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'Exit West' Is a Beautiful Novel About the 'Migration Apocalypse'

We spoke to Mohsin Hamid about his stunning new novel about love, refugees, and magic doors.

by James Yeh
Mar 24 2017, 10:57am

Illustration by Deshi Deng

It's rare when novels, which often take years to produce, feel as though they're ripped from the headlines. Rarer still are the books that feel simultaneously timely and timeless. But such is the achievement of Mohsin Hamid's newest novel Exit West, which is both painfully current and, in the words of the New Yorker's Jia Tolentino, "instantly canonical."

Moving and allegorical, Exit West can be thought of as a kind of refugee love story or, more precisely, a story of how people can be brought together and torn apart by war and forced migration. Set in an unnamed, war-torn city (loosely based on Lahore, Pakistan, where Hamid was born and now lives after stints in California, Boston, and London), the novel opens in an unexpected place: a night class on "corporate branding and product identity." A good-natured, if pensive ad man named Saeed tries to woo a motorbike-riding woman named Nadia who dresses in a long black robe not out of piety but, as she tells Saeed, "So men don't fuck with me."

Sharing an affinity for travel and weed, the two become involved (a nice flip of the script: Saeed is the more devout, chaste-ish one). Meanwhile, fighting in the city intensifies; at one point we see rebel soldiers playing soccer with the decapitated head of an enemy combatant. Soon after Saeed and Nadia decide to flee through a magic door provided by a sketchy, armed middleman. This transports them to a campsite in Greece, then a squat in London, eventually ending up in a shanty outside of San Francisco, where they grapple with the immense distances they've traveled literally and psychologically.

Thanks to Hamid's assured, lyrical prose style, the book possesses an epic almost hypnotic quality that's occasionally shattered by startling violence: the shooting of a character's mother, the throat-slitting of a neighbor, "bodies hanging from streetlamps and billboards like a form of festive seasonal decoration." Differently effective are the vignettes of other, anonymous characters in different parts of the world—a sleeping woman in Sydney, a whiskey drinker in Tokyo, an old navy man in San Diego—and their brief yet haunting interactions with migrants, a formal device that points to our shared humanity, seeking out places of belonging and often not quite arriving at them, whatever our nationality.

Although Hamid's authorial voice can lean in thematically at times—declarations such as "When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind" and "We are all migrants through time" will feel either breathtaking or a bit on the nose, depending on your taste—Exit West is an impressive work as well as a miraculously, refreshingly hopeful one. "The apocalypse appeared to have arrived," Hamid writes toward the end, "and yet it was not apocalyptic… While the changes were jarring they were not the end, and life went on, and people found things to do and ways to be and people to be with, and plausible desirable futures began to emerge, unimaginable previously, but not unimaginable now, and the result was something not unlike relief."

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of speaking over the phone with Hamid about artists' political duties, our collective desires to be useful, and what it was like to explore this "migration apocalypse." The 46-year-old novelist was as effortlessly articulate as he was impassioned.

Photo by Jillian Edelstein/courtesy of Riverhead Books

VICE: How much did you initially set out with a goal of writing a book that might resonate with the current global situation? Was there an instigating incident?
Mohsin Hamid: My novels usually come from a very personal need. And this novel came from the personal need that I'm a mongrelized person. I've spent lots of time in America, in Pakistan, in Britain, and I believe that hybridized, mongrelized people are not a problem, but a good thing. And I was feeling that there were so many currents that were against it. There was a backlash against migrants generally, in rich countries. And so I wanted to write about the tension between those two positions. Between the desire to move, and the desire to not have people move to where you are. Because if eventually it becomes people cannot, we'll become intolerant of diversity, and intolerant of people intermingling in interesting ways. Then the world is fundamentally intolerant of people like me.

It just so happens that these trends that I picked up on, and was responding to, happened to, in the year since I handed in that book, become much more potent in the minds of many other people. I think that the Brexit vote and the Trump election contributed to that. I didn't think either of those things would happen when I handed in my book last March or April. I would have said, "Look, I think that Britain will stay in the EU, and Trump won't win the Republican primary, let alone the US election." But with that said, these underlying forces I thought were going to play out in very significant ways in the coming years and decade. I didn't think it was going to be as quick as it was.

"I believe that hybridized, mongrelized people are not a problem, but a good thing."

