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‘Exit West’ author Mohsin Hamid answers your questions

Mohsin Hamid says he has been migrating his whole life, his own experience playing a part of the inspiration for his newest novel. Hamid, author of our March pick for the NewsHour-New York Times book club Now Read This, joins Jeffrey Brown to answer questions from readers, plus, Jeff announces April’s book.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, a work of fiction explores migration, violence, love and fear.

    Jeffrey Brown sits down with the author of our March pick for Now Read This, our monthly book club. It's a partnership with The New York Times.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Two young people fall in love in an unnamed city in the Muslim world and, as violence takes hold, they're forced to flee, joining a mass migration that's become one of the hallmarks and most contention events of our time.

    But this is a novel, "Exit West," that uses realism and some magic to capture life for millions today and a possible future.

    As we do every month, we have asked you to send in questions. And author Mohsin Hamid is here to answer as many as we can fit in.

    Mohsin, nice to see you again.

  • Mohsin Hamid:

    Thank you.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Thanks for coming.

    I will get right to it.

    There were a lot of people who wondered — this is a little unusual to get right to this, but a lot of people about how this matched up with you, right?

    So, Elaine from Fayetteville, Arkansas, "Is any part of this novel drawn from your own experience?"

  • Another question:

    "Are your main characters based on real people you know?"

  • Mohsin Hamid:

    Well, I have been migrating my whole life, so, in a way, I suppose I was always going to write at some point a novel about migration.

    I moved to California when I was 3, and then back to America when I was 18 from Pakistan, London, now back to Pakistan. So the experience of migration and the emotional pain and confusion that comes from it, I think, do in a way come from me.

    But, at the same time, the horrors Saeed and Nadia experience are things that I'm not familiar with, but are a bit like nightmares for me. Living in Pakistan, it's someone that one is terrified could happen, as opposed to what has been happening.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You chose — a lot of people noticed that the — not giving — well, there are the names of the two characters, but not other characters, right? Some places are named, but not the city where they're from.

    So, Christina Pike (ph) from Cherry Valley, California, "Was Mr. Hamid trying to give this story a timeless, universal quality by not giving a specific location to the city?"

  • Mohsin Hamid:

    A bit. It's a good question.

    I think that, for me, the nameless city partly was because I didn't want to name it Lahore, where I live, because something terrible happens to that city. And it would have broken my heart to do it to my own city.

    But, partly, I wanted the reader to be able imagine it as their city or the city of their father or mother or their best friend.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And Jill from Connecticut, Bob Olson (ph) in Minnesota, "What is the thought behind giving the only two protagonists names in the book?"

  • Mohsin Hamid:

    The novel covers a lot of ground. It moves from place to place. Different characters come into it.

    And having only two named characters just, I think, keeps the reader in touch with the emotional heart of the story, that whoever else you meet, they matter, but it's really these two, this couple, that the book is all about.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    They move, others move — and this was the magic I was referring to — for those who have not read the book, people move through open doors.

    Explain that, because, obviously, that interested our readers.

  • Mohsin Hamid:

    So, in the novel, these black doors begin to appear, black rectangles where doors used to be.

    So maybe you're in your apartment, and the door to your bathroom has been replaced this black rectangle. And if you push through it, you're not longer in D.C. or wherever you live. You're somewhere halfway around the world, like Tokyo or Bangkok.

    And suddenly in the novel billions of people begin to move, and the whole world starts to change.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And so a lot of people asked about that device.

    And I was interested. Conversely, some people, Connor (ph) from Saint Louis said, "How and why did you decide not to write anything about the couple's physical journey out of the company?"

  • Mohsin Hamid:

    Well, I because what has happened is, we have become so focused on the story of how somebody crosses the border, how did you cross the Mediterranean in a small boat, or how did you cross the U.S.-Mexico border, crawl underneath the barbed wire?

    And we think that people who have done that are different from us. It makes us imagine that that's all their life consisted of, and that's very different from us.

    But once you take away that part of their story, you're left with people who are just like us, actually, that any of us can have this experience. And so hopefully taking away that part of the story doesn't minimize the importance in the real world that that happens, but reminds us that that is not what makes these people who they are.

    They are people just like us.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But if you put it into a kind of magic setting, that opens up a whole other issue, doesn't it? Because then we wonder what — who are they, what's going on, how does this even happen?

  • Mohsin Hamid:

    Well, I think that what is happening is, technology works a bit like magic.

    So, right now, most of us have a little black rectangle in our pocket or our backpack or our purse. And when we look at it, our consciousness goes far, far away from our bodies, like magically appearing somewhere else, looking at your phone, and suddenly you're reading about the moon or Mars or Antarctica.

    And I thought, what would happen if your body could move as easily as your mind can move? I think technology is obliterating geographic distance. And so the doors in a way give life to that.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    There was a question I was quite interested in, because it kind of goes to your thinking about how you write.

    It's, "I have seen 'Exit West' described as a fairy tale. I'm not sure that's entirely accurate, but the language in the book does have, to me," this reader, "striking style that reminds me of someone telling a story. I felt like a listener in some ways, rather than a reader."

  • Mohsin Hamid:

    I'm really happy to hear that. I write by reading myself, myself out loud again and again. I think that we…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You walk around the room talking to yourself, reading?

  • Mohsin Hamid:


    If you were to see me from a distance, you would think that I was crazy, just this guy pacing around in his study talking to himself. But, yes, I'm reading constantly. I read two hours out loud for every one hour I write.

    But I think the reason why that matters is because we imagine we read with our eyes, but we actually process words and language through circuitry in our minds connected to our ears.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And there was a lot of people wondering — I'm not going to give away the ending for everybody, but a lot of people wondering about where this leaves you.

    Are you optimistic about the situation, the refugee situation?

  • Mohsin Hamid:

    I'm optimistic about our species.

    You know, we are descended from refugees, all of us. Our people have migrated. Everybody comes from the mother continent of Africa. And now people have moved on since then.

    So I think that we will find a way. Human beings do. And the current fear that we have of the future, I suspect we will overcome it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right.

    We're going to continue our talk. And we will have that entire conversation available online.

    For now, first, let me say thank you, Mohsin Hamid, for joining us.

  • Mohsin Hamid:

    Thank you.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And let me tell you at home all about our pick for April, as we turn back to nonfiction.

    The next book is "The Death and Life of The Great Lakes." It's an epic and wonderfully told story of history, science and reportage about the largest source of freshwater in the world and the threat to America's waterways.

    Prize-winning author Dan Egan will join us for online extras all month and then answer your questions right here at the end of April.

    So, remember, you can join Now Read This on Facebook and through the "NewsHour" site. We're at 51,000 readers and counting in the book club. And, most importantly, everybody's reading along.

    Join us. Thanks.

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