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Magical novel ‘Exit West’ explores what makes refugees leave home

March 16, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
In "Exit West," a city in the Muslim world is plunged into violence and two lovers join the mass migration of our time. Mohsin Hamid's story about refugees is a novel, not journalism, but it combines the surreal with the very real. Hamid sits down with Jeffrey Brown to discuss what inspired him and why he says he’s seeing a "failure of imagination" around the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: a most unusual take on the refugee experience now and in the future.

Jeffrey Brown has this latest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

JEFFREY BROWN: An unnamed city in the Muslim world is plunged into violence, and two young lovers are forced to flee, becoming a small part of the mass migrations of our era. But they travel through time and space through magic doors.

“Exit West” is a novel combining the very real with the almost surreal, imagining individuals behind today’s headlines.

Author Mohsin Hamid has spent parts of his life in the U.S. and Europe. He now lives in his native city of Lahore, Pakistan.

And nice to see you again.

MOHSIN HAMID, Author, “Exit West”: Nice to see you.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is in one way a very up-to-the-minute look at the dislocation of individual lives, but, of course, it’s not journalism. It’s art. It’s a novel.

Tell me how you thought about what you were after.

MOHSIN HAMID: Well, I have been moving around my whole life, California, Pakistan, London, New York, Pakistan again.

And I wanted to write about the experience of migration. And I also felt this resistance to migrants was growing, and I wanted to write in response to that.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Saeed and Nadia, the two young people in love, they see their city fall to pieces. They — the violence that we have all grown familiar with, I guess, from newscasts, right, they’re experiencing firsthand.

They leave, but they leave through these magical doors. And it’s a little like “The Chronicle of Narnia,” right, which I read was one of your favorites as a child?

MOHSIN HAMID: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell me about the doors. What are they?

MOHSIN HAMID: Well, I think the doors sort of already exist.

Distance is collapsing in our world. We can travel by stepping into an airplane, as I did coming from Pakistan to America. We can Skype or go on video calls with each other. And we can open up our phones and surf the Internet and be in China or Antarctica.

And I think, in our world, distance really is collapsing. People are getting pushed together in new ways. And the doors are a slightly magical way of capturing that.

JEFFREY BROWN: But there’s — but that’s not what we see in, you know, the typical migrant story.

I mean, you’re describing a kind of globalized world in which you and I might travel around.


JEFFREY BROWN: But these people are refugees.


And I think that it can be a mistake to focus too much upon how they move, you know, crossing the Rio Grande, or crossing the Mediterranean on a small boat. Those are dramatic stories, but the bulk of the migrant or refugee story is, what made you want to leave home? Like, what was so bad that you left and left people that you love behind? And then what happened to you in the new place?

And those two parts of the story are the parts I wanted to focus on.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s interesting to me, because you use a kind of magical realism, but it’s a — you don’t write it as fantasy. It’s a very unembellished language.

And it’s in the same tone as the rest of the story. So, was it interesting for you, hard for you to mix these kind of real and surreal genres?

MOHSIN HAMID: It wasn’t hard. I sort of believed in the doors and then …

JEFFREY BROWN: You believed in them?

MOHSIN HAMID: Yes. I mean, it …

JEFFREY BROWN: One can just find a spot in your city and walk through and you’re in Mykonos, you’re in London, you’re in …

MOHSIN HAMID: Yes, well, you know, I mean, and, as a writer, what you do is, you make up characters that don’t exist, and you believe in them.

And so the doors are a little bit like that. I thought, you know, it often does feel to me that the movement between places is almost instantaneous. And you see people popping up in cities and you wonder, how is this person here?

So, the doors are not described in detail, but the effect of the doors is huge, because millions, billions of people move.

JEFFREY BROWN: You also wonder — I mean, as you follow them through to these very real places, where they meet up with some kindness and also some trauma, some nativist reaction against the migrants, there’s a kind of meditation going on about, what is a nation, who are people, who’s the insider, who’s the outsider.

MOHSIN HAMID: Absolutely.

I think that we’re all migrants. If you lived in the same town your whole life and never move and you’re 80 years old, that town has changed completely. You migrate through time. Your school has been…

JEFFREY BROWN: Wait a minute. You think of us — I mean, even if you have never moved, you’re a migrant just because wherever you are has changed?

MOHSIN HAMID: The novel in a way is about how human life in transient. Stuff changes. And the attempt to hold onto things that don’t change, and to pretend they don’t change, is a mistake, I think.

JEFFREY BROWN: You could have written much of what you’re telling me without us seeing everyday people in boats and rafts and in great danger.

MOHSIN HAMID: In some ways, it feels like world events have taken place the way that the novel suggested they might and I anticipated them.

I didn’t really anticipate them. But when I moved back to Pakistan, I encountered so many people who wanted to leave. And having just lived in London and encountered so much of how people didn’t want people to come, I felt this tension between these two ideas. And the novel expressed that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what do you see happening today?

Because, I mean, on the one hand, we’re having a discussion. You’re what we could call a global citizen. You and I can get on planes and we can travel around to different parts of the world — in some ways, the world much smaller and open, but, in many ways, much more polarized and closed.

How do you explain it?

MOHSIN HAMID: Well, I think there’s been a failure of imagination. Everywhere around the world, people are having difficulty imagining a future.

People are going to move. Things are going to change. And yet all of our leaders seem to be telling us to go back to a previous time when things were better. You know, in Britain, it’s go back before the E.U. In America, it’s make America great again. In much of Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, it’s, you know, go back to the caliphate of 1,000 years ago.

The danger is that we’re not imagining futures, not imagining something where we can go to that’s different and progressive. And that’s, I think, part of the job of a novelist, is to start imaging those futures.

JEFFREY BROWN: Meaning what?

MOHSIN HAMID: Meaning to make people comfortable with what I think is the inevitable reality of a world where billions of people are going to move in the next couple of hundred years. You know, climate will change, sea levels will rise, people will move.

And if we can’t find a way to be hopeful and optimistic and find beauty in that, we’re in real trouble.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the new novel is “Exit West.”

Mohsin Hamid, thank you very much.

MOHSIN HAMID: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Another book I really want to read.