2018 is the Man Booker Prize’s 50th anniversary and Professor Debra Humphries, Vice-Chancellor, joined publishers and past winners at a reception hosted by the Duchess of Cornwall at Buckingham Palace to celebrate. We are celebrating our sixth year as partners in the universities' initiative through which first year students are given a free Booker-nominated novel and can join in a range of activities including a visit from the author.
2018's novel was Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, who joined us at the university in the Sallis Benney Theatre on Thursday 1 November 2018.
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Mohsin Hamid was born in 1971 in Lahore, Pakistan, and moved to the US at the age of 18 to study at Princeton University and Harvard Law School. He then worked as a management consultant in New York, and later as a freelance journalist back in Lahore.
His first novel was Moth Smoke (2000), winner of a Betty Trask Award and shortlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Moth Smoke was made into a television mini-series in Pakistan and an operetta in Italy, and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 2000.
In 2007 his second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was published and shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. In 2008, it won the South Bank Show Annual Award for Literature and was shortlisted for the 2008 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia Region, Best Book) and the 2008 James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction). A short story based on the novel was also published in The Paris Review in 2006.
Hamid's third novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013) won the Tiziano Terzani International Literary Prize and was shortlisted for the KLF Embassy of France Prize and the Haus der Kulturen der Welt International Literature Award. His fourth novel, Exit West (2017), was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He has also published a book of essays entitled Discontent and Its Civilisations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York & London (2014).
2018’s choice for the annual Big Read campaign was Mohsin Hamid’s novel Exit West, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2017. Exit West tells the story of two lovers, Nadia and Saeed, as they make their way as refugees from an unnamed city torn apart by civil war, to Europe and then to the USA. In telling their story, Exit West paints a picture of a world transformed by the appearance of mysterious doorways that form passageways between nations and that allow people to quickly move across the globe. These doorways reduce national borders to out-dated obstacles and Mohsin uses this device to consider what is a migrant? And how do we build a world in which borders look increasingly like objects of nostalgia rather than a sensible way to organise nations?
Mohsin joined us at the university on 1st November 2018 and attended an academic symposium on Writing Refugees in the afternoon. Here he talked about his dislike of the category of the refugee, arguing that the term was used as a mechanism to exclude certain people from the nation by setting unreasonably high standards of proof as a barrier to entry. He also talked about his novel as a mode of skewed realism, which is mostly written as a realist novel but which uses devices like magic realism or speculative futurism to move the narrative off centre. In the evening Mohsin gave a public reading with a Q&A to an audience that included university students and staff, and members of the general public. He answered a range of questions about the novel and his approach to writing and spoke fully and personally about how the novel came into being. In his account of Exit West it was possible to see a novel that is as much about personal relationships and their fragility as it is about the larger questions of asylum. Mohsin spoke of his desire to show his readers the similarities between refugees and settled communities. To achieve this he tried to show that refugees have lives that are much like everyone else’s but also that each of us in our own ways are moving through space and time and through an experience of loss. Just like the migrant we must leave our families and loved ones; just like the refugees we must see our homes transformed and altered as the world around us changes.
Mohsin answered a number of questions from the floor, including the inevitable question about the nature of his magical doorways. He explained that he deliberately avoided giving too much detail about the nature of these doors but confided that he first thought of them when speaking to someone on a Skype call. ‘What if,’ he asked, ‘we could reach through this window and find ourselves on the other side of the world?’ Pointing to our mobile phones, Mohsin suggested that many of us carry in our pockets magic portals that move us mentally through time and space. For him, his novel merely extends the experience of this technology by magically allowing his characters to navigate the globe.
After the talk, Mohsin signed copies of his books for a long line of his readers at the City Books stall in the Sallis Benney foyer.
With novels like The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Mohsin Hamid has proved himself a writer able to speak directly of and to the moment. His latest work, Exit West, is no exception. In it he situates a love story amidst the refugee crisis, painting a nuanced portrait of contemporary migration, from the horrors of Western hysteria to what it really means to leave one life behind in the hope of building another.
It begins like any “boy meets girl” story – eyes are locked across a classroom, an invitation to get a drink after class is declined but not rebuffed, accepted a week later, and two young people begin to spend more and more time together. The relative gentleness of this courtship, however, is contrasted against a backdrop of increasing civil unrest. The unnamed Middle Eastern city in which Hamid’s two lovers, Saeed and Nadine, live is on the brink of disaster, “swollen with refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war”, but, as Hamid expertly shows, the slide into conflict, violence and the frightening curtailment of civil liberties happens all too easily.
