Between-States: Conversations About Bardo and Life
In Tibetan Buddhism, “bardo” is a between-state. The passage from death to rebirth is a bardo, as well as the journey from birth to death. The conversations in “Between-States” explore bardo concepts like acceptance, interconnectedness, and impermanence in relation to children and parents, marriage and friendship, and work and creativity, illuminating the possibilities for discovering new ways of seeing and finding lasting happiness as we travel through life.
In Mohsin Hamid’s new novel, The Last White Man, a white man named Anders wakes up one morning “to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown.” He struggles to come to terms with his new identity as, all around him, white people start waking up with dark skin and violence explodes. The novel is an exploration of race and social justice, as well as a moving meditation on how we face change—from the end of a way of life, to the death of people we love, to our own mortality. “The impulse to deny when change comes is natural,” says Hamid. “It isn’t wrong in the sense that the change can be quite overwhelming, but it’s an impulse that’s worth interrogating because I’m not sure it serves us particularly well.” Disturbing, thought-provoking, and ultimately uplifting, The Last White Man is about how accepting endings can make way for new beginnings.
Born in Lahore, Pakistan, Hamid attended Princeton University and Harvard Law School. He began his first novel, Moth Smoke (2000), at Princeton in a creative writing class taught by Toni Morrison. Three more novels followed: The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013), and Exit West (2017). He has also published an essay collection, Discontent and Its Civilizations (2014). Hamid’s books have received much acclaim, including being shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Man Booker Prize, and adapted for film and television.
From his home in Lahore, Hamid spoke with me over Zoom about letting go of old selves, not falling prey to nostalgic politics, and how storytelling can help us find meaning in an impermanent world.
Bardo is about the death of an old way of being. In The Last White Man, Anders wakes up brown, and, in a similar way, you were catapulted into a different life after 9/11. What was that like for you? In my personal life there have been a number of moments of sudden transition. In 1974, at the age of 3, I moved from Pakistan to California because my father was doing his PhD at Stanford. When I was 9, we moved back to Pakistan. Then, at 18, I returned to America to attend Princeton. I went to law school at Harvard, got a consulting job in New York City to pay off my loans, and was transferred to London in July of 2001. Then the September 11th terrorist attacks happened. I was a brown-skinned guy with a Muslim name, but in the 1990s, if you lived in certain cosmopolitan cities, and you had a reasonably high income and had gone to elite universities, you weren’t exempt from discrimination but at least reasonably unbothered by it most of the time. Yet suddenly I was being viewed with suspicion. I was being pulled out of the line at the airport and kept at immigration for five hours, people changed seats when I got on the bus, and I thought, “This is so weird, I’m still me.” I hadn’t changed, but people were reading onto me an entire ethno-religious, racial belief system.
The bardo teachings say that when we die, it can take up to four days for us to admit we’re dead. Anders initially clings to the hope that a return to his old life as a white man is possible. After 9/11, was there a period where you wanted to go back to the life you’d known? At first, I kept hoping for things to return to normal. It’s like what you’re saying about it taking up to four days to accept that one has died, or that one has changed states. I think there’s something to that. There’s a spiritual kind of Wile E. Coyote phenomenon, where you’ve walked off the edge of the cliff and you think you’re floating there, but you’re really plummeting to the bottom of the valley.
After a while, I began to ask myself if the normal I wanted to return to was such a desirable situation. Should I instead scrutinize more closely how things are and the degree to which I myself have been complicit? This gave birth to The Reluctant Fundamentalist, my novel about a character who works in New York City around 9/11, went to Princeton, and feels he has to make a choice. Should he be Pakistani, should he be American, should he connect with Islamic sensibilities?
But even after that novel, something lingered, related to how race works and how we imagine it onto each other, particularly with the rise of so many ethno-purist or ethno-nationalist ideologies. Not just in the United States, where there’s Trump’s Make America Great Again alliance with white nationalism, but the Brexit movement in the UK and Erdogan’s Turkishness and Putin’s Russianness and the resurgence of the Taliban. It’s happening in way too many places to be a coincidence. That’s why I decided to write a novel about a man who wakes up dark, to look at the feeling of loss, this tendency to desire purity, while at the same time to engage in an imaginative transgression, to go outside my position and imagine somebody else’s.
What’s our relationship to loss, and how do you explore this in The Last White Man? Dealing with loss is something that we are as a human society utterly failing to do well. One reason is that when you have a capitalist paradigm, and in that paradigm the idea is that everybody is motivated by self-interest—and if we behave according to our self-interest, we’re performing our economic and our societal function—collectively this will create some degree of greater good. Now, the danger is that when you reinforce this self to such an extreme degree, you leave yourself vulnerable to the human predicament, which is that the self ends, that we are temporal. Whether or not you believe in the idea of a soul, certainly this particular container, and what we conceive of as our life, comes to an end. That presents us with a kind of horror: After all this cultural focus on the self, how do we grapple with the fact that the self ends?
We’re left incredibly vulnerable, especially because many of the traditional means by which we’ve confronted this situation have eroded. When my uncle was being buried, I stood in his grave and received his white-shrouded body; I remember the smell of the dust and the sense of somebody being lowered to my hands. Rituals like this that continually remind us of our temporality are withering away, and religion itself is being repurposed increasingly into a kind of tribal flag that we use to signify allegiance to a group. As religion takes on a political role, there’s less space within it to provide guidance on things like our eventual end.
