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Life & Style

‘Tribalization of human beings’: Mohsin Hamid explores race, fractured societies at KLF

Published February 18, 2024
Novelist Mohsin Hamid in comversation with Claire Chambers at the 15th edition of Karachi Literature Festival. Photo: Business Recorder
Novelist Mohsin Hamid in comversation with Claire Chambers at the 15th edition of Karachi Literature Festival. Photo: Business Recorder

British-Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid was in attendance at the 15th iteration of the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) to speak about his fifth book, the oddly prescient ‘The Last White Man’, exploring themes of race, belonging and otherness, on Saturday.

Speaking with author and lecturer Claire Chambers about the increasing polarization in society, Hamid said he wanted to write a book challenging the notion of otherness. Notably, the book was published in 2022 and discussed at the festival within the framework of current conflicts and concerns globally.

“I thought I would like to put on the skin of a character, who feels that their whiteness is being lost, whose position in society has changed,” explained Hamid.

The premise of the book tells the story of the protagonist, Anders, who wakes up to discover that he has changed race, who then has to grapple with not being white anymore.

Hamid stated how historical and recent political and economic movements have been driven by the underlying notion of a superior or dominant group of people threatened or being diluted by another.

He cited former US president Donald Trump’s promise to ‘Make American Great Again’, Brexit’s anti-diversity premise of driving out Pakistanis and Nigerians among others, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalism and the current horrors being inflicted on Gaza by Israel as further reasons to explore the idea of otherness.

He also put forth the notion that the digital age has exacerbated the notion of “otherness” through “sorting”.

“The machine world by its very nature is very polarizing – you’re either black or white, Muslim or another,” stated Hamid.

“Sorting is increasingly hostile where it enables the tribalization of human beings, where we each become what the machine leads us to be,” he added. “We start coming apart as a society.”

In his book, he wanted to examine these themes by presenting a breakdown of this sorting mechanism, where things like race are impossible to categorize, thus prompting the reader to resist the overwhelming impulse to do so.

“Either we descend deeper and deeper into tribalization – such as what’s happening in Gaza, Ukraine, Lahore, India – or we manage to find a different way forward,” he said.

Speaking with Business Recorder on the sidelines of the festival, Hamid responded to a question about whether his novels were dystopian in nature.

“They’re dystopian but hopefully they’re able to convey a bit of optimism at the end of it,” he said.

“Even in ‘The Last White Man’, the world finds a way to move forward. It is dystopian but the attempt is to wander into what people’s worst fears but still find something positive at the other end of it.”

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Elsewhere on the grounds of the Beach Luxury Hotel, the political winds were not far from the public consciousness during this tenuous period following the elections.

At another session, journalist Zarrar Khuhro stated that if there was ever a plan hatched to destroy Pakistan, the current state of affairs would suffice.

The same session, however, ended on a positive note, with journalist Shahzeb Jillani stating that civil society was strengthening – demonstrated by the number of voters especially female voters that participated this year. Another sign was the media-savvy youth, who are demanding better from the governing class.

At a following session titled ‘Reforming Pakistan: A New Social Contract’, former finance minister Dr Miftah Ismail took the opportunity at KLF to firstly apologise for his outburst the previous year.

He went on to highlight how Pakistan cannot move forward – nor can any politics or politicians help it to – without adequately educating its citizens as Pakistan’s illiteracy rate sits at around 60%.

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All panelists agreed that the current status quo cannot sustain development in the long run as political satire, intrigue and exasperation inevitably crept into much of the conversation.

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