Five Dials reached Mohsin Hamid via Skype in his home in Lahore. The connection from British Columbia to Pakistan was not perfect, so after the interview was done, transcribed and edited, Mohsin looked over the text again. Because of all the sections where digital fuzz had interrupted the conversation, there were more (unintelligible)s than a Trump interview with the AP. Hamid had just been shortlisted for the Man Booker for his latest novel, Exit West, a book in which a young couple leaves behind a war-torn city by entering a door that transports them west.
Skype, Hamid said during the conversation, is almost the perfect sort of example of the door. It allows two realities to exist at once. We exchanged information about our own realities: early morning in BC, evening in Lahore. My cool air, his blisteringly heat for the previous two days. His kids were out swimming in the early evening, I got the morning chorus of birdsong. ‘They’ll be back home in a little while,’ he said, ‘so it’s actually kind of quiet and peaceful.’
How did the novel come about? Did you begin with a collection of images?
It began with something a lot like what you and I are doing right now. I moved back to Pakistan from London in 2009. It seemed to me that when I was Skyping with people in London or New York or Vancouver or Sydney, or speaking with them on a telephone or video chatting, there was this strange sense that actual little windows were opening up – technological windows that allowed me almost to be in two places at one time.
That gave me this idea of the doors. I imagined that these doors would open, and that people would proceed through them, and instantly emerge in a different place, and it felt to me that the doors corresponded to the emotional reality of our technological moment, even if perhaps they don’t correspond to our physics.
The novel began with these doors. The novel grew up around them, which is for me very unusual. Usually I have a story and I work from there. But in this instance, I had doors.
The novel deals with war, migration and refugee movement around the world. Was it meant to be so topical? Or did the world catch up with the book as you were writing?
Living in Pakistan there seems always to be this fear of the apocalypse. What if something truly terrible befell Lahore and one had to leave? The idea of that possibility has been in the air probably since 9/11, or even before that.
It struck me that this notion of one day having to flee a city was not particular to Lahore, but common to urban dwellers everywhere. In New Orleans it could come about because of a rise in sea levels or a giant storm. In New York it could come about, perhaps, because of the election of a right-wing fascist figure.
In Paris there might be the breakdown of law and order and a real battle between people who live in the slums and come from immigrant communities and people who live in the wealthy centre of the city.
In Milan it could come about because of an economic collapse and being thrown out of the Euro and the banks going bust and the economy grinding to a halt, similarly in Athens. This notion of living in a large city today seems to carry with it the potential of apocalypse.
Exploring that fear – it’s actually quite a personal thing. It was a way of dealing with my own anxieties about living in Lahore, and living in Pakistan. At the same time, I’m somebody who’s migrated so much in my life. At three I went to California, at nine back to Pakistan, at eighteen to America again, at thirty to London, and then in my late thirties back to Pakistan. I’m so mongrelized, and such a migrant, that it’s impossible to think of myself as any one thing any more.
Has this coloured your view of migration?
It felt to me as though there were a backlash against such people, against migrants, and a backlash against migration generally, which I take quite personally, given who I am.
Instead of a world where migration becomes impossible, I wanted to explore what happens when migration becomes vast, incessant.
All of this mixed together to form the novel that we now have. In a sense the book chimes with current events, but current events aren’t simply current events. The underlying currents that give rise to our current events have been with us for decades. The novel is tapping into those underlying currents.
Your previous novels have been audacious high-wire storytelling experiments. You used second-person narrative in How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and the form of a monologue in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Did you initially try other ways of telling this story? Did you want to experiment before turning to what is a deceptively simple style?
Normally I do experiment with one form, another form, first person, second person, that voice, this voice.
I try to find the form that is best suited to what the novel is trying to express. Usually, that’s a process of trial and error. I try something, it fails. I try something else, it fails. With each failure I get into the characters and the story and the ins and outs of the novel. But often the words, the sentences and the paragraphs of a failed draft don’t make their way to the next draft.
This time was different. There were some very brief experiments of maybe five, ten, fifteen pages that didn’t exactly peter out, but just needed to be reworked. And after a very short phase of those sorts of experiments, the novel flowed and was written in its first draft very much like the book that you read.
