Mohsin Hamid: ‘there’s a real fear of the future right now’
The Pakistani author of ‘Exit West’ on mass migration, Trumpism and the power of doors
Moshin Hamid: “It’s entirely possible to construct a society which is much more equitable but doesn’t put restrictions on migration.” Photograph: Anna Huix/The New York Times
“My sense is that there’s a real fear of the future right now,” says Mohsin Hamid. “People all over the world are finding it hard to imagine a future that’s going to occur that they’d like to live in. In that context, exploring subjects like social change and mass migration, I think it’s very important to find something to be hopeful about. Articulating that and having a sense of hope for me is a direct political response to things like Trumpism and Isis and Brexit.”
We’re sitting in the lobby of Dún Laoghaire’s Royal Marine Hotel. In an hour or so, we’ll rush down the rain-lashed street to the Pavilion Theatre to continue our conversation in front of an audience for a public discussion as part of the Mountains to Sea festival of Hamid’s new novel, Exit West, a powerful meditation on the very contemporary subject of mass migration and refugees in the 21st century.
The Pakistani author’s fourth novel – his best-known remains 2007’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist – could hardly be more attuned to the current news agenda. Two young people, Saeed and Nadia, begin a tentative relationship in a city “swollen by refugees” but “not yet openly at war”.
As conditions around them worsen, and the threat of violence becomes brutally real, they begin to consider escape. In the novel’s central, non-realist device, doors start opening all over the world, offering immediate access to faraway places – go through one in Dubai and you might find yourself in Vienna.
I want to write novels that people who don’t write novels might read
Saeed and Nadia flee their home, leaving their family and country behind and becoming part of what Hamid refers to as a “migration apocalypse” travelling from the Greek island of Mykonos to Germany and on to London and California.
Short and simple
For such an ambitious subject, Exit West is a remarkably short and simple book, told in spare, unadorned prose.
“You write the smallest book you can to do the things you want to do,” says Hamid, who’s wearing a badge with an image that crops up in the novel: a red heart with an open door.
“I want to write novels that people who don’t write novels might read. My imagined relationship with the reader is that we spend an afternoon or evening together and by that time you’ve read the book. I think of my novels as a story to be told in one sitting.”
For Exit West, he dispensed with the highly wrought narrative voices which were so integral to his previous books. “In each case they depended on a narrative that was slightly skewed,” he says.
“In this novel I decided I will say exactly what I mean. Why not write a book that says exactly what you want to say? In a sense it’s a less oppositional relationship between the writer and the reader. For a long time I tried to interrogate what a novel meant. This time I didn’t want to do that.”
Princeton and Harvard
Hamid spent his early childhood in the US, before returning with his parents to Pakistan for several years before studying at Princeton and Harvard. He spent almost a decade in London, and has dual British and Pakistani nationality.
He continues to travel, but is now largely based in Lahore. These peripatetic experiences have clearly left a mark on his thinking and writing on identity, nationality and social change.
“The doors in the book feel very real and emotionally true to me, even if the physics of them is suspect,” he says. “They allow us to focus on the story of deciding to leave a place and to take out the supposedly dramatic bit which is the saga of how they get from there to here.”
He wanted instead, he says, “to focus on the other 70 years” in the life of someone who migrates from one country to another.
The doors resonate as a metaphor for the disorienting immediacy of travel and communication in the modern world, while it’s no accident that they also recall certain classics of children’s literature. Hamid recalls his return from the US to Pakistan at the age of nine.
It felt to me not dissimilar at all to what happens to the kids who go through that door in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
“I did not speak a word of Urdu. I didn’t remember Pakistan, I hadn’t been born there. It was 1980 and telephone calls were very expensive. I never corresponded with or had any contact with any of the friends of my first nine years ever again.
“It felt to me not dissimilar at all to what happens to the kids who go through that door in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Of course there were no centaurs in Pakistan but the emotional reality of it was there.”
In some ways, he agrees, we all now live in a world in which technology collapses time and distance in a way previous generations would have considered magical, and we’re still struggling to understand the consequences.
“Yes, and the trends you talk about fundamentally challenge the notion of what it means to be present at a particular time in a specific place. In an environment where there’s so much information and your mind is moving forward and back, you are moving away from both the temporal present and the locational, spatial geographical present in an unprecedented way. There’s some good in that, but there’s also some potential bad. It’s unclear that all this makes us inherently better off. It might or it might not.”
