10 BEST BOOKS OF 2017, NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
WINNER OF THE L.A. TIMES BOOK PRIZE FOR FICTION and THE ASPEN WORDS LITERARY PRIZE
“A breathtaking novel…[that] arrives at an urgent time.” —NPR
“It was as if Hamid knew what was going to happen to America and the world, and gave us a road map to our future… At once terrifying and … oddly hopeful.” —Ayelet Waldman, The New York Times Book Review
“Moving, audacious, and indelibly human.” —Entertainment Weekly, “A” rating
A New York Times bestseller, the astonishingly visionary love story that imagines the forces that drive ordinary people from their homes into the uncertain embrace of new lands.
In a country teetering on the brink of civil war, two young people meet—sensual, fiercely independent Nadia and gentle, restrained Saeed. They embark on a furtive love affair, and are soon cloistered in a premature intimacy by the unrest roiling their city. When it explodes, turning familiar streets into a patchwork of checkpoints and bomb blasts, they begin to hear whispers about doors—doors that can whisk people far away, if perilously and for a price. As the violence escalates, Nadia and Saeed decide that they no longer have a choice. Leaving their homeland and their old lives behind, they find a door and step through. . . .
Exit West follows these remarkable characters as they emerge into an alien and uncertain future, struggling to hold on to each other, to their past, to the very sense of who they are. Profoundly intimate and powerfully inventive, it tells an unforgettable story of love, loyalty, and courage that is both completely of our time and for all time.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Date of Birth:1971
Place of Birth:Lahore, Pakistan
Education:A.B., Princeton University, 1993; J.D., Harvard Law School, 1997
Read an Excerpt
In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her. For many days. His name was Saeed and her name was Nadia and he had a beard, not a full beard, more a studiously maintained stubble, and she was always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a f lowing black robe. Back then people continued to enjoy the luxury of wearing more or less what they wanted to wear, clothing and hair wise, within certain bounds of course, and so these choices meant something.
It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class—in this case an evening class on corporate identity and product branding—but that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.
Saeed noticed that Nadia had a beauty mark on her neck, a tawny oval that sometimes, rarely but not never, moved with her pulse.
Not long after noticing this, Saeed spoke to Nadia for the first time. Their city had yet to experience any major fighting, just some shootings and the odd car bombing, felt in one’s chest cavity as a subsonic vibration like those emitted by large loudspeakers at music concerts, and Saeed and Nadia had packed up their books and were leaving class.
In the stairwell he turned to her and said, “Listen, would you like to have a coffee,” and after a brief pause added, to make it seem less forward, given her conservative attire, “in the cafeteria?”
Nadia looked him in the eye. “You don’t say your evening prayers?” she asked.
Saeed conjured up his most endearing grin. “Not always. Sadly.”
Her expression did not change.
So he persevered, clinging to his grin with the mounting desperation of a doomed rock climber: “I think it’s personal. Each of us has his own way. Or . . . her own way. Nobody’s perfect. And, in any case—”
She interrupted him. “I don’t pray,” she said. She continued to gaze at him steadily.
Then she said, “Maybe another time.”
He watched as she walked out to the student parking area and there, instead of covering her head with a black cloth, as he expected, she donned a black motorcycle helmet that had been locked to a scuffed-up hundred-ish cc trail bike, snapped down her visor, straddled her ride, and rode off, disappearing with a controlled rumble into the gathering dusk.
The next day, at work, Saeed found himself unable to stop thinking of Nadia. Saeed’s employer was an agency that specialized in the placement of outdoor advertising. They owned billboards all around the city, rented others, and struck deals for further space with the likes of bus lines, sports stadiums, and proprietors of tall buildings.
The agency occupied both floors of a converted townhouse and had over a dozen employees. Saeed was among the most junior, but his boss liked him and had tasked him with turning around a pitch to a local soap company that had to go out by email before five. Normally Saeed tried to do copious amounts of online research and customize his presentations as much as possible. “It’s not a story if it doesn’t have an audience,” his boss was fond of saying, and for Saeed this meant trying to show a client that his firm truly understood their business, could really get under their skin and see things from their point of view.
