I’m Ezra Klein. This is “The Ezra Klein Show.”
Before I get to the conversation, a quick announcement. I’m going to be taking a month off the show to rest, to read, to think. We’re going to have great guest hosts while I’m gone, and I will be back in early September.
There are these lines in “The Last White Man,” Mohsin Hamid’s beautiful new book, that I keep coming back to. And they have nothing really to do with the central plot of the book, the one that is getting all the headlines and reviews and commentary, this mysterious, inexorable darkening of everyone’s skin in an unnamed town in an unknown country. But in this part, Hamid is describing the father of the main character, Anders.
And Anders’s father is sick, and he is dying. And Hamid writes of him, quote, “Standing was hard enough. And he ignored his pain, for it was part of him now — constant, not remotely bearable, but also not avoidable, and so put up with like a nasty sibling.” There are people I love right now who are in a lot of pain these days. And nothing I’ve read gave me more access to them, or felt like it did, than this book.
“The Last White Man” is a bit of a heavy-handed title for a story with a very light touch. I don’t really think it’s about what it claims to be about. I don’t think race is the center of this book. I think loss is, and the question of what truly we will miss when it is lost to us, as everything will be, from our health to our loved ones to, one day, our own lives. And what does thinking about loss and imagining how you might react to it, what does that tell us about what should matter to us now, how we should live now?
Hamid is an award-winning novelist. He splits his time between Lahore and London and New York. And his books have this strange quality of feeling like parables. He often seems in them to be tweaking the conditions of our world to try to ask what moral or political assumptions prove most fragile. What do we take for granted today that our descendants might wonder how we ever believed, how we believed in such myths or participated in such injustice or just bought into such idiocy or something so tissue-paper-thin? It’s a good question. As always, my email, [email protected]
Mohsin Hamid, welcome to the show.
The new book revolves very much around this idea of whiteness. And whiteness is one of these ideas, these concepts, that is a little maddening to try to get your hands around, and changes very dramatically, I think, depending on who describes it. So how would you describe it? If one of your kids asked you what is whiteness, what does it mean, what does it give you, what would you say?
I think that I would probably start by saying it’s something that’s been imagined into existence. So it’s unclear to me if there’s really such a thing as whiteness. I think that whiteness is one of these imaginary categories. But once it’s imagined into existence, it does all kinds of stuff, and it operates in the world. And it means that some people imagine themselves as belonging to a group that’s white, and others not. And it means that other people also, I think, react to that. It’s a strange, I guess, imaginary game that I would tell — I suppose I’d tell my kids. But the game is very real when it gets played.
So I’ve heard you say that two things happened to you personally after 9/11. One is that you put on a bunch of muscle, got a lot taller, became more intimidating, at least the way other people saw you. And I don’t want to blow up your spot here, but you don’t seem that intimidating and gigantic here on our Zoom. But the other is that you lost your whiteness. And that was a whole other thing to grapple with. Tell me about that experience.
Well, I went to elite American universities, and I lived in mostly in the Bay Area, the Northeast. I was living in New York City, so very cosmopolitan enclaves. And I had a well-paying job. And so discrimination was, for me, mainly sort of an annoyance. It wasn’t something that I considered as particularly important in my life. I was aware of it, but it didn’t bother me too much in how I lived my life.
And then, suddenly, after 9/11, I found that I’m being pulled out of lines at the airport and given enhanced security. I was once pulled off an aircraft on the tarmac. I would fly into JFK, and at immigration, they’d put you in a room for a few hours, and you’d wait for somebody, and then they’d ask you all kinds of questions about combat training. I’d get onto a bus on the weekend a bit unshaven with a backpack, and people would look uncomfortable, and sometimes they would change their seats. And suddenly, I felt I was this object of suspicion or even threat.
And I experienced that really as a profound sense of loss. I wanted things to go back to how they were pre-9/11. But time passed, and I began to ask myself if I hadn’t been complicit in something, and if it was maybe a mistake to want to go back.
Tell me about some of the subtleties of what you noticed that you lost. Because it’s interesting, I mean, you’re not categorically, in the way people construct those categories, white. So to say you lost whiteness is to say you lost, as you’re suggesting, an ability to move through society. What were some of the subtleties of that? Beyond airports, beyond trains, what happened as the way people understood you changed?
Well, as a brown guy with a Muslim-sounding name, I certainly wasn’t white. But when I think about how race works in people’s lives, in my life, I’d been able to get the job I wanted and go to universities I wanted and mostly date the people I wanted, and life hadn’t felt particularly constrained. What changed was the idea that there was something attaching itself to me and to my kind, in a way, that was limiting. Suddenly, the idea of being able to travel easily, of my parents visiting me in America, of managing to live this kind of existence between different cultures and different countries became much more difficult to imagine.
I had moved to London the summer of 2001, and my first trip back to the U.S. a couple of months later, it was like an entirely different country. I remember strange things would happen in the sense of conversations with people’s families about terrorism and Muslims and, you know, you’re not that kind. It was strange because it was as though my category of person, which, while not white, was not particularly important, and so therefore not really deserving of much attention and allowed to pass, had become a category that was deserving of more attention and given certain values.
And I was picking up on strangenesses, my own reluctance when I was traveling in the non-coastal parts of America or rural parts of America to tell people where I was, quote unquote, from. The idea of going down to the hotel bar or hotel restaurant in some more, from my mind, remote part of America suddenly being kind of more of a choice — should I do this. And the stories of so many friends. You know, somebody waking up and having the F.B.I. bang on their door, or somebody not being allowed to board a flight to the country, or people breaking up, relationships coming to an end. It was there, I guess, in the ether. I mean, it was all around.
I wonder if this is at least one possible definition of this kind of whiteness. And I think it’s one that people who have it, including very much me, probably underrate its importance. But I want to try it on you, that this kind of whiteness is the absence of limiting or prejudicial assumptions about you as you move through the world.
I think that’s right. I mean, maybe not a complete absence, but I guess it’s an idea that you are the default setting, that you are what is human, that to be you is to sort of come across as normal, in a way. And of course, you could be dangerous, you could be threatening. You could be many things, but the starting assumption is human.
