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In 'The Last White Man,' these neighbors find their skin colors are changing


One morning, Anders, who is a white man, wakes up and finds his skin has turned brown. His girlfriend, Oona, will eventually follow and much of the rest of his unnamed town and society. Let's ask Mohsin Hamid to read from his new work, "The Last White Man." Mr. Hamid?

MOHSIN HAMID: (Reading) People who knew him no longer knew him. He passed them in his car or on the sidewalk, where sometimes they gave him extra room and where sometimes, unthinkingly, he did the same. No one hit him or knifed him or shot him. No one grabbed him. No one even shouted at him, not after the woman in the car, at least not yet. And Anders was not sure where his sense of threat was coming from, but it was there. It was strong. And once it was obvious to him that he was a stranger to those he could call by name, he did not try to look in their faces, to let his gaze linger in ways that could be misconstrued.

SIMON: Mohsin Hamid, the two-time Booker Prize finalist and author of "Exit West," "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" and other acclaimed novels, joins us now from New York City. Thank you so much for being with us.

HAMID: Thank you.

SIMON: How would you describe what's happening in this unnamed place - society?

HAMID: So Anders is experiencing something pretty strange. He went to bed with light skin, and one morning he wakes up with his skin dark, and he's dealing with looking different, feeling different, not being recognized. At the same time, it's beginning to dawn on him that he's not the only one. And as the novel progresses, we're in a world where people's identity, where their sense of race is beginning to be completely overturned.

SIMON: You, of course, have written very piercingly about - you were born in Pakistan and had lived - at the time of September 11, 2001, you had lived 18 of your 30 years in the U.S. or U.K. But September 11, you felt the world looked at you differently.

HAMID: Yes, it was a strange feeling, because up until then - I mean, obviously, I was a man with a Muslim name and brown skin, but I hadn't felt, you know, particularly discriminated against or thought of as somebody who was particularly a threat or somebody to be suspicious of. And after 9/11, that changed quite profoundly, where I was being pulled out of the line in airports, and people would be uncomfortable if I got into a train or bus with a big backpack, particularly if I hadn't shaved. So I began to feel like, you know, I'd lost something. And over time, as I thought about, you know, what was it that I'd lost, I realized it was, in a sense, a kind of partial whiteness, a kind of being able to not be someone of suspicion, you know, not be someone who was a threat. And so the novel, I think, was gestating for the last 20 years.

SIMON: Anders works at a gym, as does Oona, who is a yoga instructor. Things immediately get different there, too, don't they?

HAMID: Yeah, I mean, Anders goes to work, and he's well-liked, but he finds that, you know, people are looking at him differently - naturally, that he's, you know, something strange, but also he's finding it hard to be himself. You know, he keeps trying to want to show that he hasn't changed, that he's the same guy, and to talk like, you know, he speaks and act like he acts. But he becomes very self-conscious doing this, and he realizes trying to be yourself is impossible. You know, if you're trying to be yourself, you're not naturally yourself anymore. And if you're trying to be like other people to make them at ease, you're actually going to make them uncomfortable.

SIMON: Why does he get a gun?

HAMID: What begins to happen is people start getting very upset, and the society begins to get increasingly mired in conflict.

SIMON: And more and more people are changing complexions too.

HAMID: Yeah, more and more people are changing. And, some people, you know, want to stop this process. They think, you know, perhaps it's a disease, or perhaps it's something that you can - if you get rid of the people who are changing, you'll protect those who are left, or you'll somehow be able to prevent this change from happening. And so you see the rise of these armed militias and people who are arming themselves against the militias. And Anders finds himself facing what feels to him like a very real personal threat.

SIMON: Why is this society unnamed?

HAMID: It's unnamed for a number of different reasons, but...

SIMON: I recognize it's none of my business, in a sense, 'cause it's the book you've written, but...

HAMID: No, no, it is very much your business, and it's the reader's business. When a reader gets a book, they get these words. But those words are not what they experience. They experience people and images and feelings that they are creating inside themselves. And when a reader imagines a novel into existence, they are making half of that novel. And I try to write novels in a way that leave readers quite free to play that role. So I tend to write small novels. I tend to write novels where a lot of details are missing. And so if a reader in America wants to imagine it as being small-town America and if a reader in Britain or in Scandinavia wants to imagine it in their country, or if you want to imagine it somewhere else, it's open to you.

SIMON: I, at various times, made it South Africa. I made it India and the caste system.

HAMID: I think one of the things that I've realized living outside the United States is just how widespread these phenomena are. One might imagine that, for example, current political trends in America are unique to America. But you look around the world, and in fact, very similar things are happening in very different countries. So whether that's, you know, Britain with Brexit, whether that's Turkey under Erdogan or India under Modi or Brazil under Bolsonaro or Russia under Putin, in so many countries you have a group - or Pakistan, of course - you have a group that thinks of itself as a kind of dominant group, that imagines its position as sort of becoming uncertain, and that has a kind of nostalgic politics that talks about, you know, going back to the better way that things used to be. So, yes, Anders and Oona's story certainly could be a story set in many places that are very different from the United States.

SIMON: You were considered one of the most important of contemporary novelists in the world. Is that a kind of burden?

HAMID: You know, I don't know about that. I think, you know, my kids would probably disagree with that characterization of their bumbling dad, but I would put it slightly differently.

SIMON: Yeah.

HAMID: I think that as somebody who has lived between countries and is a very mongrelized, hybridized kind of person, I'm, I think, personally very sensitive to the idea that societies are going to, in a sense, evolve in a way that excludes mongrelized, hybridized people like myself. You know, when I start to feel the sense that people are talking about who's a real Pakistani or a real American or a real British person, it's not something that I experience theoretically. It's something I experience very personally as threatening to the kind of human being that I am. So I suppose my response to your question would be to say that it's because of so many things in the world that are not the way I wish them to be that I write these books. And if you gave me a choice, would you rather have the world that you wanted and not be writing books or have this world and keep writing, you know, I'd be happy to stop writing.

SIMON: Mohsin Hamid - his novel, "The Last White Man" - thank you so much for being with us.

HAMID: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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