But today, even though the pitch was important—every pitch was important: the economy was sluggish from mounting unrest and one of the first costs clients seemed to want to cut was outdoor advertising—Saeed couldn’t focus. A large tree, overgrown and untrimmed, reared up from the tiny back lawn of his firm’s townhouse, blocking out the sunlight in such a manner that the back lawn had been reduced mostly to dirt and a few wisps of grass, interspersed with a morning’s worth of cigarette butts, for his boss had banned people from smoking indoors, and atop this tree Saeed had spotted a hawk constructing its nest. It worked tirelessly. Sometimes it floated at eye level, almost stationary in the wind, and then, with the tiniest movement of a wing, or even of the upturned feathers at one wingtip, it veered.
Saeed thought of Nadia and watched the hawk.
When he was at last running out of time he scrambled to prepare the pitch, copying and pasting from others he had done before. Only a smattering of the images he selected had anything particularly to do with soap. He took a draft to his boss and suppressed a wince while sliding it over.
But his boss seemed preoccupied and didn’t notice. He just jotted some minor edits on the printout, handed it back to Saeed with a wistful smile, and said, “Send it out.”
Something about his expression made Saeed feel sorry for him. He wished he had done a better job.
As Saeed’s email was being downloaded from a server and read by his client, far away in Australia a pale-skinned woman was sleeping alone in the Sydney neighborhood of Surry Hills. Her husband was in Perth on business. The woman wore only a long T-shirt, one of his, and a wedding ring. Her torso and left leg were covered by a sheet even paler than she was; her right leg and right hip were bare. On her right ankle, perched in the dip of her Achilles tendon, was the blue tattoo of a small mythological bird.
Her home was alarmed, but the alarm was not active. It had been installed by previous occupants, by others who had once called this place home, before the phenomenon referred to as the gentrification of this neighborhood had run as far as it had now run. The sleeping woman used the alarm only sporadically, mostly when her husband was absent, but on this night she had forgotten. Her bedroom window, four meters above the ground, was open, just a slit.
In the drawer of her bedside table were a half-full packet of birth control pills, last consumed three months ago, when she and her husband were still trying not to conceive, passports, checkbooks, receipts, coins, keys, a pair of handcuffs, and a few paper-wrapped sticks of unchewed chewing gum.
The door to her closet was open. Her room was bathed in the glow of her computer charger and wireless router, but the closet doorway was dark, darker than night, a rectangle of complete darkness—the heart of darkness. And out of this darkness, a man was emerging.
He too was dark, with dark skin and dark, woolly hair. He wriggled with great effort, his hands gripping either side of the doorway as though pulling himself up against gravity, or against the rush of a monstrous tide. His neck followed his head, tendons straining, and then his chest, his half-unbuttoned, sweaty, gray-and-brown shirt. Suddenly he paused in his exertions. He looked around the room. He looked at the sleeping woman, the shut bedroom door, the open window. He rallied himself again, fighting mightily to come in, but in desperate silence, the silence of a man struggling in an alley, on the ground, late at night, to free himself of hands clenched around his throat. But there were no hands around this man’s throat. He wished only not to be heard.
With a final push he was through, trembling and sliding to the floor like a newborn foal. He lay still, spent. Tried not to pant. He rose.
His eyes rolled terribly. Yes: terribly. Or perhaps not so terribly. Perhaps they merely glanced about him, at the woman, at the bed, at the room. Growing up in the not infrequently perilous circumstances in which he had grown up, he was aware of the fragility of his body. He knew how little it took to make a man into meat: the wrong blow, the wrong gunshot, the wrong flick of a blade, turn of a car, presence of a microorganism in a handshake, a cough. He was aware that alone a person is almost nothing.
The woman who slept, slept alone. He who stood above her, stood alone. The bedroom door was shut. The window was open. He chose the window. He was through it in an instant, dropping silkily to the street below.