And I think what begins to happen as you move away from that is having to overcome assumptions that, in some ways, you are not normal, you are not human. You don’t get the benefit of the doubt. And in that sense, whiteness is — the invention of whiteness or this category of whiteness is perhaps more rooted in needing to have another category. In other words, if you didn’t need for there to be people who didn’t have the category of human, you wouldn’t need whiteness as a subcategory that meant human.
What is the relationship between your new book, “The Last White Man,” and that post-9/11 experience you had?
So the novel begins with a young man named Anders who thinks of himself as white. And he wakes up one morning, and he’s dark. But when he’d gone to bed the night before, he hadn’t been. And I think, in some senses, that experience of suddenly occupying a different racial category was perhaps imaginatively born in my own experience of feeling something strange happened to my own category. I mean, there’s a way to describe the book as, I suppose, grounded in my own experience. There’s an aspect of the novel, which is to say this is partly my story, that something like this happened to me. But I think there’s another way of thinking about writing. A large part of writing is trying to imagine being other people. At least for me, a huge reason why I’m drawn to fiction is to, in a sense, play make-believe, like a little kid when you pretend being a pirate or an astronaut. And it’s something I’ve always been drawn to doing.
And so my journey into the character of Anders and the other characters in the book wasn’t only, or perhaps even primarily, a journey into my own experience of what happened to me. But it was that experience giving me, I guess, an opening to give myself permission to imagine these characters in a world where their whiteness is starting to disappear, because I thought this is a phenomenon that is really important. I mean, it impacts so many things, whiteness and the reactions to whether it’s being lost and its reassertion, that I wanted to get into it with characters who were white and who weren’t, in a sense, brown-skinned, Muslim-named men experiencing what I experienced.
And I do want to note, for people who maybe hear the title and think they know what the book is about, you never say where the story is happening, but I very much read it as not happening in America. Anders and Oona, the names felt Scandinavian to me. It feels European to me. Maybe that’s a wrong assumption. You can correct it if it is. But if it’s not, why did you decide to place the book outside of the United States, given the central dialogue of whiteness that we’ve had here in the past couple of years?
It’s really interesting because the way the book is designed, and we can speak more about that, but I very much think of novels, and particularly my novels, as kind of half novels. They are words that are then imagined by readers into an experience, which includes the way people look and what a place is like and what conversations people are having. In a sense, I think that film and television as the dominant mass-reproduced storytelling forms already give us worlds that look like the world and sound like the world.
And so the novel might perhaps usefully do something else. And so I try to write novels that are full of gaps, and that, for example, don’t rely particularly on dialogue, that don’t rely on physical description too much, and that allow the reader to animate them. And in that process, with this book, the reader is given a choice, I suppose, in terms of where they want this to occur. And you just said that when you read it, it felt to you like it wasn’t set in America, but many people who’ve read it have said to me that it felt to them like it was set in America.
And I think the choice as to whether it’s set in America or not set in America is really left up to the reader’s own sort of imaginative stance and how you want to read it. I didn’t intend it as being either of or not of America. I wanted to leave that choice to the reader. But I would say that I’ve had some people say what you’ve just said in America, saying that this doesn’t feel like it’s set in America, but I’ve probably had more say that it feels like it was set in America. So it’s interesting. People read it differently.
That’s actually a good segue maybe to reading a bit of it. And you mentioned there the way it’s written, the kind of imaginative space in it. It’s written with very, very little direct dialogue. It’s a beautiful, formalistic book, the kind of book that sort of imprinted on the way I thought. For a little while, I began thinking in the rhythm of your writing, which is a little bit weird. Do you mind reading the first few paragraphs of the novel?
One morning, Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown. This dawned upon him gradually, and then suddenly, first as a sense, as he reached for his phone, that the early light was doing something strange to the color of his forearm. Subsequently, and with a start, as a momentary conviction that there was somebody else in bed with him — male, darker. But this, terrifying though it was, was surely impossible.
And he was reassured that the other moved as he moved, was, in fact, not a person, not a separate person, but was just him, Anders, causing a wave of relief. For if the idea that someone else was there was only imagined, then, of course, the notion that he had changed color was a trick, too, an optical illusion or a mental artifact born in the slippery halfway place between dreams and wakefulness, except that, by now, he had his phone in his hands, and he had reversed the camera, and he saw that the face looking back at him was not his at all.
Anders scrambled out of his bed and began to rush to his bathroom, but, calming himself, he forced his gait to slow, to become more deliberate, measured. And whether he did this to assert his control over the situation, to compel reality to return through sheer strength of mind, or because running would have frightened him more, made him forever into prey being pursued, he did not know. The bathroom was shabbily but comfortingly familiar — the cracks in the tiles, the dirt in the grouting, the streak of dried toothpaste drip on the outside of the sink. The interior of the medicine cabinet was visible, the mirror door askew. And Anders raised his hand and swung his reflection into place before his eyes. It was not that of an Anders he recognized.
He was overtaken by emotion, not so much shock or sorrow, though those things were there, too. But above all, the face replacing his filled him with anger. Or rather, more than anger, an unexpected, murderous rage. He wanted to kill the colored man who confronted him here in his home, to extinguish the life animating this other’s body, to leave nothing standing but himself as he was before. And he slammed the side of his fist into the face, cracking it slightly and causing the whole fitting, cabinet, mirror, and all, to skew, like a painting after an earthquake has passed.
Anders stood, the pain in his hand muted by the intensity that had seized him. And he felt himself trembling, a vibration so faint as barely to be perceptible, but then stronger, like a dangerous winter chill, like freezing outdoors, unsheltered. And it drove him back to his bed and under his sheets. And he lay there for a long while, hiding, willing this day, just begun, please, please, not to begin.
So right at the beginning there is almost a beat for beat reference to the beginning of Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” Tell me a little bit about that reference for you.
I’ve always been really drawn to early, mid 20th century modernist writers and writing. I think that — I’m not sure what it was initially, whether it was just the formal games they played, the way they tried to bend reality and think about how novels were built, but I’m talking about writers like Jorge Luis Borges and Calvino, Camus, Virginia Woolf and, of course, Kafka.
But I think, in retrospect, I mean, the period that they were writing in was remarkably similar to our own. So you had a time of warfare. You had a time of intensifying ethnic, racial conflict and polarization. You had technological leaps happening. And you had a sense that modernity and the future had gone off the rails, that things were no longer headed in the direction that we had hoped.
