Alibi V.27 No.13 • March 29-April 4, 2018 

Culture Shock

Finding a Way to the Future

Author Mohsin Hamid discusses transience, migration and the power of story

Exit West
Mohsin Hamid's Exit West is a novel that examines the beauty of transience—movement and change through migration, time and by way of personal journeys. The story belongs primarily to Saeed and Nadia, two lovers in an unnamed city in the Middle East, which falls into war; violence and fear take over. Rumors of magical doors quietly spread. This is how the two end up escaping—first to Greece, then to London and finally, to California. Spliced with Saeed and Nadia's stories are those of others throughout the world, moments of their lives that are happening simultaneously as Saeed and Nadia suffer dislocation, loss and joy, too, as they rebuild their lives and themselves. “We are all migrants through time,” Hamid writes, and so, underscoring the story is a universality of human experience, tempered with optimism that inspires.

He spoke with us via Skype from his home in Lahore, Pakistan. Hamid will be in Albuquerque on Tuesday, April 3, at 7pm for a free talk at UNM's Woodward Hall.

Alibi: I've heard you describe the often negative projections of the future of migration, and even the planet as “a failure of imagination.” Why do you think it is hard for people to be optimistic about the future?

We have found ourselves in a historical, cultural, ecological moment where the future seems very frightening. … We have collectively, in many parts of the world, begun to lose our sense of optimism about the future. I think it’s not because the future has become worse. … We are constantly being surrounded by signs that terrible things are happening.

Even though, for example, in much of America the murder rate has gone down in the last couple of decades, people think that America is much less safe. Or, if you look at the continent of Africa, people imagine that things have gotten much worse, but there's actually more food per capita in Africa and more young children going to school. … Not that everything will be fine and we should relax and that the world will work out just dandy, but the sense of pessimism that we're all affected by feels, to me, a bit overdone. If you're pessimistic about the future, you want to go back to the past, and going back to the past is impossible. It will lead you to all sorts of fundamentalisms—religious fundamentalism, or national fundamentalism or whatever.

I think part of my job is to be optimistic. .. we're at risk of overreacting to our pessimism and making the nightmares that we are afraid of come true.

Mohsin Hamid

For all of those reasons, we need to begin to take back the future and restore our sense of optimism about it and start dreaming of futures that are actually desirable, that are more equal than the past, not less equal, and are achievable. … I'm a father, I have two small children, and I think part of my job is to be optimistic. I think it is very important, because if we don't engage in this activity, we're at risk of overreacting to our pessimism and making the nightmares that we are afraid of come true.

You have written about the dangers of nostalgia, but in this book, there is undoubtedly a sweet nostalgia—what is the difference between cherishing the past and dangerous nostalgia?

Nostalgia is natural—that each of us probably has some longing for the past, if only for the time when we're younger, when old age and death seem further away from us, when people we loved that are no longer alive were still alive, those things—when a relationship was still in its most beautiful period—those are natural things. To be a human being is to lose things. So, of course, we are all afflicted by nostalgia. The problem is when we allow our sense of nostalgia try to become something that it can never be—to imagine that out of a sense of nostalgia we can actually return to the lost time. It's one thing to mourn and feel sorrow for something that one has loved that is no more. It's another thing to try to reanimate that thing. … Partly for me, it is sort of a spiritual question. How can we find a way to be more comfortable with our own temporariness? So much of human culture since the beginning of our species has been about accepting the fact that we are temporary, but also being optimistic, generous, and finding moments of beauty despite being temporary. Nostalgia is fine, but when it overwhelms courage, generosity and optimism, it's deadly. So yes, in the novel the characters do feel powerful optimism; it's the story of a first love. Stories of first loves—by definition we call them stories of first loves because we assume there was probably a second or third love. In a way, the novel is about how things can end without necessarily turning into … bitterness. It's a novel about letting go with affection. I think that's possible. … It is a mistake to believe the charlatans who tell us that we can go back to the way things were in the past. But it's also a mistake to dismiss that we all suffer a longing for that. How can we acknowledge that and respect that and still move forward? I think that is the interesting question.

Mohsin Hamid
Author Mohsin Hamid's Exit West approaches the future with earnest, sensible optimism
Jillian Edelstein

I see that in the book—things are different, but they're not bad. How do storytellers shape and influence the future and mitigate these fears?

I think there's a reason why storytelling exists. It exists because it allows us to imagine something else and it's a liberation from what is and what was. Human beings need this. As individuals we all like to pretend, we all like to tell stories. We need it as cultures and civilizations and as a species. And so, I think that there is a very important function for fiction and for storytelling in society, among those is to begin to touch and catalyze people's imaginations about where we might head, whether as individuals or as humanity. Unless we begin to imagine these things, we can't go there. The future of humanity is sort of shaped by the kinds of stories that we choose to have affection for. If we don't articulate stories that have a more radical equality than we have in the world today, but also feel that they have human aspects of tenderness and generosity, optimism. If we don't articulate stories like that, we can't build ourselves in that direction. … I think that storytelling is enormously important because it is how we navigate our journey through time. And each of us, individually, is traveling through time, and we each need to find a way.

I love that idea—how vital and world-shaping it is to imagine. When you wrote this book, what did you learn? What do you hope others might?

I write the novels I need. I write them to figure out what I'm most perplexed by, I write them to navigate the things that most bother me, to figure out the stuff I don't understand. I think of this notion of how does one avoid being terrified of the future and maintain a sense of optimism, as well as, what happens if one has to move? Is there a way to imagine a world where that could be seen as a kind of beginning of something better? And also, each of us in every love story that we have, we will lose that person because our paths no longer cross and we go our separate ways or they or we pass away.

This notion, I guess, at this time in my life—of losing things that you care about, and how does one navigate that and do that well, is really important to me. At one time, I think centuries ago, a huge part of human culture was, what constitutes a good death? How does one die well? … It’s interesting that these sorts of questions, which are so fundamental to human beings, are being talked about so little. [It's] almost a taboo subject. … There's a real crisis around these sorts of things in a culture that tells us that youth is everything and consumerism can solve our problems.

For me, I wanted to write a book that explored some of this stuff. And explored it for me as someone getting older in my own life, explore it for me as somebody who has people he loves who are now quite old, and also, explore it as someone who has young children who are going to have to inhabit a very different world, and hope they can find a world which is decent. For other readers ... I just hope that on the journey of this book, there is something that touches them and is meaningful for them, and to the extent that novels can bridge the distance between human beings, I hope that people feel a sense of some small distance being bridged.