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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Graduation 2018: walking talking art

Kathryn Hallam Howard, graduating today with a BA History of Art, discusses why she decided to start studying in her fifties, and why Birkbeck was the perfect place to develop both her love of art history and her new venture, creating specialised walking art tours for fellow enthusiasts.  

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Hills around the Bay of Moulin Huet, oil on canvas, 1883, The Metropolitan Museum, New York (Open Access)

The summer of 2014 found me in a tiny hamlet on Guernsey. The path down to the local beach, Moulin Huet, is steep and rocky and used only by locals and visitors, who are lucky enough to know its well-kept secret. Visitors like Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who often painted the dramatic landscape with its imposing cliffs, ice cold seawater and crystal-clear light. So why, am I recalling my trek down a Channel Island path used by Renoir? Well, that was where I first decided to apply to Birkbeck to do a BA History of Art and Architecture.

I had always been interested in art and had visited many art galleries. However, I often found myself first to arrive at the gift shop, wondering where my friends and family were. Then in 2013, I trained to be a Blue Badge tourist guide and found myself taking groups around London’s amazing galleries and museums. Yet, I felt a fraud! I could easily take someone around the National Gallery and discuss twenty-odd paintings. However, were they to ask me about something I hadn’t researched, then my superficial grasp of art history would have been exposed. I decided to rectify that and an undergraduate degree at Birkbeck suited me perfectly. Term dates complemented the guiding season and the modular composition meant I could study different subjects without being restricted to one time period. The annual field trip was an added incentive and I enjoyed two trips to Paris and Berlin.

Another unexpected pleasure was the sheer diversity of the students in terms of age, background and nationality. I met many interesting people and made some good friends.  All my tutors and lecturers were experts in their field but also offered first class support to help us maximise our learning experience. I found the environment rewarding, stimulating and challenging. Preliminary surveys of European Art (pre-1800) and Modern Art, gave a good introduction to the discipline and the sheer variety of modules offered in the subsequent years was excellent. I studied topics as wide-ranging as art and architecture from 1250-1550, satire and caricature, the relationship of the body to modern architecture and the relationship between public and private space and modernity. One module, The Impact of immigration on Modern British Art inspired my dissertation topic – the art produced by those fleeing Nazi persecution, whilst interned as ‘enemy aliens’ on the Isle of Man 1940-1941.

I’m currently working with the family of an interned art historian, Klaus Hinrichsen, to explore recently discovered papers and correspondence. Some interesting lines of enquiry have already emerged. I am also creating specialised art tours for those who would like an affordable and interesting day out with a small group of like-minded enthusiasts, to be launched in 2019. If you are interested in learning more or can suggest an interesting theme for a tour then please get in touch at

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Futures for publishing in Art History

Maria Alambritis, PhD candidate in History of Art, discusses a panel examining the current state and future of publishing art historical scholarship – one of a series of events celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Birkbeck’s Department of History of Art.

Woman in Robes Reading a Book, 1870, Albumen silver print from glass negative, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (69.607.11)

On Friday 19 October, Birkbeck’s History of Art department hosted ‘Forward Looking: Workshops on the Future of Art History’, part of a series of events held this year to mark the 50th anniversary of the department’s founding. The second workshop of the day – ‘Futures for Publishing in Art History’ – examined the state of publishing art historical scholarship as it now stands and addressed current areas of concern and innovation.

Chaired by Dr Leslie Topp, Head of Birkbeck’s History of Art department, the session was structured as a series of ‘in-conversations’ between Leslie and each of the invited participants, who each brought to bear their individual experience and expertise in relation to art historical publication. The panel included Natalie Foster, Senior Publisher for Media and Cultural Studies at Routledge; Baillie Card, Editor at the Paul Mellon Centre; Bernard Horrocks, Intellectual Property Manager at Tate; and Steve Edwards, professor of History and Theory of Photography at Birkbeck and Editorial Board Member at the Oxford Art Journal.

Four key interlocking themes arose across the individual discussions: the ongoing relevance of print publication in the wake of new digital formats; the nature and impact of open access scholarship; the influence of the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the complexity of copyright law and issue of image reproduction fees.

Print vs. digital publishing

Natalie Foster illuminated the ways Routledge, which has emerged in recent years as a leading publisher in art historical scholarship, approaches the publication of scholarly monographs, discussing aspects of format, style and topic. Together with an existing focus on areas such as media, film and visual studies, historiography, museology and collecting, Routledge is looking to include design history, photography theory and ‘cutting-edge’ titles in areas such as gender, non-Western art and the Anthropocene. One of the principal areas of uncertainty for both academics and publishers today is the continuing role of print publications in the wake of new digital formats and online open-access models. It was interesting to hear that despite this ‘digital turn’ in publishing, Routledge did not consider print and digital formats as mutually exclusive, acknowledging the on-going relevance of the printed monograph format particularly for academics at the start of their careers.