Those initial sketches only took a few months, maybe three, early in the life of the novel. For me, a typical novel is six or seven years of work and the first half of those, three of four years, I’m totally lost. There’s nothing from that period that is immediately recognizable in the final product. But with this book, three or four years after I began, it was finished. Maybe less than that.
I think one of the reasons for the difference is that I live in Pakistan now. Living in Pakistan made me think more and more about how novels work, and what they’re supposed to do. My father-in-law passed away a year ago, and before he died he once said to me, ‘Look, you’re basically a storyteller. That’s why people come to your work. They want stories.’
It’s a simple statement, but it really struck me. I had thought of myself as someone who constructs sentences and builds these structures like an architect, a bricklayer.
Really, I felt, he’s right. Storytelling is at the heart of this. Was I perhaps missing the point? Were the experimentations that had consumed me before quite different from what I wanted to do now? Perhaps now I just wanted to figure out how to tell this story in the most impactful way.
There’s also the fact I have small children and read children’s books to them. So I re-encountered the form of the children’s novel. Exit West was heavily influenced by children’s literature. In particular, the double partisan nature of so much good children’s literature, where the narrator is not neutral, but rather on the side of the characters, and also on the side of the reader.
For example, the narrator wants Fantastic Mr Fox to escape successfully from the farmers. You’re cheering for Fox in a children’s book, but the narrator is on your side too. The reader is part of the narrator’s team. The reader is enlisted, imagined, to be an ally of Wilbur and Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web as they attempt to find a way for Wilbur to survive. In that sense, there’s this double partisan nature: both the characters and the narrator are on the side of the reader.
It struck me as so beautiful and so powerful an approach, and so rarely encountered in adult literature. I tried to write a book like that, which had this omniscient narrative position, but one that was on the side of the characters. Also, narration that wasn’t trying to say one thing but mean something else. It was trying to say what it meant. In that sense too, it was on the side of the reader. It wasn’t attempting to trick the reader or to destabilize them necessarily, formally in the way that I’ve done before. Not that those formal approaches were tricks, but my previous novels involved breaking apart and destabilizing narratives, asking the reader to restabilize them and then asking the reader to reflect upon what they did in co-writing the book. Exit West was actually much more straightforward. It was just trying to say what it meant.
It seems there are similarities in the music world. A musician might have the initial impulse to embrace complexity, explore, and then they circle back to the simplicity of a folk song.
Did I lose you?
Hi. You were saying about the musicians and they circle back to simplicity of a folk song.
Yeah. Are there similarities in literature? At some point you reread a children’s book and circle back to rediscover a simple yet effective delivery technique?
It’s unclear to me at this stage if this is going to be what I do going forward or if I’m going to revert to more overtly experimental formal approaches. Right now, this is where I’m at, the zone I’m in.
The experimentations were, for me, very important. Not only did I think those experiments were necessary for those books, because those books had to be written in that way. But it was also clearly important for me to go out into the world of writing and explore, and see what I saw, and learn what I learned. Travel is a pleasure and formal experimentation, and writing fiction is a form of travel. And it is a pleasure.
In a weird way, I do feel that, at this moment, I’m in a slightly different place where I’m valuing simplicity.
I grew up in Pakistan. An early part of my life there was in a Pakistan that was socially engineered for a dictatorship, General Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship where this notion of a puritanical form of Islam was being enforced, where so many things were forbidden. The state asserted one notion of truth and one national narrative and rejected deviation.
Writing about characters who were a sharp contrast to that, who were selfish and who were hedonistic, and doing it in a novelistic form that broke things apart and reassembled them in new ways: it felt like precisely the kind of response I needed to the dogma I had grown up in. It was the kind of response I wanted to make to that dogma.
But now we’re living in a world where truth has become so debased, where basic decency is almost thought to be a myth, and where we are being hit with so much information that we can’t make sense of it. We’re in a state of shock. So it felt to me that the much more radical response instead was to write about decency. In a world full of lies, saying what you mean feels quite radical. I suppose my sense of the world that I live in and what and how I need to respond to it has changed. Exit West is different.
We have so much information coming at us. Maybe that requires a certain brevity in the novel. There’s such a contest for our time. Efficiency was important to me.
