Books

Pakistani author says it’s time to imagine a future with hope

Mohsin Hamid didn’t think he was predicting President Donald Trump or the Brexit vote when he finished his latest book, “Exit West.”
Mohsin Hamid didn’t think he was predicting President Donald Trump or the Brexit vote when he finished his latest book, “Exit West.”

Mohsin Hamid didn’t think he was predicting President Donald Trump’s election or the Brexit vote when he finished his latest book, “Exit West.”

“To be very honest, if you’d asked me when I handed in the draft of my novel, which was last March, would Britain vote to leave the European Union in the Brexit vote and would Trump be the President of the United States, I would have said no to both and I would have been pretty confident about my answers,” he says. “I was just as wrong as lots of other people.”

Granted, the Pakistani author – who reads from that novel, “Exit West,” Monday at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh – perceived at the time that nativism was on the rise, and that xenophobia and anger toward migrants were building. He just didn’t know these phenomena, which are thematic to “Exit West,” would feature so prominently in global politics by the book’s release. He thought there was more time.

“The world moved more quickly than I thought,” he says.

“Exit West” zeroes in on the lives of two refugees, Saeed and Nadia, who flee a war zone through a magical door that transports them to a seemingly random endpoint thousands of miles away. They are the only two named characters in the novel, too; the author even leaves it to the reader’s imagination which city and country they’re fleeing, as neither are named.

By naming only his two main characters, Hamid purposefully humanized the refugees, casting them as heroes. He wanted to leave the world around them vague and impressionistic.

“In children’s books and fables, very often, the characters almost become not exactly archetypes, but they become something the reader can put their imagination into and animate for themselves,” Hamid says. “The Gruffalo is just a Gruffalo ... Fantastic Mr. Fox is just the fox. I wanted, once you move slightly away from these two main characters, for the book to open up and become a bit less detailed, and let you fill in from your own experience what you think is going on.”

That’s something that fiction can do – not just science-fiction or utopian fiction, but fiction that looks at the human condition and projects it a little bit forward and says, ‘Things will change. ... there is a reason to be hopeful.’

Author Mohsin Hamid

Having migrated multiple times, Hamid wanted to write about the universality of migration. It’s natural, and everyone does it. Even if you never move from your hometown, he offers, you migrate through time. Yet human migration is complicated by anti-immigration and nativist attitudes in the U.S. and in Britain, he says, by people obsessed with notions of purity and with the idea of so-called real Americans or real Brits. This is not a uniquely Western phenomenon, he says, noting that it happens in Pakistan, too. Yet nationalistic philosophies are incongruous with Hamid’s experience as a global person.

“I felt that people like me that were kind of hybridized people – part British, part Pakistani, part American, all mashed together – the existence of people like me, it sort of depends on there being a world where we are allowed to mix and combine in interesting new ways,” he says.

The power of fiction

Hamid was born in Lahore, Pakistan, where he lives today, but he lived in California from age 3 to 9. When his family moved back to Pakistan, he couldn’t speak a word of Urdu. Though a Pakistani citizen, he felt like a California kid moving to a foreign country. Nine years later, when he returned to the U.S., he was much more Pakistani, so he experienced it in reverse.

He describes the experience in terms of C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” which he read shortly after leaving California for Pakistan.

“The kids go through this wardrobe and they arrive in the magical land of Narnia,” Hamid says. “That didn’t strike me as strange at all. To go through a wardrobe and come to a strange and magical country was not that different from what I’d done moving from America to Pakistan.”

From the Chronicles of Narnia books to Superman comics to films like “The Last Starfighter,” literature and culture are rich with stories of people who travel away from their native soil to become heroes, Hamid points out. Yet if the person in that situation has dark skin – say, a complexion like Hamid’s – they’re less likely in the Western imagination to leave home and save the universe, he notes. So in “Exit West,” Hamid has his heroes pass through their own wardrobe-like portal and travel far from home, where they must navigate refugee camps and avoid violence against immigrants.

Hamid believes in the power of fiction, especially in hard times. He’s been in a funk, stuck in a sustained low-grade depression since the elections in England and the U.S., he admits. And even though Pakistan is not one of the majority-Muslim countries on Trump’s travel ban, Hamid is still concerned about how he’ll be treated at the U.S. border. He was subjected to regular security screenings after the Sept. 11 attacks, but he always trusted that because he had nothing to hide and he was not a threat, he would ultimately be fine. He’s lost that trust now, he says. He points to the Feb. 6 detention and interrogation of Australian children’s author Mem Fox at Los Angeles International Airport as an example of the U.S. border policy’s shift. (Fox, 70, has said she was held for detained for almost two hours, insulted and questioned by border agents about her visa.)

“It’s so hard in this moment for us to imagine a future that we actually want and we think can happen,” Hamid says, meaning globally. When people can’t articulate a realistic future they would want to live in, he says, they become depressed. Some of them even start listening to xenophobes, zealots and demagogues.

“That’s why I think one important thing is to start imagining futures that have hope in them,” Hamid says. “That’s something that fiction can do – not just science-fiction or utopian fiction, but fiction that looks at the human condition and projects it a little bit forward and says, ‘Things will change. They might even change drastically, but there is a reason to be hopeful.’ 

Author appearance

Mohsin Hamid will read from “Exit West” and answer questions at 7 p.m. Monday, March 6, at Quail Ridge Books at North Hills. The book officially goes on sale Tuesday, March 8.

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