While this incident was occurring in Australia, Saeed was picking up fresh bread for dinner and heading home. He was an independent-minded, grown man, unmarried, with a decent post and a good education, and as was the case in those days in his city with most independent-minded, grown men, unmarried, with decent posts and good educations, he lived with his parents.
Saeed’s mother had the commanding air of a schoolteacher, which she formerly was, and his father the slightly lost bearing of a university professor, which he continued to be—though on reduced wages, for he was past the official retirement age and had been forced to seek out visiting faculty work. Both of Saeed’s parents, the better part of a lifetime ago, had chosen respectable professions in a country that would wind up doing rather badly by its respectable professionals. Security and status were to be found only in other, quite different pursuits. Saeed had been born to them late, so late that his mother had believed her doctor was being cheeky when he asked if she thought she was pregnant.
Their small flat was in a once handsome building, with an ornate though now crumbling facade that dated back to the colonial era, in a once upscale, presently crowded and commercial, part of town. It had been partitioned from a much larger flat and comprised three rooms: two modest bedrooms and a third chamber they used for sitting, dining, entertaining, and watching television. This third chamber was also modest in size but had tall windows and a usable, if narrow, balcony, with a view down an alley and straight up a boulevard to a dry fountain that once gushed and sparkled in the sunlight. It was the sort of view that might command a slight premium during gentler, more prosperous times, but would be most undesirable in times of conflict, when it would be squarely in the path of heavy machine-gun and rocket fire as fighters advanced into this part of town: a view like staring down the barrel of a rifle. Location, location, location, the realtors say. Geography is destiny, respond the historians.
War would soon erode the facade of their building as though it had accelerated time itself, a day’s toll outpacing that of a decade.
When Saeed’s parents first met they were the same age as were Saeed and Nadia when they first did. The elder pair’s was a love marriage, a marriage between strangers not arranged by their families, which, in their circles, while not unprecedented, was still less than common.
They met at the cinema, during the intermission of a film about a resourceful princess. Saeed’s mother spied his father having a cigarette and was struck by his similarity to the male lead in the movie. This similarity was not entirely accidental: though a little shy and very bookish, Saeed’s father styled himself after the popular film stars and musicians of his day, as did most of his friends. But Saeed’s father’s myopia combined with his personality to give him an expression that was genuinely dreamy, and this, understandably, resulted in Saeed’s mother thinking he not merely looked the part, but embodied it. She decided to make her approach.
Standing in front of Saeed’s father she proceeded to talk animatedly with a friend while ignoring the object of her desire. He noticed her. He listened to her. He summoned the nerve to speak to her. And that, as they were both fond of saying when recounting the story of their meeting in subsequent years, was that.
Saeed’s mother and father were both readers, and, in different ways, debaters, and they were frequently to be seen in the early days of their romance meeting surreptitiously in bookshops. Later, after their marriage, they would while away afternoons reading together in cafés and restaurants, or, when the weather was suitable, on their balcony. He smoked and she said she didn’t, but often, when the ash of his seemingly forgotten cigarette grew impossibly extended, she took it from his fingers, trimmed it softly against an ashtray, and pulled a long and rather rakish drag before returning it, daintily.
The cinema where Saeed’s parents met was long gone by the time their son met Nadia, as were the bookshops they favored and most of their beloved restaurants and cafés. It was not that cinemas and bookshops, restaurants and cafés had vanished from the city, just that many of those that had been there before were there no longer. The cinema they remembered so fondly had been replaced by a shopping arcade for computers and electronic peripherals. This building had taken the same name as the cinema that preceded it: both once had the same owner, and the cinema had been so famous as to have become a byword for that locality. When walking by the arcade, and seeing that old name on its new neon sign, sometimes Saeed’s father, sometimes Saeed’s mother, would remember, and smile. Or remember, and pause.
