Award-winning novelist Mohsin Hamid joins this episode of The Stacks to talk about his newest book The Last White Man. We discuss what inspired the story, his exploration of how whiteness works through fiction, and the ongoing conversation between a reader and the author. We also get into Mohsin’s monastic writing rituals, his elite professors, and how his writing fills a need in his understanding of life.
The Stacks Book Club selection for August is How To Write An Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee. We will discuss the book on August 31st with Ingrid Rojas Contreras.
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Traci Thomas 0:41
Welcome to The Stacks, a podcast about books and the people who read them. I’m your host Traci Thomas and today we are speaking with Mohsin Hamid, a best selling award winning author of five novels whose work has been translated into 40 languages. If you’re an OG Stacks listener, you’ll know that Mohsin Hamid 2017 novel Exit West was our first ever book club pick. So this conversation is extra special to me. Yes, I cried. Today we’re talking with Mohsin about his latest novel The Last White Man, it’s the story of Anders, a white man who suddenly awakes one day with brown skin and feels a lot of rage towards losing his whiteness. We discuss what inspired most in to write this book. What is gained from losing one’s whiteness and the conversation that he feels is ongoing between author and reader. Just a heads up there are no spoilers in today’s episode. Quick reminder, everything we talked about on each episode of the stacks can be found in the link in the show notes. Our book club pick for August is how to write an autobiographical novel by Alexander Chee, which we will be discussing on August 31 with Ingrid Rojas Contreras, if you love the show, and want more of it head to patreon.com/the stacks to join the stacks pack. When you join, you get access to our virtual book club meetups, the stacks very lively and wonderful discord chat and our monthly bonus episodes. Last month, we talked about happy endings and romance rules with TL Williams, the author of seven days in June. So if this sounds like something you’d be interested in, or you really just want to show your love for this little black woman run indie book podcast, head to patreon.com/the stacks and join. Thank you to some of our newest members of the stacks pack our tea and Aaron Kay Doherty. Thank you all so much. And of course, like every other week, thank you. Thank you. Thank you to the stacks pack. I could not do it without y’all. And now it’s time for my chat with Mohsin Hamid.
All right, everybody. I say this every week. But this week, I really am so excited because our guest is Mohsin Hamid, who many of you know as a fantastic writer and has a very special place in my heart. Because most innsbrook Exit West was our first ever book club pick here on the stack. So this feels like a really, I don’t know, full circle moment. So Mohsen, welcome to the stacks. Thank you. I’m so thrilled to talk to you today about your newest book, The last white man, we sort of always start here. So in about 30 seconds or so can you just tell folks what this book is about?
Mohsin Hamid 4:10
So the life last night begins with a young man named Anders, who wakes up in his bed and discovers that his skin is dark. And when he went to bed the night before, it wasn’t yet light skinned. And he shares this information with guna woman that he’s been dating recently. And together Luna and Anders Anders, his father and Gunas mother, navigate a world where this predicament starts to spread.
Traci Thomas 4:41
Okay, I loved this book so much. I love the idea behind it. I love your writing. So I’m a big super fan is what I’m trying to say thank you. But I want to know, so in we won’t spoil anything. In the book, this changing from lightness to darkness sort of rolls out over time. It’s not like all of a sudden, everyone is dark, who is light. However, it does happen overnight for every person individually. How did you think about the transition from lightness to darkness? How did you think about how this would happen in your imagination?
Mohsin Hamid 5:19
So what exactly happens is intentionally left undisclosed in the book. And you know, what it means to become dark? How people look after they change, you know, How extensive is the change? Why did it happen? All of that stuff isn’t answered. And so in a sense, it’s left to the reader’s imagination. How do you think it happened? And what do you think it looks like? And why do you think it happened? But all we know is that it’s happening,
Traci Thomas 5:45
right? And where did you get the idea for this book.
Mohsin Hamid 5:49
So the, I think the book probably comes from about 20 years ago, after 911 When I was living in New York, and I had gone to these elite universities, and I had a well paying job in New York City. And, of course, I would occasionally encounter some degree of discrimination, but I would have thought of my life as a fairly and discriminated against life, you know, I could live where I wanted and travel as I wanted, and things felt, you know, reasonably open to me. And then almost overnight, after the attacks of September 11 2001, things changed. So at the airport, I’d be pulled out and given enhanced security, when I flew into JFK, immigration would put me in a separate room for a few hours and grill me, I was, you know, pulled off an aircraft on the tarmac once and oh, my god, yeah, you get onto you know, you would get onto a bus with a bit of stubble and a backpack, and people would look at you nervously or they would switch seats. And initially, I experienced this really, as you know, a sense of loss. And I want things to go back to the way they were, I wanted to communicate, look, I’m not threatening, I’m not somebody to be suspicious, you don’t have to be worried about me. But as I, as the years passed, and I began to ask myself, you know, what exactly did I lose? What was the thing that I lost, and I, I began to think that in a sense, I’ve lost a kind of partial whiteness, I mean, I’m a brown skinned man with a Muslim name. But in America, if you have gone to particular kinds of universities, and if you live in certain cities, and you have a certain kind of income, and you don’t fall clearly into the black, white racial binaries, at least in my case, I found that I was partaking of a lot of benefits of being kind of, you know, in the dominant group, so to speak. And so I began to think, you know, that perhaps that’s what I lost. And then to ask myself, you know, do I want that back? What was it to be complicit in that, you know, what was it to be part of a system where I, you know, obviously was aware of, but didn’t take too much note of and didn’t take didn’t wasn’t too invested in opposing the existence of that system. And perhaps, you know, that degree of complicity was something I should investigate in myself, you know, what did it mean? And so, Anders is presented with, in a sense, a similar situation, he wakes up one day, and people look at him very differently. And he has to navigate what that means.