Was that a tactic from the very beginning? Was writing a short book a formal necessity? Or was it because of our habits and the onslaught of information?
I’ve gravitated towards the kind of novel which can be read in a day. In other words, you can encounter the book in the morning and finish it some time after you’ve had lunch. You could begin the book just after having lunch and finish it before you go to bed.
The idea was to offer one sustained human encounter of that length. Not that readers are meant to read it in a single day or at a single sitting, I don’t think that’s my intention at all, but the book should be open to that possibility.
That size of book feels to me somehow very natural. In a world full of distractions, it’s the notion of a single undistracted experience. You don’t have to do anything else. You could just read this book and be done.
That idea messes with the sense of value that certain North American and British readers have. There’s a trend to buy long books that denote worthiness. They’re big and thick, so you’re getting your money’s worth. A surprising comment I’ve heard about Exit West is that it feels bigger than it actually is.
The size of a book has two different aspects. There’s its actual length, which is one form of size. The second is the spaces that it leaves for readers to fill. In filling those empty spaces, those blanks and those gaps, those silences, it expands. A small book can be quite big if the reader brings a lot to it. In that sense, in Exit West, for example, there are a number of two- or three-page episodes that are not part of the main narrative, but are occurring in Amsterdam or San Diego or Tokyo. Those are impressionist dots – ten, twelve impressionist dots that hopefully create the impression of an entire world, even while we are mostly tightly focused on the two main characters in this story.
At the same time, I’m hoping the reader can feel this world around them. Those little passages don’t add up to a lot of pages, but if they echo around in the reader’s mind, they become something much bigger. In that way, leaving space means they can strike a note, and that note is allowed to reverberate inside the reader. Perhaps it takes on entirely different harmonies inside them. That’s also a way to create a larger space. Because it’s possible for you to spend a considerable amount of time making your way through a larger book, but not necessarily feel a large emotional experience of reading.
The title too holds more than it should. Is someone exiting to the west? Most people in the book are moving westward. Or are you saying that in a newly configured world, where migrants are everywhere, the idea of ‘the west’ as we know it is disappearing?
It is a bit of both. The idea of ‘go west young man and young woman’ is very much a part of this. The pull so many millions and billions of people feel to go to Europe and North America, to head west as it were – that’s very much in this novel.
But is there a west? I really think about that term. When somebody from the east lives in London, is London a western city any more? When lots of people from the east live in London, what is west? I think part of what’s happening now is that this notion of the west is becoming more difficult to sustain. It’s becoming less coherent. That’s not a bad thing.
The west as a geographic direction will always be with us, but the west as something fundamental, with a different essence, has always been a kind of myth. There have always been easterners in the west, and southerners in the north. The fact that this notion is itself being challenged is central to the book.
It asks the question: if ‘the west’ does exit, what then takes its place? What fills the gap?
Two hundred years ago the world was a very different place. Think of Vancouver two hundred years ago. Unrecognizable.
Perhaps it was a small outpost on the north-western Pacific coast of the Northern American continent. Now Vancouver’s something completely different.
There’s no reason for us to think that Vancouver two hundred years hence will not be as different from Vancouver today as Vancouver two hundred years ago is. In other words, Pakistan didn’t exist two hundred years ago. Two hundred years ago, Lahore, the city I live in, was much smaller. It’s an ancient city, but was very different then from what it is today.
Two hundred years in the future, it’ll be even more different. The reality is the degree of change that we’ll see in the next two centuries is almost incomprehensible to us, just as it has been in the past. What matters is the emotional attitude we bring to that change.
We might encounter very dangerous situations in the future: personally, psychologically, politically, societally, artistically, culturally. But we have to accept that the nature of things is to change. It has always been this way. It is of course not entirely pleasant. It is often sad, heartbreaking, bittersweet, but at the same time interesting, beautiful, different. If we accept that change comes, we’ll be able to look at this new future, which none of us can define at this moment, and look for optimism in it.
We don’t know what it will be, a desirable future, but we can begin to think about it if we’re not paralysed with this false permanence that leads us to nostalgic politics and nostalgic psychological dysfunction.
And false ownership?
Hello. Still here. Got you.
