Man Booker at Birkbeck 2018: A conversation with Mohsin Hamid

Dr Ben Winyard, Senior Content Editor, discusses the recent Man Booker at Birkbeck event, which saw writer Mohsin Hamid in conversation with Birkbeck’s Dr Anna Hartnell about his novels Exit West (2017) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007).

Writer Mohsin Hamid on Anarkali Street in Lahore, Pakistan.

On Tuesday 30 October 2018, in a stimulating, erudite and humane exchange, Mohsin Hamid spoke to an audience of over 200 Birkbeck staff and students about his Man Booker Prize-nominated novel, Exit West (2017). Many of the recent novels discussed at the Man Booker at Birkbeck event have been partly or fully set in the past, but Hamid’s novel is set contemporaneously and is concerned with the challenges we collectively face in our globalised, interconnected world, including armed conflict, climate change, religious violence and the mass migration of peoples.

The novel tells the story of Nadia and Saeed, who meet unexpectedly in an unnamed city and feel drawn towards one another, despite their manifest differences. Saeed is religiously minded, straightforward and well-behaved, while Nadia belies her outwardly conformist appearance by living alone, riding a motorbike, experimenting with psychedelic mushrooms and refusing to pray. Where Saeed is cautiously content, Nadia is instinctively interrogative and rebellious. However, their tentative, burgeoning relationship is beset by an armed conflict that sees their city seized by shadowy, sadistic militants. Forced to flee, the thrown-together couple find themselves bivouacked in a refugee camp on Mykonos, squatting in an uninhabited, palatial mansion in London, and subsisting on a hillside just outside San Francisco.

Initially, Exit West is an apparently realistic novel that depicts Nadia and Saeed’s relationship with wry empathy and the coming onslaught with clear-eyed horror. But, the novel soon becomes something far stranger and less predictable, when the characters begin moving between countries via mysterious black doors. While omitting the great strain and trauma of life-threatening journeys across increasingly militarised borders, the novel still viscerally conveys the poverty, suffering and shock experienced by the uprooted everywhere.

If the novel begins to feel like a magical realist allegory about contemporary migration, it evades our expectations again, by imagining a not-too-distant future, in which the West – and London in particular – teeters on the edge of dystopia, as the inhabitants of nation-states struggle with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants through the enchanted doors. Hamid’s compassionate and optimistic vision is of a world that adapts to this challenge; Nadia and Saeed find themselves on a building site, helping with the expansion of London as it grows to absorb the incomers. The nascent threats of racism, nativist violence and authoritarianism thus give way to a pragmatic humanitarianism. While Nadia and Saeed’s relationship does not survive the upheavals they face, they are able to separate amicably and the novel’s coda depicts an older, friendly re-encounter between them in the now-peaceful city of their birth.

Dr Anna Hartnell, Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Literature in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities, asked Hamid about the large themes that provide a backdrop to Nadia and Saeed’s relationship and he wryly observed, “My life has always seemed to play out against a huge political backdrop”, including the rise of militarism and Islamism in Pakistan, the 9/11 attacks in the United States, and Brexit in the UK. In the face of these vast, overwhelming tumults, Hamid’s focus is on the ordinary, everyday affability of Nadia and Saeed, who retain their humanity despite the most extreme provocations. “We have the most powerful people in the world who tell us that there is no truth and that nobody’s decent”, Hamid observed, “so, I tried to write a novel about people being decent.”

For Hamid, the novel is both a mirror of ‘what it is like to be a human being on this planet’ and a navigational tool that can orientate us in discombobulating times. The make-believe elements of Exit West are, for the author, a means of understanding and circumnavigating the real world. “I’m interested in writing books that do what books can do”, Hamid argued. In an era saturated in the cinematic, the novel, he asserted, should do what the screenplay can’t: it should dispense with dialogue and get inside of people and their feelings. He is interested in ‘taking novels in a bookish direction’ and he spoke passionately about the ‘really powerful’ narrative voice of children’s books, which is often on the side of the characters and of the reader, too, drawing them together and making the reader feel deeply invested in the action. With his interest in children’s literature, Hamid also humorously acknowledged that the magical doors in Exit West ‘may owe something to Narnia’.

Hamid was clear that we must all acknowledge and embrace our innate hybridity and categorical impurity. In the face of those who vociferously insist on crudely simplified, unidirectional ethnic, national and religious identities, Hamid passionately insisted that he is ‘a complete hybrid’ and a ‘mongrel’. He identified ‘underlying trends’ in the contemporary world towards ‘nostalgic tribal politics, rooted in the false belief in permanence’ and ‘living life backwards’. Having lived in California, New York, London and Lahore, Hamid remarked that “this desire for purity is something I take very personally”. He espied parallels between Pakistan and the UK, where nativist ideas about ‘pure’ national identity have rent the social fabric, created impossible categories of nationalist belonging, and prioritised security and surveillance at the expense of liberty, the rule of law and freedom of expression. In his work and in his political outlook, then, Hamid is interested in replicating the magic of the black doors: collapsing distance and difference and encouraging us to acknowledge our similarities and our shared vulnerabilities. He insisted that he writes ‘half novels’, which gift an interpretive capaciousness to the reader and allow these vital cross-boundary identifications. He based the nameless city in Exit West on his hometown of Lahore, but readers have identified it with other places on the verge of bloody conflict, including Warsaw in the 1920s and Sarajevo in the 1980s. For Hamid, the novel’s opening location is ‘the city you wish it to be’.

Hamid also made a fascinating comparison between the magical black doors in Exit West and the ubiquitous mobile phone. They are physically similar and both close the distances between people and give us immediate access to elsewhere – ‘each of us carries a black rectangle in our pockets’. Indeed, mobile technology is a key element of the novel, with mobile phone access cut off in the war-torn city and in the evocatively titled ‘dark London’ in which Nadia, Saeed and the other migrants are, siege-like, denied electricity, lighting and internet access.

For Hamid, contemporaneous challenges represent opportunities for a more just and equitable world. “It’s preposterous to tell people that the accident of where they were born should determine their life, or death”, and he insisted that, in 200 years, people will marvel at our current obsession with nations and borders. He cited the great strides towards equality for people regardless of gender, ethnicity and sexuality as great causes of optimism and he also articulated the universal benefits of migration: “Better music, better food – and the average sex life will improve.” “I don’t have a prescription for the future,” he mused, “but it could be a lot better than this.”

Hamid’s novel thus invites ‘the reader to imagine the migrant within themselves’. The passing of time makes us all migrants in our lives and he memorably described being an adult as being ‘a refugee from’ your own ‘childhood’. He observed that most people have an experience of feeling foreign or out of place in their own lives – you may be the only gay person in your family, or getting older may be disorientating you, for example – but this is a source of strength and insight that should be embraced. For Hamid, a radical identification with migrants is enabled by the novel as the supremely empathetic art form and it allows us to refuse narrowness and prejudice – and the violence they breed. “I’m a mixed-up, weird thing,” Hamid concluded – “but so is everybody else”. Nadia and Saeed thus stand as archetypes of two aspects of the human personality, with Saeed representing the instinctive searching for sameness and that which is homely and safe, while Nadia represents the longing for freedom, change and difference.

With many creative writing students in the audience, Hamid made a passionate case for what Professor Anthony Bale, Executive Dean of the School of Arts, described as ‘the pleasure and provocations’ of literature. The Booker Prize Foundation and Birkbeck share a commitment to breaking down the barriers that can prevent people accessing literature and culture and this hugely successful event, which saw two thousand free copies of Exit West distributed beforehand, further confirmed the ongoing benefits of this rewarding partnership.

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