Novelist Mohsin Hamid discusses Aspen Literary Prize-winning ‘Exit West’
Mohsin Hamid, whose timely novel about global refugees “Exit West” won the inaugural Aspen Words Literary Prize in April, will address the Summer Words literary conference here Tuesday.
The new prize from the locally based literary nonprofit is unique in that it seeks not only to recognize literary excellence, but also social impact. Its criteria call for a work of fiction that addresses contemporary issues “and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture.”
The prize jury, led by “Redeployment” author Phil Klay, in its citation for “Exit West” wrote that “by bringing the contemporary refugee crisis into countries that have mostly ignored the suffering beyond their borders, he forces us to ask ourselves how we are reacting to the crisis, and what potential we have to do better. In a world with 50 million displaced people, this is a novel that affects us all.”
In advance of his visit, the Pakistani author discussed the politics and social aims of “Exit West” along with his beliefs in the ability and responsibly of fiction to address geopolitical issues and effect change.
Writing the book, he said, began with some questions about nativist movements he’d seen taking hold around the world in recent years.
“In this world where the whole notion of being a migrant has become incredibly politically charged, is there a way to move beyond this migrant-native dichotomy?” Hamid said in a phone interview from Greece, where he spent a recent holiday with his family following more than a year of book tours. “Is there a way for us to recognize each other as similarly human? And, if so, how can a story reveal that? That was the starting impulse of the book.”
‘I WAS FEELING IT EVERYWHERE’
“Exit West” follows the young migrants Saeed and Nadia, who make their way around the world through magical portals along with a tide of fellow refugees. The book opens as a love story “in a city swollen by refugees, but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war,” but is soon upended by violence, sending the couple fleeing through magic doorways to the Greek islands, to England and eventually to the U.S.
Released a month after President Donald Trump’s inauguration last year, “Exit West” was in direct dialogue with the swirling headlines about Brexit and the Trump travel ban, the border wall and the intensifying Syrian refugee crisis. Writing the book well before those developments, Hamid could sense something was in the air globally that he needed to address.
“The stuff that we’re seeing today isn’t entirely new,” he said. “I was picking up on currents that seemed to be going back a decade or more, of this growing backlash against the mongrel, the hybrid, the immigrant. And I was feeling it everywhere — in America, in Britain and in Pakistan.”
The urgency of the project was personal for Hamid, 46, as much as it was political. The writer describes himself as a “hybrid” and “mongrel,” having been born in Lahore, but spent his early childhood in California, before returning to Pakistan, coming back to the U.S. for college and graduate school, and then living in London and New York before settling back in Lahore with his wife and children.
As a result, he said he finds himself an outsider everywhere.
“My personal identity is someone that is a complete hybrid — not just in America but also in Pakistan,” he said. “I’m not truly one thing. It was that personal project of, ‘If people like me — hybridized people are not wanted in Britain and they’re not wanted in America and not wanted in Pakistan — then through my fiction I need to create a space for people like me to exist.’ So it was a very personal project, and the political and the personal for me are intertwined.”
A short essay Hamid published in the New Yorker earlier this month recounted his early memories of California in the 1970s and how he did not think of himself as Muslim or foreign or different at the time. His generation, he noted, knew a world where that kind of experience was possible — a perspective that’s been key to his fiction.
“I think of the novel as less of this moment and more of this generation, this 25- to 30-year period,” he said.
Just as nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment has grown in the U.S. and Britain in the new millennium, in Pakistan, Hamid said, he also has evolved into an outsider.
“A Western-educated, secular-minded person has, since 9/11, increasingly been something that people think of as not really Pakistani or somehow undesirable,” he said.
As a fiction writer, Hamid is unafraid of stepping into the arena to address thorny geo-political issues and write social novels. “Moth Smoke,” his debut published in 2000, directly addressed the cultural divisions in contemporary Pakistan. “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” his 2007 commercial breakthrough, took on the societal aftermath of 9/11, written as a monologue by a young Pakistani man educated in the U.S. and whose biography parallels Hamid’s. “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia,” published in 2013, is a wry and darkly comic rags-to-riches tale rendered in the form of a self-help book. Its main character is “you,” who digs out of poverty in an unnamed country to make a fortune in a hyper-capitalist society.
Hamid’s books have been translated into more than 30 languages and have made him a truly global writer whose stories crosses all borders.
His work has him traveling constantly, but Hamid likes it that way.
“I’m like a sailor who gets off a boat and feels land-sick on land,” he said with a laugh. “I’m a migrant. You put me in one place and I get bitchy.”
