After a lifetime spent between his birthplace of Lahore, Pakistan; the United States; and Great Britain, Mohsin Hamid is an expert at not only observing the world around him, but in using his surroundings to feed his art. In 1993, he was a relatively newly arrived transplant to the States and wrote his debut novel Moth Smoke about Pakistan. When he moved to London in 2000, he wrote about the New York City he’d recently left in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. And when he found himself back in his native Lahore, he began to conceive of the idea for The Last White Man, which he wouldn’t sit down to write for many years.
The book, which just hit shelves, imagines a world in which white people begin to turn dark-skinned — slowly at first, a few people waking up without their whiteness in disparate cities across the country, and then quickly, when suddenly entire communities are as similar on the outside as they’ve been on the inside. “I was thinking about the post-9/11 realization that, where before if you occupied a racial position that wasn’t clearly white or Black, it was possible to go through life with only minor annoyances in terms of discrimination — but then afterwards, you’d be pulled into an interrogation room at the airport,” he says. “And I was thinking about a world in which we realize that race is a fictional construct that we’ve willed into existence, but that doesn’t actually exist on its own.”
As Hamid speaks to The Hollywood Reporter over Zoom for this interview, he’s back in New York — incidentally, the author and his family are borrowing the home of the director of the film version of Fundamentalist — where he’s been preparing for the publication of The Last White Man. He’ll embark on a national book tour, an abbreviated version of the long, grueling trips to visit readers across the country that he’s used to, but given that Hamid’s novels have sold millions of copies and his last book is currently being adapted by Higher Ground, the production company run by Barack and Michelle Obama, he has a lot of fans waiting to ask him questions. Here, he gives a few answers about the inspiration for his latest work and what he’s learned in the process of turning his books into films.
From an American perspective, it’s easy to interpret The Last White Man as a reaction to the last presidential administration. But I imagine that’s not the whole story of this book’s inspiration …
I did have the specific idea early on in the Trump administration of, what if this guy suddenly wakes up and he’s no longer white? And what if that begins to spread, and what would that feel like? But that was more the narrative way into the ideas I’d been thinking about for almost two decades. After 9/11, my racial category became much less neutral; people would get nervous when you got onto the subway, and it felt like something out there had changed, but that I myself hadn’t changed. I had a feeling of loss, that I wanted to go back to how things were before, but also the realization that I was complicit in the system. There were always people who were experiencing this assumption of threat, but it’s just that up until then I hadn’t been experiencing it — so is that really the system I want to go back to?
Both The Last White Man and Exit West (which is in the works as a film) have an element of unreality to them; the skin-color changes in White Man and the magic doorways that allow people to escape their country in Exit. Why do you think you’ve become drawn to this style?
I think that what we imagine to be real isn’t actually real. Colors aren’t actually those colors; it’s just our brains’ interpretation of them. Or we imagine ourselves to be a certain way, and when we act in opposition to that, we’ll justify it by saying, “Oh, I wasn’t myself.” And fiction allows us to relinquish that tyrannical adherence to reality. I also don’t think my books are that far from the truth: Exit West is about a world where distance collapses, and here you and I have collapsed distances through these devices we’re using to talk to each other. What I’m often doing in my work is making emotionally real what technology has already done. I think it makes for an interesting way to explore whatever our current moment is.
What is your relationship to adaptations of your work? Do you feel invested in them, or do you prefer to sit back and watch someone else take the creative wheel?
The first international film that was made of one of my books was The Reluctant Fundamentalist and I suppose you could say I have a very good relationship with that movie given that I’m speaking to you from the living room of our director, Mira Nair. What I set out to do 15 years ago when we began collaborating was sort of send my child off to school, creatively speaking. I thought I would hand my book over and see how it turned out. I trusted Mira and felt a strong personal connection and said, “Just reach out if you have any questions.” But then they asked me to collaborate on the first couple of drafts of the script, and then during filming, they asked me to advise from time to time. So I had more of a role than I expected to have, but I learned a great deal.
What did you learn that was most valuable?
I write novels that allow readers to imagine a lot of what is happening in the story. All of my novels try to create an ambiguous space that the reader gets to make their own. When a film is made, suddenly things have to become much more concrete — the reader can’t be the director because there’s an actual director. With Fundamentalist, the book was about being suspicious without knowing if we’re right in our suspicions; it had to become a film where we know who that suspicious character, played by Liev Schreiber, is. The project became something very different, but beautiful in its own way, as it’s a very cosmopolitan film with people coming together from all over to make it: an Indian director, a Pakistani writer. Subsequently now when I work with filmmakers I realize how difficult it is for people to fill in the blanks of what I’ve created. Someone will tell me, oh, my book feels like a film, but then years will go by with numerous screenwriters and versions of the screenplay and still not be coming together.
From the outside, as a fan of a book, it can feel like it takes forever for adaptations to come together successfully …
I actually just had a very interesting conversation with some writer-directors and what they said has really stayed with me. They pointed out that the novels I write are already quite small and have gone through an enormous amount of compression — if you try to make them into feature films and compress them even more, it’s hard to make it stand up. So it’s started me thinking about the value of limited series, and I think it would be worth trying, and also that I should try to be more active in the team that’s trying to bring The Last White Man to life. It’s a huge perspective shift for me, but after so many years of hovering on the periphery, I should probably begin to see if I have any ability or skill in the area.
Is Exit West still confirmed as a feature film?
It’s on track at the moment to be a film. It’s in development by the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions, for Netflix, with Riz Ahmed attached to star in it. That process has been underway for a while, so hopefully soon it’ll reach a point where it can move forward. I think everybody’s appetite has been to move forward for quite some time.
Did you make a concerted effort to work with Riz again?
We collaborated on Reluctant Fundamentalist, of course, and he’s a personal friend and somebody I have enormous respect for. I think that artistically, he has so much integrity. He takes the meaning of what he’s doing very seriously, and so he’s always looking for other people to collaborate with whose hearts are in the right place. We tend to speak about books and films and world events, but he’ll also give me his thoughts on my books. We’ll bounce around ideas. He’s somebody that I view as a collaborator not just on particular projects but in our lives and thinking about the work that we’re doing.
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 I do, but there are probably several hundred million other people who would like to meet them. But I really admire what they’re doing in this work. They’re both serious writers, which is rare in political figures. Without being able to speak from personal experience, I have the sense of them approaching the work as authoring something. That there’s authorship in the kinds of projects they take on. So I’m excited to see what happens.