Traci Thomas 8:13
Right? Okay, I have so many follow up questions. We try to work through it. My first one is about just the experience of all of a sudden becoming dangerous, essentially, it’s like kind of how you’re describing, like being pulled out. And all of this. Did you anticipate that after September 11? Did you like get to the airport a few hours, extra hours early? Like, were you aware that this was going to be happening to you? Or was it something that every time it was like, What the fuck is this?
Mohsin Hamid 8:45
Well, I think it was, in a sense, I was aware that it was likely to happen. And it had it had happened to a light extent before the real question was, you know how much it was going to happen? Right, that some people will be somewhat more suspicious? Sure. But that there would be an entirely new protocol. You know, for example, if you were Pakistani origin, and you flew into the airport, you had to go to a special room and register as having arrived in the US, you know, you you had to go and do all these different things. And, you know, of course, when read about the treatment of Japanese Americans in the Second World War, and not that not that this was something equivalent, but that there were echoes throughout history of this stuff happening in the US and of course, elsewhere. So it didn’t totally take them by surprise. But I think the part that did take me by surprise was, you know, the notion that maybe in some way, I would be partially exempt, that, you know, of course, that stuff would happen. And it would happen in theory, but in practice, you know, I’m a very liberal guy, like personable, you know, I’m surely I’m not the kind of person you need to be afraid. Right. And that’s where it becomes so interesting. As an experience, because, you know, you know who you are, right, and you want to communicate who you are, but people have adopted a kind Any reference point that has predefined you, and it has actually nothing to do with what you have done personally. And if you try to communicate who you are, you try to smile and try to seem unthreatening, you may come across as much more strict. So it starts to become this this impossible situation where you’re trying to say, look, I’m not dangerous to be like, Oh, what do you mean, you’re not dangerous? And
Traci Thomas 10:21
only a dangerous person would say that? Yeah. And
Mohsin Hamid 10:23
so it was, it was interesting for me, because it was an introduction, in a way to these paradoxes. It was also interesting, because it wasn’t just a question of, who does one blame in this situation? You know, who exactly is at fault? Is it the person who seems suspicious of the person at the immigration desk? Or the airport security counter? Or the one asking you questions? Is it you know, is it mean, for acting in a strange way? Is it society, it’s unclear where you place the blame, and that, for me was one of the most interesting parts of the experience. It felt like a sort of crime was being perpetrated against me. Well, that wasn’t clear if I was the criminal, if I was the innocent victim, if if somebody else was was the perpetrator, if it just wasn’t clear where to put the blame? And I think that’s, for me, a very interesting aspect of racial reality is that it sort of exists. And it dehumanizes both people who experience it imposed upon them. But it also de specifies who’s imposing it. Or you don’t know, you know, who exactly is to blame for this. And all of that stuff began to creep in, I think, you know.
Traci Thomas 11:30
So one of the ways that you sort of how I will, let me just say this, as you mentioned, the book has a lot of open things. So it left a lot for me to interpret myself. So as I interpreted it, you describe sort of the white gaze in this way, where we’re Anders is saying, you know, they’re looking at me, so it changes how I’m looking at myself, or it changes how I’m behaving. And it changes how I’m acting based on the way that the people who have not yet turned dark, are thinking or looking at me and making me feel. I’m wondering if that experience for you, sort of realizing your non whiteness in a world where previously you had felt White? I’m wondering if that changed how you then looked at other people who were not white?
Mohsin Hamid 12:22
Yeah, I think it did. I mean, you know, one thing I want to be careful with is to draw sort of two direct parallels between my experiences and agile experiences and other people’s experiences. I think my experiences gave me a reason to want to write this book and a sort of way into it. But then when I wrote what happened to Anders, it wasn’t an attempt to sort of portray what happened to me. It was it was a way and an address. His experience, of course, is in many ways, very different to my own. And also, as far as I’m concerned, it wasn’t that I thought that I was white, it was quite clear to me that I wasn’t white, it was just the degree of significance of my particular way of not being white, was not that great. In other words, I would never have said, Oh, I’m white. But I would have thought, Oh, my particular non whiteness, isn’t that important to people? Most of the time, and now it’s become much more important. And, and so, yeah, so I think I think there’s, there’s that kind of a distinction, I sometimes, you know, think of this entire experience a little bit in COVID-19 terms, where, you know, when the pandemic began, it seemed before we had vaccinations, and before we had medicines against it, it seemed that would happen to people is, the virus would would come into your body, and your body wouldn’t know what it was what it was. And so it was somewhat invisible to immune system. And then when your immune system finally recognized it, it will overreact and attack itself and damage your own lungs and your own organs. And I think in some ways, racial relations are a bit can be a bit like that, that there’s a sense of both being invisible, not seen, and then suddenly being seen in a catastrophic way. Both happening simultaneously. And for Anders, I think that’s what’s going on is that he’s, he’s sort of being ignored. But he’s also very frightened of being noticed in the wrong way. And it’s that he’s, he’s less visible to people, and also more dangerously visible to people simultaneously.
Traci Thomas 14:18
Yeah, I feel like in the book, one of the things that really struck me was this need to find hierarchy, this need to create order out of disorder. If I mean, it feels like so right this minute, politically in America, which is where I am that like, you know, in the book, there’s this militia or like militant groups that are coming in, they’re protecting whiteness and lightness and, and they’re fighting against, you know, this new villain that is all these dark people. And how were what was influencing new or what wasn’t influencing you about current events like were you thinking about what you were seeing? thing in the world in the last few years, obviously COVID, you mentioned in America, we had this huge racial reckoning that a lot of people heard about. So I’m wondering sort of like, what sort of hierarchy things you were seeing that you were like this needs to be in here?
