Mohsin Hamid’s new book Exit West is not the refugee story you’re expecting
The resiliently optimist author wants you to keep the hope alive
News reports encourage you to think about those fleeing their homelands and seeking asylum in western countries in a certain way. They’re poor, wretched and possessed of a superhuman strength that propels them through miles of barbed wire, glacial waters and hostile terrain. In fact, most of what we hear about refugees are details about their lives in transit. But in Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s new novel, Exit West (Penguin Random House), these epic journeys are completed in the blink of an eye. The book’s characters move from one country to another simply by walking through a door.
While this plot device smacks of sci-fi, the rest of the book is weighted down by all the familiar tragedies of this planet. As religious fundamentalism, corruption and civil wars hollow out their cities and towns, people from West Asia, Africa and Latin America flee to more prosperous countries, where they are feared and despised. Somewhere in the corner of a big city, in an unnamed country that’s slowly being swallowed up by a militant Islamist outfit, Nadia and Saeed meet.
Ideally, this young couple would go on a few dates and maybe feel their way into some sort of relationship—or not. But war accelerates the intimacy between them and they quickly go from smoking a joint on the terrace to being exiles together. Practically strangers, they’re now friends-family-lovers. Each stop on this journey west subtly alters their equation. They draw closer in a refugee camp in Mykonos, confront their differences in a squatters’ colony in London, and deal with a disorienting degree of freedom in California. Hamid says, “I wanted to write a particular kind of love story, a first love between two people who are changing very rapidly.”
ELLE: As horrific as the circumstances they’re fleeing are, there’s a sense of almost-liberation to Nadia and Saeed’s love story when they’re in flight.
Mohsin Hamid: For these characters, the circumstances they find themselves in make their emotions feel more dramatic. In situations when you’re fighting to be with someone, you’re much less likely to hold back— you offer yourself up more fully. But then when you’re thrust into very close quarters, like in a refugee camp, you may start to get on each other’s nerves, and want more space. So, while they enjoy a measure of freedom they may not have had back home, that freedom takes them in different directions.
ELLE: Refugee stories often tend to be about journeys. But you’ve collapsed that whole aspect with the device of the doors. Why did you choose to do that?
MH: Very often we imagine that a refugee or migrant has gone through this experience (of the journey), which makes them very different from us. But the journey usually lasts a few months and is only a tiny part of their life—the rest of it is what led them to leave, and what happens to them after they arrive. I wanted to focus on that. Feeling the impulse to leave, arriving in a new place and being changed by it—these are almost universal human experiences.
ELLE: Did you worry at all that you were leaving out a defining part of the refugee story?
MH: Actually, the idea for the novel was to explore a world in which geographical distance had collapsed. Our modern technological reality is like that. So the doors and instantaneous movement were really at the heart of the idea for the book.
Exit West (Penguin Random House) is in stores now.
ELLE: It is poignant how each character holds on to home. He becomes more prayerful, and even though she’s a non-believer, she keeps her black robes on long after she needs to.
MH: Saeed is spiritual, and has a religious outlook. Nadia doesn’t. I wanted to explore both viewpoints in their fullest sense, and imagine the best of them. For Nadia, her robes don’t represent a culture. She is comfortable being the one who observes, and not the one being observed.
ELLE: It’s ironic because the further west she goes, the more closely she is observed precisely because of her robes.
MH: When I moved back to Pakistan 10 years ago, I noticed that in university campuses, for example, there were many more women dressed in this conservative way than there used to be. But then again, 30-40 years ago, only 10 per cent of the students were women, now 50 to 60 per cent are women, and many are choosing to dress this way. So is their dress a symbol of liberation or subjugation? The truth is you can’t state this in such simplistic terms. For each woman, it means something different. For some, [dressing this way] is a choice that allows them to go out in the public domain, so it’s liberating. For others, perhaps their families insist upon it, so it’s constraining. The reasons are not the same for everyone.
ELLE: I found the book very hopeful for all its bleak reality. It leaves you with a sense that maybe we’ll be okay?
MH: I think we will. The amazing thing is when different types of people come together through migration, through movement, a kind of cross-fertilisation happens. New ideas are born and some of them might create solutions to problems that we didn’t think had any solutions. India and Pakistan have been shaped by millennia of migration and have become diverse, rich and incredibly vibrant because of all of these different layers of people that have accumulated. It’s important for us to begin to look to a future where this process continues, where we don’t try to freeze ourselves into a [state of] purity and say that, ‘Pakistan is this’ or ‘India is this’ and ‘You must go back to the past’. That’s a very dangerous viewpoint.
ELLE: How do you protect yourself from the cynicism and negativity?
MH: The rise of bigotry right now is due to a failure of imagination. We have such a difficult time imagining what the future will look like that we are very vulnerable to people who tell us that our past was so great and we must stay in the roots of the past. In India and Pakistan today, though standards of living are going up, there’s a deep pessimism. Our values will collapse, our cities will be polluted, violence will go up, our daughters won’t be safe driving home at night—our vision of the future is becoming frightening and I think that’s very dangerous. We have to imagine a more hopeful vision and that’s the best way to protect our children, not nostalgia.
ELLE: And fiction is uniquely placed to do that.
MH: Absolutely. If we look just at South Asia, so often it’s been the great poets, storytellers and moviemakers who have created common stories that have bound together different people. This has always been a function of storytelling.
ELLE: One way in which Exit West is noticeably different from your earlier books like Moth Smoke or The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the almost breathless quality to its prose—perhaps because of the long sentences?
MH: The long sentences are a bit like the world the book describes, a world where borders begin to disappear. You have paragraphs that are like continents or islands, but the periods that separate them begin to disappear. Also, as I was writing the novel, it began to take on a quality a little bit like an incantation or a prayer; it acquired a rhythm of summoning something forth.