And so these writers, I think, started to think about how literature could respond. Like, how do you rebuild the novel? What do you do with it? What do we do with the way that reality is constructed through oral storytelling and through written storytelling? And so I’ve always been, I guess, attracted to that and, in a sense, in a conversation with that particular project. And Kafka’s book, in particular, I mean, Kafka’s story, I guess, is of enormous significance, the idea that you can do this with fiction.
But what felt interesting to me about “The Metamorphosis” was it felt almost like it wasn’t a magical transformation, but it was instead something that was inspired by a technological moment, that it felt that it was right for the moment in which it found itself occurring. And it seemed to me that that was the right feeling for this, that it’s not a genie or the spirit of Anders’s grandmother that transforms him. It’s something else. It’s something about the particular cultural, scientific, technological, sociological place. And so yeah, that was my way in.
Tell me a bit about that technological moment idea. So what is the technological moment, as you understand it, that Kafka is writing from? And then what’s yours? How would you describe the technological moment inspiring this book for you?
So when Kafka’s writing, the Industrial Revolution has, in a sense, already come to fruition. So it begins in Britain, but in Germany, Austria, and the part of the world where Kafka finds himself, it comes a bit later. And by the early 20th century, people are doing all sorts of jobs that have expanded productivity by breaking down tasks into smaller subtasks.
And part of the reaction people are having to this is a sense of alienation, a sense that what is the connection between what I do and meaning. And alongside that is we are seeing the rise of new kinds of animosities, or perhaps the re-emphasis on old kinds of animosities. And so in a world where people are being alienated by the workplace, that alienation is then seized upon, I think, politically to be redirected towards — most obviously, towards the Jews of Central Europe at that time as an out-group.
And I think in “The Metamorphosis,” we’re seeing this. We’re seeing both one’s individual feeling of being made not human or less than human in a particular economic environment, and also the concurrent willingness or ability to redirect our gaze towards other people and to make them not human. And that’s the backdrop, I suppose, for “The Metamorphosis.” Today, I think, again, there are things happening, but they’re of a slightly different nature, although the willingness to redirect them towards hatred towards other groups is perhaps maintained or rekindled.
But the difference is, I think, in our current technological, cultural moment, what’s happening is that, as we merge with our screens — and we spend an enormous amount of time staring into our screens and doing things with them — we’re encountering a sort of a machine culture that is, by its very nature, sort of sorting-based. A huge amount of our cultural activity now is sorting things. Do I like this or not like this, do I follow this person or not follow this person, does this person like me or not like me? And if I identify a meaningful aspect of their identity, which is not like me, the person is fundamentally, in some way, opposed to me and in conflict with me. And what we have to do, for a lot of people, is to separate from or, even worse, extinguish the people who are not like us.
And so in “The Last White Man,” I guess, the move that I’m making is slightly different from the move that Kafka’s making. And Kafka makes a move that shows us how one person can cease to feel human and one person can suddenly be looked at by others as not human. I think what I’m trying to do is slightly different, in the sense that what I’m engaged in is a project which removes the possibility of a particular kind of sorting mechanism. In other words, if you can’t tell what race somebody is, you’re removed from a machine lens on people. And you kind of have to deal with them as people. And what happens if that’s thrust upon you, and what occurs in such a world?
I think that point about us living in an age of technological sorting is really profound. And as you said it, something else occurred to me, which is that the first run of — I think you’re heavily talking here about social media technologies, about identity technologies online, about the way we spend our time and have things given to us now digitally — round one was sorting and round two has been prediction, both in terms of all the algorithms predicting what we’ll like, and in that way shaping what we end up liking, but also in the sense of the political campaigns that unleashed their algorithms on huge amounts of consumer data to figure out who we’re going to vote for, the advertising campaigns that are sorting us into this kind of consumer, that kind of consumer.
And there’s an interesting way in which the lived economic reality of endless prediction conflicts with what we tell children and sometimes tell ourselves, which is that we’re all individuals, we’re all special, you can’t judge people by their group or their appearance because you’ll get it wrong. We can tell people that all we want, but as we build an economy that is increasingly oriented around pumping money towards companies that predict what we are going to do based on a fairly limited amount of data about who we are, we’re really sending the opposite cultural message in, I suspect, a much more credible way.
I think that’s right. And I think that, for me, one thing which is very interesting is, when we talk about going from sorting to prediction — which I think is correct, that is something that’s happening — we tend to imagine that predicting is an observational activity. In other words, that technology is allowing us to see where we might go as individuals and to predict. But I think that prediction is actually much more perniciously a behavior modification activity. In other words, making us into more predictable beings.
And that, I think, is by far the greater danger. In other words, if we want to be able to predict people, partly we need to build a model of what they do, but partly we would want them to be predictable. They should be inclined towards doing certain things. And so if you take somebody with the sorting mechanism, if you give them information that plays upon humans’ innate sense of prioritizing the information about threats — economic threats, racial threats, we prioritize that information — what begins to happen is it’s not just that the way we were going to behave remains unchanged. The way we are going to behave also changes. And it changes in predictable ways.
So it isn’t simply the case that machines are better able to understand humans. It is also the case that machines are making human beings more like machines, that we are trying to rewrite our programming in such a way that we can be predicted. And for me, that’s the more frightening aspect of the shift from sorting to prediction.
That brings up something for me that I noticed when doing prep for this episode, which is that, as far as I can tell, you have no social media presence at all. Tell me about that.
Yeah, I guess I was always a little bit suspicious of it. And perhaps even more than suspicious of it, I was suspicious of myself in relationship to it. So I tried to stay off social media. And then some years ago, my agent and my editor said, look, you’ve got a book coming out. You should really consider having a social media presence and getting on Facebook and Twitter. And so I opened these accounts. And very quickly, I observed the hooks of the thing. I observed how I was interested in how many people were following me and how popular a particular comment was.
And I felt sort of the addictive nature. You know, anybody who’s sort of smoked cigarettes or had any kind of addiction in their lives will know that feeling of being hooked on a thing. And also, I felt very quickly I began to observe its effects on me, the kind of self-promotional side of myself that it unleashed and the performative nature of what it was. And I became pretty uncomfortable with it pretty fast. And so after a few months, I got off. It wasn’t something that I was innately, I guess, inclined towards. And having tried it, I thought it brought out much of the worst in me, so not something I wanted to pursue.