Saeed’s parents did not have sex until their wedding night. Of the two, Saeed’s mother found it more uncomfortable, but she was also the more keen, and so she insisted on repeating the act twice more before dawn. For many years, their balance remained thus. Generally speaking, she was voracious in bed. Generally speaking, he was obliging. Perhaps because she did not, until Saeed’s conception two decades later, get pregnant, and assumed therefore she could not, she was able to have sex with abandon, without, that is, thought of consequences or the distractions of child-rearing. Meanwhile his typical manner, throughout the first half of their marriage, at her strenuous advances, was that of a man pleasantly surprised. She found mustaches and being taken from behind erotic. He found her carnal and motivating.
After Saeed was born, the frequency with which his parents had sex dipped notably, and it continued to decline going forward. A uterus began to prolapse, an erection became harder to maintain. During this phase, Saeed’s father started to be cast, or to cast himself, more and more often, as the one who tried to initiate sex. Saeed’s mother would sometimes wonder whether he did this out of genuine desire or habit or simply for closeness. She tried her best to respond. He would eventually come to be rebuffed by his own body at least as much as by hers.
In the last year of the life they shared together, the year that was already well under way when Saeed met Nadia, they had sex only thrice. As many times in a year as on their wedding night. But his father always kept a mustache, at his mother’s insistence. And they never once changed their bed: its headboard like the posts of a banister, almost demanding to be gripped.
In what Saeed’s family called their living room there was a telescope, black and sleek. It had been given to Saeed’s father by his father, and Saeed’s father had given it in turn to Saeed, but since Saeed still lived at home, this meant the telescope continued to sit where it always sat, on its tripod in a corner, underneath an intricate clipper ship that sailed inside a glass bottle on the sea of a triangular shelf.
The sky above their city had become too polluted for much in the way of stargazing. But on cloudless nights after a daytime rain, Saeed’s father would sometimes bring out the telescope, and the family would sip green tea on their balcony, enjoying a breeze, and take turns to look up at objects whose light, often, had been emitted before any of these three viewers had been born—light from other centuries, only now reaching Earth. Saeed’s father called this time-travel.
On one particular night, though, in fact the night after he had struggled to prepare his firm’s pitch to the soap company, Saeed was absentmindedly scanning along a trajectory that ran below the horizon. In his eyepiece were windows and walls and rooftops, sometimes stationary, sometimes whizzing by at incredible speed.
“I think he’s looking at young ladies,” Saeed’s father said to his mother.
“Behave yourself, Saeed,” said his mother. “Well, he is your son.”
“I never needed a telescope.”
“Yes, you preferred to operate short-range.”
Saeed shook his head and tacked upward.
“I see Mars,” he said. And indeed he did. The second-nearest planet, its features indistinct, the color of a sunset after a dust storm.
Saeed straightened and held up his phone, directing its camera at the heavens, consulting an application that indicated the names of celestial bodies he did not know. The Mars it showed was more detailed as well, though it was of course a Mars from another moment, a bygone Mars, fixed in memory by the application’s creator.
In the distance Saeed’s family heard the sound of automatic gunfire, flat cracks that were not loud and yet carried to them cleanly. They sat a little longer. Then Saeed’s mother suggested they return inside.
When Saeed and Nadia finally had coffee together in the cafeteria, which happened the following week, after the very next session of their class, Saeed asked her about her conservative and virtually all-concealing black robe.
“If you don’t pray,” he said, lowering his voice, “why do you wear it?”
They were sitting at a table for two by a window, overlooking snarled traffic on the street below. Their phones rested screens-down between them, like the weapons of desperadoes at a parley.
She smiled. Took a sip. And spoke, the lower half of her face obscured by her cup.
“So men don’t fuck with me,” she said.
Reading Group Guide
Discussion Questions for Exit West
1. “It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class . . . but that is the way of things, with cities as with life,” the narrator states at the beginning of Exit West. In what ways do Saeed and Nadia preserve a semblance of a daily routine throughout the novel? Why do you think this—and pleasures like weed, records, sex, the rare hot shower—becomes so important to them?
2“Location, location, location, the realtors say. Geography is destiny, respond the historians.” What do you think the narrator means by this? Does he take a side? What about the novel as a whole?
