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.