Mohsin Hamid 15:15
Well, I think that it was interesting, because the situation that that follows the Biden Trump election, you know, I, I had substantially written the book, by the end of of that year, as the election was being fought over. And I remember watching the events of January 2021, a couple of months after the election, and what happened in DC. And it was, it was strange to watch, in a way because it felt from the world of the novel, in a circumstance that you saw, you know, this kind of instinct towards a militia response towards, you know, a challenging of authority. But, on the other hand, these things have been going on for a very long time. So we, we sometimes recognize things now. But of course, you know, you look back at documentaries of the 1960s, or even further back, and we see, you know, precisely the same sorts of events in the US. But outside the US, we’re also seeing the same thing. So whether it’s this impulse towards a pre immigrant, truly British Britain, you know, in the Brexit impulse, or you see the rise of Hindutva, in Modi’s India, or you see sort of Turkish nationalism and the ones turkey or, or, you know, the equivalent in Bolsonaro, Brazil, or Putin’s Russia, or particular kinds of Islam in Pakistan, there’s something going on all over the world at the moment, where dominant groups are becoming threatened, where they’re reacting by kind of fetishizing, a sort of purity. And they’re rallying around, you know, strong men, sometimes strong women, but usually strong men to defend the group. And so what looks to us like a very specific and recent American context is actually a much older and much more widespread, I think phenomenon.
Traci Thomas 17:09
Yeah, were there other were, you mentioned, Japanese internment? Were there other specific moments in history that you were thinking about, as you were writing this, when I
Mohsin Hamid 17:19
was a child, I asked my grandfather, what the most significant event in his life had been. And, you know, he had lived through the Second World War, and through the arrival of a nuclear bomb and human beings landing on the moon and all sorts of stuff. And, and I thought you might mention one of those things. And he said, it was the partition of India and Pakistan. And I asked him why because in 1947, the British Empire left, what had been British India, a colony, which was then divided into Muslim majority Pakistan, and Hindu majority India, and Lahore, where my grandfather lived, was on the border in a very mixed city. And he said, Look, what happened was that of our two or three neighbors, the houses next to ours, all of them left. Now, half of my friends left, I never saw these people ever again. And in partition, what occurred was not just division of Hindus moving to India, Muslims move into Pakistan, but enormous violence, hundreds of 1000s, perhaps over a million killed, you know, many millions 10s of millions moving. And I think that notion of people suddenly leaving coexistence, and deciding in a violent circumstance to separate is there in kind of the ancestral DNA. And then, of course, when it seems similar things play out in Bosnia, when we’re seeing a similar thing play out, perhaps in Ukraine or Syria. And it’s just been there. But I suspect that the idea of partition of people suddenly being questioned as to whether they were the right kind and forced to move to where their group is, does inform how I think about these things.
Traci Thomas 18:51
I want to talk a little bit about form or craft, I don’t know, I’m not a writer, I don’t know what you guys call it, but I think it’s craft. In the book, you use the words, dark, you know, they you say they become dark? I don’t believe you ever, you know, say they become brown or black. I’m wondering how you were thinking about your use of language, especially around this transformation?
Mohsin Hamid 19:14
Well, I think the book is, is interested in, in the kind of illusory nation nature of race, right? Like we imagine race into existence. Sure, you know, race is not like, you know, a planet or a waterfall, right? objectively. You know, it’s something that we sort of make up, you know, the ancient Greeks and 21st, Americans would have a very different idea of what race meant, if it means anything to the Greeks. So so this idea of belonging to a race of other people being part of a race is something that’s been invented for a particular purpose and exists on that basis. And in the novel, it’s much less a question of saying that Anders has now become a different race that we are seeing You know, a new race that he belongs to, but rather that, that he is leaving membership in an idea of whiteness, that he is now unable to think of himself or to have other people think of him as belonging to this category of whiteness. So, when the novel avoids using words of Anders as a particular racist as sort of as black or something like that, because, of course, those terms are equally fictional, you can describe Anders his skin as being brown or being dark, but to call Anders black and these circumstances would be to buy into another fiction, to say that, you know, as whiteness becomes destabilized blackness remained as a real thing. But but blackness is a racial category only exists because there’s this category called whiteness, otherwise, we wouldn’t have that. The second category,
Traci Thomas 20:50
right? Okay, I mentioned earlier that we did Exit West on our first book club episode ever, and I did notice a similarity between these books, which is you are like Mr. Vague, you do not want to tell us where we are, you do not want to tell us when we are, you do not want to tell us a lot of information. So I’m curious, what, what you think that does for you, as a writer, what that does for your reader what you hope that does for your reader? Why talk to us?