It strikes me there’s a little bit of an odd intersection here, which is I think what is addicting to people about social media is that it is a way of manipulating status. And we are all very, very conscious of our standing in the community. And so too is our appearance, so too is race, so too is the way we look to others. And the way the thought experiment or the central change happens in the book is that nothing is changing, to our knowledge, except pigmentation.
Whatever basket of qualities that somebody might think that race applies to, there’s no evidence that that basket of qualities is changing here. Lineage isn’t changing here. Appearance isn’t changing. Who you are isn’t changing. But your skin changes. And particularly because it is happening to different people at different moments, this is rolling out over time in the world of the book, it changes your status and your ability to move through the world differently than it does to other people because of when it’s happening and whether or not they think it’ll happen to them. Tell me a little bit about that. What is the difference, if there is one, of changing pigmentation and changing race?
So in the novel, what happens is that the character’s appearance changes. And it’s not quite clear to us exactly how it’s changed. We know that people look different and we know that their skin is darker. But you’re absolutely right that nothing else changes beyond appearance, at least at first. But quickly, it becomes clear that appearance is more than skin deep.
So Anders tries to, at first, not have it happen. He’s sort of hoping that he’s imagining this. And then he’s hoping that Oona, who’s the first person who sees him, will tell him that, well, yeah, you’ve changed a bit, but you’re still the same. And she doesn’t do that. She says you look like a completely different person. A different kind of person, in fact.
And then he goes to work. And he works in a gym. And he’s a much liked guy. And he tries to be himself. And what he discovers is that trying to be yourself just doesn’t work. When you have to try to be yourself, you’re incredibly self-conscious. And so he’s feeling awkward trying to be himself. It doesn’t feel natural to him.
So he tries to be like other people. He tries to look around him at his fellow gym-goers, at his clients, at the customers at this gym, and most of whom are white, and he tries to be like them. And he tries to enact, in a sense, what he is seeing as whiteness. He tries to perform whiteness. But he’s unable to do that. And increasingly, he’s feeling awkward. He’s feeling a loss of confidence. He’s feeling different in nature.
And as the novel progresses, what becomes clear to him is, while it began with a change in his appearance, human beings are relational beings. We’re social animals. And when our relationships with others change, we change. And so he can’t help it. He is changed by the experience, even if the only thing that initially changes is his appearance.
You have a lovely line on this rewrite. Quote, “Anders said that he was not sure he was the same person. He had begun by feeling that, under the surface, it was still him. Who else could it be? But it was not that simple. And the way people act around you, it changes what you are, who you are.”
I want to go in on that idea that we are relational for a moment. You’ve had some experiences with this, as you said. I’ve always noticed that, even just when I travel to another country — I spent some time in Lahore, where you live — I didn’t quite feel like myself there. I felt like someone else, just due to my own lack of cultural knowledge and my own reserve. What does it say about our selves and their stability that we present so differently in different contexts?
Well, I think that our selves are partly fictional. One of the interesting things to me about novels relates to this, which is to say we are learning that the ancient mystics were probably right all along, which is that what we think of as reality is not entirely real. And in a physical sense, the color red or blue, we imagine that these colors exist, but they don’t actually exist.
Red and blue are the ways in which our brains tell us that an object is reflecting light of certain frequencies. And it’s a representative system, in the same way that there are dolphins, but the word dolphin doesn’t really exist. Like, we’ve invented that word. It’s an imaginary thing that we’ve agreed to share in our imagining.
And in a similar way, I think the creation of self and the creation of personality and who we think we are, but particularly self, is a narrative act. We sort of tell a story about ourselves to create our self. And oftentimes, we’ll behave in a way that reveals that our story is at least partly inaccurate or partly fictitious.
So we’ll do something nasty, and we think that we’re nice people. And we’ll say I wasn’t myself. But what happened was we are, of course, still ourselves, to the extent that we can be a self. But our self briefly didn’t correspond to the story that we tell about ourselves. And the narrative that we have that constitutes our self was destabilized.
And when we go to a place where we aren’t known and where the cues are different and where we are getting different sorts of signals, I think that the feeling that the story of self that we tell becomes quite fictitious to us. It feels like a made-up story. And so I think that this way of generating self through stories about ourselves is hugely important.
It’s also what is interesting about written fiction, because when we enter into written fiction, something weird is going on. We are there, and we are still ourselves, and we’re reading this book. So many of us are drawn to it. There’s something appealing about it. We like it. And it’s as though acknowledging the somewhat fictional nature of the self is a relief. We’re sort of like phew, OK, we can play make-believe now.
So I suppose that’s not to say that there is no such thing as the self. But it is to say that the self is a much more slippery idea than we often give it credit for, which has enormous potential. It has enormous potential for us as a species, as people, and also enormous potential for us as artists and people who make stories.
Are you much of a meditator?
You know, I’ve tried meditation. I’m pretty bad at it. I’m somebody who certainly appreciates the need to meditate. There was a while where I was doing it quite regularly. I can’t say that I’ve been doing it much lately. But I learned quite a bit. I learned about the incessant thinking that’s going on, like how I am just like a thought-producing engine, and how you can let thoughts go and more thoughts will come. It was interesting to, I guess, have that vantage point on myself. And I probably should try to meditate more, but it’s not something that is part of my daily practice. I mean, for me, sitting by myself in a room with the intention to write is, I guess, my daily practice.
I have just always found it telling, both personally, because I do meditate quite a bit, and then more spiritually and globally, it’s a telling bit about the human experience that there is such an important and popular practice. And I think you might add to meditation all kinds of other things that take us out of the self, from rock climbing to great art to watching television, I think, to sex, that we are so — drugs — that we are so often, as people, desperate from a respite from being who we are, right, from feeling the constant meta pressure of being ourselves. And there is some sense that there is a mode of existence, which maybe you can only tap for a couple of minutes at a time, that doesn’t feel like that, that goes behind it.
The performance is exhausting. Right? The performance of self is exhausting. And the performance of Mohsin, the performance of Ezra, like, being us is tiring. It can be fun, but it’s also tiring. Like, speaking is fun, but it can be tiring. Like, sometimes you want to shut up and just, like, listen, right? What would somebody else say? What does the wind say?