In her role overseeing the publication of the Paul Mellon Centre’s ground-breaking open access journal British Art Studies, Baillie Card spoke about the differences in approach and challenges encountered in publishing and editing online as opposed to print. The advantages of online publication, especially in offering new possibilities for the kind of scholarship produced and innovative means of presenting research such as utilising video, audio and infographics were demonstrated with examples such as Inga Fraser’s video essay on the work of Paul Nash.

Card described the exciting potential inherent in online presentation as a more ‘curatorial way of arguing’ in contrast to that seen in traditional print journals. Juxtaposing multiple images and offering interpretation in a range of formats, the ‘author-curator’ employs enhanced digital features to enable a greater freedom in the style of argument and inviting simultaneous response, interpretation and discussion.

Open access

However, the exciting potential offered by open access is not without its drawbacks. In the example of British Art Studies, the Paul Mellon Centre has a measure of financial freedom allowing it to take risks and experiment with scholarship in this way. Card cited several ‘open-access ways’ available to others interested in exploring the possibility of setting up their own online journal spaces, such as the Getty’s ‘Quire’– a freely accessible multiformat publishing tool to create lasting, discoverable scholarly publications online.

Steve Edwards acknowledged that open-access has many advantages in terms of widening access to research and presenting scholarship in innovative ways, but pertinently noted that the model nevertheless entails the shuffling of public money to the private sector, an on-going and debilitating part of a wider problem across the public education sector.


The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is a process of assessment which reviews the research outputs of the UK’s publicly-funded research institutions. It judges the quality of the outputs, their impact beyond academia and the environment (facilities and resources) that supports research in each university faculty department.

It was encouraging to hear that despite the REF’s hierarchisation of individually-authored monographs over edited collections, Routledge did not follow suit, acknowledging the importance of such collections for bringing together new voices, particularly from a global angle. Publishing in open access journals such British Art Studies poses concerns for scholars where the framework of the REF or, in a similar case, the American tenure-track system does not currently accommodate such formats as ‘legitimate’ forms of published scholarship. As highlighted by Steve Edwards, rather than a passive monitoring system, the REF is actively shaping the future of art history publishing, as future funding is allocated according to REF score. This has wide-ranging implications, as universities shape their research to target REF requirements, rather than producing research for its own inherent scholarly merit and usefulness to the field. The pressure to produce ‘REF-able’ publications works against the establishment of new, interdisciplinary journals for which the REF’s rigid criteria has no means of assessing, thereby entrenching disciplinary boundaries.

Copyright law, image reproduction fees and ‘fair dealing’

A discussion of online art history publishing cannot avoid the complex issue of image rights. The use of fair dealing and its potential to aid scholars was explored in depth. Baillie affirmed that British Art Studies tries wherever possible to use images under the principle of fair dealing. As detailed here (scroll down for the section on ‘Art History and Fair Dealing’), fair dealing allows the reproduction of copyrighted works without the requirement to pay a fee, so long as the cited work is being used in a ‘fair’, non-commercial way, such as illustrating a passage of criticism or review.

Bernard Horrocks expanded on this discussion looking at the intersection of law, museums, publishing and copyright. The current issue of whether public arts institutions should make images of their collections freely accessible was the subject of lively debate. Tate offers low-resolution images of out-of-copyright works for free, while high-quality images must be paid for. Horrocks stated that Tate makes on average £200,000 a year from image rights fees, acknowledging that while not a huge amount in the overall scheme of the museum’s annual profits it is nonetheless indispensable in today’s increasingly difficult climate arts funding cuts. As raised in the later roundtable discussion, however, it is not clear how much of this sum actually comes from non-commercial scholarly requests.

While the ranks of foreign museums releasing their collection images for free continues to grow – examples include the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York – Horrocks argued that these institutions operate on different governance and funding models, the prime example being the charging of entrance fees. However, an interesting alternative UK precedent has been set by Birmingham Museums Trust, which recently made high-quality images of out-of-copyright works in its collection freely accessible.

