We Are All Refugees: A Conversation With Mohsin Hamid

We Are All Refugees: A Conversation With Mohsin Hamid

We Are All Refugees: A Conversation With Mohsin Hamid

The novel Exit West is about the many migrations that humans undergo. Its author finds universality and hope in that.


Earlier this year, Mohsin Hamid’s fourth novel, Exit West, appeared, an ode to a future in which migration is as ordinary as going to school or falling in love. The book, a finalist for this year’s Man Booker Prize, revolves around the movements of Nadia and Saeed, a young couple from an unnamed country, escaping war. Hamid does not shy away from the realities of conflict, but he also does not dwell on its tragedies.

As they make their way in strange surroundings, untethered from the very things that first created their identities—family, place, nation—Nadia and Saeed experience transformations both subtle and radical. Who are we, Hamid asks repeatedly throughout the book, and what kind of world are we willing to create?

I spoke with Hamid before his appearance at Berlin’s International Literature Festival in early September 2017, where he addressed a packed auditorium. The event occurred shortly before Germany’s national elections, where fear around migration drove the xenophobic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party to win 12.6 percent of the vote, gaining a projected 94 seats in parliament. People in the capital, at least, were eager to hear Hamid’s non-apocalyptic vision of the future.

But it’s not easy to be an optimist about the future of migration. People trying to move through northern Africa to Europe are ensnared in detention centers in Libya. During Myanmar’s latest ethnic-cleansing campaign, its army planted land mines along the Bangladeshi border. Donald Trump’s new travel ban, announced in late September, would permanently bar citizens of eight countries from entering the United States. Thousands of people are trapped at the edges of countries and at the limits of our compassion.

Defiantly, Hamid posits that the human capacity to survive is stronger than most of us know. At its core, Exit West is about the universality of human experience, and the many migrations we undergo in a lifetime.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Caitlin L. Chandler: You’ve spoken a lot recently about the need to reimagine the world, to juxtapose a new vision with what feels like our bleak current reality. How would we actually do that on a large-enough scale?

Mohsin Hamid: I think that there have been, since the beginnings of human culture, many different approaches that make us less crippled by the fact we are temporary. Part of the challenge we face is that we’re living in a world where those forms of wisdom and those forms of human coping with mortality are being dismantled. I think it’s important actually to reengage with these quote-unquote spiritual questions, whether or not you’re religious.

But also I think just imagining a positive future is important, because the world in many ways is getting better. The average person, the poorest quarter of the planet, consume far more calories than they did 50 years ago, they are living longer, the gap between the average education of boys and girls is diminishing. And yet, if you ask almost anyone, in my experience, people are likely to say things are getting worse. And we have to ask the question, Why is this the case? Of course, things are getting better from a pretty brutal starting point. But if the direction of travel is neutral to positive, why then the complete pessimism and despair about the future?

I think part of the reason for that is the psychic damage done by our dismantling our ways of thinking about being mortal and how that can still be fine and beautiful. And partly it comes from the way we’re built, which is to say that human beings privilege negative information. It’s because we are designed to treat threats more seriously. Now, given that design, which works pretty well in nature, what happens in the modern technological-media environment when we are receiving information constantly from our phones, from our screens, from our social media?

Nobody’s going to say that today in Pakistan, 16 million mothers kissed their kids goodnight, 5 million musicians practiced their musical instruments, and 833,000 people fell in love for the first time. They’re going to say that today in Pakistan somebody killed five other people with a bomb. Now, that is true, but it is a fundamental omission of so much information.

We’re left in a state of horrified pessimism. And that horrified pessimism leads us to believe the future will be worse. And so we see, in this present moment, the rise of dominant, nostalgic political visions. Donald Trump says, “Make America great again.” Brexit is taking back control to a time before the EU came. ISIS is going back to the Caliphate. Modi wants to take India back to an imagined pre-Muslim, pre-colonization Hindu utopia.

So one thing, which, I think, is interesting as a writer, is to say, Look, part of the storytelling function is because human beings want collectively to imagine the future. And so that was a big part of the project for this book. Imagine the worst happens if you’re afraid of migration—both being forced from your home and having people come to your home. If everybody moves, even then maybe we can believe things will be ok. It will be jarring, for some things will be horrible, but, all in all, our grandchildren will also fall in love, find interesting work to do, sing songs, and tell stories.

CLC: It feels like, right now, not only are we trapped by our pessimism and the negative news cycle, but also by the language we use to talk about refugees, migrants, and asylum-seekers, which is dehumanizing.

MH: I think that if we can recognize the universality of the migration experience and the universality of the refugee experience—that those of us who have never moved are also migrants and refugees—then the space for empathy opens up.

Every single human being is a refugee from their childhood. The time of our childhood is gone from us. And it hurts, and it’s devastating, actually. Where are those people who were alive in those days? And that means we can recognize the refugee not as some strange other person who’s had a weird experience of crossing the Mediterranean on a boat, or crawling under barbed wire to Texas, but instead we see somebody who’s had an experience that emotionally reminds us of our own experience.

If you never leave the home you’re born in, the experience of life as you get older is a migration. If you were born here in Berlin 80 years ago and lived in the same house today, you were born in a Berlin where Adolf Hitler was the Führer. When you were 2 years old, you witnessed the Second World War. Your city was virtually destroyed. Sometime in your 50s, the Berlin Wall fell and East and West were reunified. Today, perhaps, you have many Turkish-speaking neighbors. And you have not moved homes, but you have migrated profoundly.