And I think that that’s exactly right, that we do long for a cessation of performance and some other mode of existence and of transcendence. And I think these are really important questions because, partly, one of the problems that we’re facing is change is accelerating, and we are feeling overwhelmed by the accelerating pace of change. And our traditional modes of dealing with that, which would be family networks or folk stories or religious practices are, for various reasons, being degraded. Families are being dispersed across distance. Folk stories are sort of being lost. Religion is often defaulting into an in/out-group sorting mechanism, and is less preoccupied, in a way, with these questions.
And so I think the questions don’t go away. It’s not the case that we get to just say, well, we’re not going to think about these, quote unquote, spiritual matters. The questions remain. And if they are not dealt with, what happens is incredible anxiety. A sense of real dis-ease sets in. We need to find a way to talk about this stuff and engage with this stuff.
And what I’m very attracted to — and I think it exists in many different forms and in many different ways of discourse and in many different arts and practices — is how do you begin to have these conversations in a way that allows everybody a way in, that isn’t specific to a Muslim or a Christian or a Buddhist entrypoint, that isn’t specific to a Pakistani or American or whatever cultural reference scheme? Like, how do you talk about these things in a way that’s open to everyone?
And part of the response to that, for me, is literature. I think that it is possible to engage with these things in the form of literature. I mean, I guess the heart of this book, “The Last White Man,” in a sense, is it’s a meditation on loss. It’s a musing about loss. What is it to lose something, and how do we explore that? And can we create dignity around the idea of somebody losing something, even if the thing being lost is not something that we wish to dignify? And to me, that’s very interesting because it’s a fundamental question that we face as human society today.
In a real way, the core of the book, for me, was the character of Oona’s mother, who I think really dramatizes that question. She’s this woman, she has very little. Her husband has died long ago. Her money is always on the verge of running out. She’s in physical pain. She doesn’t present in society in a way that would give her status.
And amidst all of that loss and her own life turning out in a way that is so distant from what she might have hoped, in a way where it’s so hard to remain the hero of your own grand narrative, she gets something from her whiteness, from her sense of belonging to, I guess, a history and a people and a class that’s really central to her, that really powers her and really then destabilizes her as it begins to go away around her, ultimately for her. What does she get from whiteness, would you say? And then what does she also lose from it?
Well, I think that Oona’s mother was living a life that she thought of as a good life. And then, around the time that Oona and her brother, Oona’s brother are young teenagers, Oona’s mother loses her husband, her children’s father. And suddenly, she arrives in a world where chaos has entered, and where, economically, things are less secure, and where, at a fundamental level, her belief that the universe was just and good and gave good things to good people was overwhelmed and undermined.
And she’s groping. And her son begins to take on various addictions. And he dies shortly before the novel begins. And she’s now lost her son and she’s lost her husband. And she sees the world as a world that is taking things from her, that’s stealing things from her. She doesn’t think of it as fair or benign at all. She thinks of it as, in a sense, a kind of rapacious world of theft.
And in such a world, she needs something else. She needs a different view and something to belong to, and also something to protect. And so she does begin to identify with a notion of whiteness that is under threat, that is being overrun and overwhelmed. And that affords her the opportunity to, in a sense, once again play a kind of heroic role as somebody who is leaning with the strength of her character and her will against the injustice being perpetrated to her tribe, to her group, to this group of white people that she feels part of.
Oona is very disturbed by her mother’s beliefs and her mother’s leanings. But on the other hand, she worries that, if she were to take this away from her mother, if her mother were to lose this, what would be left? Does her mother have anything else to hold on to? And I think that this idea of, I guess, transferring our narrative onto the group that we belong to, or that we imagine that we belong to, and making that into a heroic narrative is a very powerful response we have to these times. And it’s a potentially dangerous response, because if we do it in such a way that is inherently exclusionary and inherently about setting up our groups in sort of war of one group against the other, it takes us into a terrible place.
But I want to hold on on another piece of this because it’s something I think the book is very attentive to. We talk about what people gain from whiteness or belonging in the dominant group in any hierarchy, but what is lost from it? And I don’t mean when she loses her whiteness. I mean when that is a bulwark, when that is a pillar of her identity, something she is clinging to, even as so much else in her life falls apart. What is lost from pulling your identity from that kind of source?
Well, I think that the aspect of ourselves that has to do a kind of violence, emotional violence to others to generate a belief in the group to which we wish to belong is a huge loss. I mean, if you think about, for example, slavery in America, it’s obvious that slavery is a horrific institution towards the enslaved. But it should also be obvious that, in many ways, it is a horrific institution towards those who enslave. It may give certain material comforts, et cetera, but what does it do to a human being to be a person who lives among your own blood relatives, people that share a father with you, perhaps, who are actually your slaves, who can be whipped, who can be subjected to unspeakable atrocities? What possibility is there for any kind of human decency in that environment?
It’s hard to say this, but I guess, without trying to draw an equivalence between the experience of the enslaved and of the enslaver, it is still important to point out how horrific it is to the humanity of the enslaver to enslave. But the racial construct, for example, in America of whiteness, to take people of European descent — and people entered into whiteness in different ways in America, it’s not that all migrants from Europe were immediately thought of as white — but it is an enormously destructive act to build a foundation upon because it does such violence to our ability to think of what human beings are.
Once we commit to foreclosing from others the opportunity to be fully human, what do we have left to build upon? I think very little. So while the attraction that Oona’s mother has to an identity built upon this notion of whiteness is understandable, for me, and something that she feels very powerfully, it is also a deeply weak and impoverished and fundamentally unstable foundation for her to try to build upon.
This is dangerous ground on which to tread, but I want to try and talk about the ways we still do this today, and that many people who might safely have heard that and think, well, yeah, what they were doing in the period of slavery was obviously abhorrent and immoral, and damaged the spiritual lives of the enslaver as well as wrecking the lives of the enslaved, but that was then. I heard you give a talk, or do an interview, I guess, with the novelist Pico Iyer. And something you said there was that people, in your view, will come to think we are as barbaric today for enforcing the limits of geography on people’s lives as slaveholders were for enforcing birth hierarchies 150 years ago. Can you talk a bit about that?
