Mohsin Hamid: “Migration is the Starting Point for Everybody”
The Exit West Author on Progressive Politics and Transcendent Love
Make room for Mohsin Hamid on the long shelf of Indian and Pakistani writers who’ve been tuning our taste: among them Salman Rushdie, Pico Iyer, Akhil Sharma, Daniyal Mueenuddin, and Mohammed Hanif.
Mohsin Hamid is acutely expert on our American hang-ups about Others who look something like him: those brownish, probably Muslim arrivals from the Middle East and South Asia. His new novel, Exit West, is a very modern sort of love story about a thoughtful young man and driven young woman, on the run together from their exploding homeland—through tunnels to Greece and Africa and then the Bay Area California.
Last time I spoke with Mohsin was in his writing room at home in Lahore in the ancient Punjab. Our conversation swirled around his hit novel that became a major movie, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, about what the shock of 9/11 could do to a Princeton-educated, mostly Americanized Asian, like Mohsin Hamid himself. This time at my house in Boston I asked him about his surreal new novel and about the blank, dark doors that deliver frantic refugees to their next home far away.
Christopher Lydon: Mohsin Hamid, it’s so good to see you again. Your characters Saeed and Nadia move through these mysterious doors from what felt to me like Syria (or could be your own Pakistan), to Greece, to London, to Marin County in California, and we feel at the end—what I think you tell me—is that we’re all migrants. We do survive it somehow, but that we’re human beings, all of us, first and last.
That’s the long view. What is there to say about the short term, and I’m thinking Syria specifically: the Syria Test, which Germany we can say passed, but most of us have flunked. How should we be rethinking the plight of Syrians?
Mohsin Hamid: Well, I think there’s a basic, human reality, which is why we have laws that protect refugees. In the same way that if you see someone in a swimming pool and they’re drowning, we feel a sense that we should do something to help them, human life is precious, and if we do nothing and let that person drown, then we’re not just wasting human life but we’re diminishing ourselves.
The refugees are like that. We know that they’re people. We know that they are drowning. We know that it’s possible to help them, and if collectively we don’t do anything, we’ve diminished ourselves enormously. I think that is happening as far as Syrian refugees are concerned.
CL: Yeah, but we have let ourselves be diminished, and we somehow are in the habit now of . . . somehow we’ve surrendered to the impulse.
MH: Well, I think what’s happening in the present moment is that we are being hit by so many small pieces of small news. We’re constantly reacting to this negative stuff all around us, and we are not taking the time to pause and to imagine what kind of future we would actually like to exist. We live in a moment where we are so nostalgic and trying to go back, and so many political actors are trying to take us back to supposedly better times. If you think of America 50 years ago in the 1960s, and you said, “How do you feel about the future?” people would have said, “I think it will be amazing. There will be more equality, more prosperity, and people will do what they want to do.” And today, people would say very often that they’re frightened about the future. So, for me partly we have to get beyond the fear of all these little bits of news and start imagining a future that we can step into together. That has to happen.
CL: Where are your own travels and your own experience in this book, as you were very much a presence inside The Reluctant Fundamentalist: the story of a Pakistani man who’d made good in a huge way in America, Princeton Law School, finance, and was shaken to his roots by 9/11. Where’s the Mohsin Hamid in this tale of two travelers?
MH: Well, I’ve been a migrant my whole life. When I was three I moved from Pakistan to California, and when I was nine I moved back from California to Pakistan.
CL: Your father was an academic as I remember . . .
MH: Yes, a professor. He still is, and he did his PhD at Stanford so he moved to Northern California in the 1970s. And in 1980, we moved back to Pakistan, and when I moved back at the age of nine to Pakistan I never saw or heard from or contacted any one of my friends again. And then at 18, I moved back to America, and 30, to London and then back to Pakistan.
“Because of the transient nature of human life, migration is the starting point for everybody.”
So many times I’ve had departures and returns, and I think I began to feel that I wanted to explore migration, the pain of it, the universality of it. One thing which I’ve learned along the way for example is initially I thought I was a kind of freak, this mongrel with different things making me different from everybody.
Later though, I realized how everybody feels a little bit foreign. There’s something about each of us that makes us a little bit foreign. And so, I started to think in a weird way these migrations connect is, and the novel is about that, about the pain of migration, about how it changes us and also how, because of the transient nature of human life, migration is the starting point for everybody.
CL: We do all feel like travelers and strangers and most of us lonely a lot of the time, asking “What am I doing here?” no matter where we are. What is the something in our immune system that denies that and hates to recognize the helplessness, the stranger in the strange land that we’re looking at wherever we go?
