exit west

COURTESY OF PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE

March 17, 2017

Mohsin Hamid’s Novel Exit West Opens Doors to the Migrant Experience

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Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel Exit West tells the compelling story of migrants Saeed and Nadia as they face the challenges of a nameless country in the midst of civil war. In fleeing their country, the couple passes through Greece, England and the United States and face literal and psychological obstacles on their way. Hamid successfully penned a novel regarding a pertinent topic with an anonymity that appeals to human experiences of abandonment and cultural detachment that explicate the migrant experience to his readers. Through simple but poignant prose, Hamid spins a tale of anxiety and hope that is equally engaging and humbling.

Mohsin Hamid is an internationally bestselling author and essayist who is known for tackling topics that shake global social and political spheres. Exit West presents these themes that have won Hamid a myriad of awards, including the Man Booker Prize, the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. These accolades are not without warrant; Hamid’s dynamic style and honest tone allow his fiction to straddle postmodernity and the moment. Whether through the sprinkling of smaller, more contained glimpses of unaffiliated characters within the larger narrative or through the blending of the real and the surreal, Hamid uses pastiche and intertextuality to propel the reader into a postmodern world that has striking reverberations throughout globalized experience. With an emphasis on the psychological impact of migration, passage occurs through magical realist “doors,” that take refugees, like the novel’s protagonists, to other parts of the world in the span of a sentence.

When Saeed first falls for independent, motorcycle-riding Nadia, their relationship is tried merely by natural tensions in their different personalities. But, as their romance develops and their city becomes increasingly dangerous, their relationship fosters a sense of comfort for each of them as violent militants besiege their city. The war complicates, even inhibits, aspects of everyday life in the urban setting that resembles cities like Aleppo and Mosul. These trials throw a wrench into Saeed and Nadia’s respective lives and drive Nadia to seek refuge westward. After the passing of his mother due to a “stray heavy-caliber round,” it becomes more evident to Saeed that he must leave his home, and the two begin to make plans with agents to escape the atmosphere of gunfire, soldiers and drone surveillance that overwhelms the city. The decision to leave, though it appears to be one of agency, is one of exile. Saeed is forced to abandon his life at home, including his father who refuses to leave the remnants of the life he and his wife erected there. This departure sends fractures throughout Saeed’s and Nadia’s lives, as “the scattering of his extended family and his circle of friends and acquaintances, forever, struck him as deeply sad, amounting to the loss of a home, no less, of his home.” Nadia and Saeed are taken by the undertow of compulsory migration and are dragged, both willingly and unwillingly, into the throes of global migration.

“In those days,” Hamid writes, “the passage was both like dying and like being born.” Surely, profound abandonment pervades the migrant experience in that “when we migrate, we murder from our lives those leave behind.” But at the same time, Nadia and Saeed are tossed into new worlds as they travel through Mykonos, London and the San Francisco Bay area in search of their new life. Still, strife undercuts this sentiment as both Saeed’s physical boyishness — his metaphorical innocence — begins to fade, and the couple’s late night conversations about starry nights and futures dissipate into companionable silence, then aphonic detachment. The way that movement consequently changes one’s person interrupts the momentum of Nadia and Saeed’s relationship, but the tone is not resentful. Instead, it is one of acceptance.

Instead of dwelling on the unimaginable trials of migration, Hamid evokes a powerful sense of understanding that allows the novel to look forward with a complacency at what could become a reality in which we are all migrants of sorts. Though, upon the conception of his novel, Hamid could not have predicted the political atmosphere Exit West would be launched into, his words resound, with almost psychic senses, throughout contemporary global crises. Nonetheless, the resonances do not only appeal to the foreign policy of the Trump administration, but also to emotional sentiments of migration that are not so literal. He alludes to a universal migration, one that connects to humanity itself, that unites and calls for solidarity. For “every man and woman and boy and girl … will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow.” He continues, “it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world.”

 

Victoria Horrocks is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at vrh23@cornell.edu