His British friends weren't interested in the pictures, though. They wanted to know how a white kid could come from Africa. Hagen's family moved between countries often when he was a kid. Everywhere they went, Hagen noticed people's racial prejudices. The frequent uprootings kept Hagen from becoming attached to these points of view. "I think racism is learned," he says. "It's something kids pick up."
Hagen's first novel, The Laments, is more than a little autobiographical. Its main character, Will Lament, is an idealized version of Hagen.
"He's the only one who doesn't judge people," Hagen says. "It's not a story with a clear political message. But I do want to make clear that most of our judgments about other people are preconceived."
We love the book's message and all its John-Irvingesque plot twists, but we can't help but wish that Hagen had sent grown-up Will back to Rhodesia, er, Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe is stripping property from whites, whose ancestors wrenched vast fortunes from the fertile land while oppressing black natives. Though cathartic, the power move has pushed the nation near starvation.
"Mugabe is trying to right a wrong that's a hundred years old," the author says. "It's a wrong that needs to be righted. But I don't know if the right solution is to remove the farmers, because when they develop the food that you need, what can you do?"
But Will seems to have seen it coming. Early in the book, he asks an African friend, "Why is my skin different from yours?"
"Because," she replies, "when Jesus got tired of making beautiful people, he made some ugly ones."