Mohsin Hamid 21:23
So I think that, that written fiction is very interesting thing. And part of what makes it interesting is that of the mass produced storytelling modes, where there’s, you know, television, and film, written fiction, in in television and film, you, you get a world that’s been quite fully imagined for you, you know, people look like people. And this setting looks like the city setting, and people sound like people. But a book looks nothing like what’s your experiences, you know, it’s a bunch of words on the page. And the reader takes those words and imagines them into characters and images, and, of course, emotions and sights, sounds, smells. So the reader is creating an enormous part of what a novel is, you know, and I think that what novelists do is we give readers these half novels that readers get to imagine into being full novels. And reading a novel is a bit like being invited to play make believe, like, when you were a kid, and you’d say, you know, we’re, we’re going to be astronauts, or we’re going to be pirates. And then you would, you and your friend would sort of imagine that world is as actually existing. So I think novels do something similar. And so for that reason, I think it’s useful to give readers space to imagine. So I guess, intentionally use very few names in the book, there’s just hundreds of doing that nobody else has a name, the place is unnamed, we don’t know exactly where we are. A lot of details are missing. And what that does is it just creates gaps into which the reader is free to insert their own imagining, you know, where is this happening? What does Anders look like? You know, what was Anders his mom, like, and what does and does his father, you know, and that allows the reader to make the book their own book. And I think that, for me, is a hugely important part of what this novel and novels generally do. Which is, this novel doesn’t intend to give you I guess, a message that I could write in a nonfiction form like, here’s what I think about race. Instead, it’s let’s lay this sort of Maple Leaf together. And then let’s see how you feel. Like make believe that’s how you feel bringing Anders and story to life and enough story to life? And how do you feel about it afterwards. And because you made this novel half yourself, what you’re left with, hopefully, is your own reckoning with what you made. And that, for me is what almost do most interestingly, is that they allow readers to create, and then leaders to look at what they’ve created.
Traci Thomas 23:54
As the artist as the creator of this world. How much do you know about the place and the people? Like is there a version where you have either written it down or imagined? And you’re like, they’re specifically at this longitude and latitude? Like, this is exactly what this looks like? Or are you also sort of unsure about the details of the place?
Mohsin Hamid 24:16
I saw my earlier books, I guess I know How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, how to de specify the place I had an idea to place in more detail than I presented, I potentially made it, you know, a little bit less specific. In this book, I think I didn’t do that so much as I tried to remember what my role was. My role was to be half of a pair of people who were going to imagine this thing. And so it was it was it was a bit like having a conversation that you know, it’s not that when you have a conversation and you pause and you wait to the person to speak and you interact with each other, that you have imagined necessarily what they’re going to say that you could have just had the conversation by yourself and similarly, with writing a book, it was not that I took Anderson who knows reality, made it vaguer. Instead, I tried to tell Anders in this reality in a way that required somebody else to come and get fully come to life.
Traci Thomas 25:16
Okay, you mentioned Anders mom, and and she has recently passed away, or she’s passed away in the book. And there’s this whole sort of chunk of the book that has to do deal with grief. And I’m curious how that part made its way into the book. Were you thinking of grief and relationship to raise? Or were you just thinking of grief as a thing that people deal with, period? Regardless, I’ve been obsessed with grief in the last year or so. And so I’m just really, I love it, I was so glad to see it in the book. But I’m curious why it was important for you to put it in?
Mohsin Hamid 25:51
Well, I think that the book is a book of loss. And, of course, enters loses in a sense is, is racial identity, and his racial belonging. And he has also lost as you said, his mother wound has lost her father and more recently, her brother, they are, you know, seeing their parents and as his father and his mother struggling in the world, and they’re grappling with this loss. And I think what the book tries to do, is to have enormous sympathy and empathy, for the feeling of loss, compassion for the feeling of loss, even if one doesn’t necessarily have compassion for what is being lost. So it’s one thing to say that somebody can suffer over the loss of a sense of belonging in a racial identity, and to actually honor and try to make them the hero of their own story where this loss is of enormous significance. Without saying the thing being lost is a good thing. You know, in the same way that somebody’s parent can be a real jerk. But when that parent passes away, the sense of loss of the child is still an enormous experience. It’s, it’s unrelated, or it might be unrelated to the character of the person who died. So so I tried to make these characters into the heroes of their own stories, not just Andrews and Luna, but Anders, his father, and his mother, meant to give them the dignity of that, even if, in some of their views and some of what they’re experiencing their views that are quite different to ones that I hold myself.
Traci Thomas 27:31
You mentioned, loss, obviously, is a theme of the book, you talked about it in your own experience about how you were like, I’ve, you know, I’ve lost something, what have I lost, I’m curious about what is gained, what is gained for these characters, or maybe what was gained for you, or how you see that that part of it?
Mohsin Hamid 27:49
Well, the two things are very closely related. I think in a human life, anybody who’s been to a funeral, will know that there’s just in a sense two sides to it. One is the pain and sometimes enormous pain depending on who’s you know, free notice in your relationship, that person of this person being gone. But the other is the reminder, that it gives you that we’re not here forever, that things are temporary, that everybody loses people that they love. And that this binds us together. Every funeral is both a ceremony of loss, and also an opportunity for a kind of gain, a gain of an insight into ourselves and a gain of a sense of connection to others. And in the same way, the novel explores both of these things. There’s the loss of a particular way of life and a particular way of thinking about the world and of a particular reality in a way. But there’s also the gain of seeing things differently. So Anders and una, for example, when the relate when the book begins, the relationship is a little bit more transactional, they both get through tough times, particularly una and sort of hooking up, because you know, what one does, and going through a difficult time. They probably wouldn’t certainly, una wouldn’t have necessarily at the beginning of the book, said that, you know, Anders is a person of such great significance in her life. But weirdly enough, as Anders changes, as the way he looks changes as as, as his belonging to this group, as whiteness starts to disappear, Nina gets to see him more clearly. She gets to understand, you know, what Anders really is the things and the elements of his character that are the same that haven’t changed. And she manages to see enters in a much more deep and profound way than she did. Oddly enough, and there’s this loss of whiteness is revealing of his character to them. And they’re able to have a very different kinds of relationship relationship with much more substance than they would have otherwise been able to have. And similarly, you know, I don’t say too much about one of the goes but you know, other characters, you know, as his father who is grappling with a very severe terminal illness, he also sees his way to a sort of different relationship with his son. He’s He’s not happy about what’s happened to us. And he’s he’s, in fact devastated by it. But he is trying to see through to a proper fatherhood to his son despite this. And so each of the characters as they lose things are finding their way to towards other things. And often what they are finding is more profound, in fact, than what they’ve lost.
