That feeling of being a migrant is a universal one: Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid. Photo: Special Arrangement  

“In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.” Thus begins Mohsin Hamid’s novel Exit West, which has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. (The winner will be announced on October 17.) The consuming, magical story is of Nadia and Saeed who face up to the collapse of the world as they knew it, and their journeys to find a better life. Sometimes terrifying and at other times tinged with humour, Exit West was identified by the Booker judges, along with five others, as being innovative while addressing important issues of the time. Hamid’s previous novels were equally timely: Moth Smoke dealt with the complexities and contradictions of life in Lahore, while The Reluctant Fundamentalist told the story of a Pakistani banker’s disillusionment with life in post-9/11 America. How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia parodied the obsession with rags-to-riches stories and the increasing focus on ostentatious lives. In an interview over telephone from Lahore, where he now lives, after having spent time across the world including in the U.S. and the U.K., Hamid spoke about his belief that we are all migrants in varying degrees, why he keeps his books brief, and the role that children’s literature played in inspiring his latest work. Excerpts:

This is a story of movement, in a way endless migration. You’ve lived all over the world. Do you see yourself as a migrant? Or what is in the story of a migrant that you can relate to?

I think my life has entirely been that of a migrant. In the process, I have become a thoroughly mongrelised being. When I was younger, this thought made me feel different from other people, but as I’ve got older, I’ve realised that the sense of feeling foreign is universal. You can be the only poet in a family of engineers, the only gay person in a family that is straight. Your identity is so multifaceted that on some aspect you are invariably a migrant — different to other people. I’ve come to realise the experience is universal, so I wanted to write about it. “They” are not they, “they” are every one of us.

Along with humour there is a lot of anger in the book. Is this what drove you?

I think I take the current anti-migration sentiment, which is becoming so vocal and loud everywhere, quite personally because that is who I am. The focus on racial and ethnic purity that is being campaigned around in North America and the sense of religious feeling in India and Pakistan and elsewhere... I feel that as a very personal oppression. It bothered me, so my engagement with the topic comes from that. I don’t like what I am seeing, and what I am trying to do is appeal to what is human and is everybody. It does touch all of us. When the forces are aligning against hybridity, it harms everyone as we are all migrants. Growing up in Pakistan, I know just how oppressive that kind of puritanical mindset can be.

The protagonists, Nadia and Saeed, are from an unnamed country. Why did you choose to keep anonymity in this way?

I often use nameless places in my work as a way of allowing the readers to create more of the novel and to make it potentially about their experiences, what they know, a city that they have perhaps seen on television. I have met people who’ve read Exit West in different ways. Some say, “Of course it’s Lahore.” And with others it’s, “Of course it’s Damascus.” My job is to include space for the reader to create.

So you want the reader to have an active role in your writing?

The novel I hand over to the reader is a bunch of letters on paper. The reader is an emotional being, and images and thoughts come from that interaction with those printed words. I try to write short novels and leave details out not because I want to be minimalist, but because I think that it enables the readers’ creativity and interaction with the book.

You deal with the rise of nativist sentiment and you draw parallels between the nativists and militants. Do you see their intolerance as emerging from the same sentiment?

I think that nativist sentiment is entirely understandable. But what we should be asking is, what actions do you take to enforce those feelings? And that in the process of treating people as the other, you dehumanise yourself, just in the way the slave master did.

There are a lot of very vivid scenes, emotions. Did you speak to a lot of refugees to get a sense of what they went through?

I did no research whatsoever. For me it was not about imagining what things would be like for someone else. I imagined what it would be like if those things happened to me. My starting point was, of course, Lahore. We’ve had bombings, terror attacks, choppers in the sky. There are frightening moments and I started from that experience.

How frightening was that experience of imagining it?

It is frightening. The fear of the apocalypse is something that many people in Lahore feel and I began to explore that fear in myself. Part of the horror of refugees is not that we can’t imagine what they’ve been through, but that we imagine it. What terrifies us is that our life could become just like theirs; I could go from being a doctor or engineer in my home country to a construction worker or taxi driver — only if I’m very lucky. I began to feel that the fear we have is a universal feeling. We all have it whether we live in London or New York or Paris. Cities have become such complex entities. Perhaps one fears the rise of fascist dictators or the collapse of the economy. We all have this fear that we are all potentially within distance of the apocalypse.

The people in your stories move through these mysterious doors — some guarded, others not. What made you choose to do this rather than the terrible transit stories that many refugees endure?

The story of how they get from one place to another is very important and harrowing, but there is so much focus on this and it tends to create a different category of human beings, those seen behind barbed wire fences — the category of the other. The way these stories are so often told functions to create the sense that they are others, and I did not want to create that feeling of otherness.

It is also about the way technology manifests itself in our lives. It feels like magic and I genuinely love using it... the way it connects us... even though I’m not always entirely sure how it works. When we allow ourselves to have emotional reactions, you can get closer to reality, which is that geographical distances can collapse.

In the book, people don’t always journey from the East to the West; sometimes they find happiness the other way. Is that reflective of your feelings, and feeds into your own move back to Lahore?

The only reason why we can only conceive of movement from the East to the West and not the other direction is that we are preoccupied with the present moment. It’s not always been the case. It’s manifest in our skin and our language. Migration isn’t a one-directional process; it’s a colossal process that has been happening in all directions for thousands of years.

Are you optimistic about the future? The novel suggests you may be.

I think that the direction of history suggests that as a species we are moving towards greater equality and away from the notion that the accident of where you are born should fundamentally determine the course of your life. History is likely to take us to a better place in the medium term. In the near term there are some potential horrors, but I think that the direction of travel is clear and it’s worth taking the longer view. We should have a sense of optimism that the future is going to be better rather than nostalgia. The notion that we should somehow emulate the past is ridiculous — it wasn’t glorious.

You have experimented with different styles of writing, including the second-person narrative. Exit West follows a more conventional form. How do you decide what form to take?

My books have different formal structures and function in different ways, but the first three were, in a way, permutations of an untrustworthy narrative: you, the reader, had to judge the narrative, and tasked with making sense of something that doesn’t quite make sense. The new novel doesn’t have the untrustworthy narrator: it is trying to say what it means. I’ve been reading a lot of children’s books to my children and you often have the narrator on the side of the character, such as with (Roald Dahl’s) Fantastic Mr. Fox. You are really cheering on Mr. Fox. Children’s literature gets you on the side of the character. You aren’t trying to pull a fast one on the reader: it’s about the writer and the reader being on the same side. It’s very different to the narratives we often encounter in adult literature. It’s a powerful force, but also very daunting because when you have an untrustworthy narrative, you put the burden of trustfulness on the reader, whereas with this form you are carrying the burden of trustfulness, which in some ways is much more difficult to carry than the alternative.

However, I guess the way in which this book is similar to what I wanted to achieve with the other three books is in it raising questions about how it makes you feel. You will feel something and examine why you feel that and how it affects your politics in whatever way it does. Stories have a chance to create a different emotional narrative and what I am attempting to do is tell stories of people who are between things. It’s not so much that I want them to agree with me or subscribe to a particular way of thinking, but I want them to be aware that in the act of reading how their feelings about things interact with words and they can help us interrogate our own positions. What is unique about the novel is that in solitude it allows you to reclaim the thoughts of two people: you and the novelist. We as readers are in this very strange state: we are ourselves and not ourselves. One person and two, and in that very pregnant state interesting stuff becomes possible.

You’ve always chosen books of our time. What is next?

All my books originated in a personal crisis, and an issue that is important to me. The next one will inevitably come from something I am dealing with. Something that is bothering me.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2022 11:41:21 PM |

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