The first line of Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel The Last White Man foretells a dystopian universe and, in a way, exemplifies his approach to writing. “One morning, Anders, a white man, woke up to find that he had turned a deep and undeniable brown.”
During his writing career, Hamid creatively takes on contemporary issues – then deliberately subverts time, location and characters – in a way that makes them a universal experience. Hamid has often explored issues of our time skillfully – whether around 9/11 through The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2001), migration in Exit West, capitalism in How to Become Rich in Rising Asia and now race and colour in The Last White Man. His skill lies not only in the lyrical nature of his writing – which has rich interiors in character development – but that he is able to showcase controversial issues without explicit commentary. As a reader, you are asked to imagine how this this applies to us.
The tale begins with a man finding himself changed overnight, not out of choice. His change to darkness means that others regard him differently. He is uncertain as how his colleagues at the gym will see him, or his old high-school friend and love interest Oona. Anders and Oona are the only two names in the novel: the remainder of the characters are unnamed, as is the place and setting of the book. More and more white people turn brown, and he explores what that means for the world they inhabit. The book is subtle in its story, but it does radically transform the way that one sees oneself, or how others perceive us as the Other.
Hamid launched his book to great acclaim in the US this week with book tours in major cities. I attended one in Washington DC hosted by Politics and Prose at Sixth and I synagogue. It was fascinating to see Hamid in conversation and occasional banter with Wajahat Ali, the sassy Pakistani American journalist. Their far-reaching conversation discussed the the novel, writing and what it means to be two brown men speaking about race in Amreeka in a Jewish synagogue. The audience was diverse – from racial immigration lawyers, South Asians friends and family to students and admirers of Hamid’s fluent prose.
Identity is multi-faceted and complicated. We identify with what we are given genetically – our race, the colour of our skin and eyes, and even the texture of our hair. To these we add other traits: access to education or societal norms. We forget that others may remember us with what we were born with. With time and experience, we are often no longer one identity. We acquire several.
Hamid himself spoke of being a mongrel and often resisting categorisation, e.g. that he lived in Pakistan, then the US, UK and now back in Pakistan. His own life changed dramatically post 9/11.
Like him, we become composites of the experiences we have in reality, and in this case fiction: we cannot be defined by one characteristic alone. This clearly resonated with the audience in DC. A young eighteen-yea-old Nigerian student spoke of how his work spoke vividly to her as she had become aware of the complexity of race only after moving to the US. In Nigeria, she was with people who looked like her and then in the US even if people had the same race, they often have very different experiences. This is not a new phenomenon. Lorraine Hansbury in the 1950s play A Raisin in the Sun spoke powerfully about how different the African-American experience was from the African, so colour alone does not mean similarity.
In the novel, living as a brown person changes Anders and those around him. For those of us who are brown, it does make you question your own sense of identity. I write this in English – for a Pakistani audience while living in the US. Perhaps whiteness is something we have acquired with access to language, education and customs. What does it mean to be white as opposed to dark? The novel raises issues like that tangentially and experientially – through what Anders and later Oona experience with relation to each other, their parents and themselves.
Anders does not recognise himself when he turns brown. He is ashamed and uncertain whereas Oona is fascinated by the brownness. In one scene, she even puts on make up to see what her mother’s reaction is to brown. She is secretly delighted when she turns darker as she looks better. Darker implies change and disruption – rather like the times we live in and in doing so we need to examine what that means.
In her Pulitzer-winning book Caste, Isabel Wilkerson uses the metaphor of a body – caste referring to the bones or the structure whereas race is the signal of one’s place. Any of us can be invested in caste, in keeping the hierarchy intact, especially if the system works for us, even though we may not be openly hateful or racist.
And in this case, many incidents during the novel are actually uncomfortable. People don’t realise they are being racist or hateful but there is a shock value in their reactions to Anders’ changed face. After weeks of avoiding his boss, he finally meets him, at which his boss remarks: “I would probably have killed myself and Oona’s mother at seeing Oona and Anders together.” She has a visceral reaction though her physical sickness or vomiting at the thought of her daughter in bed with a dark man.
In a way, this raises the importance of a conversation that we need to have – of self -reflection and awareness – of who we are and what we represent. Anders is not alone in this journey. Others begin to turn dark too, and that affects the assumptions that society has about them as well as each other.
Anders’ experience is a personal one, but one can relate to it. Those around him begin to question as to what this means, how it could happen, and whether it means we are different or the same. As time goes on, the fringe elements of those darkened become the majority until Anders’ father’s death. He is the last white man in the sea of brown.
The reader connects to his writing even though the novel has no names beyond Oona and Anders, no explicit setting. It seems like an American town, but in reality, readers can also imagine somewhere else of their choosing and in doing so, Hamid creates a direct conversation between fiction and the reader. You can make what you want of this.
Despite the fluidity and ease with which Hamid portrays this world, it is uncomfortable to read the parallels with reality – of recognising a system in which we live with deems people as inferior or the other and that the system internalises a way of ranking people by race and colour. The characters are confronted with their invisible and subconscious biases that make us perpetuate a system that does not work. Changing their own biases and confronting them is harder in a construct where group think prevails.
The book is easy to read: I finished it in one sitting, though that does not in any mean that it is a superficial read. The issues it raises challenge you and are definitely not easy to face. It is in the politically volatile times that we live in that lines – whether national, tribal or racial – flare up and reassert themselves. After reading this book, it is difficult not to think of the invisible human pyramid we construct, stone by coloured stone, and call society.