Delusions of Whiteness

In Rumaan Alam’s new thriller, a white family staying at a Hamptons Airbnb is startled when the Black owners knock on the door.

Photo: Justin French
Photo: Justin French

A little more than two years ago, the novelist and critic Rumaan Alam landed a job as the editor of special projects at The New York Times Book Review. It was a dream job — of course it was — and he pictured himself working at that hallowed institution for the rest of his career. But a few months into his tenure, he began to feel he was failing. Was he just not good enough to make it work? A troubling thought crept into his mind, one that had dogged him throughout his years working at prestigious New York media institutions: What if the Times had hired him not because it valued his mind but because it wanted to prove it cared about diversity? He was so disturbed by this possibility that he quit the job before the year was out.

This thought had haunted his life as a novelist as well. For as long as he had been a writer, Alam imagined that certain people, including editors and publishers, expected him to write about people he outwardly resembled. They didn’t say it outright, but he sometimes felt their faces or tones betrayed that they found him interesting less because of anything he said or wrote than because of where his parents happened to be from. This perception had partly shaped his first two novels, which he’d written from the perspectives of wealthy white women, a choice that felt to him like a quiet act of rebellion. The winter he left the Times, he secluded himself from his family in Brooklyn hotel rooms and poured his existential dread into his writing.

The resulting book, Leave the World Behind, is poised to be one of the biggest titles of the fall. Netflix has already snapped it up after a heated bidding war, with Sam Esmail directing and Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington set to star. An unsettling and seductive literary thriller, it begins with an upper-middle-class white family vacationing at a luxurious Airbnb in the Hamptons. In the middle of the night, a wealthy Black couple show up, declare that they are the homeowners, and bring news of a mysterious apocalyptic event. When they ask to be let in, the uncomfortable prejudices lurking beneath the guests’ nice white liberal façade rise to the surface. “This didn’t seem to her like the sort of house where black people lived,” Alam writes of Amanda, the white woman; immediately after, she wonders what she meant by that.

As in his earlier books, Alam displays a gift for writing about wealthy white people, capturing white women in particular with cutting precision. “My work is autobiographical,” he told me the other day over vodkas-on-ice in his Brooklyn backyard. “But no one can see it.”

The details of Alam’s life, both large and small, are hidden throughout his novels. Like the protagonist of his second book, That Kind of Mother, he grew up in an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C., “which is like growing up nowhere,” he says. His parents moved there from Bangladesh in the ’70s in pursuit of higher education and a stable life. His mother became a doctor, his father an architect, and together they built an upper-middle-class life for their children. Alam says he had no sense that he was different from his classmates at school, who were nearly all white. “My parents really valued assimilation,” Alam tells me. “They were leaving a political system that had failed, and there was no desire on the part of either of my parents to look back with any rose-colored perspective. We were there to be American. They were extremely clear about that.” The second of four children, Alam recalls a childhood devoid of any remnants of his heritage. They went to the country club, ate tuna casserole and Kix cereal, didn’t go to a mosque, and had few South Asian friends. “I was raised like any other white kid in any other nice house in any other fancy American suburb,” he says.

An obsessive reader, he exhausted the children’s branch of the local library when he was 9 or 10 and moved on to adult material — Agatha Christie, Robert Ludlum, and Tom Clancy. He already knew he wanted to be a writer. His formative years were spent trying to emulate works by white authors because that was what he understood literature to be. At Oberlin, where he studied creative writing, he began work on a novel about a rich white woman studying at a midwestern liberal-arts college. In 1997, after his sophomore year, The New Yorker published a special fiction issue dedicated to Indian writers. “This had a huge effect on me,” Alam says. The effect wasn’t, as some might imagine, a widening of possibility, a blueprint for how he might approach his own career. “It underscored the way in which an Establishment that judges what fiction is will always append that modifier,” he says: Indian fiction. As a child of high-achieving immigrants growing up in Reagan’s America, Alam did not want to be niche. “I wanted to succeed at a game I didn’t devise but whose rules I was able to read and internalize.”