If we can find a language that speaks to the universality of these things, then we’re much more likely to do what I think is important, which is to move toward accepting the equality of people. But in 200, 300, or 400 years, people will not be uncomfortable with it. It will be considered normal that somebody born in any part of the world has the same rights as someone born elsewhere. In the same way that, for people who had slaves, the idea that today there would not be slavery probably seemed outlandish.

But the weight of the desire for equality was strong enough. And it’s strong enough, not because equality helps the disempowered (which it does, obviously), it is strong because the denial of equality fundamentally dehumanizes people who are denying equality. Those of us who live in wealthy countries and don’t want people from poor countries to live in those countries are engaged in a fundamental denial of equality.

CLC: One of the things I appreciated in the book was how you described the minutiae of Nadia and Saeed’s daily lives: how they’re working, sleeping, having sex. Last year, I interviewed a group of Syrian men stranded on the border of Jordan, and when I asked what their main concern was, one man joked, “Can you get us some Viagra? Because I have trouble making love to my wife under these conditions.” These are the kinds of things that are usually missing when you read about people migrating. How were you able to imagine what this experience is like?

MH: I did what novelists do all the time—I pretended to be them. When my children—my daughter is 8 and my son is 5—play, they naturally play make believe. My son likes to pretend he’s a T-Rex, or a Godzilla, or King Kong, and he has an uncanny ability to act like whatever animal-monster he becomes. My daughter is a superhero with special powers, and she believes it when she’s doing it. And that’s what human beings do from the time we’re children; we imagine being something else. When I was creating these characters, it was an attempt to imagine what would I be thinking about, how would I feel, how would I react.

CLC: In the novel, the romantic relationship between Saeed and Nadia breaks down, in part because every time they move, they change slightly, but also in part because some of the loss they endure makes them different people. What led you to make this choice?

MH: I wanted to explore a particular kind of love in this book, which is a first love. Many of us will have had this experience of having a first love. And like many first loves, it’s not the final love. But it was important for me to look at a love story, which acknowledged transience, but also acknowledged the beauty of transience. A lot of the problems that we face right now—politically, culturally, psychologically—come from a desire for permanence, which is impossible. That Germany should always be like this, that Pakistan should always be like this, that I should always be young or beautiful—that’s not how the universe works.

I also wanted to explore the way in which two intimate people can part ways without hatred or animosity. Because, you know, you can have a love affair where you end with very harsh words and anger. And 20 years later, you think, Oh, I wish I hadn’t said those things. I’d like to talk to them right now. But you can’t, because something was destroyed. This notion of being able to go your own way without fighting for supremacy or trying to impede the other person from doing what they want to do is important to me.

CLC: Yes I think it’s very rare, and it’s not something that’s often depicted in literature. Many love stories are, instead, told from a perspective of loving someone to keep that someone.

MH: I think that’s exactly right. We think of love, conceptually, in predominantly possessive terms. So if I say, “I love your shoes,” or “I love your car,” or “I love you,” it’s “I want to have your shoes,” “I want to have your car,” “I want to own you.” And that form of love actually is a love very much rooted in the self. I love you, because you make me feel better; or I love you, because you make me feel less lonely.

But there is another notion of love, which functions very differently, which is a love rooted not in the idea that I love you because you make me feel less lonely, but rather I love you, and I desire that you be less lonely.

And those forms of love are loves in which the self becomes less central to us. And in the Sufi tradition—and in many other traditions, such as the Jewish existential tradition and others—this idea that we can find types of love that make our own self less central is a vital human goal, or vital human possibility. Because then the terror we have at the temporary nature of our selves—the fact that we’re going to die, to end—is less all-encompassing. We’ve come to recognize we are not all that matters.

CLC: You ask questions in all of your novels that could also be pursued through politics, science, and other disciplines. What led you to becoming a writer, instead of, say, a physicist?

MH: I’m a fantasist at heart. Like my kids, I used to play make believe and I never really wanted to stop. Everybody daydreams in their adult life; some of us just do it with a little more structure and intensity than others. For me, I love reading books, I like telling stories, I like imagining stuff, I’m often lost in imaginary worlds, and so writing became the way for me to be.

I think many of us don’t entirely accept reality. We recognize that we’re making ourselves up as we go along, and that this consensus-reality thing that we all talk about doesn’t entirely exist. What fiction allows us to do is to stop pretending that we believe in reality and accept that we can believe in something that is not real, and that’s a relief.

CLC: You’ve written that wandering is a form of hope. What do you hope for today?

MH: At the most basic level, I hope for a less frightened collective future. I hope that partly because I’m a parent, and so the future is something I think about in personal terms for my children, and for myself, and partly because, as a thoroughly mongrelized, hybridized human being, I find the current discourse on mongrelization and hybridization and people who are different deeply troubling. And I think it’s entirely possible to get to the kind of future that I would like to see.

What if China and America don’t have to compete to be the number-one country in the world? What if we say, We’re done with competition between countries, we’re willing to build some sort of global architecture that allows us to jointly solve problems, and we don’t have to replicate the 20th century’s battle between nations or the 19th century’s battle between empires?

I think that this less-frightening future will be based upon a much more radical equality than we have today, and a much more radical optimism than we seem to be articulating. There are encouraging signs, because in so many places when you go and speak to young people, they’re much less frightened of people who are not like them.

Perhaps mortality exists for this purpose: It allows each generation to move on and to leave to the next generation the chance to do things a little bit better. And, in that sense, it’s a wonderful feature of the human species, much as I don’t care for it in my personal existence.

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