As with the REF, image copyright itself is shaping research often in very direct ways. Citing the example of his own publications, Edwards has turned to using images freely available from US collections, over examples from UK institutions. Furthermore, the lack of uniformity across UK institutions as to what constitutes a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘scholarly’ publication combined with the fact that liability still rests in the majority of cases with the individual author, rather than the publisher, continues to make image reproduction an increasingly murky and difficult area for scholarship and one that is particularly egregious for art historians.

Following these ‘in-conversations’ a roundtable was held with all the participants and joined by Stacey McGillicuddy, Publisher for Taylor & Francis art journals. It became clear that greater communication between academics and image rights departments would enable a far more efficient and scholarship-friendly means of determining non-commercial use, which as it is currently defined by many picture library departments is out of date and inconsistent with the existing nature of scholarly publication. Finally, in the move towards publishing online, the issue of longevity was raised and the development of digital preservation policies as we move from physical material to digital publications.

The workshop was one of transparent and open debate, which highlighted the advantages that such an interdisciplinary and collaborative debate brings, particularly at a moment of rapid change in art historical publishing.

Both workshops were kindly supported by the Murray Bequest.

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Experimenting in the galleries with Vernon Lee

Dr Carolyn Burdett, Senior Lecturer in English and Victorian Studies discusses the life and stories of Vernon Lee, ahead of a ‘scratch’ performance and panel discussion, which will take place at 6pm, Friday 2 November 2018 at Birkbeck’s Keynes Library, to which all are welcome to attend. 

Ghosts haunt her brain, Vernon Lee admitted, publishing a collection of her elegant and mysterious ghost stories in 1890. Violet Paget was born in 1856 and named herself Vernon Lee to inaugurate a career as a writer. But stories were only a part of what appeared from the pen of this woman of quite staggering energy and intellectual range. Lee published studies of art and music, evocative travel writings, essays on gardens, dialogues about art and life, contentious novels, dense essays on aesthetic theories, and polemic interventions on vivisection, feminism and pacifism. She revived the form of the medieval morality play to protest the depredations of war and aggressive nationalism, and she devised her own questionnaires to test theories of art and music. She was an intellectual force of the Victorian fin de siècle, a true cosmopolitan, an outside-the-box queer thinker and, invariably, a very wise woman.

Still in her mid-twenties, and already author of a significant study of eighteenth-century Italy, Lee declared herself a ‘student of aesthetics’. For much of the rest of her life she researched and thought about why we find some things beautiful, how beauty affects us, and ‘what art does with us’. She was captivated by the prospect that the tools and techniques of the emerging discipline of experimental psychology could provide new and definitive answers to age-old questions about art and beauty.

In the 1880s, she met and fell in love with a Scottish artist called Clementina (‘Kit’) Anstruther-Thomson and the two women began to ‘experiment’ together in looking at art. Kit was sensitive to how her body reacted when she looked at objects. Looking attentively, Kit felt her muscles contract and her breath change. The object made her stretch up or sink down; it made her breath shallow and uneven or else deep and filled out on both sides: her body seemed a kind of barometer for the form she viewed.

Lee, avidly reading new research in ‘psycho-physiology’ – how the mind and body are imbricated – began to wonder whether they might have stumbled across the key to beauty. She took her cue from work associated with the psychologist William James who, in a famous essay on ‘What is an Emotion’ (1884), argued that our common sense understanding of, say, the fear we feel on seeing a bear – ‘I see a bear, I feel fear, my body responds to this feeling and I run’ – is in fact the wrong order. What’s really happening is that my body ‘sees’ the bear and responds (muscles tense, hair raises, breath shortens), and the fear I feel is a consequence of these instant, automatic bodily changes. Lee began to investigate the possibility that aesthetic response works on the same model: Kit sees a form, her body responds (her breath changes, her muscles tense or relax, her balance shifts) and these bodily changes make her feel calm or agitated, pleasant or unpleasant. It is the object that precipitates these subtle changes and the feeling accordingly attaches to it, as if it’s a quality of the object. ‘How beautiful’ translates as ‘how good this object has made my body feel’.

The two women experimented together for ten years, in galleries in Florence and Rome, in Paris and London. Their work was part of the pattern of their complicated love affair and, when the love stumbled, the theories and the thinking shifted and changed. But Lee never stopped trying to understand the power of art, why it affects us as it does, and what art can tell us about the mysteries of our minds and our bodies. This event, a collaboration between Dr Carolyn Burdett (English), Professor Rob Swain (Theatre), and Professor Matthew Longo (Psychological Sciences), working with playwright Nicola Baldwin and actors Penny Layden and Anna Tierney, explores Vernon Lee’s experiments in and with love and art and human psychology.

Find out more about the event. 

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