After a whole life spent between his hometown of Lahore, Pakistan; the United States; and Britain, Mohsin Hamid is an expert at not only observing the world around him, but also using his environment to fuel his art. In 1993 he was a relatively newly arrived transplant to the United States and wrote his debut novel moth smoke about Pakistan. When he moved to London in 2000, he wrote about New York City where he had recently left The Unwilling Fundamentalist. And when he was back in his native Lahore, he started coming up with the idea for… The last white manwhich he would not write for years.
The book, which has just hit the shelves, envisions a world where white people start to get dark skin — slowly at first, a few people waking up without their whiteness in disparate cities across the country, and then quickly, when suddenly entire communities on the outside as similar as they are on the inside. “I was thinking about the post-9/11 realization that if you previously held a racial position that wasn’t distinctly white or black, it was possible to go through life with only minor annoyances in terms of discrimination — but after that, being pulled to an interrogation room at the airport,” he says. “And I thought of a world where we realize that race is a fictional construct that we’ve wanted, but it doesn’t actually exist on its own.”
As Hamid speaks The Hollywood Reporter via Zoom for this interview, he’s back in New York – incidentally, the author and his family borrow the director’s house from the film version of fundamentalist — where he prepares for the publication of The last white man. He’s embarking on a national book tour, a condensed version of the long, grueling journeys to visit readers across the country that he’s accustomed to, but as Hamid’s novels have sold millions of copies and his latest book is currently being adapted by Higher Ground, the production company from Barack and Michelle Obama, he has many fans waiting to ask him questions. Here he provides a few answers about the inspiration for his latest work and what he learned in the process of turning his books into movies.
From an American perspective it is easy to interpret The last white man in response to the last presidential administration. But I can imagine that this is not the whole story of the inspiration of this book…
I had the specific idea early on in the Trump administration: What if this man suddenly wakes up and is no longer white? And what if that starts to spread, and what would that feel like? But that was more the narrative path to the ideas I had pondered for nearly twenty years. After 9/11, my racial category became much less neutral; people would get nervous when you got on the subway, and it felt like something had changed out there, but i hadn’t changed myself. I had a sense of loss, that I wanted to go back to the way things used to be, but also the realization that I was complicit in the system. There were always people who experienced this assumption of threat, but until then I hadn’t experienced it – so is that really the system I want to get back to?
Both The last white man and exit West (which is in the making as a movie) have an element of unreality to them; the skin color changes to White man and the magical doorways through which people can flee their land in Exit. Why do you think you were drawn to this style?
I think what we imagine to be real is not real. Colors aren’t actually those colors; it’s just our brain’s interpretation of it. Or we imagine we are a certain way, and if we resist that, we justify it by saying, “Oh, I wasn’t myself.” And fiction allows us to renounce that tyrannical attachment to reality. I also don’t think my books are that far from the truth: exit West is about a world where distance is shrinking, and here you and I have increased distances through these devices that we use to talk to each other. What I often do in my work is making emotional really what technology has already done. I think it’s an interesting way to discover whatever our present moment is.
What is your relationship to adjustments to your work? Do you feel invested in it, or would you rather sit back and watch someone else take over the creative wheel?
The first international movie made from one of my books was The Unwilling Fundamentalist and I suppose you could say that I have a very good relationship with that movie, as I am speaking to you from the living room of our director, Mira Nair. What I planned to do 15 years ago when we started working together was send my child to school in a creative way. I thought I’d hand over my book and see how it turned out. Trusting Mira and feeling a strong personal connection, I said, “Please get in touch if you have any questions.” But then they asked me to work on the first few drafts of the script, and they occasionally asked me for advice during filming. So I had more of a role than I expected, but I learned a lot.
What did you learn that was most valuable?
I write novels in which readers can imagine a lot of what is happening in the story. All my novels try to create an ambiguous space for the reader to make their own. When a film is made, things suddenly have to get much more concrete – the reader can’t be the director, because there is a real director. Of fundamentalist, the book was about being suspicious of not knowing if we were right in our suspicions; it had to be a film in which we know who that suspicious character, played by Liev Schreiber, is. The project became something very different, but beautiful in its own way, because it is a very cosmopolitan film with people coming together from all over to make it: an Indian director, a Pakistani writer. Now when I work with filmmakers, I realize how difficult it is for people to fill in the blanks of what I’ve made. Someone will tell me, oh, my book feels like a movie, but then years go by with countless screenwriters and versions of the screenplay and they still don’t come together.
From the outside, as a fan of a book, it can feel like it takes forever for adjustments to be made successfully …
I actually just had a really interesting conversation with some writer-directors and what they said really stuck with me. They pointed out that the novels I write are already quite small and have undergone a tremendous amount of compression – if you try to turn them into feature films and compress them even more, it’s hard to get it up. So I started thinking about the value of limited series, and I think it’s worth a try, and also I should try to be more active in the team that is trying The last white man to life. It’s a huge change of perspective for me, but after so many years of floating in the periphery, I should probably start to see if I have any ability or skill in the area.
Is exit West still confirmed as a feature film?
It is currently on track to become a movie. It is in development by Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, for Netflix, starring Riz Ahmed. That process has been going on for a while, so hopefully it will soon reach a point where it can move forward. I think everyone has been wanting to move forward for quite some time now.
Have you gone out of your way to work with Riz again?
We collaborated on Hesitant Fundamentalist, of course, and he’s a personal friend and someone I have immense respect for. I think he has so much artistic integrity. He takes the meaning of what he does very seriously, which is why he is always looking for other people to collaborate with whose hearts are in the right place. We tend to talk about books and movies and world events, but he will also give me his opinion about my books. We bounce on ideas. He is someone I consider a collaborator, not just on certain projects, but in our lives and thinking about the work we do.
I can’t let you go without asking if you’ve met Barack and Michelle Obama …
You know, I haven’t met them yet. I hope so, but there are probably several hundred million other people who would like to meet them. But I really admire what they do in this work. They are both serious writers, which is rare among political figures. Without being able to speak from personal experience, I feel they approach the work as writing something. That there is authorship in the kind of projects they take on. So I’m excited to see what happens.