Interview with Mohsin Hamid

March, 2017
Mohsin Hamid 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.

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.

Hamid, who is based in Lahore, Pakistan, spoke to Anderson Tepper by phone about migration, the limits of realism, and writing like a prayer.


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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.

GR: You live in Lahore, but the fictional city of the book evokes darker war-torn places like Aleppo. Did you intentionally want to keep it open to interpretation?

MH: Partly, I think, I just didn't have the heart to write about the city of Lahore under the circumstances of a place like Aleppo, for example. It would have just broken my heart; it just felt so tragic. Also, I thought there's just so much narrative about Pakistan going down the tubes, and I didn't want to contribute more to that. So in a way the unnamed city is both borne of the Lahore I live in and also the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I kind of cities.


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GR: Goodreads member Ahmed asks, "How does living in Pakistan, and particularly Lahore, shape your viewpoint as a writer? Would you have written differently if you were not living there?"

MH: I think where you live does shape you as a writer. Now, I wouldn't describe myself necessarily as a Lahori writer, even though I've lived in Lahore almost half my life. I'm almost equally an American or British writer. But the perch from which you look at your day-to-day experience does shape you. If my perch were in Manhattan or East London or Brooklyn or Berkeley, it would be different.

One thing about living in Pakistan is that in some ways the political reality around me strikes me as much less acceptable than it might in some other places. That said, recently when I speak to my American writer friends, it seems to me that they find their reality equally unacceptable, so that might not be unique to Lahore any longer.

GR: Tell me about the idea of these magical doors that provide instant escape routes for refugees.

MH: It's interesting because I've never really entirely believed in realism. There are different ways I've pushed against realism before, but of course this is the first time I've actually bent the laws of physics. And the reasons for doing that were multiple. One was that it felt true to me. These doors—I think they kind of already exist. People do seem to pop up out of seemingly nowhere. Right now I'm holding a black rectangle in my hand, and I can hear your voice as though there were a window between us. If I were to turn on my computer screen and we called on Skype, we'd be able to see each other.

So it seems like the emotional truth of these doors is already present even if the physical reality isn't. Also, I wanted to take the focus away from what we so often focus on when we talk about migration and refugees—the journey, which is just a tiny portion of the story. I wanted to focus on what led up to the journey and what happened after, which is the reality of the human experience.

GR: Goodreads member Krishna wants to know what the word exit in the title suggests and whether the fact that characters in your books tend to return home is an autobiographical motif.

MH: In a sense, when I was thinking of the title Exit West, I was thinking about both the notion of exiting to a place, exiting to the West—which of course Saeed and Nadia do—but also potentially the exiting of the idea of the West. Because what does it mean that people from the East come and live in the West? Is there still a West after that happens? Was there ever a West? In terms of returning to where we all start, yes, I guess I'm interested in returning to where we're from but discovering both that we are not the same person who left and the place is no longer the same place we left.

GR: That brings up one of the most powerful themes of this book—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.

GR: Meanwhile there is also migration in the other direction in the book. There are those from the West who are seeking something by slipping through the doors the other way.

MH: We've seen it before not just with people like Marco Polo and figures throughout history, but also writers like Jack Kerouac and the Beats who took on elements of Eastern mysticism. But I think this new form of migration is only beginning to be explored: the notion that it isn't just a one-way movement of people to the West. It's a churn, and that churn will take people in unexpected, new directions—Americans might end up in South Africa or Australia or China or India.

If you go somewhere like Abu Dhabi or Dubai today, for example, you'll see how many Eastern Europeans work there. So, yes, the potential of migration—whether it's economic opportunity or the opportunity for adventure or just the opportunity to discover oneself in different contexts—is there for people in the West and the North as well.


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GR: We were talking before about how this book is different from your others. Stylistically, the language itself is very different, with its long, looping, echoing sentences.

MH: The sentences get longer as the novel progresses, and it's partly the novel trying to find its rhythm. The sentence structure and the political boundaries similarly involve a sort of blurring and expanding.

But in addition to that, for me, there becomes a kind of incantation to the rhythm of the novel, where it's almost like a kind of prayer. And it sort of blooms in a way a kind of devotional song or poem might in order to summon something forth. Part of me felt it happened without me even knowing it, part of me just sensed it felt right.

Hopefully the reader's relationship with the way the story is being told becomes firm enough and intimate enough that the long sentences form a sort of natural progression that the reader can slip effortlessly into.

GR: Goodreads member Karen is curious about the relatively short length of your novels. She wonders if you write sparsely from the start or ruthlessly edit down.

MH: I've never written long individual drafts. I don't write, like, 2,000-page novels that I then cut down to 200 pages. I have in the past written many drafts for a novel—maybe seven drafts at 200 pages each—in which the early version might not have a single sentence in common with the final one. I struggle to write long books, but I also struggle to write my short books because for the first two or three years when I'm writing, I feel thoroughly lost. At least with this last book, I felt that getting to where I could find my way was quicker than in the past.

GR: Do you have a specific writing routine?

MH: I have had different routines. I wrote Moth Smoke often late at night when I was a young man in my early to mid-twenties. It felt exhilarating to be up at night writing, living a vampire-like existence. Now I'm a 45-year-old man with two kids, so I write when they're in school! It's completely different.

There are two writers who have said things about this that I often think of. One is Haruki Murakami, who talks about physical stress being essential to writing and how he runs and pushes himself to write. In my much less physically demanding approach, I walk. I walk for half an hour or an hour a day, and that is the most fertile time for me. If I do that before I start writing, I often get to the desk in a very good frame of mind. And the second person I think of is Amos Oz, who has said that he thinks of it as opening up shop: He goes to work and opens his shop. Maybe no customers come, but he waits until the end of the day, and then he shuts his shop. I think that's very sensible.

GR: Who are some of the authors or books that were major influences on you as a writer?

MH: Charlotte's Web was probably the first book that broke my heart. I felt that it was such a beautiful story, and even now reading it with my daughter, I find it breathtaking. In my early teens I read Lord of the Rings and Dune, and I loved those books. I was reading multi-thousand-page epics—for fun!

Then as I got older, I learned about voice from writers like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. I learned about form from writers like Camus and Nabokov. And I learned about how to write about the place I come from from writers like Saadat Hasan Manto and Chinua Achebe. Even though Achebe came from Nigeria, the first time I encountered the idea of going to the West and coming back was with Achebe.

GR: Are you reading anything right now?

MH: Yes, I'm reading my friend Hari Kunzru's new book, a novel called White Tears. I'm about 50 pages in, and it's fantastic! I've just finished reading Future Sex by Emily Witt. I also just finished a book called Sapiens. And I've got a pile of books a dozen high to read next. One of the good things about going on a book tour is that I get to read a lot. While I'm away from my family, on the plane and in the hotel, I read. So I'm taking a nice pile with me!

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message 3: by Sujata (new)

Sujata Massey I'm looking forward to getting a signed copy of Exit West at Mohsin's Church of the Redeemer event Sat March 11 in Baltimore. His books expand my thinking and are fun to read!


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Hesha Looking forward to reading his books for the deeply affected feeling of the cultural experience.


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