MH: I think that we have to reconnect with some things, cultural things. You know, for a long time we had spiritual practices, cultural practices, song, music, story-telling, folk practices that remind us of the passage of the seasons, the passage of life. I remember reading Charlotte’s Web to my daughter. Charlotte’s Web is a novel about transience, how everybody will go, and while that is sad, you shouldn’t be terrified of it.
There were so many things in our culture that taught us these sorts of lessons, made us able to be comfortable, and with the politicization of religion, with the dispersal of families across geography, with economic imperatives making us continuously on the move. We’ve lost a lot of that and so we’re somewhat helpless in the face of this transience. And I think a lot of what we’re seeing today is what you might call a sort of “human spiritual crisis.” You don’t have to be religious to think of it in those terms.
CL: Why not be?
MH: Well you can be of course religious to think of it in those terms, but I don’t mean it necessarily that you have to believe in a spirit to think that human beings need to become comfortable with the idea that we will pass to live life fully. And since we are so uncomfortable in this historical moment—we’ve lost so many of the moorings that made us comfortable—we are prone to being exploited, and we’re prone to being made afraid, and we’re prone to hate each other.
CL: The last time I saw you we talked in your house in Lahore, and what sticks in my mind—it’s still up on our website—is your observation that the United States is becoming more Pakistani all the time with the separation of classes, with the oligarchy and our acceptance of it. We disguise it better, but there’s been a terrible erosion of our own middle class. That was five years ago. Where are we heading?
MH: Well, I’ll just paint you a little picture of Pakistan, and you can perhaps decide for yourself if you think America has become more similar. We have in Pakistan a prime minister who is known for having business interests that are co-mingled with his politics. He’s refusing to declare where his assets come from, he attacks the press and accuses them of lying, he tries to intimidate the judiciary. It’s possible that you might see some echoes of that in America today.
CL: Where do you look for resistance in Pakistan?
MH: Well this is I think what’s very interesting. In Pakistan now, the resistance of these things is getting stronger and stronger and stronger. You know, most writers and novelists I know in Pakistan feel very political about their fiction. People are very politically engaged, and in America what I think happened there was an interlude of a decade or two maybe longer where so many Americans, particularly with progressive views, were lulled into the sense that if we just think the right thing and vote every so often, America will become the kind of country we want. Societies don’t work that way. You know freedom has to be fought for. Equality has to be fought for. You have to shape your country, and I think one thing I feel on this trip in America is that’s there’s been a kind of awakening after a long time. So many writers I know who might have before said to me, “Oh no, I don’t really buy political fiction,” are waking up to the notion that all fiction is political. And if you say you don’t write political fiction, you’re writing fiction and disclaiming the political implications of your fiction. Similarly, people are protesting, they’re gathering, they’re organizing, they’re canvassing, they’re signing up to do things and involve themselves, and I think that’s essential.
“Americans were lulled into the sense that if we just think the right thing and vote every so often, America will become the kind of country we want.”
The need is for people to shape their country and not have it shaped for them, and I think Americans are waking up to it. And Pakistanis have woken up to it as well. In Pakistan because things have been desperate, and in America because things look like they might become desperate.
CL: Zadie Smith was saying to us just the other day that her students at NYU are an example to England, but many to Pakistan too, of a fundamental feistiness, an entitlement to network, knowing all kinds of email and organizing tricks that could be an example to the world. I mean, how strong are our institutions and our American reflexes, do you observe?
MH: I think we’re going to find out. I honestly don’t know. There is an enormous part of American political culture–you know, I studied law in America, and I remember thinking it’s interesting that the British don’t have a written constitution. America has a written constitution. I think what we discovered is that actually so much of the American Constitution was, in fact, unwritten. There were basic norms of behavior, how people conduct, what’s considered decent, how politics should be, much like in Britain. And now, that unwritten American Constitution is being torn to pieces. Without that, actually American democracy is much weaker, but what we’re seeing is such a strong reaction to that. People are horrified at these unwritten norms being shredded, and that’s galvanizing people. I have not seen this kind of political engagement in America in my lifetime, and that’s very heartening.
Also, there’s a generational shift. Younger Americans on average are more progressive than older Americans. Not that all younger Americans are progressive or all older Americans are not, but generationally, there is definitely a shift. And what that means is that over time, if people remain active and sort of keep their faith, they can make this country a more progressive place. I think it’s likely to happen.
CL: The written constitution says Donald Trump won the election, or stole the election, fair and square, the way that you have to win. The unwritten constitution that values the press discussion, the give and take, the howdy and the handshake and all that kind of thing says, “No, he’s not one of us.” Can you imagine how this gets resolved?