Well, when I was writing the novel “Exit West,” I was thinking about migration and how it’s sort of a fundamental human feature. Animals migrate. And when food supplies are scarce, when other animals are contesting for place, when the climate changes, animals move. And people move for all of those reasons and more. And none of us are, in a sense, indigenous to where we live. There’s a movement that brought us there. Even those of us who live in Africa, where the earliest Homo sapiens have been found, are likely descended from people who wandered elsewhere and sort of moved back.
So wherever we are, in a sense, we are migrants. And up until quite recently, this idea of the nation-state with such impermeable borders and passports and this entire mechanism didn’t exist. Of course, there were tribes that wouldn’t let members of other tribes live among them. There were wars, there were all kinds of things. But the human record is of movement, incredible amounts of movement.
And what we’re seeing today is an attempt to really stop that movement on a sort of industrial scale. And I think that, while I fully understand and can empathize with the idea that, well, if we let everybody come, it will change everything and we can’t do that, I can understand that. And there needs to be some navigation of how do we manage this tussle of what those who wish to move and those who do not wish others to move to where they are, how do we manage the balance between those two things.
But what I think is very stark is that it cannot be that the moral right is simply to say that people mustn’t move, they are criminal if they move, they should be criminalized if they move, because in a world where there will be, I think, enormous flows of people, due to climate change and environmental disruption, but also wars and other things, if we say to people that they just can’t move, we’re, in a sense, handing out death sentences to millions and millions of our fellow human beings. If you can’t leave a country where there’s a war underway and where people of your particular group are being killed, or if you can’t leave a country where there is enormous starvation and crops have failed, we are basically deciding that these people now need to die.
And for me, that decision should be revealed in its correct moral complexion, which is to say it isn’t the person who wishes to move who is the criminal here. If somebody is drowning and we can help them and we don’t, it’s not the person who drowns that is the criminal here.
And so again, while I don’t want to draw a direct parallel between the idea of having people be massacred in their country or starve to death and not allowing them to move with the institution of slavery in the United States, what I do want to do is to say that there is something wrong about a moral outlook that says that those people who wish to move are the ones who are wrong, that those people are in morally the inferior position, that we, with our laws preventing them, are morally in a superior position. To me, that is completely suspect. And I think, given how many people it affects and the hundreds of millions, possibly billions of people that could affect, is a human catastrophe in the coming century, which we really have to reckon with.
And to your point about the way it affects the morality of those who are preventing the movement, I think in America about the political discourse over what got called the caravan a couple of years ago and the broad political discourse about refugees. Donald Trump, during the 2016 campaign, he would get up on stages and read this parable of the snake, talking about Syrian refugees, in which he was saying that we let them in, and they will eventually bite us because a snake is a snake. And in order to maintain a sense of ourselves as moral beings, as we do not allow people fleeing murder and starvation and climate crisis, which we, of course, have a quite profound hand in, as we made it hard for Afghans who helped us in Afghanistan to come here, we have to turn them into threats, because if we don’t turn them into threats, then our own immorality becomes too clear.
That’s exactly right. I think that that is the pernicious nature of this thing, that we imagine that, on a sort of racial foundation, it might be possible to build a heroic narrative for ourselves. But it is impossible. The harm that we perpetrate upon ourselves is incredibly deep. And it isn’t even just a sort of psychic, sort of spiritual harm. It’s not just that, by denying people their humanity, by putting them into racial categories and giving property rights over certain racial categories, or by putting them in national categories and denying geographic rights to those people of particular categories, it’s not just that those things, in and of themselves, are the way in which we harm ourselves, that we have become bad people in quotes.
It’s that we then commit ourselves towards a heroic narrative which reinforces this thing. In other words, if slavery is good, then anything in the service of that becomes good, and increasingly horrific belief systems become good. If the denial of people of the ability to move is good, well, then those who stop you at the border must be good. Those who try to help you from crossing the border must be bad. We should try to stop those from helping people.
And then if somebody is trying to give water to somebody who is in the desert and has no water, well, that person is now a criminal. If somebody provides water to the person to give the water, that person is a criminal. If somebody shelters the person who provides the water, that person is a criminal. We very quickly live in societies that are completely riven with a kind of police-state-like mentality and this horrible essence that takes human generosity and kindness and effectively criminalizes those things and makes them into weaknesses and vulnerabilities. And that path, I think, is incredibly limiting for people who live in such a society.
I see this as really a central concern of your books in general, which is how do we and why do we tell stories and create fictions that deny our fundamental equality? Be those fictions borders, as in “Exit West,” be they the moral and otherwise weight of pigmentation as in “The Last White Man.” And so I guess I want to ask you about the other side of it.
Why do you think we do it? Not what would happen if we couldn’t. If portals opened up, as in “Exit West” that made borders somewhat irrelevant, if something happened to end difference by pigmentation. But what do you think it is in the human animal that leads us to try and deny our equality, to try to find ways to justify that denial over and over and over again?
Well, I think there’s an innate, I guess, fearfulness in the organism. You know, Homo sapiens, we’re scared of stuff, and rightly so. If your ancestors saw that flash of orange in the forest and they thought that is a tiger, they were likely to pass on their genes. And the ones who thought, eh, it’s nothing to worry about probably got eaten by tigers and so were less likely.
And so we’re predisposed to treat threatening information as a more significant type of information. But as we made larger and larger societies and came together in larger and larger groups, it became important for us to figure out how to do that, and to, in a sense, disarm, to a certain extent, the ease with which we can view each other as threats. And so we build complex civilizations that somehow manage to reduce our sense of each other as being threats, to allow us to live together in large numbers.
And so as an animal, we can kind of go either way at any point. We can either begin to subscribe to narratives that are once again re-emphasizing the inherent threat that we pose to each other just by virtue of being different. And whenever we do that, we see the rise of pretty horrific stuff. And this tends to happen when empires break apart or when empires are in their decline. And to the extent that you think of America as the dominant force of recent years, and perhaps less dominant these days than it was recently, we’re in a historical moment that looks a bit like some of the periods of waning empire of the past.
At such times, we do see, I think, the rise of these fear narratives. But it isn’t inevitable. I don’t think that we have to give in to a kind of fear narrative-based view. I think that, while human beings are innately predisposed towards threat narratives and to seeing each other as threats, if encouraged to do so, they also can clearly subscribe to different kinds of narratives that allow many different sorts of people to live together.
