In an unnamed city, a young woman, Nadia, defies social convention by moving out of her parents’ home to live by herself. She works at an insurance company, rides a bike in a burkha, smokes pot and orders psychedelic mushrooms online. Saeed lives with his parents, works for a company that designs billboards and meets Nadia at an evening corporate class. As their romance blossoms, their city is ravaged by war – buildings fall prey to bombs, there are retaliatory air strikes, phone signals are lost and internet connectivity suspended. Hope comes in the form of magical black doors that take you to safer places and like many others, Saeed and Nadia flee to reach first Mykonos, then London and finally, Marin in California.
Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West captures the complicated dynamics of lovers-turned-refugees. Over a Skype interview from Lahore, the Man Booker Prize-nominated author discusses his newest work, creative restrictions and more.
What led you to writing about migration, something that’s both topical and political right now?
I’ve been thinking about migration, and the backlash against refugees for a long time. I also take it personally, as somebody who’s lived a lot of his time in America and Britain. For mongrelized, hybridized people like me, these walls that are coming up between countries are terrible as it makes it impossible to connect the two parts of yourself. Also, after I moved back to Lahore eight years ago, the horrors that have happened in Syria and other places make a part of your mind say ‘what if it happened here?’ I wanted to explore this through a kind of first love – a love between two people who are young and changing very rapidly.
There’s an interesting depiction of technology in the novel, from drones and surveillance cameras to almost necessary objects like cell phones.
In many ways, the doors themselves are about technology. We live in a world where technology is making geographical distances disappear. Somebody in Lahore can watch a TV show set in Bombay or Los Angeles, and somebody there can watch footage coming from Lahore or Bombay. In each of our houses, we’re being thrust into other countries and worlds, and the doors are about that. Also technology is shaping who we are as human beings, how we connect, how we fall in love, how we find our way, how we migrate. So both, our dependence on technology and its potential to connect and monitor us are all themes in the book.
You’ve spoken about globalization being a brutal phenomenon… bringing mass displacement, wars, xenophobia, but also the freedom to reinvent ourselves. Having lived in different countries, how have these global experiences shaped you?
It’s almost impossible for me to think of who I am, separate from having lived in so many different places. I’m not any one thing. And I write like that, I live in Lahore and I am Pakistani but I cannot claim to represent Pakistan or Pakistanis. And I can’t claim to represent America or Britain. So partly, I’m a foreigner everywhere. Each of us, in our own ways, don’t fit in, whether you’re a liberal person in a conservative family or vice versa or a gay child in a family that’s uncomfortable with homosexuality. Every human being participates in this sense of foreignness, which I think is an essential aspect of being a human being.
What led you to move back to Lahore eight years ago? Have you had to creatively restrict your writing because of certain laws?
It’s hard to generalise about life in South Asia. I live next door to my parents and my children play with their grandparents every day. And that’s how I grew up. I don’t know what it is to be desi or Pakistani but this kind of multi-generation extended family living is much more common here than it is in places like New York or London. To have my children and parents in the same place was the most important reason to move back.
The interesting thing about restrictions is they don’t necessarily stop creativity. In many instances, they encourage it because you have to be creative to get around them. That’s why sufi poets were writing stuff that could not be expressed in prose four thousand years ago. Reality is a kind of restriction and fiction is a reaction to that. Right now, when I look at India, I think it seems to be making some of the same mistakes that Pakistan has made, which are terrible mistakes. We allowed the oppression of minorities, the rise of a single state-sanctioned ideology, religious chauvinism, oppression of pluralism and victimization of human rights. It’ll probably take Pakistan a generation to get out of the mess we’ve created for ourselves. Seeing this, one would expect India to not want to go down that path. But it is, to a certain extent. Just like Pakistani writers have responded to an oppressive political climate here, Indian writers are responding and will continue to respond to an oppressive political climate in India.
Tell us about your relationship with India. When did you last visit?
I have a lot of friends in Delhi and love Bombay. My wife and I often say that if the politics were better, we would spend a lot of time in Bombay because it’s the most cosmopolitan city in South Asia. I’ve been coming to India off and on for 30 years, I came and played soccer here with my school team in the late ’80s and then on book tours. Unusually for me, I haven’t come on a book tour for Exit West and part of the reason for that is the very sad state of the current Indo-Pak relationship. I’m hopeful that in some months, things will be better and I can come there. My wife and I watched The Lunchbox recently and it was wonderful. I’m not a huge Bollywood fan but I’m certainly a fan of Indian writing. Some of my best and closest writing friends are Indians, like Suketu Mehta, who I often stay with when in New York.
You recently said that your need to write fiction comes from the inability to entirely accept our world as it is. Do I sense a kind of disillusionment?
Well, yes, disillusionment and desire. At some very deep level, I would like there to be a borderless world, where people could move wherever they wanted to move. I think something like that will eventually come to exist. The nation state and its huge role in all of our lives is a temporary political phenomena. It wasn’t there a thousand years ago and it probably won’t be there a thousand years from now. I find borders to be strange, frustrating. Why can’t someone in Delhi hop in a car and visit me in Lahore? Why can’t somebody in Lahore hop on a plane and see their cousin in New York? My desire to imagine a world that’s different certainly informed this novel.
Is there a message you hope readers take away from Exit West?
I hope they have an emotional experience with it, which informs how they think about issues of migration, refugees and change how the world is going to have to adapt to the future. I don’t want them to walk away saying migration is great, we love refugees, get rid of borders. I want them to be less frightened of the future, and although the future will be very different, human life is basically transient. And we can find beauty in transience. We don’t have to have to frightened by it.
What fiction does in a political space is it allows readers to have these emotional experiences around particular characters and stories. And this experience is a different encounter with politics than the kind of theoretical encounter you have with an op-ed. I don’t think of Exit West as my manifesto which will galvanise the world. A book by itself does not catalyse a huge change. It’s part of a larger cultural movement, like a wave in the ocean. All of those waves together have the effect of washing up on a particular beach or making a particular cliff crumble. It’s important for all of us to think about these issues in different ways, and this is my part.
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From HT Brunch, May 7, 2017
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