3. Early in Exit West, Saeed’s family spends a pleasant evening outside with their telescope, until “the sound of automatic gunfire, flat cracks that were not loud and yet carried to them cleanly. They sat a little longer. Then Saeed’s mother suggested they return inside.” How do we see the city changing around Saeed and his family? What effect does the subtle acceleration of violence have on the reader? On the novel itself?
4. What function do the doors serve, physically and emotionally, in the novel? Why do you think Hamid chose to include this speculative, fantastical element in an otherwise very “realistic” world?
5. In an interview with Paste magazine, Hamid says, “It’s strange to say, but I really believe in these doors. . . . I think the doors exist in our world, just not the physical manifestation that I’ve given them [in the novel].” What do you think he means? Contrast this with the way he writes about technology in Exit West, as in this passage about smart phones: “In their phones were antennas, and these antennas sniffed out an invisible world, as if by magic, a world that was all around them, and also nowhere, transporting them to places distant and near, and to places that had never been and would never be.”
6. When it becomes clear that Nadia and Saeed will need to flee their city, Saeed is most fearful over leaving behind his family, his friends, the only home he’s ever known, while Nadia is most concerned about the possibility of losing her autonomy, of being forced to rely on the uncertain mercy of others, of being “caged in pens like vermin.” Why do you think their respective fears are so radically different? What do these fears say about them as characters, and in relation to each other?
7. The city where Nadia and Saeed live and from which they flee is unnamed, the only unnamed location in the book. Why do you think that is? What effect does this omission have on the reader?
8. “War in Saeed and Nadia’s city revealed itself to be an intimate experience,” the narrator states. In what ways are violence and intimacy linked throughout the novel? How does violence bring Saeed and Nadia together? How do you think their relationship might have evolved if their city had never been under siege?
9. Saeed tells Nadia, “‘The end of the world can be cozy at times.’ She laughed. ‘Yes. Like a cave.’” What purpose does humor serve in a book like this?
10. With regard to her changing neighborhood, the old woman in Palo Alto muses, “When she went out it seemed to her that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time.” What do you think she means?
11. Do you think Exit West is a hopeful book? Why or why not?
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Mohsin Hamid
Given the current political climate surrounding immigration, one might expect a novelist like Mohsin Hamid the author of galvanizing works like The Reluctant Fundamentalistand How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia to be a pessimist. On the contrary: "I have a pretty optimistic sense of what human nature is," he says. "It can do terrible, terrible things, but perhaps the split is 40 percent terrible and 60 percent good, and over time more good will happen than bad."
This belief shines through in Hamid's latest novel, Exit West, which chronicles the journey of Nadia and Saeed, two young people who begin a relationship in an unnamed Eastern country on the brink of civil war and eventually flee in the hopes of finding sanctuary in the West. This narrative one that echoes the lived experiences of countless people fleeing war and privation is given a kind of magical twist in Hamid's telling. Nadia and Saeed, like millions of other refugees leave their countries not by boat or airplane, but through secret doors that, when opened, act as portals, carrying people thousands of miles in only a few steps. Nadia and Saeed don't always know where they will end up when they go through these doors, and the location of doors change, or once discovered, are often sealed off by militant forces.
But, as more refugees use the doors in order to set up camps across the United States and Europe, the entire concept of immigration is rethought. As the concept of nationhood and borders starts to change, the purpose of the doors changes in turn. People begin to use them to return to the places they fled from, to visit loved ones, or to see new places out of sheer curiosity. Exit West is a powerful reminder of how crucial it is for us to create a world that embraces the free movement of bodies, and see transience not as something frightening or destabilizing but normal, even beautiful.
Hamid spoke with me on Skype from his home in Pakistan about the failure nostalgia, the role of the artist in rethinking our future, and what structures we need to embrace an ever-changing present. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. Amy Gall
The Barnes & Noble Review: How did you get started on this book?
Mohsin Hamid: This is something that has been building my whole life. When I was three, my family left Pakistan for California. At age nine I moved back from California to Pakistan. At age eighteen, I went back to America again. At age thirty I went to London. But I think the real genesis was when I moved back to Pakistan from London in 2009. So many of my friends and even strangers said to me, "Why the hell did you do that?" And I realized how many people wanted to leave Pakistan. The tension between that realization and the growing backlash in America and England against migrants was something I wanted to deal with in the form of a novel.