And there’s a narrative choice that we face. And so I would view it not as some pessimistic, oh, well, people are just always going to descend into barbaric infighting. I think it becomes, how do we manage to continue to push forward the human ability to craft narratives that allow people who seem different from each other to not give in to a threat narrative, and instead find a way to live among each other?
You said once, quote, “I’ve come to the belief that pessimism is a deeply conservative and reactionary position. It tends to lead towards deference, towards the strong and powerful, towards powerlessness and a kind of surrender.” Tell me a bit about how you came to that belief and how you try to animate it.
Well, I think that what I’ve been seeing in my life, I guess, is that when I was younger, it felt to me that the world narrative seemed more optimistic — that technology would make things better, poverty would diminish, racism would go down, inequality would become less pronounced. And it was possible to believe in these things. I mean, I was probably quite naïve to buy in fully, but I, at some basic level, thought things are going to get better. There are going to be horrible things that happen. There will be wars, there’ll be massacres, there’ll be famines. But over time, things are going to progress in a good direction.
And then maybe it was my 30th birthday in 2001. Maybe it was 9/11. Maybe it was the new economic paradigm. Maybe it was lots of things. It has become increasingly difficult for me to maintain that sense of just innate optimism in the last 20 or so years. And it strikes me that it’s becoming difficult for many people to maintain a kind of optimistic narrative.
And alongside that, what I see is that there are so many people — and not just in the U.S., I mean all over the world — who are, in a sense, being drawn towards narratives that are founded on pessimism. So if we can’t go forward to a better place, we should look back to the past to give us a direction of travel. And then we begin to fetishize our past, and we talk about Britain before migrants arrived as Brexit and America when it was a more white place as some of the animating stuff of current US politics. But also, you know, the golden age of Islam or sort of an imagined Hindutva paradise for Hindus in India or glory days of Russian might in Putin’s Russia, and similar things in China or in Brazil, in Turkey.
This is too widespread, the current rise of narratives that are, for me, fundamentally pessimistic because they are fundamentally nostalgic. And I think that, as we are losing our ability to imagine sort of a better collective future, what is our response to that? What can we do?
And it seems to me that beginning to imagine and articulate possible optimisms, possibly optimistic futures has to be part of the response, that if fear of migration is an animating political thought, it can’t just be that we say, well, OK, we’re going to be able to stop migration. This is not going to be a problem. Like, we’re just going to shut it down, for all the reasons that we’ve already discussed. It has to also be, well, what if we go into that fear? Let’s imagine a world where migration really does take on these supposedly cataclysmic levels. Can something better be born? If we don’t commit to the search for optimism — not a naïve optimism, but the search for optimism — we’ve basically abandoned the field to those who pedal pessimism. And all over the world, I think that pessimistic peddling is dominant right now.
You described, I think, really well one kind of pessimism, which is a nostalgic pessimism, a pessimism of the past. I think of the circles I travel in, and of particular appeal to me personally is what I’ve come to think of as a pessimistic realism, sort of a pessimism that either is or poses as a kind of realism. It’s an essentializing way of thinking about the world and the deficiencies of human beings or the institutional problems in political systems or the inevitability of catastrophic climate change.
But that one has a real currency among intellectual and policymaker classes in a way that nostalgic pessimism doesn’t. Right? I think many people can hear your description of pessimism and think, I don’t do that. I don’t think the past was better. But they nevertheless, I think, rate, as I often do, more convincing arguments about how the future won’t be better, either. And so I’m curious, for you, about the practice, the discipline of trying to be able to imagine and articulate better futures, even as you try to be realistic about the present.
Well, I think that it’s always worth interrogating why we do stuff. And if you take, for example, a kind of pessimistic acceptance, which is not longing for the past, but a sense that the things that one wishes for — a more inclusive society, a less racist society, a more equal society — are slipping away for complicated reasons, and nothing can be done — the environment is just going to go to pot, and that’s sort of it. The other part of it, though, is that it is incredibly difficult to reckon with this feeling of defeat, of loss. It isn’t I seem to be losing out, the world is going the wrong direction. How do I survive this? How do I deal with my profound sense of despair at the situation?
And human life, I think, is a good parallel. So of course, we’re all going to get older. You know, of course, we’re all going to die. What is our stance in relation to that?
So it would be ridiculous to say, well, this is never going to happen to me. I feel like there’s a way out of this. I’m going to eat something or get an injection or something will happen, and it’s going to save me. I can understand the appeal, but it seems profoundly misguided, as far as I can see.
But also to say, you know what, I’m going to get old, nothing can be done, let’s just carry on. It’s an interesting response, right? It’s entirely possible that we do learn something, that there is some wisdom.
And in the book, for example, there’s the character of Anders’s father, who’s ill and who is dying, and whose mission, in a way, is to try to somehow pass on to his son how you die well. You know, what could this mean? What is it to do this thing? And in a sense, that is a, I think — Anders’s father has all sorts of views that I might not agree with, but in that particular attempt to pass on to his son something of meaning and something of wisdom from the old and from those near to mortality to those who are young, there is an activity there. And that’s something that the elders of every tribe throughout human history have done towards the young in their tribe forever.
We, I think, should consider that. And what kind of optimism does that mean? It’s not the optimism of I will live forever. It’s the optimism of I have something of value yet to give, and it is meaningful for me to pass that on. And so I suppose what I would come to on this is that the reaction of a kind of pessimistic acceptance, to me, feels like it is less than what could be hoped for. It is possible to try for more than that. And I think that, as a writer and as an artist, but also as a father and as a human being, it isn’t — while it’s understandable to me, it isn’t appealing to me.
I think that’s very beautifully said. And it brings up for me something you said in a talk you gave, that if we build a society run on self-interest, then we’re vulnerable to the fact that the self ends. And so you build a society unbelievably terrified of ending. Can you talk a bit about — because I think it’s actually very important to the book, too, about that relationship in your thought between our fear of the inevitable ends we and those we love will face and our political fears?
Yeah. I think within every philosophical, religious, spiritual tradition, there are these modes of thinking that are about achieving a degree of transcendence. And in the tradition that I grew up in, within the Muslim tradition, there is, of course, Sufi literature, and Sufi poetry above all. And the Sufis, in a sense, believe that love has a transcendent potential, that the self can be transcended.