So we’re confronting a complete tragedy and breakdown in humanity’s capacity to accept loss. At the same time, we’re encountering a more rapidly changing world. In Pakistan today there’s unprecedented rainfall. I just spoke to my eighty-five-year-old grand-uncle and he’s never seen anything like it—sixteen inches of rain falling in four hours in an arid part of the country. Whether it’s how the planet is responding to colossal changes that we’ve imposed upon it, or technological shift as we experience it with social media and our jobs, we’re living in a world of dramatic and accelerated change. We’re unmoored in a time of unbelievably strong currents, and as a result, we see the rise of a nostalgic politics, and that politics says: Let’s go back to how things were. This politics is occurring everywhere, on the back of the self-centricity of our current economy and the weakening of our cultural modes of dealing with change and mortality. The Last White Man is really about that. How does one cope with loss? What can be gained from loss? The novel is a bit like a eulogy. It’s a story of the ending of something. But it also suggests that every ending is a beginning, and by focusing with so much fear on the endings that we face, we’re perhaps missing an openness to the idea that there could be some beginnings, and they might be worth exploring.
In bardo, we can move on only by accepting that something has ended. Because Anders and his partner, Oona, are experiencing impermanence but not giving in to fear and denial, they can more easily make their way forward. Well, that’s right. Anders has lost his mother, and his father is deathly ill. Oona lost her father when she was younger and loses her brother just before the novel begins. They’re grappling with the loss of people very close to them, at the same time that they’re losing their whiteness and becoming dark. In their refusal not to see and not to feel, each makes it possible for the other to refuse not to see and not to feel. It becomes not just a bond but a bridge, not just between them, but between where they are now and where they might go. They can better approach the future in the company of someone who shares this bond.
Anders and Oona find meaning in the face of what can seem like meaninglessness since everything changes and everything ends. And we see something similar with Anders’s father, who finds meaning as his death nears—can you talk a bit about this? One of the traditions I turn to as a cultural and literary touchstone is the Sufi tradition, within Islam. In Sufi literature is the idea of love, and what love allows. One of the most famous examples is the moth circling the candle flame, where the moth is drawn to the beloved, which is the flame, and recognizes that to consummate this love is to lose oneself. A cessation of the self occurs as one approaches the beloved, a transcendence of the self instead of a reinforcing of the self.
In the novel, I wanted to explore a love story like this between Anders and his father. Anders’s father is trying to approach his death as an act of giving to his son: My son is lost. He’s had so much difficulty in life. How can I give my son something in this moment? His father decides what he can give Anders is a sense that it’s possible to die well, and a sense of courage and dignity from that.
How does storytelling relate to finding meaning and value in our lives? I imagine there are two main strands to storytelling. One is that the future is based to a significant degree on the stories we choose to believe in. Stories have a magnetic power that shifts the needle of where we’re heading. Some of my novels, particularly Exit West and The Last White Man, have been about exploring the end of things, various kinds of apocalypse. In The Last White Man, it’s a world where we’re increasingly defaulting into exclusionary groups that believe in their own purity. But what if it became impossible for us to distinguish each other by race? How can we reopen an imaginative space of optimism? Looking for a plausible, optimistic future is important because pessimism is reinforcing of a reactionary, nostalgic, political trend. So storytelling is important at the level of how, as individuals and as societies, we head to where we want to go.
Then the second strand comes in. Written fiction is important because, unlike when you watch television or a film and encounter a world that looks like the world we inhabit—people look like people, birds look like birds—a reader of a novel isn’t a viewer. The reader sees a white field with black letters, punctuation marks and spaces, and creates out of that people and emotions and images, feelings and sounds and sights. The reader is engaged in a profoundly creative act. I don’t think novelists actually write novels. They write half-novels that are prompts that readers then animate into what they experience as the novel, and which is unique to each reader-writer pairing.
Written fiction allows readers to create imaginary domains in a way that, in most of life, we don’t get the chance to do. And it allows them to experience their own act of imagining, and what it reveals about themselves in a place free from the gaze and judgment of others. When you read a novel like The Last White Man, you’re imagining into existence these characters and this world because much of the novel isn’t there. How should you feel about these people? Where is this set? What’s happening in the neighboring countries? How bad is this? You imagine these characters, imagine this situation, and hopefully become aware of your own imagining. And then you reckon with questions like: How does that make you feel? What does it show you about how you imagine things, since we do imagine race into existence? Can you be more volitional in your imagining afterwards?
Bardo means “between-state.” In your writing, you explore what it means to be in-between—literally, psychologically, and emotionally. You’ve moved around a lot, and now divide your time between Lahore and New York. Do you feel like you’re “in-between” or in the center? Or both? In my more, shall we say, contented moments, I feel more like both, that I encompass more than one place and more than one sense of belonging. In my more despairing moments, I think that I’m alone, and that I don’t belong to anything. The two feed off each other, because when I feel despairing, I sometimes remember that many people must feel like this and, weirdly enough, being alone is a connection to other people who feel alone, who feel just as much a sense of: Where did I come from? Where am I going? What is this all about?
Being of two places is a connection to everybody because we’re born of two parents, and we all have a younger time and an older time. And regardless of whether we move geographically, we’re all constantly migrating from one second to the next, one year to the next, one page to the next.