Traci Thomas 30:34
Yeah. Okay, we’re gonna take a quick break, and then we’ll be right back. Listen, book publishing is supposedly a glamorous world filled with money, privilege and three Martini lunches, but that’s not really the full story. Come with me and dive into the messy power struggles, scams and horribly bad behavior within the book world. You’ve got to check out this podcast called missing pages. It’s an all new investigative podcast from the pod glommer it and it’s hosted by literary critic and publishing insider Beth and Patrick, they spill the tea on some of the world’s most famous and infamous figures in the book world. On this week’s episode, raw transgressive and true, you’ll find out about how praise for hard hitting books may JT Leroy the talk of the town, but who was JT really a trans woman who survived a traumatic childhood, or a sis woman with a flair for reinvention and a body double. Beth Ann parses good intentions and messy outcomes. And one of the book world’s most complicated stories. missing pages is worth the hype. Where else can you hear your favorite authors, publishing insiders and a circus of New York City media elites telling the real story unfit for print and perfect for podcasting. So go ahead, find the missing pages wherever you listen to your podcasts, and you can get bonus content available on Apple podcasts. We’re coming to the end of summer, which means we’re coming to the end of roadtrip season, which means we’ve still got a little more time for audiobook season. My favorite audio book platform is libro FM, they’re the best, they allow you to buy your audiobooks from your favorite independent bookstores, which means you get to choose which bookstore you’ll be supporting every time you listen, they have an incredible selection of books, and they offer a monthly membership that allows you to purchase any additional books at a discount. But more than anything else, I love Libra FM, because they support independent bookstores, authors, communities, and little old podcasters like me. So if you’ve got a road trip ahead or are planning some nice long summer walks, check out libro FM, the best audio book platform in town. If you’ve never tried libro FM, you can get two audiobooks for the price of one, when you use the code stacks at checkout. We’re back from our break, I want to circle back to one thing that you said because I want to I’m so curious. You talked about how you’re one half of this conversation between yourself and the reader about you know, which is the book, how much are you curious about what the reader side of the conversation? It’s like? Do you ever want to go to your readers and be like, Okay, where did you think it was? Like? What did you think about this? What came up for you? Or like when you go on book events? Are you interested in hearing that feedback? Or is the writing of the thing, you know, fulfilling enough?
Mohsin Hamid 33:19
All right, suppose the writing of the thing is fulfilling enough in a way that I’m not when I’m writing the book, I’m not feeling the enormous absence of being able to know how the reader will respond to this. But if I were just writing the book, and no one was to read it, and no one’s ever to respond to it, I might not be able to pretend to myself, that it was a way out of my solitude. What writing does is to a writer, you’re all by yourself. And yet you’re not. Because across time, in the future, weeks, months, years later, when somebody that you read what you’re writing, now, they’re going to connect with you. And you’re not alone. And so that’s an enormous part of writing. Now, readers responses are a bit tricky, because it can be very overwhelming to get readers responses. And so there’s a kind of I suppose, anti social aspect of being a writer is that you don’t want to be in a room with 2000 people telling you, here’s what I think about your book. And of course, some readers will have things that you like to hear some will have things you don’t like to hear. But I would say that one of the things that makes writing worth doing is every so often you run into a reader and they will say something very personal about something you’ve written. And you’ll think it’s true. It doesn’t connect people this person and myself have connected without meeting through this crazy strange medium. And and that’s enormously profound and also encouraging. And I think without that it would feel very strange to do but but no, I’m not thinking of the readers reaction in great detail when I’m writing. I’m just I suppose, believing that we will happen
Traci Thomas 34:59
now. have that. Okay, this is a, this is a question. I don’t know, this might be a dumb question. But I have to ask, how do you name your characters.
Mohsin Hamid 35:08
So lately, it’s been kind of infrequently basically, in my previous book, there were just two characters say the Nadia in the one before that there were no characters with names. And in this book, there are again, two characters with names Anders and una. Those particular names. For me, we’re doing something. So when I wrote The Reluctant Fundamentalist my second novel, in the 15 years before this one, in that novel, the character chin gaze is somebody who identifies as Muslim and is seen by other people as being Muslim, but isn’t particularly religious, you know, he drinks he doesn’t fast, he doesn’t pray, doesn’t think about the Quran. He’s kind of a secular humanist, as far as we can tell, but but yet, he identifies as Muslim. And as seen as that. And that novel, in a way, I used his voice, as a way of communicating a kind of Muslim this, and of playing with certain stereotypes of what it might mean to be Muslim. Because there’s no such thing as you know, what a Muslim is, and everybody is different from everybody else. And it was this sort of kind of anachronistic, formal, maybe slightly menacing voice which played with certain stereotypes of what Islam might be like. And in the same way, in this novel, you know, Anders and una are playing with something. They their names that feel like they come from a kind of primeval place. And it’s not exactly a geographically where they are. But Anders in particular as a name, which means manly, it can also mean stranger. And that route appears in many European languages. And I thought the idea of this sort of manly, but yet stranger figure, and this particular name, and with Ooh, it was incense, there was something. So from the mists of time for me about guna has a name. And I thought that this pairing, it felt like they came from a kind of ancient place, even if, of course, these are names that exist in the contemporary world. So I named and doesn’t do and I guess, on field. And that’s often how I think about names.