Doesn’t it also change the traditional understanding of the migrant experience? A century ago emigration meant never seeing your family again. Now our relatives are instantly available on a Skype screen whenever we want to see them.
“The question we have to ask is what is the nature of that seeing? I set up my first Skype account so my parents in Pakistan could see their grandchild in London.
“But at the moment, my children see their grandparents every morning and every evening in Lahore. I think that results in a fundamentally different kind of relationship than Skyping for 15 minutes once a week.
“It’s true we can now maintain a connection, but is that connection a kind of limbo state, where we are unable to engage in a grieving process and let a relationship go, and we’re also unable to achieve the satisfaction of a truly present relationship?
“I’m not saying this happens all the time but it does lead to a situation for some migrants where they’re trapped in limbo. They haven’t entirely left where they’ve come from but yet they don’t have the satisfaction of relationships where they are now.”
Might this also be a contributory factor to one of the problems attributed to modern migration, the failure of immigrant communities to assimilate and their ensuing alienation?
“It’s interesting to consider this question of assimilation,” says Hamid. “In the US, for example, where there’s much less of a social safety net, a certain degree of assimilation is mandatory because they won’t do anything for you. You’ve got to go out and support yourself.
“Even if you’re a quote-unquote illegal immigrant, you go out there and get a job and stay below the radar. You’re a complete participant and your kids will grow up there. I have been a huge admirer of the social welfare state in western Europe but we have to ask ourselves whether, as currently constructed, it creates insider and outsider communities, migrants versus locals, where labour markets are very hard to get into.
“We’re seeing that not just with migrants from other countries but with younger generations who are almost like another type of migrant. The fact there’s a problem is hard to deny. Ageing generations are continuing to accrue resources to the disadvantage of younger ones.”
The result, he says is mounting debt and unsustainable benefits for older people, with zero-hour contracts, no benefits and mass unemployment for the young. “There’s a huge rigging against the young in western European societies.”
In a recent essay for the Guardian, he suggested that migration was a fundamental human right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights does indeed assert the right to asylum and to free movement in and out of your own country, but it doesn’t mention a universal right to migration.
At some point in the future people are going to look back at this point in history the way we look back at slavery in the United States
So what is the basis for his claim? “On what basis do we tell people that they can’t move?” he responds. “If we say people should be allowed worship in any way they want and love whomever they choose, then what is the basis for saying somebody born in war-torn Somalia has to stay there? They may not believe in Somalia – it’s a human construct they’ve been placed inside of. Why can’t they move?
“I think that at some point in the future people are going to look back at this point in history the way we look back at slavery in the United States.”
But the criticism of modern immigration policies which has fuelled Trumpism, Brexit and other anti-immigration movements in the West is that they benefit economic elites and depress the living standards of the indigenous working class.
“If the argument is that poor people are disproportionately negatively impacted by migration, well then let’s construct a political system where that is not the case,” says Hamid. “It’s entirely possible to construct a society which is much more equitable but doesn’t put restrictions on migration.”
He believes that the current wave of nativism in the West will ebb. “The older and more dominant third of the population is vulnerable to it, but the population as a whole is different. In demographic time we’ll be alright. In one generation’s time I think it will be very different.”
Crisis of ‘whiteness’
He sees the crisis of “whiteness” mirrored in the Muslim community. “They’re very similar, these dynamics, as reactions against the growing heterodoxy of the young. Heterodoxy terrifies lots of people who think their culture is monolithic. If the West turns against its Muslim immigrants, young Muslims will stop searching out. But it’s a rearguard action. It’s not the future for Muslims or for white people.
“For me, the simple fact of human history is that things tend to work out. The bubonic plague happened. The second World War happened. Yet we’re here. That’s not to say these were pleasant things – they were horrific. And yet people have a way of adjusting and adapting and moving on.
“Large-scale migration will happen, whether we like it or not, but hopefully it won’t be a tragedy on the scale of those sorts of things. But it too – even though it’s hard to imagine it today – will probably usher in a new world with all kinds of cross-pollination of ideas and ways of being and liberations for all sorts of people.”
Exit West is published by Hamish Hamilton