Exit West shows how we are all migrants and nowhere stays the same, says Mohsin Hamid

Exit West shows how we are all migrants and nowhere stays the same, says Mohsin Hamid

10 March 2017

By Naomi Canton

Nadia and Saeed smoke joints and eat magic mushrooms. Nadia wears a black robe that covers her entire body. But she doesn’t pray at all. She also rides a motorbike and goes to underground jam sessions. Whilst she wants to have sex with Saeed, he wants to wait until marriage.

Saeed’s family drink green tea. His mother initiates the sex in his parents’ relationship. Early morning junkies and gay lovers meet in a park in the city where they all live. The city is charming. It is dotted with buildings with crumbling albeit ornate facades but it is getting slowly besieged by militants.

This is Exit West, the latest and fourth novel from British Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid.

“I did not want to turn stereotypes on their head about Muslims. I am just trying to write about people,” Mr Hamid says.

Born in Pakistan, he spent his youth between Pakistan and the USA and then lived in London for most of his thirties before moving back to Pakistan just before turning forty. He now lives in Lahore, Pakistan with his wife and two young children.

“Many people I know are like Saeed and Nadia, the two central characters, so it was not a conscious decision to create any character who defies a particular stereotype. I wanted to imagine just being someone and their attitude to sex, parties and life – so it was just about human beings,” he explains in an exclusive interview with Asia House by phone from Dublin.

“People are complicated and they do things for complicated reasons. It’s simplistic to imagine everyone is a robot,” he adds.

Exit West is the story of this young couple, Saeed and Nadia, who live in an unnamed city that is a lot like Lahore, where I live, but the underlying political circumstances are a lot more like Aleppo or Mosul,” Mr Hamid explains.

The city where the novel begins is indeed not named. It reminds me, the interviewer, of Delhi, where I have spent a lot of time. Mr Hamid also sees the similarities.

“Saeed lives in the older colonial part of town and those city centres, be they Delhi or Lahore, are probably more like Aleppo, Cairo and Damascus,” Mr Hamid says. “I intentionally left out details of the city to let the reader imagine it. It is not named because I wanted to open it up and make it a place that many people could imagine coming from or having been to, particularly because I could not bear to write about my city, Lahore, in terms of what happens to them in this city,” he says.

However, he does name the places the couple flee to through “different doors” as Greece, London and California.

A world transformed by migration

“They meet in this city as it is about to fall to these militants and they eventually flee through these black doors that are opening up in the world and as they flee hundreds of thousands of people are moving and they are caught up in a world transformed by migration,” Mr Hamid says.

The description of the militants slowly taking over the city neighbourhood by neighbourhood in Exit West is extremely realistic. It feels like that is exactly what it must have felt like for ordinary Syrians trapped in Aleppo. Mr Hamid goes into the details of describing Saeed’s mother going to the pharmacist to get sleeping tablets because of the stress of the unfolding drama.

So has Mr Hamid ever stepped foot in Syria or Iraq?

“No, I have never been to either place,” he says. “I just imagined what it would feel like if such a thing would happen to the city where I live and how life would change and I think living in Pakistan the past many years there have been moments when your imagination starts to go down that path.”

But has he ever lived in a war zone or experienced a terrorist attack? The description of the militants moving through the city and the impact of the siege on ordinary people’s lives is so lifelike.

“I have not lived in a war zone but last week there was a terror attack in Lahore and I had to run to my kid’s school to pick her up. Very often mobile phone networks come down because of terror attacks and we hear explosions go off. I don’t live in a war zone but there are enough incidents like this that I have encountered. It’s not the same as Damascus and Aleppo,” he says.

But then he must have done some research or interviewed some refugees? “I don’t really do research. It’s never been an approach I have taken to my fiction,” he says.

Every so often the main story cuts from the lives of Saeed and Nadia to contemporaneous scenes in other safer places like Tokyo and Sydney.

