In Mohsin Hamid’s moving novel, “Exit West,” a series of mysterious doors appear around the world, immediate portals into distant lands. The novel follows a pair of lovers who first attempt to navigate their own city, racked by violence, before ultimately deciding to test their luck through the doors.
When the novel debuted in 2017, it was published coincidentally in the midst of controversy surrounding President Donald Trump’s travel ban affecting majority-Muslim countries. The book went on to critical acclaim — The New Yorker proclaimed it “a novel about immigrants that feels instantly canonical” — and the Booker Prize shortlist. The United States went on to witness further immigration upheaval, not to mention racial strife and a pandemic.
We spoke with Hamid to get his take on how his novel will be read now. We reached him by phone in New York, where he’d just flown from Pakistan with his wife and two children. It was raining there, so he’d just dashed inside a restaurant to get his jet-lagged, 8-year-old son a bite to eat. A transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.
Q: What is it like to travel now?
A: We basically haven’t left the house since March. I don’t think we’ve gone out more than once or twice a week for essentials or doctors. So we’ve gone from really not going anywhere … to New York City. It’s very strange. My parents are older. They live in the same extended-family compounds with us, and out of abundant caution for them, we’ve really been cutting off contact with people and distancing. So to suddenly travel and to be in an airplane with people, even if they are wearing masks and shields and what not? It’s very strange.
It’s like when I was a little boy, I watched “Jaws” when I was 7 or 8 years old. I was so terrified. My parents told me I was too scared to go into the bubble bath, thinking this shark could emerge. And I remember swimming in the Pacific Ocean for the first time after; it seemed impossible that a shark wouldn’t eat me. It was fine, although I did have that low-level dread that I guess hasn’t completely left me. So that’s what this feels like.
Q: How do you think “Exit West” will be read post-COVID-19?
A: It’s an illusion that we live in a world that’s stable. All it takes is some crisis — whether it’s a health crisis involving a loved one or pandemic or war or losing a job — to suddenly realize that this stable fabric doesn’t exist. There’s a radical potential to that, because it alerts us to our own vulnerability and the possibility of making us able to empathize more with others. But it’s sort of up to us what we choose to make of this change, and I do feel the world is charged with the potential for change.
Q: Migrant stories — such as this novel — are very much about the potential for change.
A: The migrant experience, as I see it, is a human universal. Actually, just getting older, just growing up as a child and becoming an adult and then approaching one’s own death is a migration. When we see people who are forced to migrate in space, it’s a bit jarring for us, because we’re reminded not just that we could be in the exact same position should something terrible befall where I happen to live. But actually we have also felt this: I did change schools when I was 10. Or I did deal with the loss of a parent when I was 18. Or I did lose a job at 36. The jarring elements of our own migrations are made more evident to us by seeing other people who migrate.
Alongside that, there’s an enormous degree of suffering that happens in human life. We say, Oh, well, I grew up and I moved away from the town where I lived, as though that’s nothing, but in fact, for the young person who moved away, that can be incredibly painful. We say we take it for granted that parents and loved ones pass away, but that is cosmic tragedy on the maximum scale that human beings can comprehend. I think the notion that we are all migrants, the notion that migration does involve suffering and therefore something that we all have to deal with, both of those notions relate to a kind of counter-tendency, which is to pretend otherwise: to pretend that we don’t suffer. And that counter tendency — whether it’s kind of a politicized nostalgia that says we can go back to the way that things used to be or it’s a personal closing off and denying your own pain — I do think that both of those things require a kind of response. They require a response on the human level, so that we aren’t made monstrous by our own suffering, we aren’t made into unempathetic, closed off, wounded, unexamined human beings. But also, as a group, as people who form societies, there’s a component that we have to act. We have to muster a certain degree of optimism in the face of the story. Because if we aren’t able to muster that optimism, then we condemn ourselves to the nostalgia and the monstrous closing off of human feeling. And I think we see signs of that all over the world right now.
Q: How do you maintain optimism? Your book is hopeful, even as it portrays characters fleeing tragedy.
A: Optimism has been like a marriage. It’s not just something that happens; it’s something you have to commit yourself to making work. You can’t just say, I don’t feel optimistic, or wait for it to come. Even in the face of real tragedy or real difficulty, we have to find a way to choose that. It’s tempting to allow ourselves to not be optimistic, to say, oh, things are looking really bad and they’re going to get worse. That isn’t a passive position. In choosing to be “realistic” in this way, we are facilitating a world that looks like our nightmare. There is an obligation to find reasons for optimism — or to become and build the reasons for optimism.
Q: How does fiction figure into this? What can you get at through fiction that you can’t in nonfiction?
A: It’s a state of potential. In fiction, we stop pretending that everything we’re doing and saying and acting is reality and truth. By stopping that pretense, we’re able to be open to a different mode of feeling — and it’s not necessarily a less honest mode; it can in fact be a more honest mode. There’s a lot of fertility and potential in that. The only time in your life that you will sit alone in a room, fully yourself, but containing within you the thoughts of two human beings: this writer, who has written these words you’re reading, and your own thoughts. Who are you in that moment? Are you yourself? The writer? Some weird hybrid? It’s unclear who you are, but what is clear is that we seem to draw a certain degree of value in that. After that experience we’re different than we were before.
Q: Since we’re speaking of identities and your book is about migration, how do you think of yourself? You were born in Lahore, Pakistan, and live there again now, but you spent many years — as a child and as an adult — in both the United States and the United Kingdom.
A: When I come to America, I I feel both incredibly at home, but also somewhat foreign, and I feel the same in Pakistan. I actually feel quite a bit of that in London, too.
Q: Has your sense of foreignness grown since this book was published?
A: It’s interesting that you would ask that, because the sense of foreignness grows until I arrive. In other words, when I’m not in America and I’m reading about it, my sense is that America’s becoming very foreign. And then I arrive, and it doesn’t seem that changed. In part, that’s because things change very slowly. And also, it’s in part, despite the changing of things, what remains the same is perhaps more. If you haven’t seen an old friend for 20 years and you get together, when you see the photograph of them the day before you meet up, you think, Oh, my goodness; they’ve gotten old. And when you walk up to them in the bar where you’re meeting and you see them the first time after that photograph, you think, Yep, it’s still them, but wow, that looks very, very different. And halfway into that first drink, you’re in the groove of your conversation, you’re like, wow, it’s like time has passed, but they’re exactly the same. Or at least the sameness way outweighs the differences. I think that’s what it’s like going to different countries oftentimes. The underlying tapestry has not changed as much as it has stayed the same, even though, of course, it has changed and changed significantly.
So is America fundamentally transformed at the level of my lived experience by the politics the last four years? In the first 24 hours, I can’t say that it is. But is there a recognizably different feeling? There is also some of that. It’s a very old friend that has changed; it’s still recognizably itself and also something different.
What I do get from that is it’s very important for us, as human beings in the 21st century, to remind ourselves that the sense of change and disruption and trauma that we believe that’s happening all around us is, of course, true. It’s not that these things aren’t happening. But a great deal of stuff remains the same. It’s useful not to get caught up in a kind of neomania and say that everything is now different, that nothing is the same. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t struggle to bend the arc of wherever we live to something more where we’d like it to be headed, but it also means that we needn’t despair that the last year or two or three is the end. Things have been going on for much longer.
So America, is it different? A bit, but it doesn’t seem as different yet as it felt different to me before I arrived.
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