Not until he’d graduated from Oberlin, moved to New York City, and begun working at Condé Nast did he become fully aware of his race and how it marked him as different from his white peers. He started there in 2000 as an assistant to the editor of the now-defunct Lucky magazine and continued to work for the company on and off, floating from role to role, for the next eight years. “There was this delusion,” Alam said, that persisted through his young adulthood “that shattered in my actual adulthood.” He recalls one upsetting experience in his mid-20s, when his boss invited him to a birthday party at her townhouse in Carroll Gardens. As he nursed a cocktail, he indulged in an intoxicating thought, one any young professional in New York might find familiar: “I’m a young nobody, but I’m here in this beautiful mansion and I work at this magazine and I feel like I belong here,” Alam recalls. The fantasy was punctured when he ran into his boss’s mother, whom he’d met many times. In that moment, however, she mistook him for her driver. “I felt like I belonged there, but of course I didn’t,” he says, “and I just needed to be reminded of that to see it completely differently.”

We’re sitting at a wrought-iron table in the backyard garden of his house in Prospect–Lefferts Gardens, the vodka-and-ice easing the weight of the sun bearing down on us. Charming and self-deprecating, Alam leans back beneath the shade of the umbrella, his chambray shirt unbuttoned at the neck, the sleeves rolled up to reveal the dark outline of a Bengal-tiger tattoo. His novelist friends describe him as the platonic ideal of the literary man-about-town, the sort of person you’d want to linger with in the corner at a party, listening to his witty observations about the other guests. When I mention this to him, he laughs. “I am such a deeply underconfident person,” he says, “but I am an excellent performer.”

On the way to the yard, he whisked me through his home, which has been featured regularly on design websites, past a stylish blur of saturated colors and overlapping patterns lined with eclectic art: a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. found on eBay, a pitcher with a silhouette by Kara Walker. Alam has lived here with his husband, the photographer David Land, and their two adopted sons for about a decade. Land is white, and their boys are Black, and sometimes when Alam speaks about his family, he seems to be addressing an imaginary white suburbanite, the sort who might look at his family and think it strange. “It’s a conventional family in many ways,” he says. “We live in a suburban part of New York and have a minivan. It’s not as much of a stretch as it may seem to some people.”

“My children will be home at any minute,” he warns cheerfully, pouring us each another drink, and then they are there, rushing out into the backyard, zeroing in on a cheese and charcuterie plate Alam has assembled. “I’m just going to do numerous awesome jumps,” proclaims his younger son, Xavier, climbing up onto the raised trampoline. “How are you still talking?” asked his eldest, Simon, reaching for another square of cheese, incredulous. “Having kids was liberation,” Alam says. “I never published a novel before I had a child. My kids don’t give a fuck about what I do, and I think it’s very important to me to have someone in my life who does not give a fuck about what I do.”

After more than 15 years of trying to finish his first novel, at 37, Alam finally knocked off a first draft in three months. He’d already spent years working in magazines and advertising and women’s fashion, feeling unsatisfied with his career. That book, Rich and Pretty, followed the arc of a friendship between two women living in New York who were likewise vaguely dissatisfied with their jobs. Julie Barer, the agent he submitted the manuscript to, found it clever and absorbing, especially for the way it shined a light on the domestic moments of women’s lives. “It was so spot-on,” she told him, “I would have paid money that it was written by a woman.”

That Kind of Mother — the story of an affluent white poet, Rebecca, who adopts a Black child — hews even closer to Alam’s life. While his first book touches on race obliquely, his second uses the conventions of a domestic novel to explore the protagonist’s racial blind spots and self-absorption. The book was well received, but some seemed bewildered by Alam’s identity. “Are you actually a woman?” joked an interviewer at Vogue. The Black critic Rebecca Carroll, who was raised by adoptive white parents, asked in the Los Angeles Times, “What does it tell us that a gay brown adoptive father of two black children chose to tell the story of interracial adoption by centering it on the experience of a white woman?” (She doesn’t attempt to answer.) She described Rebecca as the “embodiment of white privilege, which would be less grating if she had any real sense of this throughout the novel.” Yet that was Alam’s point: a defining feature of whiteness is the lack of awareness that accompanies it.