Traci Thomas 37:24
I love I love that. I was like, after I read your book, I can’t remember what it was. But I read another book right after, and there was an Anders in it. And I was like, Whoa, I’ve never seen an Anders in a book before. But I think it was a nonfiction book. And it was actually the person’s name. I can’t quite remember though.
Mohsin Hamid 37:42
They are, was like, what? angers is the gunas?
Traci Thomas 37:46
Yes, certainly. Okay. This is something that I talked to all my authors with all the authors I speak with about, which is how do you write where are you? How many hours a day? How often is there music? Or no? Are you you know, having snacks and beverages? Are there rituals around it? How do you write.
Mohsin Hamid 38:05
So the way I write has changed over time, when I was in my 20s, writing my first novel, mod smoke, much of that novel was written, you know, between midnight and dawn, so the vampire stuff, it would go out with my friends and come back and then write into the wee hours, then go to sleep. And that felt like in my 20s, a perfectly legitimate way to write particularly when I was a student. And now I’m 51. And I’ve got two children. And the best time to write is in the mornings when I’m fresh, and when they’re in school. And so and so what I tend to do is I tend to get up, I try to avoid engaging too much with the internet in the morning, I tried to go for a walk, go for a long walk, and just sort of go from my dreams into walking and thinking. And then from my walk, I tried to stand at my desk, and a good writing day, if I get three or four hours of good writing in before lunchtime, I will feel like that was I would have been a good day. Sometimes it’s much less. And sometimes it’s so much that I don’t have lunch, I keep working into the afternoon and the kids come home and then the chaos of a house with kids begins. And I tried to write to it sometimes. But it’s it’s mostly mornings. And the other thing is there’s there’s no music, it’s quiet. I try almost religiously not to use the internet. So I’ll have my dictionaries and my other reference materials instead of a print form in my study, because it’s amazing how you know, quote, unquote, research can transform into weeks of procrastination before you realize what you’ve done. So I think if you just limit your research to something that can’t go very far, although it’s amazing how distracting a dictionary can become if you let it and I guess the other maybe slightly peculiar way about how I write is that a typical writing day will probably involves more of me pacing around my study, the printout of my manuscript in my hands, the pages I’ve been writing today, reading them out loud over and over again, I’ve probably spent more time doing that and actually typing into the computer. I think that, you know, we, we often imagine that we write and read sort of our eyes. That’s what we see on the page. But I, I think, quite strongly that writing is something that really comes to the neurocircuitry of our ears. It’s something you can, you can hear. And so for me, I read it over and over again until it sounds right. And that’s how I edit myself.
Traci Thomas 40:35
I love that you did not mention any snacks or beverages are those involved at all, you know, I,
Mohsin Hamid 40:41
I tend not to be a breakfast person. So I break my daily fast with lunch, I try to keep it simple. I tried to be sleep, walk, right? And then everything else.
Traci Thomas 40:56
So no water, no coffee, no tea, no water.
Mohsin Hamid 41:01
No water I have, I might, I might brush my teeth. It’s not it’s not a complete extremist. But, but. But no, there’s there’s no real food or minimal reading. Because what I find is that, that state of waking up, and then taking that state into a walk and then taking that walk into sitting at my desk and beginning that flow feels feels good to me. If something interrupts it, making a meal, taking a call, checking my phone, it it’s quite possible, it will stay interrupted. Whereas if nothing interrupts it, it won’t be interrupted. So just through trial and error, I’ve come to the very simple, you know, wake up, walk, drink water, while writing. Right, kind of continue.
Traci Thomas 41:51
It’s very monastic, I love it, I love it. The first half
Mohsin Hamid 41:55
of the day is a little bit monastic then quickly falls apart with Yeah, with the chaos of the kids, and then you know, but
so many writers, I know, you have to find some kind of practice to make this thing work. Because it’s actually a very simple profession, or calling. And the calling is its keep a few hours of each day, empty. For writing. You don’t have to even write, if you’re sitting there trying to write for a few hours each day, and you have that hole, a hole of a size of a few hours, every day. The amazing thing is that something fills it, you know, you can wait out, nothing coming, and something will eventually come. And so in essence, writing for me, it’s about making that well, or making that wound, and then trusting something will come into it. The idea that I can sort of force myself to a good writing day is one that I’ve abandoned long ago, I just have to show up. Wait, I think there was I forget who it was. But there was a writer who said that, you know, your job is you show up at your shop, raise the shutters every morning, and you wait. And some days, a customer will come. And some days no customer would come but you raise the shutters and then at the end you close the shutters you’ve done your job. And I think that’s that’s it for me too. Is you show up, make the empty space and then see.
Traci Thomas 43:19
Yeah, I like that just removing this sort of self judgment. Just do the work do the work. Yeah, well,
Mohsin Hamid 43:25
or it’s almost have the intention, and do no other work. I think I think do the work is partly why I don’t roll out of bed and go straight to my desk. Right? Do the work can sometimes be quite intimidating. Particularly when you have when you have no idea how this novel is going to work. Or you’ve gotten yourself into a mess and you have no idea what the way out is, which happens a lot. I think do the work. It can be tricky. But show up, do nothing else and have the intention of this work. And see what happens then, for me is I suppose the way I avoid my own panic and I avoid my own writer’s block and I just I just show up and wait.