Then, one day, I was probably having a Skype conversation like this and I thought, this little window in my computer is like a literal window. I can see this person, sitting in America. And I thought, what if there really were windows like this, and doors like this that we could actually move through to get to each other. The funny thing is I usually spend a lot of time thinking about the form for my novels, but once I had this idea for the doors the novel just sprang naturally from that.
BNR: Do you see this book as a viable possibility for the future of immigration or migratory patterns?
MH: I think that people are going to move. They always have and that's going to continue. The question is, how are we going to deal with it? In the novel, it's me imagining the next two to three hundred years of migration happening in one year. But I think wars, climate change, all that stuff is going to move people. And so I wanted to say, "What if the migration apocalypse occurs and it isn't an apocalypse at all?" Maybe we will still find ways to be happy and for our children and grandchildren to thrive and the world to move on. I guess the world in the novel is one that I wanted to put forward, not as the likeliest outcome, but as a way to say, maybe the thing we're so terrified of isn't as terrifying as we think. The paralysis that we have right now when we think about migration is partly because we can't imagine what the world would look like in the future. So I think it's important for writers and artists to try to imagine that.
BNR: That is what felt so powerful about this book. It was actually positing something, not simply exploring a dystopia.
MH: I think that's right. I think that right now, the global political crisis that we see all over the place has to do with virulent nostalgia. Everywhere, people are talking about taking us back to the good old days. Whether that's the "caliphate," or Britain before the EU, or "Make America Great Again." But, we can't go back and many people wouldn't want to go back even if we could. If the dominant political expression that we're seeing right now is of nostalgia and we know that nostalgia won't really work out, what happens is, we become depressed as individuals and societies when we're depressed, we're much more vulnerable to be taken advantage of by demagogues and xenophobes. So I though it's important to have a non-nostalgic view and say, let's look forward, because if we don't, all we'll hear are voices telling us to go back.
BNR: It's making me think about the importance of the artist and imagination in that forward thinking, especially since the first impulse of dictatorships is to shut down art as a way of controlling narratives about time.
MH: Yes. Artists are in the imagining/ prototyping business. Society needs people to be out there thinking of what might be. That cannot be something we just delegate to politicians or technologists. We need to start imagining the future or it will get imagined for us, and the ways that it has been imagined thus far don't seem very attractive.
BNR: This book obviously extends way beyond America and England, but, would you have written this book any differently after the Trump election or post-Brexit?
MH: I finished the book in March 2016, so at the time the Brexit vote was still a couple of months away. I would have bet money that Britain would not vote to leave the EU, and I would have been wrong. I would have bet money that Trump would not have been the Republican nominee, and I would have been wrong and I certainly would have bet money that he wouldn't win the election. So I think I was just as surprised by the developments of last year as anybody else. But the impulses that gave rise to those developments the idea of nativism and the demonization of migrants were building for a long time, I just didn't think it would take the form it did so quickly.
There's a gnawing sense among most people it seems to me in most countries I go to, that things aren't going the right way. What I suspect we're going to see now is a long-overdue politicization of people who up until recently thought things might be okay. Because, if we want things to be okay, we will have to make things okay.
BNR: Do you see writing as a political act?
MH: I think it's a very political act. I think that any writer who says it's not, is simply a writer who is disavowing the political connotations of what they write. If you're book is set in the plantation days of the slave-owning South and you write a little romance between two slave owners without acknowledging the system they live, that's a political gesture. That said, I don't think the function of writing, at least for me as a fiction writer, is to say to people, "Here's the answer." It's not an op-ed. Writing a novel is like an amusement park or a museum or a city. You go into that place and you have certain experiences and those experiences, hopefully, have some impact on you. NYC doesn't have a big sign saying "You must love diversity and the rights of all people." And that's not what makes you love diversity in NYC or anywhere. What makes you love diversity is because you live in it and you experience it. And I think fiction allows you to inhabit new domains and it's you, the reader living in that domain for a few days that results in a deeper understanding as opposed to the novel proclaiming this is what it is right and this is what is wrong.
