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Mohsin Hamid’s Novel Imagines a Miracle of Migration

'Exit West' conjures a world where there are no barriers to movement.


Saeed and Nadia are from an unnamed city in an unnamed country. They are dating but unmarried. Nadia wears a long black robe but she doesn’t pray. Their city is being divided up block by block: Some areas are held by the militants, some by the government. The two lovers cannot move around freely. Under these conditions windows become dangerous when you’re sheltering indoors; if the bullet doesn’t, a shard of glass might catch you in just the wrong part of the body.

EXIT WEST by Mohsin Hamid
Riverhead Books, 240 pp., $26.00

While she is in the car but not driving, “checking inside for an earring she thought she had lost,” Saeed’s mother is clipped by “a stray heavy-caliber round passing through the windshield.” The bullet takes with it “a quarter of Saeed’s mother’s head.” It is around this time in Mohsin Hamid’s new novel Exit West that doors begin to act miraculously, like magical portals.

Faced by an impossible situation, Saeed and Nadia leave their city. But they do not get visas or travel on a bus or airplane. Just as fear changed the way that residents of the unnamed city regard their windows, something about doors has changed too. Throughout the city, “Rumors had begun to circulate of doors that could take you elsewhere, often to places far away, well removed from this death trap of a country.” People who knew somebody who knew somebody claimed that “a normal door...could become a special door, and it could happen without warning, to any door at all.” Like the reader, the city’s denizens at first think this is a silly rumor. “But most people began to gaze at their own doors a little differently nonetheless.”

The rumor proves true. Nothing else in the novel is particularly magical: Hamid instead imagines a world in which one tiny little thing has changed. Saeed and Nadia pay a smuggler to bring them to a door. They do not know where they will arrive upon passing through.

This is not how it works in our world. The process of applying for asylum in a richer country can span months and years—even decades. Although the wealthy have many more routes to finding alternative citizenships, there remain many obstacles between them and a new nationality, and for the poor, the hurdles are higher still. And so, our mainstream literature of migration (Eugenides’s Middlesex, the Homeric epics) has tended to focus on the journey. We even have a maxim about journeys and destinations to tell us which is more important.

Hamid sees things differently: Exit West strips the migration story of the actual process by which people might get to their destination, conjuring instead a world with no barriers to movement. As he wrote in the Guardian in 2014, migration is, he believes, a fundamental human right: “I imagine that centuries hence, when people are finally free to move as they please around the planet Earth, they will look back at this moment and wonder, just as we wonder about those who kept slaves, how people who seemed so modern could do such things to their fellow human beings, caging them like animals—merely for wanting to wander, as our species always has and always will.”

The analogy with slavery is a very heavy one—a point made in thick permanent marker—but it is useful because it reminds us that border control is about freedom. Or rather, it is about denying freedom of movement to people whose environment guarantees harm to them. In this way, restrictions on migration mirror but invert the structures of slavery. Each system tells the subaltern where she may or may not go, and by extension whether she may or may not have the freedom to dictate whether she lives or dies.

Hamid’s own life has been shaped by movement: Both the necessity for it and the experience. Born in Pakistan, he spent a childhood in the USA while his father got his PhD, then returned to Lahore before college in the US, adulthood in London, then another return to Pakistan, where he is now based. All Hamid’s novels—Exit West is his fourth—are to some extent about globalization: The people it leaves behind, and the new stories it brings into being. By dint of his focus on the global south, his characters’ grow against the backdrop of the inequality fostered by global capitalism. In each book, he pursues the problem of the self and choice: Who shall I choose to be in the world, now that I can?

In his three earlier novels—Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia—Hamid worked in a satirical voice that he has now left behind. These were books from before the migrant crisis of our time. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia focuses on a single unnamed man, born poor in South Asia (again, his city and country are unnamed) who rises to great wealth. The novel sends up the narrative optimism of the great novels of multiculturalism of the 1990s and 2000s: Books like Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Small Island by Andrea Levy, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi. These novels gave us richly detailed and empathetic accounts of new lives in rich Western countries, with sprawling interrelated multiplots, a proliferation of sensory detail, and riotous humor. They caught a wave of reader enthusiasm for maximalist and international(ist) books about human experience. Each is an authentically postmodern novel of migrant life that matched their readership’s liberal faith in multiculturalism.

On the other side of the door, Saeed and Nadia find themselves lying on a bathroom floor. That bathroom is on the Greek island of Mykonos. The couple become residents of a refugee camp. Then they find another door, and Nadia and Seed join the great tide of humanity pouring into London. Nadia and Saeed do not like to unpack their bags, so that they can be ready to go at any moment.

In contrast to Hamid’s earlier work, Exit West is a novel of restraint and only subtle humor and romance. Hamid refrains from naming the city where the lovers begin. But the book rapidly becomes an ambitious and far-roaming tale of migration and adventure. This gesture arguably places Exit West in the tradition of postmodern magical realism inhabited by the likes of Italo Calvino and Angela Carter, where little doses of fantasy (raining flowers, or telekinesis) break the ordinary world’s laws. But the magic is limited to this single phenomenon, which feels like something quite new.