Traci Thomas 44:08
Yeah. You’ve been writing for a long time. You’re an acclaimed writer the people love you, Brock Obama love Doug’s Midwest. Not that it matters because I loved it in the I’m ultimately the final say and why did you always know you wanted to be a writer? Like was this something that you always felt called to do? Or was there a moment in your life where you were like that now I know now I want to write
Mohsin Hamid 44:35
I was a total fantasy just as a kid so I used to always pretend being you know, things I can see in my own children as well. You know, my son will be roaring down the holes and pretend to be Godzilla at any given moment. And he sort of fully committed his passionate roar veins on his neck, assembling with effort. And, and I was like that and then I read a lot and I had a very active imagination. But I didn’t think I wanted to be a writer because I didn’t know that people were writers. I mean, in theory, there was this notion that of course, somebody wrote these books. And there were these people called writers. But it seemed it seemed completely crazy that that any that I could be that I didn’t know anybody who was a writer growing up, and I arrived at university, and there was a woman across the hall from me. And she was taking this creative writing class, she told me, and I said, you know, what is it? And she said, Well, you know, it’s just like any other class and you show up, it’s pass fail, you write some short stories. And I said, So you show up to this class, you make up stories, you hand them into the teacher versa. It’s not really graded, and it’s treated just like any other class. And she said, Yeah. And I said, you know, I have to get into one of these classes. And then when I started doing it, I discovered that I loved it. And I think another big part of it for me was I had these professors, people like Joyce Carol Oates, and, and in my final year, when I began my first novel, Toni Morrison, and, and to have people like that, read your work. It’s, it’s, it’s, you learn, of course, from them as professors, but more almost in the learning is they give you permission to imagine that you can be a writer, writers of that magnitude, are reading your stuff, and engaging with it like it matters. You think, you know, maybe I can believe in doing this. And so I suspect if I, if I hadn’t gone to university and study with those writers, it’s not that I couldn’t have learned the skill somehow, I probably never would have allowed myself to believe I could do it. And I would have thought of doing something else with my life. So it was very fortuitous that that it happened. And, yeah, I’m quite grateful that probably out of my university experience, the fact that I got to be with writers who read my stuff and made me think that I could be one is the most important thing that happened.
Traci Thomas 46:55
Wow. As someone who’s written a bunch people have favourably loved your work. Does it make it harder to keep writing? Like, is there a pressure that you feel? And if there is how do you negotiate that to keep you know, showing up and, and with the intention to do the work?
Mohsin Hamid 47:14
I wouldn’t say it’s a pressure as such, each of the books I’ve written has come from a kind of desperate need. You know, Maslow, the first one was trying to look at Pakistan, with my weirdly half Pakistani, like half western perspective. And then Dalton fundamentalist was the reverse was like looking back at the US, and particularly around that post 911 moment, from the point of view that was partially American, but also very strongly Pakistani. And How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia was having moved back to Pakistan, and looking at this incredibly money dominated society. What, what can one find? And what looks at that, how do you look at this place? And in a sense, how do I de exalted size it and see it for myself and, and then Exit West was as somebody who’s moved around so much in my life, to see a world where migrants are now being portrayed as this kind of villain, as something that must be stopped, when it’s the basic human condition is to have migrated forever. It was something I felt quite personally, and I felt, I felt that I had to do something fictionally engaging with that. And then the new one, in a sense, the last white man really is my feeling as a mom realized, you know, hybridized sort of person, that if we are moving into a world where we fetishize purity, where were the most important thing is whether you belong to a particular dominant group in your society. That’s a disaster for people like me. Everybody, yeah, I think it’s a disaster for everybody, but it but it’s certainly a disaster for people I suppose. Like, like us. And, and so and so there was a very personal reason to write that. And, and, and, as far as you know, career and acclaim where prizes and that sort of stuff is concerned is concerned. It’s amazing how each time, it feels like I have no idea how I’m gonna write this book. I have no idea how people are gonna respond. I’m vaguely terrified. And I’m trying to figure it out. And, and that seems quite consistent. Even though I’ve written you know, six books now and five novels. I’m equally clueless and equally terrified as before.
Traci Thomas 49:31
This is the most important question I’m going to ask you. And you mentioned you use a physical dictionary, so I’m curious if this is going to be a thing or not. What’s a word that you cannot spell correctly on the first try?
Mohsin Hamid 49:44
I want to ask you a question in a slightly longer way if it’s okay. So the podcast my filming my spelling is atrocious. Ah, yeah, me too. In fact, it when you ask the question made me think about why I write the way I write. When I was when I was a little kid, I spent ages three to nine in California, zero to three in Pakistan and nine to 18. In Pakistan, but three to nine in California were in California. In the Bay Area, my dad is doing his PhD at Stanford. So
Traci Thomas 50:11
from Oakland and my in laws have both went to Stanford.
Mohsin Hamid 50:15
There you go. So small world. So we were, you know, I was I was in the Bay Area. And a funny thing happened. My my teachers called in my parents and said, Look, you know, there’s a problem with your son’s writing, you know, he can’t write and they would show these pages of legible scribbles. And, and they put me in this in this class briefly, which is, I guess, it kind of special education classes that were made clear to me what I was doing. But the room from what I remember, had these mirrored windows, where people from the outside couldn’t see who was inside. So you knew it was it was clearly not desirable to be in there. If they were hiding, you know, who was in it. And unfortunately, the teacher in there, said, Look, just do me a favor, just just block print, start writing in all caps. And he just said, You res fine, you know, you your spelling is really bad, your handwriting is atrocious, you get your letters mixed up quite a bit. But you know, it’s quite clear what you’re trying to say. So go back to class and tell them you don’t need to write in cursive script. And you don’t need to worry about your spelling, you’re just going to write in all caps. How you why you want to write. And so I went back and did that. And I sort of wrote that way for many, many, many years thereafter to college and grad school. And, and what happens is, if you write very slowly, and if you struggle with things like spelling and legibility, you have to figure out how to write carefully and thoughtfully. And so you ask the question about the word that I have difficulty spelling, it actually turns out that my difficulty spelling and my difficulty writing led me to a kind of writing style, where I would try to write less and express more. And so the fact that I’m a terrible speller has something to do with the fact that I’m a novelist today and that of all the kids in my elementary school class, the one who couldn’t write is the one who actually you know, is writing for a living now.
