We speak to novelist and writer Mohsin Hamid about migration, otherness, and the literary response to the refugee crisis.
‘Even if you’re 75 years old and haven’t left the city you’ve grown up in, you have migrated through time. To me, it feels like the theme of being human is being a migrant.’
Mohsin Hamid talked to PEN Atlas from his home in Lahore about some of the major themes in his new novel Exit West: migration, technology, politically engaged writing, and how we are all migrants.
Interview by Theodora Danek
Exit West is a book about migration. What do you think the response to the refugee crisis should be?
It’s very hard to talk about the issue of refugees without looking at the bigger picture. I think that over the next century we should expect billions of people to move. Many of them will cross national borders. Some of them will be forced to do so by war or by climate change. If we are not prepared to imagine that those people are equal, it’s very difficult for us to sustain democracy and rule of law anywhere. We can see already that a very strong anti-liberal, anti-rule of law impulse tends to accompany the anti-migrant impulse. But it’s worth considering that migrants offer something as well. They offer the potential for a different kind of future.
If we are going to treat refugees as people we choose to reject, at the very least we should accept that we’re doing so out of power and not out of righteousness, and that the issue of morality and right is on their side. We need to begin to accept that the moral argument is very much on the side of the refugees.
I wonder what role you think fiction plays in this, especially when tackling the insider-outsider perspectives.
I don’t think that fiction is like a bill in parliament that has been passed by legislators. It doesn’t have the same function. But novels help change the context in which a problem is considered. One of the things that I’m trying to do in Exit West is to remind us that everyone is a migrant. Even if you’re 75 years old and you haven’t left the city you’ve grown up in you have migrated through time. It feels like the theme of being human is being a migrant. I hope in this novel to make the tragedy of migration, which is basically human life, something that we can all take as a starting point. I think we really are all refugees from our childhood. If we can connect with that, with our refugee and migrant status, perhaps we can see each other a little bit differently in terms of who’s a migrant and what that means.
You say in Exit West, ‘When we migrate we murder from ourselves those we leave behind.’
We don’t literally murder the people we leave behind, but we do murder them from our lives. We murder them from the particular emotional context we find ourselves in. I live in Lahore now, having lived in London and the US and so on. My parents live next door, and they are getting older. Should my wife and my kids and I move abroad again? One of the biggest reasons why I don’t move, and haven’t moved, is because of the emotional reality of leaving my parents at this stage in their lives. If you love someone and choose to live your life far away from them, there’s an emotional violence to it that you experience as much as they do.
It’s interesting that technology doesn’t change that. Technology plays a strong part in Exit West. There’s a sense of unreality in it, it feels like your protagonists are watching events unfold on screens even as they experience them.
Realism is kind of a myth in any case. The novel is open to playing with that. There are the doors, for example, which are obviously an element of the novel that doesn’t correspond to our understanding of the laws of physics. You could argue that the doors feel very real. When I travel, I literally step through an aircraft door and a few hours later I walk out into Britain. Thirty minutes ago I clicked on an app on my computer, saw someone in London and talked to them. My computer basically became a window. So these doors already exist in a way, and the feeling of living in a world with these doors is already there. When we try to approximate what it feels like to be a human being we needn’t be bound by restrictions of what reality is and is not.
Do you feel that there’s a difference between how writers in different countries have responded to the refugee crisis?
Writers in different countries of course respond differently to all sorts of things, including migration and refugees. Writers who say that their writing is not political are simply writers who are attempting to distance themselves from the politics suggested by the fiction that they create. Whatever we do and however we act has political connotations. You either accept those connotations or you don’t. Your choosing not to accept them does not mean that they don’t exist. If you are going to write a novel in which you attempt to avoid political questions, there’s something deeply concerning about that. It’s a novel about the status quo. When we see writing that appears to shy away from these sorts of questions, that suggests that there isn’t much at stake in society.
But that can change quickly. Look at America for example. What we’ve seen in America is this dominant new form of writing that is a sort of memoir, writers writing about being writers, et cetera. The question must be asked if as a writer that is what you feel most comfortable with in the current political climate. A sense of political crisis can change what writers choose to write about. Certainly in places like Pakistan the sense of political crisis is always there.
Do you feel like you’re being seen as a spokesperson for an entire country, Pakistan?
Well, my last few novels haven’t mentioned Pakistan. There are many reasons for that, but one reason was to avoid self-exoticisation. To not say: this is what Lahore is, this is what Pakistan is. But to say: this is what the universal city is. I’m going to pretend that the place around me actually is the archetypal city. It was a gesture to get out of this trap of being representative of a particular subcategory. And to say: I’m not representative at all. If I am representative it’s of being human.
In the new novel, too, I have not located the city as Lahore, or in Pakistan. I don’t think I’m a particularly good spokesperson for Pakistan, I don’t think I understand Pakistan. But I do speak as somebody who lives there. Where you stand, or sit and write, does shape certain things.