Global migration meets magic in Mohsin Hamid’s timely novel

Moshin Hamid, the British-Pakistani author of ‘Exit West,’ in London, March 1, 2017. — Picture by Anna Huix/The New York Times
Moshin Hamid, the British-Pakistani author of ‘Exit West,’ in London, March 1, 2017. — Picture by Anna Huix/The New York Times

NEW YORK, March 13 — In an unnamed, war-ravaged city in the Muslim world, two young lovers face a wrenching choice. They can stay in their barricaded apartment as their country descends into sectarian bloodshed and chaos, or entrust their lives and fortunes to a human smuggler who promises to spirit them to safety through a magic portal in an abandoned dentist’s office. The couple choose the mysterious doorway and are instantly transported to a Greek island, where they find themselves among hundreds of other desperate refugees.

With its surreal premise, Exit West, an acclaimed new novel by Mohsin Hamid, might feel hallucinatory and distant had it arrived at a different moment. Instead, the novel — which fuses magical realism with a harrowingly vivid story of global migration and displacement — feels ominously relevant.

Hamid, a cultural chameleon and polyglot who was born in Pakistan and spent more than half his life in the United States and London, didn’t intend to write a dystopian parable about the current refugee crisis. When he began working on Exit West four years ago, he started with an abstract idea: A global network of passageways that circumvent borders, allowing migrants to immediately cross oceans and continents and erasing the already porous barriers between nations and cultures.

“The idea of these doors, which I feel already exist, unlocked the form of this novel,” Hamid, 45, said in a Skype interview from his home in Lahore, Pakistan. “I wanted to write a very large book about the entire world on a very small scale, so I needed to find some way of covering a lot of ground.”

Hamid’s literary profile has been growing ever since he dazzled critics with his 2000 debut novel, Moth Smoke, which explored the lives of hard-partying Pakistani youth and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Since then, his three novels have collectively sold a million copies and been translated into 35 languages.

But Exit West is likely to draw a much broader audience, and seems poised to become one of this year’s most significant literary works. To meet demand from booksellers, Hamid’s publisher, Riverhead, had already ordered four printings before the book’s release on Tuesday. Prominent novelists like Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Joyce Carol Oates and Kiran Desai have praised the novel as an urgent and essential story, particularly at a moment when immigrants and Muslims have been demonized.

Hamid, who lived in the United States for 17 years and describes himself as “culturally and emotionally at least half American,” said the last few months have left him frightened and depressed. He wonders whether he will still feel welcome in an America that appears increasingly hostile to foreigners and Muslims. His native country, where he is raising his two young children, has suffered a wave of terrorist attacks by the Islamic State group and the Taliban. The world seems to be veering toward the upheaval and entrenched polarization that Hamid envisioned in the novel.

He never imagined Exit West would become so grimly prescient, with the crisis in Syria displacing millions, and nationalist movements gaining ground in the West. He started writing the story long before rising nativist sentiment led to “Brexit” — the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union — and President Donald Trump signed executive orders targeting immigrants in the country illegally and barring refugees from entering the country.

“The basic impulse, this growing need for so many people to move because of political calamity and environmental catastrophe, and the rise of nativism and tribalism — those things were quite clearly happening,” he said. “While I hadn’t imagined we’d be where we are now, I guess I’m not surprised.”

But while Exit West seems like a dark reflection of our tumultuous times, Hamid said the novel grew out of a hopeful impulse.

“What if we look at a very difficult future — can we still find hope and beauty and love and things that we want?” he said. “For me, this is not a novel about dystopia; actually it’s about looking for signs of hope and optimism in the future.”

The novel represents bold new territory for Hamid, whose earlier works, including The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, were formally innovative and experimental but firmly grounded in reality. “I’ve tried to abide by the laws of physics up until now,” he said.

He drew inspiration from Jorge Luis Borges, and from children’s literature, one of his favourite genres. He grew up devouring books by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and lately has been reading Harry Potter to his seven-year-old daughter. The spare prose in Exit West feels almost biblical at times. The magic doors give the story a mythical sweep, as the refugee couple, Nadia and Saeed, escape to Mykonos, then London, then finally the Bay Area, encountering angry nationalist mobs but also benefiting from the unexpected generosity of strangers.

Chabon said that the surreal elements of the novel allowed Hamid to write about the refugee experience in ways that “few writers would have the courage or chutzpah to get to.”

“What makes this book special is that it takes on a subject that a lot of readers are going to wish they could avert their eyes from,” he said. “Magical realism is about getting you to look at something with fresh eyes and see something marvellous in the everyday, and there’s something radical about treating the refugee experience as something with the potential to be marvellous.” — The New York Times

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