Honing in on the individual human costs of the escalating discord, the reader is brought face to face with the realities of war: “Neighbourhoods fell to the militants in startlingly quick succession, so that Saeed’s mother’s mental map of the place where she had spent her entire life now resembled an old quilt, with patches of government land and patches of militant land. The frayed seams between the patches were the most deadly spaces, and to be avoided at all costs. Her butcher and the man who dyed the fabrics from which she had once made her festive clothes disappeared into such gaps, their places of business shattered and covered in rubble and glass.”
Meanwhile, mysterious black doors begin to appear across the city, through which its inhabitants start to flee – one enters a closet or a doorway in familiar surroundings, and exists in calmer climes like the UK, US or Australia, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe-style: “It was said in those days that the passage was both like dying and like being born.” Although it might seem at odds with the realism of the rest of the novel, this surrealism actually makes perfect sense, a stroke of genius in fact, a means by which Hamid can both illustrate and then advocate for an increasingly integrated world: “Without borders nations appeared to be becoming somewhat illusory, and people were questioning what role they had to play.”
The poetry of Hamid’s prose prevents Exit West becoming too heavy a read. He doesn’t shy away from wrestling with some of the most uncomfortable realities of the Brexit/Trump age – Saeed and Nadine find themselves in a UK that’s “like a person with multiple personalities, some insisting on union and some disintegration” – but this fable-like novel has the soul of an accomplished short story and wears its message surprisingly and intoxicatingly lightly.
Exit West, a novel about migration and mutation, full of wormholes and rips in reality, begins as it mostly doesn’t go on. A man and a woman meet at an evening class on corporate identity and product branding. Saeed is down-to-earth, the son of a university professor, and works at an ad agency. Nadia, who wears a full black robe and is employed by an insurance company, lives alone, rides a motorbike, enjoys vinyl and psychedelic mushrooms. She doesn’t pray. We think we know what will happen next: a boy-girl love story, opposites attracting, secular individuals struggling with the shackles of a theological state.
Now, though, this unnamed city is filling with refugees. Militants are creating unrest. The old world was neither paradise nor hell – one of its parks tolerates “early morning junkies and gay lovers who had departed their houses with more time than they needed for the errands they had said they were heading out to accomplish” – but its terrors are driving out those with ambition and connections. Saeed and Nadia embark on a journey that, like the dream logic of a medieval odyssey, takes them to Mykonos, London, San Francisco.
Hamid, intentionally for the most part, doesn’t exert as tight a narrative grip as he did in previous novels such as The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. Exit West shifts between forms, wriggles free of the straitjackets of social realism and eyewitness reportage, and evokes contemporary refugeedom as a narrative hybrid: at once a fable about deterritorialisation, a newsreel about civil society that echoes two films – Kevin Brownlow’s It Happened Here and Peter Watkins’s The War Game – and a speculative fiction that fashions new maps of hell.
All the same, the novel is often strongest in its documentation of life during wartime, as Hamid catalogues the casual devastation of a truck bomb, the sexual molestation that takes place as hundreds of city dwellers throng to take their life savings from a bank, and the supernatural elation of taking a warm shower after weeks on the road. This is annexed to elements of magical realism and even The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe-style children’s storytelling. A normal door, Saeed and Nadia’s colleagues start to discuss, “could become a special door, and it could happen without warning, to any door at all”.
Characters move through time and space like abrupt jump-cuts or skipping compact discs. There are no descriptions of life-or-death journeys in the backs of lorries or on flimsy dinghies. No middle passages. Just the cognitive shock of having been freshly transplanted to tough new terrains. Hamid is deft at evoking the almost contradictory nature of Nadia and Saeed’s digital life (their phones are “antennas that sniffed out an invisible world” and transported them “to places distant and near”), whose broadband freedoms contrast with the roadblocks, barbed wire and camps they face in what passes for reality.
Exit West is animated – confused, some may think – by this constant motion between genre, between psychological and political space, and between a recent past, an intensified present and a near future. It’s a motion that mirrors that of a planet where millions are trying to slip away “from once fertile plains cracking with dryness, from seaside villages gasping beneath tidal surges, from overcrowded cities and murderous battlefields”.
The skies in Hamid’s novel are as likely to be populated by helicopters, drones and bombs as they are by dreams and twinkling stars. Yet his vision is ultimately more hopeful than not. In one of the book’s parallel but alternative universes a suicidal man chooses life. In another, two old men – one Dutch, one Brazilian – exchange a kiss. Most of all there is prayer – prayer for the loss that “unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry”.