You said something, and then –
I mentioned false ownership. Being on the west coast has made me think about it too, because of course this is about as far west as you can go, but this is not a ‘western’ city. Vancouver has so many eastern influences: Chinese, Korean, Japanese.
The west coast is not really the west coast. The west coast is the west coast of North America, but it’s the east coast of the Pacific Ocean. It is both of those things. It is the eastern rim of the Pacific, and the western rim of North America. It embodies those two different aspects. It’s likely to continue to.
We should be glad of that. The essence of nature is hybridity: different things coming together and mixing, and out of that something new coming into existence. That’s why so much of procreation involves two parents. We could just split ourselves, like paramecium, and just have two of us, but we don’t. We have two parents who come together, comingle different things, and create the next thing. Every human being is, genetically speaking, a hybrid.
Beyond that, our cultural output, our technological output, our artistic output flourishes in a situation of hybridity. We might think, for example, America was a land of white people, but there’s no such thing as white people. America is the place where lots of different European people, who previously thought of themselves as Germans, and Swedes, and English, and Italians, and Poles, came together and forged this new thing, which they called white. It also, of course, involves people who they didn’t call white, who they called black, or Native American, or from China, or wherever.
Out of this has come the United States, and also Canada. They’re both examples of hybridity, but so is Lahore, where I live. All of these invaders would come down from central Asia into India. They entered a place with giant rivers, with farmers who had settled and created communities, and the first big city there in their path, the first big riverine city that they sacked along the way, was Lahore. Thousands of years of this have produced people like me, who are descended from everybody. The earlier populations of south Asia, but also the Afghans, the Mongols, the Greeks, the Arabs; it’s all mixed up in people like me. That’s what our culture is.
It has always been the case. Anyone who left the place where homo sapiens evolved in Africa, would then go on and encounter new things, and mix, and form new hybridizations, and that went on and on. Those who stayed probably wandered around. They’d hybridize too.
Nobody is left who’s not a hybrid. So much of what’s beautiful about human culture comes from this hybridity. The Renaissance came into existence because the Arabs and Muslims brought back to Europe so much of the knowledge of the Greeks, which had been augmented by knowledge from China and India and all over Africa, and by the Arabs themselves. The Romans didn’t have a zero. The Arabs brought mathematics and physics back into Europe.
It wasn’t just an Arab physics and mathematics, it was a global heritage of mathematics and physics that was being held in this community, and a sense of advancement through science, and it returned to Europe in this way.
The aircraft wasn’t invented by the west or by Americans or by Europeans. It was invented by every physicist, mathematician, and philosopher through the ages who added to the combined sum of human knowledge that made it.
Is the novel a sly reminder of this? In it you mention everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives. We’re migrants through time.
We have become, in this moment, so terrified of change, and also of mortality. Mortality has become this horror that we just cannot face. We’ve lost so many of the ways in which you used to face mortality: a sense of tribe or folk stories, or close families, or religions that were fundamentally spiritual, not systems of political tribalism. Much of this has been weakened. We haven’t yet erected the new things that will sustain us and let us deal with this crisis. We are very destabilized.
In a sense, what is interesting to me is a reminder that despite the impermanence of us as individuals – and of every culture and society and city and town – in spite of that, there’s enormous beauty possible. The novel tries to go deep into the sadness of impermanence. Without denying this deep sadness, it’s also possible to see the beauty and the hope and optimism. One thing which mortality does for us is to make compassion possible. Each of us is facing the same end. That comes to everyone. The person you hate, the person with a different language, different race, different colour, different gender, whatever, we all face this. That predicament also gives us the foundation of compassion. You can be compassionate to other people because, just like you, they face oblivion.
Certainly, if you gave me the trade-off and said, ‘Look, you can live for ever and forget compassion,’ I’d probably grab on to it with both hands. But we don’t have that option. Since we don’t have that option, it’s important to remember what else we get from mortality, which is the idea that we partake of it all together, universally.
Is this a tough point to remind people who are in the grip of this current retrenchment in a world of Brexit, Trump, nationalism and closed borders?
It’s essential. Because here’s the thing: this is understandable nostalgia. We all recoil from being pushed into the future, but we must go. The future will come.
