be fine’, which I think would be a disastrous approach, but rather: ‘All is not lost: there are still things we can do, let’s turn this ship around.’”
The Last White Man is published by Hamish Hamilton.
[See also: House of the Dragon review: sex, violence and top notes of incest]
This article appears in the 24 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Inflation Wars