At the book party when we met, in early March, you gave a powerful speech in which you mentioned our need to "forge new alliances." What sort of alliances did you have in mind?
In America, for example, many people didn't really think of themselves as needing any help from progressive-minded people in other countries. You know, America was doing just fine, but citizens in Iran or whatever needed their help. I think what has become clear to everyone is that progressive thought and liberal values are under attack all over the world. And in light of that, one needs to think globally, in much more interesting ways. The right-wing populists are often allied when their visions coincide, but they're also allies when they clash. Right-wing xenophobia in America and right-wing xenophobia in places like Iraq and Syria are allies because each feeds off the hatred of the other.

But then you think: To what extent are progressive liberal people allied in a similar way? To what extent are we leveraging Euro strengths, and forming coalitions, and understanding that standing up for the rights of minorities in each of our countries is like standing up for the rights of minorities in all countries? I think the urgency of those alliances has been much slower to form. That, I think now, needs to happen. And similarly novelists with politics, artists with the community organizers. So, within countries, new forms of alliances between creative people and political organizations in a sense that we haven't seen so intensely in America, since perhaps the 1960s. But I think it's going to come back.

How political do you think an artist must be in 2017?
I don't think you can prescribe a position. I don't think you should say: "Artists have to be political." But I think what's clear is, if you say, "Hey, my art has nothing to do with politics," that's [also] not true. Your art exists inside a political context, and you're just saying what appeared to be the implication of your art, the implication that you choose to own. But that's a difficult position, I think, particularly when things are fraught. If you write a tea party set on a slave plantation in South Carolina before the Civil War, and you don't show slaves, you just show people having a tea party, that is a political act. You can't say, "That has nothing to do with slavery, this is just my tea party, there's no slaves there." That doesn't make any sense.

That said, I don't think that art and stories and novels need to be political in the same way that, you know, political parties are political, or that op-eds are political. I think that they operate in a very different way, a more subversive way actually. It's not like you're saying, "Here are my politics. This is how you should feel when you finish the novel." I don't think that's the most effective thing. But to raise up the issues that you think are important, and to expand a sense of empathy for different types of people, and to create unease where you think unease should be created, and to create a sense of possibility where you think a sense of possibility should be created, those sorts of things art can do without sort of giving a manifesto. And I think art has done it very successfully for a very long time, and should continue to do so.

You've worked in corporate branding. How much would you say this has informed your fiction?
I think a lot. I began in 1997 and did it full-time, and part-time, and now it's a very small part of what I do, in terms of time spent, but it's still very interesting. You get to travel to different places and meet different people and encounter these sort of business challenges. A lot of my writing, I think, is informed by how people work. And I think being involved in the workplace, softly defined, is helpful.

In Exit West, they begin working. And like many people their work is not their core passion, or central to their lives, but it's something they do, and probably enjoy sometimes, and don't enjoy sometimes, but it's their way of financing their lives. And when that's taken from them, they're just trying to exist on their savings or what they can cobble together. And a big chunk of the novel is surviving without work. And I think when work is taken from people, life becomes very difficult. You imagine refugees in a refugee camp, and you think of the many hardships they undergo, but one of the fundamental hardships is like in the prisons. There is, of course, for them, the issue of survival. So they lose their main motivator, stuff to aim for, and their days become survival-based.

I think one thing, which is very important, is human beings have a basic desire to be useful. To feel like they're contributing in some way. That gives life an enormous meaning, whether you're a novelist, or a poet, or a musician, or a factory worker, or a farmer, or a construction worker, or an IT engineer. If you don't have a sense of contributing, even if your material needs are met, there can be, in many people, a huge kind of emptiness.

"The notion was: Let's explore this migration apocalypse. And maybe in exploring it we discover it actually isn't an apocalypse. Maybe something new is born out of it. Something that could, in fact, become quite beautiful."

You mentioned a need for "radical optimism" at your book party. Could you speak a bit more on what this means to you?
Well, I think that in this moment we're seized by pessimism. And pessimism makes possible all sorts of nostalgic, reactionary politics. So it's important to articulate some non-pessimistic views to create the basis for optimism. So for me in my work, and particularly my most recent novel, the notion was: Let's explore this migration apocalypse. And maybe in exploring it we discover it actually isn't an apocalypse. Maybe something new is born out of it. Something that could, in fact, become quite beautiful.

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Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is available in bookstores and online now from Riverhead Books.