Writers & Company

Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid on trauma after 9/11, migration and belonging

The acclaimed author spoke to Eleanor Wachtel about his latest novel, The Last White Man, and previous celebrated works such as Exit West and The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
Mohsin Hamid is a Pakistani novelist. (Jillian Edelstein)

On the 21st anniversary of the Sept. 11, Writers & Company features a conversation with Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid, whose work explores themes of identity, anxiety and dislocation in the post-9/11 world. 

A black and pink illustrated book cover featuring a silhouetted man looking at the crescent moon while sitting in the pupil of a blue eye.

Written in the aftermath of 9/11, Hamid's 2007 novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, established him as one of his generation's most inventive and gifted writers. Elegant and compelling, it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and later turned into a film starring Riz Ahmed and Liev Schreiber.

Hamid's 2017 novel, Exit West, was another critical and popular success. A moving story about global migration in a world of war and instability, it's being adapted for Netflix by the Obamas' production company.

In Hamid's new novel, The Last White Man, the central character wakes up to discover that his skin has turned "a deep and undeniable brown." The book has been praised as "an extraordinary vision of human possibility" by playwright Ayad Akhtar.

Mohsin Hamid spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from Lahore, Pakistan.

The post-9/11 world

"Changez, the main character in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is doing very well in America. He's arrived from Pakistan to go to university there. He gets a high-paying job. He finds a girlfriend. And he's loving life in New York City. After September 11, 2001 and the terrorist attacks, he begins to question whether he should be there — whether he is on the right side. 

"I'd lived more than half my life in the United States when the attacks of September 11th happened. I was really very divided in terms of where I should be and what I should feel and how I should make sense of this.

"But perhaps the biggest difference between the character of Changez and myself is that he feels he really has to choose — he has to pick a side.

"And I think in my own life, I have increasingly leaned toward the notion that one can be multiple things — that you can be a kind of mongrel, a hybrid. You can have elements of both. You don't necessarily need to pick one or the other."

Profound shift

"After September 11th, there was just this kind of shock as to why people were suspicious of me. And of course, I knew why they were suspicious of me. But it still felt strange to go to the airport that I had been to many times before and suddenly be pulled out of the line to be searched. 

"I didn't know exactly what I'd lost. And it struck me that what I had lost was, in a sense, my 'whiteness' — my partial whiteness as somebody with brown skin and a Muslim name. I was obviously not white, but having gone to particular kinds of elite universities and having a well-paying job in New York, in many ways, I partook of the benefits of whiteness.

"I think having that taken from me was jarring initially. And I desired to get it back — to restore what had come before. But later, I had more profound questions about what I had been participating in. And this series of questions working their way through, in a sense, led eventually to The Last White Man and to this idea of somebody having their race 'erased,' and grappling with the consequences of that and where that might lead them." 

The nature of migration

"I think that migration has long been a safety valve for our species, like as is for any species. If an animal like a polar bear finds that it's getting too warm, they'll try to go to a place that's colder. If a bird finds that there's a lack of food, it will fly to a place where there's more food.

At the end of the day, people will seek out places where they are safe, where they can imagine a better future for their children and for themselves.

"And people, at the end of the day, will seek out places where they are safe, where they can sustain themselves, where they can imagine a better future for their children and for themselves. So I think that the impulse to migrate Is natural.

"I think at the moment, there's such a profound demonization of the migrant — someone unworthy who is somehow beneath us and also threatening to us. We would be well-served by examining the basis on which we make those sorts of claims."

Questioning identity

"I think that our notion of reality is in fact at least partially a fiction. What we think of as real is not in fact real. 

"When we think about who we are, we imagine the story that we tell about ourselves: 'This is who I am, this is how I live,  and the kind of person I am.' This is only a very partial representation of what we actually are. 

"The culture around us, which is built upon these things — upon the self and upon the world — is equally, in a way, fictitious. And so we experience that collectively." 

Trying not to be seen

"So Anders goes into the world with this very strange feeling. He feels he is still Anders and he wants to be seen as Anders. He doesn't want to be seen as somebody else. He is both trying to not be seen in this new way — and also trying not to see other people seeing him in this new way.

He is both trying to not be seen in this new way — and also trying not to see other people seeing him in this new way.

"So there's a degree of trying to conceal himself that he begins to slip into, all without thinking about it. He's covering his skin and wearing long sleeves and a hoodie and doing all sorts of stuff that would, in a sense, make him less visible. But he is also averting his gaze from moments of interaction where he sees people seeing him in this new way. He's trying to not experience that. And it's challenging for him."

An optimistic outlook

"It is absolutely the case that I've tried in both Exit West and The Last White Man to embed a sense of optimism, particularly toward the end of these books. I think that's important, not because the reader will necessarily feel optimistic. But for me, it's very important to put that in there — to offer the possibility of optimism. 

"I think it's very important to open up a kind of critical space of optimism to say, 'Look, things aren't necessarily going to work out for the best, but there are ways in which we could imagine them getting better — let's explore those.'

Let's begin to put these imagined optimistic gestures into the world and see if people's imagination can spin their own tales and begin to conceive of a future that is both more open and also desirable.

"Let's begin to put these imagined optimistic gestures into the world and see if people's imagination can spin their own tales and begin to conceive of a future that is both more open and also desirable."

Mohsin Hamid's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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