Last month Steve Inskeep at Fresh Air talked with Mohsin Hamid about his new novel, Exit West. Set in an unnamed country that bears more than a passing resemblance to the author’s native Pakistan, Exit West lives and breathes hiraeth, whether its characters are imagining a new life elsewhere, in a new place that will (they hope) become home, or making the agonizing decision over whether to leave their family and country of birth behind because it no longer affords them the safety of home.
Just a few weeks after I heard the podcast, I was at a conference and someone read aloud a heartbreakingly beautiful passage from the book. Which sealed the deal. I had to read it.
Hamid’s is a love story, about the things that pull people together, or push them apart, and even just read as a story about two people and their relationship, it’s wonderfully crafted. But the novel is bigger than that. It is also about migration–about how you decide when it’s time to go, and what it feels like starting over in a new place, or another new place.
I’m pro-human. And I think recognizing the human nature of migration is very important. But yes, I’m pro-migrant. I personally tend to believe that there is a right to migration, the same way there’s a right to love whom you like and to believe what you believe and to say what you want to say.
– Mohsin Hamid
In essence, the novel is a bit of a thought-experiment. What if the borders between the places people want to leave and the places they want to go were a bit more permeable? What if the story of economic or refugee migration were less about the journey from one place to another, and more about what happened after you got there? What if you could just walk through a door and be in another country? What if the powers-that-be couldn’t imagine a solution to the problem that relied on closing borders, and instead were forced to come up with solutions that presupposed large numbers of immigrants arriving with no way to stem the tide? How would society change? What ways would we find to work together? How would the world be different if we could suddenly connect with a stranger from half a world away?
Or to ask the question another way, how is the world different given that we can do that? And what are the choices we can make, here, in this world, to honor the humanity of all of us, no matter where we come from?