Hamid believes fiction has a unique power to change minds and, maybe, change the world, as the new Aspen literary prize assumes it can. Fiction, Hamid has found, can do things that nonfiction and journalism usually cannot because there’s a key difference: “Often in journalism the story is, ‘Here is what happened to other people,’ whereas in fiction it’s ‘Here is what it feels like when it happens to you.’”
In “Exit West,” the reader experiences what it feels like to leave your family and home behind, to be swindled in an attempt to escape a bloody warzone, to struggle daily to find food and shelter and keep relationships intact — interior human elements impossible to capture in a news report.
Hamid found something universal in Saeed and Nadia’s story.
“I’ve come to believe that everyone is a migrant,” he explained. “That living your daily life is a migration, regardless of whether or not you move from one place to another.”
Hamid studied under literary luminaries like Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison as an undergraduate at Princeton University, but went to law school and went into marketing before devoting himself to fiction. He kept day jobs until “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” became a bestseller a decade ago. He has since written fiction full time.
His style is distilled and compressed. His books are short and filled with gem-like sentences. That creative approach, he explained, is in part a practical response to our age of distraction; he wants people to finish his books despite the buzz of the smartphone and the siren song of Netflix. Hamid, after all, was once a brand consultant for McKinsey and thus has a keen understanding of consumers.
He aims to write the kind of books people might read in a single sitting: “The same way you would sit around a crackling campfire in some ancient setting — that feels to me like the very organic nature of encountering a story. I like the idea of a book being that size — that two human beings could actually exchange a story in real life.”
The epic story “Exit West” tells could have been 800 or 1,000 pages long, but Hamid distills it to its essence, strips it of detail and regional signifiers, cuts out the arduous journeys of refugees by sending them instead through his fairy-tale portals. Leaving cities and landmarks largely unnamed lends the story an accessible quality that’s most evident when Hamid meets refugees, or descendants of refugees, who have read “Exit West.”
“They’ll often ask me, ‘Oh, you’ve written about this city. Is it my city?’ And the person might be from Aleppo or Damascus or Sarajevo.”
In form and style, Hamid pulls off a spectacular literary trick: his books are at once formally complex and often experimental, but also unconditionally readable. He never wastes a word or lets a shaggy description stand. There are no meta-fictional puzzles made for grad students, no clever allusions to impress the intelligentsia, no ways to push the casual reader out. Hamid wants a readership beyond publishing and literary circles — he is speaking to everyone.
“I think of the reader as any person,” he explained. “My job, in a sense, is to write a novel that doesn’t require anything else. It doesn’t require you to have any particular education in literary theory, it doesn’t require you to read reviews or unpack it — it only requires you to open it up, see if the story captivates you. And the decoder ring for the book is built into the book.”
Hamid finds ways to fire the reader’s imagination by placing some key information in front of the reader and allowing them to fill in details in their own in their mind.
“Part of that compression and decompression is, how do you give the reader small things inside the reader’s imagination that expand and become large?” he said. “So my approach to literature is to be as anti-elitist as possible, to be democratic and open, which is not to say that I think novels need to be simple. … I try to build small books that enable large reading experiences.”
When Hamid accepted the Aspen Words prize in April, via a short video-recorded message, he described “Exit West” as “a novel about migration and how our world is changing and could change, how we are all migrants and how we might find an optimistic future together.”
Yes, Mohsin Hamid is optimistic about the future.
Asked about his hopefulness for global refugees and optimism about the future of humanity, he explained that he thinks hope is taking a side.
“Being hopeful is a political stance,” he explained. “I don’t think being hopeful is a choice.”
Being hopeful, in his eyes, is imagining a more desirable world and — when finding yourself alienated and fearful — looking for ways to improve not only your own situation but others’, as well.
“If we don’t begin to think about those things and be optimistic and tell those stories, what’s left is a sense of hopelessness,” he said. “And out of hopelessness comes hatred, comes divisiveness, comes demagoguery. So I’m hopeful because this is my political position: that we need to be hopeful if we are not going to be divisive and hateful.”
Hope, for the author of “Exit West,” is not about believing that everything will be alright. It’s about action.
“Being hopeful is engaging in whatever form one chooses to — in one’s family, in one’s personal life, in writing, in politics — with making the kind of world that one wants to see. And I think that we can all collectively author our future as human beings. We have in the past. We will in the future.”
After a year of book touring and talking about “Exit West,” Hamid is finally at the beginning of a new book. That process starts, he said, with simply setting aside a few hours daily at a desk to do nothing else but write.
“I think of it as digging a well,” he said. “You make this empty hole and stuff starts to flow into it. After a year of not writing a book, I’m feeling that hole-digging instinct. And what comes into it will be the next book.”
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Aspen Words’ literary conference and festival is back in-person after a pandemic hiatus and a move from June to autumn.