Writing whiteness, writing America

What happens when black and brown authors write about white people? Although novels by Chinelo Okparanta and Mohsin Hamid tread into this risky unknown, they do not go far enough.

Kingston Upon Hull, UK. Image credit Bernard Sharp under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

“I wanted to rise above the pettiness of my white self. I wanted the freedom of mind to embrace other people’s superiority over me. I wanted the grace to lend my support to those who outperformed me.” This is one of many cloying and faux self-flagellating moments that readers are privy to with Chinelo Okparanta’s white American protagonist, Harry. Similar hand-wringing takes place in Mohsin Hamid’s universe when another white American, Anders, wakes up changed into a man of a darker skin color: “he was not sure he was the same person, he had begun by feeling that under the surface it was still him, who else could it be, but it was not that simple, and the way people act around you, it changes what you are, who you are…” It is quite peculiar that these grumbling, self-indulgent white guys have captured the imagination of two writers of color with immigrant backgrounds. With Harry Sylvester Bird and The Last White Man, Nigerian-American Okparanta and Pakistani-American Hamid, respectively, have undertaken a fascinating experiment: writing white interiority.

Okparanta tells the story of a decade in the life of Harry from small-town Pennsylvania. The first half is marked by Harry’s trauma from having blatantly racist parents, which leads him to believe that he’s not only a misfit but might be a Black man trapped inside a white body. The second half of Harry’s story takes place in New York where an interracial relationship with a Nigerian woman tests Harry’s sense of self and place in the world. Hamid’s fable-like novel follows a man and woman, Anders and Oona, coming to terms with a rapidly changing world where, slowly, white people are turning darker.

Writing a white consciousness and crafting white interiority is not necessarily new nor should it be a big deal, and in the ideal world, creative writers should be allowed to write from any perspective (white, brown, Black, male, female, queer, trans). But sadly, the stakes for representation today are terribly fraught. The debates about who gets to represent whom in fiction or film are charged, cacophonous, and angry; the wound arising from centuries of misrepresentation, extraction, exploitation and appropriation has not healed. And the little bits and pieces of diversity handed out these days often feel like too little, too late. Harry Sylvester Bird and The Last White Man seem to be testing what might happen if the representation question is turned on its head. Perhaps this is motivated by a playful, vengeful desire to “appropriate” the voice and culture of white, Western people in the same way that white and Western literature has, for long, done to other cultures. Perhaps, the writers are earnestly asking why can’t we all just get along, and that these are saintly missions to carve a path so our gargantuan identity quarrels can fall away.

By diving headlong into this “unsafe” American space, Okparanta and Hamid reveal their desire to engage with the so-called “other” within a novelistic universe that feels decidedly Trumpian. As we hurtle into a continually complicating and belligerent era of debates on race, slavery and colonialism, the two writers who have thus far written from Black, brown, Muslim and migrant perspectives are launching an inquiry into a specifically liberal white consciousness. Okparanta and Hamid’s protagonists are not like the white supremacists from James Baldwin’s story, “Going to Meet the Man,” or the heiress in Kaitlyn Greenidge, We Love You, Charlie Freeman. Nor are they characters in a romance or thriller, who tend to get evaluated very differently. Rather, these characters belong to a generation of white Americans whose parents are behind the times with crude and backward views on race and migration, whereas Harry, Anders and Oona are the new generation of tolerant, broad-minded, liberal types who do not wish to be implicated in the right-wing politics sweeping their towns.

Both novels are set in ubiquitous small towns where winds of change seem to be blowing backwards. Predominantly white and working class, these are places where racist and xenophobic social interactions fester. In Okparanta’s Pennsylvania, young Harry observes in horror as the Purists (thinly veiled MAGA types) slowly ascend to power. Hamid’s unnamed town is edging towards dereliction and apocalypse as race riots worsen daily, businesses remain shuttered and pale-skinned militants roam the streets in search of dark people. The reader encounters these places through the eyes, bodies, minds, and psyches of Harry, Anders and Oona who come off as even-keeled, unthreatening, and sober in a world gone awry. They could even be seen as allies on the side of anti-racism and social justice.

The two novels are quite different from one another in terms of the genres and writing styles. Okparanta’s novel, set in Edward and Centralia in Pennsylvania, and later in New York City, is billed as satire and is realistic except when it subtly tips towards speculative fiction. For example, there is the Dignity App which ensures that phone users exercise restraint when the urge to incessantly call or text someone takes over, leading to shame, indignity, and regret. There is also the ten-year span of the book starting in 2016 and ending up in 2026 without drawing attention to the fact that we are in the future.

Shocking, humorous and cringe-inducing all at once, Okparanta shows her forte as a biting satirist when she takes aim at white guilt. Oddball protagonist Harry has thus far grown up with racist parents whom he despises. With his move to New York City comes the clear recognition that he isn’t merely indignant about racism: perhaps he’s a Black man trapped inside a white body. Harry ends up with a group called Transracial-Anon who organize DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) workshops for “self-acceptance” and where a sign reads, “No more guilt.” “My body,” Harry confesses, “…doesn’t match who I see in my mind.” Participants at these meetings stand in front of a mirror and learn to express shame, repulsion, guilt, fear, and self-hatred about being white and, of course, to rebuild themselves anew as non-white.