“These places are almost all places I have been to and spent time in. It’s all either things I have seen or it is an extension of what I have seen on the TV and in the news,” he adds.

As gunfire and militants take over the city, Mr Hamid describes how the passion in Nadia and Saeed’s relationship is heightened by the drama.

“I wanted to tell a tightly focused story on Nadia and Saeed and a broader story about the world changing in terms of migration and to look much more broadly and explore how we feel about migration,” he says.

There is a part in the novel where he describes how the couple’s relationship deepens via their communication on their smartphones and how despite not meeting, their fondness for each other gets deeper. He describes how how it feels like they have got physical before they have even kissed – thus capturing the zeitgeist of romance in 2017, often conducted on messaging or social media.

Technology is the way people present themselves to the world nowadays, Mr Hamid explains.

“I don’t go into the details of what kind of software it is but rather what it feels like to be conducting a relationship through that medium and what it feels like if it gets cut off,” he says.

What about these magical doors that Saeed and Nadia hear about, that some people from this besieged city escape through?

Mr Hamid remembers reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. “I had just gone back to Pakistan from California and I read the book and these children step through these doors – to the world of Narnia,” he explains.

The doors are also an emotional manifestation of an imaginary or virtual world, a world seen on smartphones. “It’s like skyping or swiping,” he says referring to mobile dating apps such as Tinder.

A love story

“The story is also a love story – a first love story,” Mr Hamid continues. “That is something many of us have experienced – very often it does not work out and you realise you are not meant for each other – it is a mix of a human love story and an urban reality crumbling – the idea was that while this may happen in a location far from where we are sitting, it would not be very difficult to imagine,” he says.

And what about the narration style? “I did go back to children’s fiction in a sense. The narrator can do anything in children’s fiction – there is no hard first, second, third person rule – you can move around. The main objective is to be the reader’s ally. In this book I have tried to say what I mean. There is still an interpretive space open. In that sense I have gone back to the old-fashioned notion of being the storyteller,” he adds.

The novel is inspired by the “anger and fear towards migrants in Europe,” he says.

“As someone who has migrated multiple times I wanted to write a novel that explores migration as it has shaped me very deeply,” he says.

“My wife and I had had our first baby girl and we were talking about moving back to Pakistan. We thought ‘if we don’t move back now we might never do it’. So, I thought let’s do it now.”

Mr Hamid moved to Pakistan from London seven years ago.

“Sometimes I feel conflicted about the decision but I would feel conflicted about anywhere I live. It’s a nomadic instinct that comes up in certain people that have travelled al lot,” he adds.

‘Everyone is a migrant’

“The aim of the book is to explore the unusual experience of migration and remind us that everyone’s ancestors moved and that we all move ourselves, and over time a town we have lived in changes and becomes unrecognisable from the town of our childhood,” he says.

“The universal sense of every human being being a migrant is something I wanted to explore. I wanted to look into that future which frightens people,” he says. “What if all the migrants came? What will happen? And it will happen. 500 years ago there were no white people in the USA and so I think migration is going to continue,” he concludes.

In reference to Asia House’s 2017 arts and culture theme ‘subcultures’, he says he does not think a subculture should define people but they can connect people by, for example, sharing interests.

“People are multifaceted. I happen to be Pakistani, British, and a father. I love sushi, I love travelling and I speak Italian. There are many facets to my identity,” he says.

“But subcultures can bring people together that belong to different dominant cultures. Music has served that function for a long time,” he says.

Exit West has just been published in the UK and the USA by Penguin. It can be purchased from Amazon here.

The Arts and Learning Theme at Asia House for 2017 is Subcultures. To read more about it click here.  As part of that theme, Dr Mandana Seyfeddinipur, Head of the Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University and Director of the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme, will present a talk on endangered languages in Asia on 6 April. For more information click here.

Tickets for the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival will also go on sale soon. For more information click here. Don’t miss Sin Cities: Unlock Bangkok with Prabda Yoon on March 13. For more information click here.