Exit West's Mohsin Hamid on Immigrants and Children's Literature

Posted by Cybil on March 7, 2017

Since his debut novel, Moth Smoke, in 2000, Mohsin Hamid has proved to be one of the most acute chroniclers of the schisms of our globalized world. The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia only confirmed his ability to capture the post-9/11 millennium in nervy, inventive prose.

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His latest, Exit West, breaks new ground: In an unspecified city on the brink of civil war, two lovers, Saeed and Nadia, plot their escape through hidden doors that magically transport them to the West. And so begins a long, treacherous journey through a world divided between light and dark, rich and poor, "natives" and refugees—a dystopian fable for our times. The following is an excerpt from our full interview that appears in our March newsletter.

Goodreads: This is a very different book from your other novels, with its unnamed city and fantastical elements. How did you conceive of it this way?

Mohsin Hamid: Well, I think I've been building toward writing a novel about migration my whole life. I moved to California when I was three, back to Pakistan when I was nine, to America at 18, and then at 30 to the U.K. and back to Pakistan. So it's a big part of who I am.

When I moved back to Pakistan seven years ago, I saw this pent-up desire of people to get out. I think all of these things—my own personal life story as well as the political backdrop of fear and animosity toward migrants—congealed into the impulse for this novel. As usual, I struggled with the question, How do I tell a story like this? The answer I came up with was inspired by children's literature. The relationship between the narrator and the reader in a children's book is quite interesting—you can talk about stuff that hasn't happened yet, you can zoom into seemingly unrelated territories. There's an intimacy and a kind of warmth in that way of telling stories.

Another part of it was that living in Pakistan the last seven years, I realized that so many readers don't approach literature with the same background as me, which of course should have been obvious. And I thought, Am I writing books that require a sort of decoding apparatus on the part of the reader that maybe I'm mistakenly assuming they have? I wanted to write a book that builds its own decoding system into it.

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GR: One of the most powerful themes of this book is how migration transforms both Nadia and Saeed and their relationship to each other. It changes them in profound ways.

MH: Absolutely. One of the things that I've come to believe is the central idea of the novel is the fact that every human being migrates. Even if we don't move geographies, we migrate through time. We leave childhood and can never go back to it. Saeed and Nadia move together, but they also move apart in terms of who they're becoming.

That happens across generations—you see that very often between first- and second-generation immigrants in a country. A gap opens up. You can see it even more when you see people in the United States who are so frightened of migrants even though their own grandparents and great-grandparents came over themselves from Ireland or Germany or Sweden or Italy. Also, it's a painful experience. Imagine what people potentially have to give up—family, loved ones, friends, language, food, music. There must be such an incredible fear or horror to make one give these things up.

Read the full interview with Hamid here. Missing out on our newsletters? Be sure to sign up!

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Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

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message 1: by Jamie (new)

Jamie This isn't about this particular post, but I can't find a place to leave feedback. It would be helpful to me if in "subscribing" to the blog I could have it pop up on my home feed.

Hiba Samad Khan Proud of my country's author. Will definitely read this book!

message 3: by Sara (new)

Sara Naveed I got my copy yesterday. Can't wait to begin it!

message 4: by Christy (new)

Christy Excellent interview of this author! Sounds like he is doing the best of Social Psychology in novelist's terms. Top GRs reviewers seem amazed by this book.

message 5: by Bailey (new)

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