BNR: I was interested in the scene in the book in which a man willingly passes through one of the doors. It made me think about the privilege of being driven to migrate out of pure curiosity versus survival. How did you come up with that scene?
MH: I wanted to explore different kinds of migrations and journeys. There are people in the novel who are driven by terrible circumstances to move, there are others who are just curious, there are other people who are themselves not moving but watching other people come to where they are, and there are some characters who we get a sense of very briefly over a large swath of time and we recognize that they haven't actually moved in geography, but they've moved through time and the town that they grew up in is not the town that they live in anymore. I think this idea of migration through time is very important because every human being does that and it unites us with people who migrate through geography. Through these vignettes, I wanted to open up lots of different models so that readers would see some part of themselves in those characters' particular stances on the doors and therefore, hopefully, on migration.
BNR: Do you think it's necessary to disassemble the idea of the nation in order to change the immigration narrative?
MH: I think it's going to happen. I think it was happening, but the problem was that we were, to a certain extent, disassembling the nation without empowering anything else in its place. Our countries are weaker: they cannot protect us from imported goods, they can't protect us from climate change, they cannot protect us from epidemics. These things cross borders. But the kind of cooperation that would protect us from those things was completely lacking and because of this there's been a backlash. People feel vulnerable. But I think we're finding that if we try to "protect ourselves," our nation-states begin to look like prisons. We're being subject to incredible amounts of surveillance, the police are taking on draconian powers and violating our rights. I think this attempt to protect ourselves is ultimately going to founder because people don't like living inside prisons.
So, I expect the next question after that will be, "What do we do now?" And for me that answer is both a combination of localism, having more powers at the local level and allowing people to experiment with their own visions let San Francisco and Brooklyn try to do their own things and see what happens and then at the same time we need bodies that exist far above the level of the nation to deal with climate change and migration and disease and taxation of corporations that function internationally. All of this stuff requires new kinds of infrastructures. But, basically it boils down to: we're going to have to try something else.
BNR: What was so beautiful about the book was the way you showed the transitory nature, not just of humans in space, but of familial connections, of sexual identities, even of love.
MH: Yes, exactly. My question was, how do we create an emotional context where transience can be seen as more normal and less frightening? Because transience is what is normal. The problem is that we are busily trying to create political structures and cultural expressions that deny that and to deny that is to deny the basic idea of what is human. What used to help us to cope with transience was stuff like, extended families all living in one place, or very strong religious beliefs, or a tribe that would outlive you. That stuff is getting weaker. With movement, families get split. With the politicization of religion, spirituality gets diluted. With people intermarrying and falling in love outside of pre-existing defined groups, the tribe is disappearing. I'm not in favor of going back to those things, as I said, but you can't take those things away without putting something new in its place. So finding a way to make transience more acceptable, even beautiful is key.
And, as you say love is transient even on a very personal level. We lose everyone that we love. Sometimes we drift apart and sometimes we die. But, so much of our conversation about love is possessive. "You are mine. And if you stop being mine, I will hate you." And so exploring non-possessive ideas of love and friendship is important. Which is not to say we should just break down monogamy, I'm not taking a simplistic point of view. But, in addition to these examples of possessive love that we already have so much of, let us also explore what examples of non-possessive love and affection mean.
BNR: Do you see language as similarly transient?
MH: I have a funny relationship to language. When I came to California when I was three I spoke Urdu fluently and I didn't speak a word of English. Within a few months I lost all my Urdu and spoke only English, and then I learned Urdu all over again when I was nine. Urdu is my first language, but it's not as good as my English, and it's sort of become my third language. English is my best language but was the second language I learned. So, for me, language is about the impossibility of communicating what we precisely wish to communicate and this gorgeous attempt that we make to do that anyway. I love that we will never say exactly what we mean, but we will forever keep trying.
March 7, 2017