The actual mirror is soon replaced by a symbolic mirror with the entry of Harry’s love interest Maryam, a Nigerian student who is attending university in New York. Flesh and blood Black to Harry’s low hum of anxiety about whiteness, Maryam’s lived realities of racism are soon unmanageable for Harry’s righteous allyship and self-perceived Blackness. Their romantic relationship starts to slowly tear at the seams but entirely unravels on a study abroad trip to Ghana. Alas, it is not because Harry turns out to be a racist but because he is a half-baked anti-racist and a semi-woke liberal who narcissistically privileges his own agonizing about race over that of his lover’s actual struggles.

By contrast, The Last White Man’s universe is dystopian; there is no humor or satire here, and the genre is decidedly speculative fiction, with stylistic plot and fantastical elements carried over from Hamid’s previous work, Exit West. Yet again, everything is in disarray as civil war erupts. We encounter Anders and Oona whose universe is melancholic, absurdist, and hermetically sealed. Hamid’s fondness for symbolic names continues and the biblical evocation is on the nose as he draws from various North European languages to name his protagonists Anders which can simply mean “man” and Oona which can be “one” or “una.”

The Last White Man is also a story of race transformation: one day, white gym trainer Anders wakes up dark-skinned, his body and facial features altered. Distressed and disoriented at his transformation, he confides in his on-and-off romantic interest, yoga teacher Oona. With Anders now darker, Oona’s interest in him is heightened. Hamid beckons the reader to indulge in voyeuristic pleasure as their fit and youthful inter-racial bodies come together: “pale-skinned Oona watching herself performing her grind with a dark-skinned stranger, Anders the stranger watching the same, and the performance was strong for them, visceral …” This early scene in the novel plays out the exoticism associated with darkness, but over the course of the story, Hamid emphasizes the point that Anders (and later Oona) might change their skin color but their transformation will only remain epidermal. Their dark skin will never imbue them with the consciousness of a person of color nor will their experience as dark-skinned people fundamentally alter their understanding of race in society. The Last White Man is not written in first person like Harry Sylvester Bird but with both novels, we learn quickly that we will always remain inside a strategically crafted white consciousness.

Hamid’s Anders and Oona and Okparanta’s Harry appear to be a ruse, albeit a hyperbolic one, to expose white liberalism through these characters’ feelings, internal struggles, political leanings, and social interactions. Harry’s hypocrisy and fragility makes him hard to like: as a teenager, he cuts a sympathetic figure, but adult Harry is unable to provide Maryam, the woman he claims to love, with the kind of protection from a cruel outside world and the thoughtful, considerate intimacy that inter-racial relationships demand. Instead, Harry whines about racism, right-wingers and social justice, and appears to observe race dynamics keenly. Yet there is no reckoning; his relationship with a compassionate, patient and generous Black Nigerian woman does not attune him to race and racism, nor does he ever learn basic empathy.

Anders and Oona are likewise intellectually and politically stunted. They are bland and middle-of-the-road, lacking any spark or exceptional traits. Anders wrangling with his new skin color reveals how little he knows about the larger social world and he processes his transformation without much analysis, alternating between anger, confusion, helplessness, and disappointment:

When Anders got back in his car it occurred to him that the three people he had seen were all white, and that he was perhaps being paranoid, inventing meaning out of details that might not matter, and at a traffic light he confronted his gaze in the rearview mirror, looked for the whiteness there, for it must be somewhere, maybe in his expression, but he could not see it, and the more he looked the less white he seemed, as though looking for his whiteness was the opposite of whiteness, was driving it further away, making him seem desperate, or uncertain, or like he did not belong, he who had been born here, damn it, and then he heard the loud continuous horn of the car to his rear, and he started to move past a signal that had some seconds ago turned green, and the woman behind him swerved to overtake, and rolled down her window, and cursed him, furious, cursed good and hard and sped off, and he did nothing, nothing, not shout back, not smile to disarm her, nothing, like he was mentally deficient, and she was pretty, really pretty, or had been before she shouted, and when he got home he wondered how he would have reacted, how he could have reacted, if there had only been some way for her to know he was white, or for him to know it, because suddenly, and there was no hiding from the full weight of this, he did not.

Hamid is the master of inner monologue, laid out in sentences that are sometimes as long as a page. Thoughts, observations, feelings and opinions rush out of characters and the commas can barely contain the wave-like torrent of words. Such passages, of which there are plenty in The Last White Man, produce a particular effect—poor, lost Anders, we observe. We feel a vague sympathy because we know that he has been deprived of his essence, an essence that gave him confidence, privilege and currency to move about in the world. But we also feel revulsion for a man who has simply no awareness about how crude his desire to remain white really is. Being dark has no impact on his awareness of how Black and brown people experience the world, nor does it generate any empathy. Okparanta and Hamid’s white characters first elicit sympathy and eventually judgment and irritation from readers for their inability to learn compassion and to alter their political and personal understandings of race despite race transformation in Anders and interracial intimacy for Harry.