And many of Sufi poems are told as love stories between two people or the love of a moth for the flame of a candle, and are metaphors, in a way, for love for the divine or love for the universe. And within them, in a sense, what is being explored is the idea that, if you feel strongly enough for something outside yourself, the tyranny of the self can be reduced and the mortal experience of being a human being can be made more tolerable.
Now, what that means in terms of life today and in confronting this sort of situation of our capitalistic economy, which is entirely self-driven and which continues to emphasize the self and reinforce the self and cuts the self off from other connections, and therefore makes us completely terrified because we’re so, in a sense, self-invested that we have an almost ahistorical level of fear of our mortality, unprecedented perhaps, I think that the antidotes to that lie, in a sense, in other attachments.
So whether that is a grandparent’s love for a grandchild, which means that you get to be optimistic about this child learning to ride a bicycle in three or four years’ time, even though you know that, in three or four years’ time, you’ll be that much closer to your own ending, or it’s a kind of generational-linked affection, which is that, just for our species, that you are engaged in something which you feel meaningfully helps people go forward, whatever that activity is, whatever that practice is. You know, volunteering someplace or doing some kind of research that you think is important or writing stories, or whatever it is. I think finding some way to connect to what is beyond ourselves becomes important.
Now, that need, of course, can be misdirected. So I can misdirect that need towards my group perpetrating some kind of bloodbath against some other group. But that isn’t the only, or I think even the dominant, mode in which that need can be expressed. I think it’s interesting now, as a globally connected human civilization, to start thinking about how do we express these ancient wisdoms that exist in every tradition in contemporary ways that are open to all?
And I think that the arts are one of the places where this can happen, that you can explore these sorts of things. In many ways, “The Last White Man,” for me, is a kind of Sufi novel. It is about love, and it is about transcendence, and it’s about, in a sense, a death of something, of this idea of whiteness, but also of something being born, and something being born in a context of four people who are bound together with love. And that has a lot of potential. So that’s, I guess, where my inclination is to look at these things.
I think that is a lovely place to come to a close. So always our final question on the show, what are three books you would recommend to the audience?
So three books I would recommend — and I tend to read pretty widely, from a historical standpoint — I would recommend Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” as a book that I think many people have read, and certainly when I was in my 20s, many people were reading, but still not just one of the most beautifully, hauntingly written novels of the last century, but also just formally such a sophisticated way of thinking about how do you use sentences, how do you build a novel to respond to this completely horrific predicament of, in a sense, America’s reckoning with its racial, and particularly its slavery past. So masterpiece.
Morrison was a mentor for you. She taught you — she elevated you to read to your whole school. What did you learn from her? What was she like, if you’re able to condense that for us?
I began my first novel in a long fiction workshop with Toni Morrison. And she, I think, didn’t expect to get an entire draft of a novel. She was probably hoping for 40 or 50 pages. But she very generously read the whole thing. That manuscript with her pages of handwritten notes on the back is probably my most prized writing possession. It’s something I keep in my study.
And she had a number of incredible capacities. One was that she read very well. So she could read the back of a Cornflake box, and you’d think this is the best thing you’ve ever heard. I mean, she read as well as she wrote, which is, if you’ve read her writing, really pretty astounding.
And in that process, I think what she taught was how important it is to write with your ears. We imagine that the written form is a form that we read with our eyes. And for many of us, those who have sight, it is, of course, something you read with your eyes. But I think the processing of it, the sort of neural circuitry is connected to our hearing systems, our aural systems. And so learning to write with your ears was one thing which I certainly took away.
But the lesson I tell people the most is that she used to say that you should keep your reader a half heartbeat ahead of the action of your novels, and that they shouldn’t know what’s coming next, but when it happens it should feel inevitable. I mean, that’s the kind of work that I think she taught the writers who were fortunate enough to study with her to think about doing. And I guess one more thing I would say is that, when you have writers of that caliber who make the decision to teach, one thing that they are doing is they are giving each and every one of their students the permission to imagine that they could be writers.
And I think if it weren’t for writers like Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, others who taught me, I probably wouldn’t be a novelist today because I wouldn’t have really believed that I could be one. And when writers of that incredible caliber take you seriously, are generous with you, you can begin to imagine things. And so it’s a very potent lesson, I guess, in how people’s imaginations can be shaped by others, their ability to give themselves permission to do stuff can be shaped by others.
I love that.
So I think that, for me, Jorge Luis Borges is somebody that people really should read now if they’re interested in thinking about our particular technological moment and how fiction can respond, a book like “Ficciones” or any, really, collection of short stories. What Borges is doing is he is creating this world of representation, of mirrors, of forking narratives. I mean, it’s almost inconceivable that he’s writing three quarters of a century ago, before computers, because Borges is, for me, in a sense, the most technologically current writer I can possibly think of. The way in which there are forking paths of narratives, the ways in which we are reflected, the ways in which we are retelling the story of what we are, the way we perceive things differently. Borges is somebody that I think everybody should read.
And I guess the third narrative, the third storybook that I would suggest is I think it’s very worthwhile to read “Gilgamesh.” And “Gilgamesh” is important because “Gilgamesh” is a Sumerian epic from thousands of years ago.
And it’s worth reading alongside works like “The Odyssey,” or even like the Bible, because there’s almost this kind of separation that has been made in our shared cultural history. I think that those moves really impoverish us.
I think if you go back and read “Gilgamesh,” what’s very interesting about it is how deeply in conversation it is with works like “The Odyssey” and with sacred texts like the Bible, but also how we have imagined into existence partitions in our literary history which are as profound as and enabling of some of our racial constructs, that if you were to go back and read “Gilgamesh,” and read it alongside some of these other foundational works, it’s a very, in a sense, hope-inducing experience because it’s easy to recognize that, actually, there really is this shared cultural history, that we imagine that we have sprung forth from different strands of humanity, but in fact, going back thousands of years, those strands were so mixed for so long that surely they can be mixed now as we live together in the 21st century.
Mohsin Hamid, your new book is “The Last White Man.” And I really loved it. I really recommend people listening pick it up. There’s so much beyond what you heard here. Thank you very much.
“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Annie Galvin and Roge Karma. Fact checking by Michelle Harris, Mary Marge Locker, and Kate Sinclair. Original music by Isaac Jones. Mixing by Sonia Herrero and Isaac Jones. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta. And special thanks to Kristin Lin and Kristina Samulewski.
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