Mohsin Hamid's Exit West tells the story of a young couple forced to flee a civil war. He speaks to us about migration, and the power of fiction to change perspectives.
Firstly, the setting – the novel starts in a place that is never named. Why is that?
As far as the time is concerned, it feels to me like a half-heartbeat ahead of today. So it’s not really the future, it’s perhaps tomorrow, or next week, or next year. As far as the location is concerned, you’re right that the starting location is in this unnamed city – and all the other places that we go afterwards do have a name.
That starting location is unnamed in part because I wanted to widen the entry point into the novel. It could be about the places you’ve been, or the places you’re from, or the places you’ve heard about. In my own mind, to create that place, I used Lahore as my template. My way into the story was: what if these tragic events were to befall Lahore?
Partly I didn’t want to name it as Lahore because I just couldn’t bring myself to write that kind of catastrophe about my hometown. But I intentionally kept the place-specific details a little bit sparse, so there is a colour of this place but then it’s also slightly blurry, and you can imagine it being other places as well. It’s like a nightmare - if this were to happen to a place - and that feeling is equally true anywhere. That’s why it’s non-specific.
The book has a lot to say about the migration crisis, but it’s also about migration as a more universal, human phenomenon. Could you tell us a bit more about that?
Migration has always been with us. We evolved as a species in Africa – people did not evolve in Britain or Pakistan or America so everybody who lives there today is a migrant. I think migration is actually a human universal – both geographic migration, and also migration through time. We move through time throughout our entire lives. The city of our childhood doesn’t exist when we are forty, fifty, seventy years old. Whenever you meet someone who is elderly, you are meeting someone who is a migrant.
So, I wanted to explore both those things in the lives of these characters: what it’s like to move location; what you lose and what you might gain; what would compel you to give everything up and move in the first place. And also what it feels like to move through time, getting older, and see the course of a relationship, from first encounter to last encounter. Exit West personalises and universalises the idea of migration; it is personal for the two people in the novel, and universal because there are echoes of it in ourselves.
We talk about being ‘moved’ by a book: that word means having a strong emotional reaction, but also, literally, being shifted. I think novels shift people in very interesting ways
Is it important to you, in your writing, to contribute to the conversation around change?
I think we have a responsibility, everyone as human beings and as citizens, to proactively imagine the futures that we want. Failing to do that as a society takes us in default directions that are catastrophic.
I think lots of interesting things will happen, and that needn’t be that people write science fictions and utopias, it can also be ways of being in the present moment that suggest possible future directions. I’ll give you an example from last year, a film called Captain Fantastic. It’s radical in almost a 1960s political sense, like Harold and Maud or The Graduate, in that it suggests a completely different way of being. It interrogates that sense of being, and then that way of being collapses, and perhaps a new way is found. But that kind of thing, I think, is what’s needed.
Can we talk about the decision to explore all this as fiction instead of non-fiction? You could have written a non-fiction book about migration that addressed all the same concerns…
I think non-fiction can do different things. It can imagine a different tomorrow, can speculate on where we’re going, how we can avoid this, or choose that. And I might do something like that. But I think stories have a real power, in that they don’t just address the rational, logic-based side of ourselves that says, ‘Let me construct an argument that you will find compelling.’ They bring with them an emotional reality, and we use that emotional reality to navigate this world as well.
We talk about being ‘moved’ by a book: that word means having a strong emotional reaction, but also, literally, being shifted. I think novels shift people in very interesting ways, because a novel can’t tell you what you feel, in the same way that if you’re in a relationship with someone, they can’t tell you what you feel about them. I could say, ‘You should be feeling this right now,’ and you might say, ‘Well that’s not what I’m feeling at all.’ Novels are like that.
Fiction can bring you in proximity to distant things while you’re sitting by yourself in your living room. With a book in your hands, you can get close to all sorts of things. You have an emotional experience, and that emotional experience is very much to do with you.
It’s the same way that, if you were to go on safari and see some animal, a lioness making a kill, or lion cubs playing together, it’s you that is making that experience, that is creating its meaning in your mind. And novels do something like that.
Were there certain books that did that for you?
Yes, of course there will be books like 1984 and Brave New World and that sort of thing. There were also books that were about a radically different way of looking at the world: James Baldwin and Toni Morrison on race in America, for example.
A book doesn’t necessarily have to have a futuristic angle to shape how a reader thinks about the future; by expanding your sense of empathy in different ways or reorienting you towards different things, even a book set in the past might change your sense of the future.
The one thing that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe did - inventing a story where children during the Blitz emerge in a different world - that wasn't exactly fantasy for me, having just moved to America from Pakistan, which seemed an entirely different world. My feeling was sort of: of course, this is what happens to people.
Or when I read Lord Of the Rings, and it was full of hyper-formal relationships and hierarchies of family, sex - it had such complexity in its almost medieval political and social structures, and effectively races and castes; that was not dissimilar to moving to Pakistan and dealing with Pakistani society as a young Californian boy. It’s very weird how literature can do these things. It needn’t be about the future to be about your future.
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Nadia and Saeed are two ordinary young people, attempting to do an extraordinary thing - to fall in love - in a world turned upside down. Theirs will be a love story but also a story about how we live now and how we might live tomorrow, of a world in crisis and two human beings travelling through it.
Civil war has come to the city which Nadia and Saeed call home. Before long they will need to leave their motherland behind - when the streets are no longer useable and the unknown is safer than the known. They will join the great outpouring of people fleeing a collapsing city, hoping against hope, looking for their place in the world . . .