MH: I think it gets resolved by the enforcement of the unwritten constitution, and what I mean by that is that if the body politic in America says, “You need to change your behavior or you will not be accepted” and that feeling gets stronger and stronger and stronger, and his moral, and thereby political, authority get smaller and smaller and smaller, he faces a choice. Either begin to govern in a way which is in keeping with democratic traditions, or consider yourself to be held in contempt and deeply weakened by the mass of people in this country. I think that testing the unwritten constitution the way he is—perhaps he or his advisers imagine that everybody’s been so disconcerted and frightened that they will fail to imagine a more progressive future for the United States, and thereby it can be delayed for five or 10 or 20 years. But I think they’re wrong.
CL: So interesting. Stick with the unwritten constitution. Get to know it. Bring it back. Keep it alive.
MH: And write it yourself. I mean, the beauty of the unwritten constitution is each generation contributes words and writing to it. In my novel Exit West, what the novel is largely about is migration, but also it’s about Saeed and Nadia beginning to script new kinds of norms. What sort of society will they live in? How will they behave with people? Young people like them who are moving and migrating and setting up new kinds of hybridized communities are shaping the world.
In the real world as well as the novel, and I think in particular in America, what young people have to realize is that the unwritten constitution changes, in a sense, much more easily than the written one. And if they want to bring in norms of political conduct, hold politicians to a certain standard, say not only that you mustn’t be corrupt but you mustn’t be in love with money—that might be a touchstone of progressivism. We have many progressive politicians in America who seem to love money even though they are not officially corrupt, and I think these are the kinds of things that can be written into the Constitution and make a big difference.
CL: Pakistan got exempted from the ban on Muslim immigrants and travelers and refugees. Can you explain that? So much of Pakistan is unexplainable, but we know there is a deep iceberg of connection there—and a lot of it suspicious. What happened?
MH: I don’t know, for example, why Pakistan wasn’t included, and who knows if it might be in the future. I think there’s a degree of randomness about this. If someone with some Pakistani connection does something that is dangerous or commits an act of terror, we could see Pakistan added to that list, but it strikes me as entirely the wrong thing to do for a number of reasons.
First of all, in Pakistan, like in America, democracy is imperfect, but there is a struggle to create a more pluralistic society. The prime minister that I described earlier as having family business conflicts and judicial problems and problems with the press has also gone on record more recently protecting the rights of minorities, saying that Christians must be treated as full citizens of Pakistan. His government has passed a women’s rights bill in Pakistan. You know, he certainly has many failings as a politician, but the direction of travel is perhaps encouraging.
One thing which I think perhaps is going to change is that for a long time Americans imagined that the rest of the world had little to teach America about democracy and progressivism and basic human norms, that America would tell others. I think now what we have to realize is that our alliances cut across national borders. You know, people who stand up for the rights of minorities anywhere are allies. People who stand up for the rights of poor people anywhere, or democracy anywhere. And Americans in this moment, when so many feel, I think, a lack of hope, should know that there are people all over the world who are who are moving forward—that they are not alone and that this is a movement which is much bigger than America, and in a sense now Americans might realize that the freedom struggles that they’ve read about in other countries are relevant to the United States as well.
“For a long time, Americans imagined that the rest of the world had little to teach America about democracy and progressivism and basic human norms.”
CL: Who’s learning the lesson? What has Canada learned in this mobile world that we haven’t yet?
MH: I think Canada has a vision for what Canada can be, and it’s almost a post-national nation: a prosperous place where the rule of law is abided by, and there is no nostalgic attachment to a particular racial or ethnic or demographic tradition. By being open to the future in that way, Canada is able to shape itself towards the future. In America, I think we’re at a very important historical moment. If you are to be true to American values of human equality and decency and due process and democracy, you must be prepared to relinquish certain ideas of what America is, like, you know, the racial configuration of America. Like the “superpower status” of America.
You know, America, if it really does believe in equality, should be prepared to be a country which says that people who are not American are equal to Americans, that America needn’t be the most powerful country in the world. It should be part of an order which jointly guarantees the safety of all people, et cetera. So, American exceptionalism, in terms of values, and American nationalism and supremacy and racial supremacy are in conflict. Those things—you have to figure out which one you side with, and I think in this historical moment, these things are happening because the racial configuration and ethnic configuration of America are reaching a certain kind of tipping point. To get over that hump, and to have an America which, like Canada, is prepared to become whatever it’s going to become as long as the rule of law and decency and equality are obeyed—to become that kind of America, we have to get over this hangup about what America was.
