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Author Mohsin Hamid explores the construct of race in his new novel 'The Last White Man'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: A work of imagination asks us to see race in a new way, from a novelist once again taking on magical realism.

Jeffrey Brown sits down with Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Mohsin Hamid, Author, "The Last White Man": "One morning, Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown."

Jeffrey Brown: The first line of Mohsin Hamid's new novel, a play on Franz Kafka's famous first line of "The Metamorphosis." A man wakes up as something different, now a direct focus on race.

Mohsin Hamid: The novel really began with that idea of a character waking up a different color.

Jeffrey Brown: That was the image that hit you?

Mohsin Hamid: Yes, there was a notion that I had of wanting to write about race and identity, and it had been sitting in the back of my mind for many years.

But I needed, I guess, a novelistic way into the idea.

Jeffrey Brown: He would write a kind of fable, with the provocative title "The Last White Man," in which people in an unnamed place begin to wake up transformed.

Mohsin Hamid: One thing that the arts and writing gets to do is to remind us that we're sort of making up things as we go along, that reality isn't as real as we might imagine it to be, and that something like race, which you might think of as an actual, objective real thing, is an imagined phenomenon.

And because it's imagined, it can be reimagined. The book is about the loss of something.

Jeffrey Brown: The 51-year-old Hamid, whom I met recently in New York, has lived between countries and cultures, what he refers to as a hybridized life.

Born into a Punjabi family in Lahore, Pakistan, he spent part of his childhood in California, where his father studied for a Ph.D. at Stanford. He later returned to the U.S. to attend Princeton and Harvard Law School and then worked in New York and London, before turning full-time to writing, back in Lahore.

The new novel, he says, dates back to 9/11, and how he saw his own privileged place change, losing what he now describes as a kind of partial whiteness that defined him in the world, even as a brown man.

Mohsin Hamid: And it was really only after 9/11 that I began to encounter in a more concerted way this notion that I was someone suspicious, I was somebody threatening, that I would be stopped at the airport or stopped at immigration or people would behave strangely if I walked onto a subway car or a bus with a backpack.

After 9/11, when I was forced to reckon with a different standing, I was also forced to reckon with the fact that I hadn't properly reckoned with it until now. You know, why didn't I come to this realization without it being forced upon me?

Jeffrey Brown: You were enjoying many of the benefits of global citizenship and the kind of elite positions?

Mohsin Hamid: Exactly. Exactly.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Mohsin Hamid: So I think that really got me thinking how easy it is to sort of be complicit in something, and then — and then to be forced to grapple with it when you're unable to easily access those benefits.

Jeffrey Brown: In different ways, his novels and other writings have grappled with this post-9/11 world.

Riz Ahmed, Actor: You picked a side after 9/11. I didn't have to. It was picked for me.

Jeffrey Brown: "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," turned into a film directed by Mira Nair, portrays a young Pakistani on his way to achieving the American dream becoming radicalized.

The characters in "Exit West" were migrants who, with a bit of magical realism, passed through invisible portals into new worlds.

So, 9/11 changed you as a person. It clearly changed you as a writer as well.

Mohsin Hamid: I began to see similarities in different places. And so it wasn't just that, in America, for example, this notion of Muslims being seen as a threat.

There was also in Pakistan the idea that Western ideas were potentially a threat or having a particular secular outlook was seen as a threat.

And as I traveled around the world and lived in different places, I came to see that this kind of fetishization of purity, of the real people, whether it was happening in Modi's India or Erdogan's Turkey or Putin's Russia or in Pakistan or in America, was happening all over the place, that we were increasingly sorting ourselves into groups, and that we are increasingly prone to thinking these groups are real and that they are meaningful.

Jeffrey Brown: You started this new novel a white man wakes up turning brown, other novels taking on issues of migration and terrorism in the past.

Do you write fiction with a purpose?

Mohsin Hamid: I like to spend time in my imagination. But, also, the world bothers me. And it isn't the way I would wish it to be.

And so the same way that my son will walk around the house pretending to be a dinosaur, and he's a mighty and powerful T-Rex, instead of a 10-year-old boy, I try to imagine the world differently. And that can be a world where migration is easier. It can be a world where ideas of race are challenged.

But all of these things, in a way, for me, are about making the world more hospitable to my way of being, I guess.

Jeffrey Brown: I don't want to give away what happens in this fable of yours, but you are trying to see something different, perhaps even better.

You're completely comfortable tackling the big stuff in life in fiction.

Mohsin Hamid: Yes.

I think fiction is very important right now. We need to find ways to talk about things that allow everybody in, that isn't dependent on, are you from Pakistan or America? Is your skin lighter or darker? Are you of Muslim or Christian background?

And throughout human history, storytelling has been one of the primary ways we have done that. And so I feel very much part of that tradition. It's not something new. I think it's what we have storytelling for, in large part.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, the new novel is "The Last White Man."

Mohsin Hamid, thank you very much.

Mohsin Hamid: Thank you.

Judy Woodruff: Allowing everybody, that's a great idea.

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