Further uniting these two books is the fact Harry Sylvester Bird and The Last White Man have been reviewed widely, and, in some instances, panned for their attempts to craft a narrative about race politics in the US. But their critics fail to understand that Okparanta and Hamid’s perspective on race and racism are shaped by their experience of migration and this generates a different lexicon of identity. Pigeonholing the books as being only about race in America means ignoring the sensibility of the international, migrant writer to which both Okparanta and Hamid belong. In addition to race, these novels are also about the alienation, isolation, and a sort of constant misunderstood-ness that accompanies journeys of uprooting, displacement, and adapting to new worlds.

Migration struggles are represented quite beautifully by Okparanta as Maryam navigates New York: her awful gig jobs, phone calls to her mother in Nigeria, her instincts and her reflexes in certain situations that feel foreign to Americans, and her overarching visa precarity. The fact that she has not grown up in the US is also the key to unlocking why someone as smart, capable, and attractive as her might be interested in white American Harry. In addition to mutual physical attraction, we come to understand that she and Harry are similar in their introversion and awkwardness in social spaces, and also share the bond of feeling ashamed of their parents. Maryam’s ordeal with American racism starts right away but the tensions with Harry are, in fact, propelled by his preposterous comments about Africa. The novel, after all, opens in Tanzania’s Serengeti national park where young Harry and his parents go on safari, and this trip gives Harry all the confidence in the world to insist he understands everything about Maryam. I like imagining Okparanta brandishing a sword to the multitudes of white Americans who must make ghastly safari and Africa comments to her because of her background.

Hamid was catapulted to literary fame after the publication of The Reluctant Fundamentalist which told the story of an obedient, good, Muslim immigrant whose life trajectory goes awry after the events of 9/11 turn him into public enemy No.1. Hamid’s symbolism-heavy, bare bones plots written in minimalist prose often devastate because they are singularly focused on no more than two individuals and are piercing exposés of outcasts in a hostile world, not unlike the experience of most migrants. Once Anders stops being white, he is pushed into complicity with other people who look like him, he is forced into confronting the “other.” To me, this is Hamid transposing the consciousness of a migrant into Anders, and while this is indeed a story about race, migration is the novel’s fil rouge.

So what exactly are Okparanta and Hamid trying to achieve by writing white interiority? I spoke with Okparanta and she explained that this was a literary experiment for her; one that involved asserting her power to “appropriate” whiteness much the same way that white, Western writers have done with other races and cultures. Okparanta cites Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, Chris Cleave’s Little Bee and Jeanine Cummin’s American Dirt as books that unabashedly enter minds, bodies, and cultural milieus that are not their own. More importantly, they don’t get it right, yet they are rewarded and applauded for these misrepresentations. Okparanta is honest about the trepidation she felt entering the mind of a white male and decided to lean on satire. However, the novel’s best moments are when she forgoes the satirical and opts to explore Harry’s frailties and traumas marked as he is by his parents racism which Okparanta argues is a form of child abuse.

While Okparanta is flirting with an experimental vengeance by writing back at the long history of literary and cultural appropriation, Hamid appears to be aiming for a spiritual parable, one that “involves breaking down borders.” Reading a novel, Hamid explains, means containing “somebody else’s consciousness within you” and this “blurs the distinction between people” and breaks down the fear of the “other.” In the same interview, Hamid speaks of wanting to subvert the “current impulse towards purity, towards identifying the ‘true people’ of different countries or religions” which has become “threatening to us all.” Anders and Oona who are also children of racist parents living in a racist town are meant to forge new futures over time. But for this future to materialize, they have to become the very people they have never known, perhaps have secretly feared. Framing the novel as a parable also shows the extent to which the racial transformation theme is also an allegory for the pandemic. The darkening of the white people is depicted as a contagion; the way it spreads, the befuddlement around what causes it, the hope for possible cures, and the novel’s overall atmosphere of lockdown inside as confusion and upheaval unfolds outside. It also reminds us of the comment that was often heard during the uprisings in the wake of the murder of George Floyd: the other pandemic is racism.

Okparanta and Hamid left their comfort zones by moving away from writing to, from and about their own racialized and cultural identities. In a literary world where publishers, MFA programs, workshops, editors and reviewers place a premium on writing from the place you know, this is a risky move, but one that might be urgently needed to loosen up the jammed debates on representation and identity. Unfortunately, Okparanta and Hamid seem to be holding back and lean far too much on elements of speculative and fantastical fiction. Okparanta’s self-confessed trepidation gets in the way of her composing a straight-up, realistic narrative and taking ownership over her pointed attack on white, liberal Americans whose allyship she wishes to reject. Every time we think we may understand Harry, we are pulled into the comedic and satirical, thus destabilizing a much-needed critique of liberal, white men. Like with Harry, we remain distant from Hamid’s Anders and Oona. If the  rather mythical man and mythical woman are indeed going to turn dark and usher in a new, post-white era, we had better like and trust them more.

The novels tread into a risky unknown but they do not go far enough. As it so happens in both books, characters draw guns but they are never fired.

Further Reading