Before they leave their home city, Nadia speaks with Saeed’s father. He wants her to promise to look after his son. But she knows that “by making the promise he demanded she make she was in a sense killing him.” When we migrate, Nadia knows, “we murder from our lives those who we leave behind.” And he turns out to be right: “as it transpired Saeed would not, after this night that was just beginning, spend another night with his father again.”

In How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Hamid wrote that “time is the stuff of which a self is made.” Exile, too, has a temporality. The final night of a father and son is, in the moment of narration, a “night that was just beginning.” Hamid lengthens the night of farewell into a concept—the night you last saw your father, a moment whose significance is forever. Looking back over years, as if they were a territory, the narrator is choosing moments to dwell inside, to understand. With this poetic and slow, considered style, Hamid’s language wraps the act of migration in an elegiac feeling. Elegy suggests a death, and this novel indeed frames immigration as the act of leaving one’s home and the ending of a life rather than as an act of arriving and beginning a proliferation of new lives, as White Teeth did.

Hamid’s approach to time has a powerful defamiliarizing effect on the stories we are used to consuming as news. Imagine a CNN segment on refugees from one of the countries in our headlines, but one pixel of the television screen—if only it were visible—containing the memories and imaginations of a single family. We do not expect such intimacy from this genre of story, or at least we expect something as intimate and horrific as a photograph of a dead child in the shallows.

What is home? Before Nadia and Saeed leave, Hamid gives us his theory: Home is a knot in time. After the mother’s literal death and before the father’s figurative death—the moment of departure—Nadia moves into Saeed’s childhood home. Every day, Saeed’s father comes across “objects that had belonged to his wife and so would sweep his consciousness out of the current others referred to as the present, a photograph or an earring or a particular shawl worn on a particular occasion.” Within each object, a timeline extends back into the old self: In leaving that old home, the migrant is cut off from that timeline with a sense of sharp finality.

Our narrator describes the British response to the new migrants in the anthropological language of a visitor from the future; he calls the white nationalists who hate the newcomers “natives.” This term casts the white Europeans as native inhabitants, experiencing something like a wave of colonization. They certainly had no choice in the matter of the doors opening. But of course, the British are the great paradigmatic colonizers. So, the natives’ distressed reaction at the newcomers’ arrival is ironic, and thus a little funny, but also worrying. Nobody likes tasting their own medicine. Before long, the arrivals are curtailed to a city district of their own, to which the authorities cut off electricity. “Dark London,” the citizens call it.

In contrast to the knotted flows of time that characterize a home, migrant life feels like displacement from the self. Nadia is living (at least) two lives: Her own, and the one her own life symbolizes in political terms. That symbolic life is represented by the media and becomes something else entirely.

One day, Nadia sits on the steps of a building looking at her phone. On the other side of the street is a detachment of troops and a tank. At the very same time, Nadia “thought she saw online a photograph of herself sitting on the steps of a building reading the news on her phone across the street from a detachment of troops and a tank, and she was startled.” How could this be? Nadia wondered, “how she could both read the news and be the news, and how the newspaper could have published this image of her simultaneously, and she looked about for a photographer.”

The couple travel on to another country; their relationship changes. Nadia and Saeed see other worlds and other windows. Each of them discards parts of the self they brought with them from the other side of the door, but keeps and strengthens other parts.

As the doors continue to open across the world, human beings move from the global south towards the richest countries. But other things happen. Some go the opposite way: A white man on the brink of suicide takes a chance and finds a new life in Namibia. An elderly gay couple find each other through a door which is near both of their homes, in Amsterdam and Havana. In these stories, Hamid shows that tales of migration always contain traditional romance and cinematic flourish, even when most of the news shows pain and deprivation and exile.

In his Guardian piece, Hamid cited Emma Lazarus’s 1883 “New Colossus,” the poem embossed in metal letters on the Statue of Liberty. “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,” the poem commands. Hamid’s novel imagines a world where the philosophy behind these lines—that people should be able to take refuge in countries who have shelter—is untrammeled by law. Donald Trump’s ban on Muslims entering the United States would be impossible if a door, any door, could open at any moment open and let a stream of humanity in. “I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Lazarus’s poem ends. The creative gesture is subtle and extreme at the same time, and the result is a novel of exceptional focus. Hamid stays with his protagonists like a spirit looking over their shoulders: The voice is sensitive, tender, as if these characters really are beloved.

Exit West is a little more like a thought experiment than true magical realism. What if natural laws gave way, in one tiny aspect, to moral law? This is the final effect of Hamid’s new formal exploration of migration in fiction. His experiment reveals a moral nexus of migration rights that no other work has yet uncovered. Exit West meets the challenge of thinking through a new world, governed by isolationist fear.

Hamid’s care for his protagonists, the sheer insistence in the novel of human beings’ importance to one another, is an artistic and a political statement. People should be able to escape the places where death is avoidably closing in on them, Hamid says. But political exigency does not numb people. Nobody’s relationship with their father is turned off like a tap once they become one person in a stream of people fleeing; time just does not work that way. A home is a historical knot. Sometimes they must be untied, and sometimes we must tie them again.