When Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West was released last year, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, named a Best Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review, and even made President Barack Obama’s list of the best books he read in 2017. The novel, now out in paperback, follows a young couple, Nadia and Saeed, who flee from an unnamed country through magical doors that take them across the world. As they meet others who have fled their homes, the two must figure out whether they truly belong together.
On Tuesday, April 10, Hamid will speak at Christ Church Cathedral about Exit West. We caught up with Hamid to talk about love stories, restraint, and where he’d want a magical door to take him.
Some stories about immigrants focus just on resettlement, but in Exit West, you show us Nadia and Saeed’s origins, their decision to flee, and their resettling. Why was it important for you to show those different parts of their journey for this story?
I tried to show them as people in a place they thought they had to leave, and then as people in a new place trying to adjust. I tried to remove from the story the part about how migrants and refugees often have to travel in very dangerous circumstances to get from point A to point B. That part of the story is very important, and often horrific and very dangerous, but I think people can just use that as a way to say, “These are people who are different from me. I haven’t had to travel in this terrifying way.”
I wanted to make Saeed and Nadia’s story into one that anybody could participate in because all of us—at least once in our lives—move homes, even if it’s just leaving our parents’ home. It was to show, in a way, that migrants aren’t “other” people. It’s all of us.
I liked how Nadia and Saeed are both drawn together and torn apart by their circumstances. What made you decide to focus on a couple as opposed to a single person or a larger family?
Well, the novel is about letting go. We keep migrating in our lives, so we have to let go of really everything over the course of a lifetime. So I wanted to write about a love story that involved letting go as well. And that’s what Saeed and Nadia’s story was for me.
The core narrative and themes of Exit West are emotionally weighty, but there’s a level of restraint to your prose that I found really interesting. Did you think a lot about maintaining a certain tone and mood for the story as you wrote it?
Sometimes it’s important to let the reader make the story in their own imagination. What I tried to do in this book was offer up a suggestion or impulse and then let the reader’s imagination expand that into what it really feels like or looks like. That’s one of the magical things about books: Each reader fills the book with their own imagination. So in a way, restraint—whether that’s emotional restraint or restraint from giving too many details—is an invitation to the reader to fill in what isn’t there and to feel it more forcefully.
I think between Nadia and Saeed, there would often be so much left unsaid. I wanted them to just talk to each other and figure it out!
But that’s part of it, too—they don’t know how to talk to each other about what’s going on.
How does it feel knowing that President Obama said your book was one of the best books he read last year?
It was a wonderful feeling. I found out about it at a New Year’s Eve party in Pakistan. My sister had seen it on Facebook, and she messaged me and said, “Hey, do you know that Barack Obama just named your book as one of his favorite books of the year?” I had no idea—I thought she was joking. But she sent me this screenshot to my phone. And what can I say? It made my evening. It was a wonderful thing in part because he’s a person of real stature, a real human being, and because in a way, I wrote this novel hoping it would go into the world and do its part in changing what people think. So seeing that someone like that even read the book was an incredible thing. And Obama himself is a very thoughtful writer, so that means something too. So all of those reasons made that a very happy experience.
The book’s been out for over a year now, and was just released in paperback. Why do you think this particular book really caught fire for you?
Books often have very long lives. I think we imagine in our current newness-obsessed media culture that it’s the thing of the moment that we should be talking about. But sometimes books take a while to find their readers. When they find their readers and the readers tell their friends, there’s this kind of organic relationship that starts to happen and the book starts to grow.
Once, the great American writer Russell Banks was telling me about a book of his that came out the year before. I asked him if he was happy with the reception, and he said it was too soon to say. And I said, “But it came out a year ago!” And he said yes, but that it’s not until 10 years pass that you figure out if people are still reading the book and why they’re reading it, and that’s how the book actually did. So hopefully this will be a book that has a life—I hope that it keeps finding readers and keeps being useful to them. It’s been wonderful to watch that process so far.
Finally, if you could open one of the magical doors from the book right now, where would you want to go?
My answer’s going to be a bit simple: I would go home, to Lahore. I’ve been on the road for about two weeks, and very honestly, I miss my kids, and I miss my wife. So although I’m in San Francisco now, a city I completely love, if I had a chance to disappear for a few hours it would just be to go home, where they’re sleeping at this moment. I’d sit there for a while, and then come back.
Mohsin Hamid in conversation with Bryan Washington, April 10 at 7 p.m. Tickets $16. Christ Church Cathedral, 1117 Texas Avenue. More info and tickets at brazosbookstore.com.