Traci Thomas 52:10
I love this story. It’s given me a bad speller. Hope for my future, though. I don’t plan to write anytime ever. But mostly, I need a word. At least one.
Mohsin Hamid 52:25
Ha, because traveling have two L’s or one l no clue.
Traci Thomas 52:29
I bet it has five. And the other trick is, of course, it
Mohsin Hamid 52:33
is British and American spelling. Oh, sure. Which is completely confusing to me. So you know, sometimes, yeah. Yeah, program. There are certain words where I look at in British spelling, I think this is this is this is too much program with a double me feels, you know, feels like you that seems a little a little too archaic. But on the other hand, you know, there are other words, like color, for example, where that use seems kind of interesting. For for Center, where they are coming after the east and sort of interesting.
Traci Thomas 53:11
Oh, yeah, like theater. The two theaters love that. For people who love the last white man. What books would you recommend to them that are maybe in conversation with what you’ve done?
Mohsin Hamid 53:23
Well, I mean, some of the books that have been most influential for me, when I was a kid in high school in Pakistan, I remember reading, no longer at ease, but you know, algebra. And a champion is a foundational writer, I think, for many of us, who come from the global south or spend time in the global south. But I remember reading him as a teenager, and things fall apart is perhaps the one that’s that’s more often read. But no longer is the story of a young man who goes off to study in Britain, comes back to Nigeria, and then has this idea of, of not doing things in the old, corrupt, you know, Nigerian way, and instead bringing this this new way of looking at things. And of course, things don’t go well, for the poor guy. There’s a wonderful, I guess, proverb, which is, which comes up in the novel, which is if you’re going to eat a frog, make sure it’s a big fat juicy one. And and so our hero falls, committed committing a very minor sin when he could have committed much bigger ones. But it really shook me that book, and I mentioned, you know, Toni Morrison, as a teacher, obviously, as a writer, she’s incredibly significant. I was once having lunch with her and she caught me reading jazz. Her novelist had just come out and she she signed it for me and then she said, Read Beloved. It’s good. And she said it in this way. Listening. But when he was he was when she would she spoke almost better than she wrote, or at least as good as she could have read the back of a cornflake box and you think this is like a Nobel address. And, and so, you know, of course, I did read it. And it was it was magnificent. Another writer, I guess two more who come to mind. Another one is James Baldwin, who I think was incredibly insightful, as an essayist. But also, you know, the first 100 pages of another country is probably just as, you know, as beautiful English language prose as ever been written by anyone. It’s near perfect. And, and the last person that I’ve mentioned is Edward, Sade, and Orientalism and incredibly important thinker. And, and I think, in a sense in a conversation with Baldwin, in many ways that boats sailed. And Baldwin would point out that there was a need to create this group, and to gaze upon a group, which wasn’t because of the nature of the group being gazed upon, but by the need to establish the group that was gazing. And, and I think that’s something which I certainly took with me into this book.
Traci Thomas 56:18
I love that. Okay. Last question, though. I don’t really want to let you go. But I will. If you could have one person dead or alive, read this book, who do you want it to be?
Mohsin Hamid 56:29
Who? Wow. That is very, very, very, very difficult. Three people jump to mind, and I’ll pick one. Okay, so three people I’d like to read it would be Jorge Luis Borges, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison. And I think I’ll go with Tony Morrison. Because after I was a student, I never met her again, in person, there were some times I was supposed to be an event or she was supposed to be an event, and we just never our paths never crossed. And I will be curious, you know, what she thinks I’d be slightly terrified to be very honest. You know, I still have the first draft of my first novel with a beautiful fountain pen written comments on the back. But it would be kind of coming full circle to say, you know, what do you think now? And, and? Yeah, I would, I would really love for that to happen.
Traci Thomas 57:29
You’re gonna make me cry. I’m feeling very emotional. Most and this was such a dream come true. I mentioned before you our first ever book club pick. And when I picked the book, and when we started the show, I never ever thought I would ever get to speak to you. Ever. So this is just, I’m emotional. But thank you so much for your time. Thank you for this book, the last white man, people as you’re listening, the book is now out in the world. You can get it wherever you get your books. It’s slim. It’s juicy. There’s no spelling errors that I could find. But you know, who knows who the maybe you’ll find why. Listen, thank you so much for being here.
Mohsin Hamid 58:06
Thank you, Traci. My pleasure.
Traci Thomas 58:08
Everyone else we will see you in the stacks. All right, y’all. That does it for us. Thank you so much for listening. And thank you to Mohsen again for being our guest. I’d also like to thank Lorie and Plata for helping make this interview possible. Don’t forget our book club pick for August is how to write an autobiographical novel by Alexander Chee, which we will discuss on August 31. With Ingrid Rojas Contreras. If you love the show, and want insight access to it, please head to patreon.com/the stacks to join the stacks back. Make sure you’re subscribed to the stacks wherever you listen to your podcasts. And if you’re listening through Apple podcasts or Spotify, be sure to leave us a rating and a review. For more from the stacks. Follow us on social media at the stacks pod on Instagram and at the stacks pod underscore on Twitter, and check out our website the stocks podcast.com This episode of the stacks was edited by Cristian Duenas with production assistance from Lauren Tyree. Our graphic designer is Robin McCreight. The Stacks is created and produced by me Traci Thomas.
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