CL: Talk about a historical moment. Eight years ago almost exactly, we knew we were at a historical turn with a new president: Kenya, Kansas, and a trans-national mind. We thought we were on that cosmopolitan cusp. Do we yet know what happened to that moment when we could think of ourselves as the nation of all nations? Historically, we are. In fact, we are on the street, but the idea was somehow abandoned or rejected, and I’m still not clear why.
MH: What happened was that a symbol was applied that said America is; as you say, the “nation of all nations.” The symbol was the president. And yet, the power of the country had not changed. So the legislature did not create laws that reflected what this symbol was supposed to reflect. People became disillusioned. You know, had we had a very progressive Congress and Senate that passed a whole bunch of laws that made it easier for poor Americans to get a good education, to have better health care, and so many other things . . . Of course we had Affordable Health Care Act, but it was quite a limited gesture if you compare it to the social safety net in other countries. What happened was a progressive symbol was, I think, partly discredited by a lack of progressive reform.
And so, people say, “Well things didn’t get better under Obama,” and in fact in many ways they called the state quite bad in the last eight years. But–
CL: Did he drop a stitch here. I mean . . .
MH: Well, I think that in retrospect, his rhetoric of “bridging the gap” might have done a disservice. Not because it wasn’t the need of the hour—perhaps it was the need of the hour—but it allowed many Americans to evade confrontation with the reality that part of this country, part of the political system of this country, was deeply opposed to any kind of progressive reform and would stop everything. Had he made it clear throughout, “Look. I’m here, but this is not my government. This is a government paralyzed by this opposition,” it might have been different.
Instead, people think it was the Obama years. It wasn’t the Obama years. It was the years when President Obama presided over a system that was totally frozen by intransigent opposition from the right. Now, having said that, I think that you know Obama himself was perhaps a less radically transformative figure than maybe would have been required.
CL: The mystery of this book Exit West is the two characters deeply respectful, in many ways in love, don’t work it out. There’s so much friction. There’s so much affection There’s so much loyalty, but not a lasting bond . . . or not a perfect bond in the end. What’s happening here?
MH: The love story in Exit West is a love story of multiple dimensions. One is that we have Saeed and Nadia. Saeed is a spiritual person, and Nadia is someone who does not have a formal religious orientation and isn’t interested in that. Saeed is someone who loves his family, and misses his family, and spends his whole life looking a little bit over his shoulder at the wonderful things that came before. Nadya’s someone who breaks from her family, lives on her own, is actually keen to reinvent herself, and looks forward very resolutely. In terms of their relationship, they have a love story, but it’s like many of us who have had a first love where it seemed it had enormous potential—there’s a wistfulness that leaves us our entire lives, and that’s a bit like Saeed and Nadia’s love.
“I was interested in what happens when love isn’t possessive.”
But, also it was important for me to say and to explore the possibility . . . So often we think of love as possession. You know, my wife is “my wife,” like my shoe or my car. We own each other. What I was interested in is what happens when love isn’t possessive. What happens when you get to a point where you say, “Actually, my love is the desire that you be less lonely, not that you make me less lonely.” Where does that take you to, and what does that mean? And Saeed and Nadya, as you say, they have a lifelong bond, but it perhaps isn’t a bond of possession.
CL: You’re recommending it in a way.
MH: Well, I’m recommending it as one of the types of love we have. You know, we have love for our children, and we have love for friends, and we have love for many things, and we have romantic love. But, I think the non-possessive aspects of love, the ones that are not about what that person can do for me or make me feel but, in a way, how I feel about them—those are the ones that have the least self-centered us at their core. And it’s the least self-centered us which is the most transcendent us. That’s the part of us that’s the least frightened of the fact that one day we will be no more and this life will pass.
CL: How did you learn that?
MH: Well, it comes in many different traditions. In Sufi poetry it’s very commonly expressed. Sufi poetry is the mystical strand within Islamic literature, Muslim literature, and very often it’s expressed that we can have a love which makes us less central to ourselves. And when we feel less central to ourselves, the fact that we are finite is less terrifying. That’s not just Sufi poetry. You see it in Jewish existentialism, you see it in Buddhist teachings, Christian teachings. You see it in non-religious teachings. It’s a basic insight that human beings do have the potential to be not just a self-centered market actor, but a transcendent entity that can imagine, and can fantasize, and can be something else.
CL: Thank you. Mohsin Hamid, your touch with prose is so unusual and so refined. Wonderful to see you again, and thanks so much for this book, Exit West.
MH: Thank you.