Just as when I was a child, I climbed up on the high diving board one time. I walked to the edge of it. I looked down. I said, ‘No way in hell am I jumping off this thing.’ To my parents’ shock, I crawled back to the base of the board and there were a bunch of kids who had climbed up behind me. I made them all climb back down the ladder, and then I followed. I didn’t jump.
Now, I understand that. It happened to me. But in life it doesn’t work that way. Even though I didn’t jump from that high diving board, I grew up. I got older. I encountered other frightening things. There’s no way round it. I think that nostalgia is not a cure. It’s a dangerous mirage.
In the desert, the mirage leads you to the wrong place and you die of thirst. That’s why mirages are dangerous. Nostalgia functions like that. In our attempt to get back into the past, we’re doomed. Even though we feel this impulse, and even though we see shimmering stuff in a desert that looks like water, we have to remind ourselves that that’s just not the way. It can’t be.
We have to look forward. Reminding people of this is important, as is asking people: what are we not looking at? What we’re not looking at is our own impermanence. Let’s look at it, squarely. Cry if we need to. Panic if we need to. But gather ourselves and live in acknowledgement of it and live more fully as a result.
What about the violence of the book? Casual violence erupts at different points. Was that a conscious tactic?
To be alive is to experience violence. We are all at the edge of this abyss, and extinguishment is a violent thing. It keeps popping up. Car accidents, civil wars, disease, individual misfortune, accidents, murder. It does permeate the novel. It permeates human lives. I suppose what the novel tries to do is for the most part avert its gaze from the violence in the city where it begins, where the violence escalates and escalates.
In other words, violence is noted. Wow, this is something horrific. Then you look away. What I’ve noticed living in Pakistan is people don’t spend all their time dwelling on how bad things could get. For the most part, we try so hard to imagine things are going to be okay. When a terrorist attack hits Lahore, most people don’t spend their time thinking about it all the time, and looking and going to the site where it occurred, and reflecting upon it. You register it, you take some kind of defensive action and you avert your gaze. You get on with your life.
The notion of being surrounded by incessant violence of different scales and averting our gaze, and living our lives, feels to me very fundamental to what it is to be a human being. Even in Vancouver, which is a very peaceful place, death, I’m sure, for many people, is something that happens in hospitals and in graveyards, and is pushed out of the day to day as much as possible. But it’s there.
The novel tries to grapple with the violent nature of what it is to be a human being. It isn’t going to end well for us, as individuals, but we needn’t obsess about it either. We need to acknowledge it, value more the time we have because of it, but not mire ourselves in the constant preoccupation of it.
You’ve dealt with violence so that a single clause in a sentence hints at the kind of tragedy that would fill an entire other book. Done this way it implies, even grammatically, that this sentence is going to carry on, that life is going to carry on.
I’ve lost you.
Okay, am I back?
I couldn’t hear you.
I just was saying that a single clause in a sentence hints at the kind of tragedy that would fill an entire other book. It implies, even in the grammar of the novel, this sentence will carry on, life is going to carry on.
In a way, this takes us back to children’s books. The best children’s books so often don’t deny children the horror possible in life. Like Fantastic Mr Fox faces death and the potential massacre of his little children. It’s basically genocide for the animals that live on the hill. It could be happening. He loses his tail. A bloody stump is all that’s left. Yet, we find our way through.
Wilbur faces death. Charlotte dies. These sorts of books, Fantastic Mr Fox and Charlotte’s Web, they’re right in the domain of violence and terror and mortality, because children are thinking about this stuff.
Children are looking at the world and saying, ‘This is pretty damn confusing and pretty scary actually.’ What these books do is, without denying that reality, extend the position of ‘Look, we’re on the same side. We’re with Fox in his difficult hour. We’re with Charlotte as she tries to save Wilbur. We, together, are with each other: the reader, the narrator and the characters of this book. We’re together.’ This notion of creating a connection that helps reduce the horror present in life is in these children’s books. It’s something they do so effectively.
For someone like me, I wouldn’t be a novelist today if I hadn’t fallen in love with children’s books. I wouldn’t have been a reader. They clearly did something fundamental to me as a human being, as a young human being. In a way, that’s what I’m trying to do in this book as well. Because I feel like I still need children’s books to make sense of the world around me. I need children’s books, written for adults like me. I set out to write the book that I needed.