That Kind of Mother was the first novel of a two-book deal. With a contract in hand, Alam decided to attempt something different. He had achieved plenty of critical acclaim, but he hadn’t yet made the best-seller list. “I went into this book with a ‘fuck it’ spirit,” he said. “I thought, This is my last chance — I haven’t hit a home run yet.” For the first time, he would try to write about an Indian immigrant. In December 2017, he holed up in an apartment on the Upper West Side that the crime writer Laura Lippman had lent to him. But as he ground away, turning out more than a hundred pages of a draft, he had trouble focusing. It was bitterly cold in the city, and he found himself daydreaming about a vacation his family had taken to the Hamptons — an early seed of inspiration for Leave the World Behind. He doesn’t know why he couldn’t finish the draft he’d set out to write. Maybe it was his old reluctance to write a character that looked like him; maybe the other project just seemed sexier.

The Times offered him the editorial job two months later, and he set his fiction writing on the back burner as he attempted, once again, to fold himself into life at a media institution. Finally, at 40, he felt more secure than he ever had in his career. “I remember this moment of utter euphoria, where I felt like I was going to do right by my children,” he recalls. That feeling did not last long. Alam didn’t want to go into the details of why the job didn’t work out, but he said it took him back to how he’d felt when he was 25 at his old boss’s house: “The realization that I think I’m one thing but the world doesn’t see me that way.” Alam’s friend the author Lynn Steger Strong was disturbed he hadn’t made it at the Times. “He’s so good at playing the game,” she says. For a brief period after he decided to quit, she remembers him being in a sort of dazed free fall. But then he began showing up to their coffee dates with pages. “We went from talking about the frustrations of bureaucracy to talking about the logic of novels,” she says. Alam had come to the conclusion that he was “no longer suited to institutional life” and dedicated himself to finishing a draft of Leave the World Behind. A comedy of manners wrapped inside a tense disaster plot, it was easy to see in cinematic form. Some 18 months later, several producers and directors courted Alam. He felt that Esmail, known for his work directing stylish TV thrillers, understood its themes best.

According to Dan Chaon, a professor of Alam’s at Oberlin, he had always been good at “revealing people in all their laughable delusions.” But Leave the World Behind goes further than his previous novels, “taking apart the privilege of believing nothing bad could ever happen to you,” Chaon adds. The novel allows the reader only a few glimpses into whatever calamity has befallen the characters — a mysterious blackout in New York City, sonic booms powerful enough to make your teeth fall out. Clay and Amanda, the Brooklyn couple at the center of the story, soothe themselves by indulging in a fantasy of being richer than they are. As Esmail was reading, he immediately pictured Roberts, with whom he’d worked on the series Homecoming. “With Amanda, we get to dissect white entitlement, and I thought, What a fascinating challenge for America’s sweetheart to examine that privilege.” After Roberts came onboard, Esmail asked her to reach out to Washington about the role of G.H., the homeowner, an allusion to a racist thought Amanda blurts out in the novel: “You know, you look a little like Denzel Washington.”

Like many white people who live in Brooklyn, Clay and Amanda imagine themselves to be more enlightened than they are. At the grocery store, Amanda buys coffee filters made from recycled paper (and dozens of other items Alam describes with anthropological precision), but she struggles to come to terms with the fact that a Black family owns a house she and her husband can’t afford. “What if this was some con? Perfect strangers worming their way into the house, into their lives.” Another sort of thriller might have played up the ambiguity for suspense, but Alam quickly lets the reader know that G.H. and his wife, Ruth, are who they say they are. What interests him is the delusion at the heart of whiteness, the belief that people of color don’t belong in your space, even when you’re the interloper.

In Alam’s backyard, night had fallen, and most of the bottle of vodka was gone. As we drained the last of our drinks, he contemplated the threads of autobiography woven through his books. It may not look like it, but, in a way, his latest is his immigrant novel: both a product of the way he was raised to belong and his realization that he never really would. “Assimilation is not done in a way that is self-aware. You’re not like, Oh, I’m a brown person learning how to enact whiteness,” he says. “I write about the living embodiment of a certain kind of blindness.”

*This article appears in the September 14, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Delusions of Whiteness