Faculty Readers Respond
People are on the move in Exit West, a compelling narrative about creating new spaces of life and love. For anthropologists, mobility and adaptability are essential aspects of our species. Humans have trekked across the globe for hundreds of thousands of years, creating meaningful lives wherever possible. With the rise of capitalist, industrial societies, human populations have grown and moved at accelerated rates, and so too has violent control of political borders. For me, Mohsin Hamid’s tale offers a timely invitation to reflect on the meaning of human mobility in the current era of globalization.
In Exit West, Saeed asks Nadia an ageless question: “Where would you go?” As an anthropologist, this question has guided my exploration of cultural diversity on six continents. Most recently, after learning some French, I lived in Paris and participated in humanitarian efforts to support asylum seekers fleeing violent zones of inequality, racism, and cultural bigotry in Africa and the Middle East. Most young people I met arrived in France carrying little more than a backpack and a cell phone. As I befriended new arrivals, people shared stories of destroyed homes, schools, and villages, and occasionally some revealed violence inscribed on their bodies – scars on the neck from being dragged by a rope, burn marks from torturers’ cigarettes, and wounds from bullets and machete blades. Many speakers used Facebook and WhatsApp to show the everyday reality of bloodshed and bombs. From my closest friends, I learned of a deep, mostly unspoken sorrow for murdered mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers who did not find a passage out. For a survivor, exiting is not a choice when one’s place of origin is no longer recognizable as home.
Yet, every migrant’s exit is simultaneously an entrance into a space of hope and possibility. In multicultural Paris, I observed migrants as they created new lives, and we delighted in our shared struggles learning French. I discovered joy eating fish at an Ivory Coast restaurant, sipping coffee at an Eritrean café, and waiting silently for a friend from Sudan to finish evening prayers on a rug in a quiet corner. We laughed on the metro, celebrated when someone secured asylum status, and delighted in seeing a friend’s photographs in an exhibition of artists in exile. As in Exit West, “everyone was foreign, and so, in a sense, no one was.” Likewise, my French friends generously offered migrants food and friendship, language lessons and tents. Contemporary French culture, they pointed out, builds on earlier generations, including migrants from Algeria, Italy, Mali, Senegal, and Spain. Humanitarian activists defy the racism and cultural cleansing promoted by some nativists. Many French residents embrace the new multicultural Europe and recognize, as Hamid narrates, that “We all are migrants through time.”
I encourage each member of our community to reflect on Saeed’s question, “Where would you go?” Opportunities abound to engage the global human flow both near and far. Curiosity and compassion, part of our shared humanity, can foster meaningful connections across language and culture.
- Michael C. Ennis-McMillan, Associate Professor of Anthropology
While the magical doors are perhaps the most memorable feature of Exit West, a more mundane aspect of the novel caught my attention—the location of the final exit west. How and to what effect does Hamid imagine Marin, California as the terminus of Saaed and Nadia’s westward migration?
Hamid’s vision of Marin resonates with ideas about the San Francisco Bay Area as a progressive place. Marin in the novel is a place where “a spirit of at least intermittent optimism” refuses to die and where that optimistic spirit is rooted in its geography (“its position on the edge of a continent, overlooking the world’s widest ocean”), its diversity (“the mix of its people”), and its proximity to Silicon Valley (“that realm of giddy technology that stretched down the bay like a bent thumb”). The “West” in the novel’s title refers literally to the direction of Nadia and Saaed’s migration, but via the last exit west to Marin, Hamid suggests that their literal movement is inseparable from the figurative association of the West and westward movement with progress.
Marin is also the endpoint of Saeed and Nadia’s love story. Exit West implies a link between the end of their romantic relationship and the magic doors that transported them westward. By exiting their relationship, they leave behind their shared past, “the world they had built together” and enter into new lives in Marin. Saeed and Nadia become very much a part of the place, where the changes are jarring, but “they were not the end, and life went on, and people found . . . ways to be and people to be with.” In Marin, “plausible desirable futures” begin to emerge, “unimaginable previously, but not unimaginable now.” Exit West’s vision of Marin draws on the American literary tradition of using westward movement to signify freedom from the past and hope for a desirable future.
This association of the West with freedom is embedded in a history that we should not overlook. In The Intimacies of Four Continents, literary and cultural critic Lisa Lowe examines how the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century processes that aligned being “human” with “freedom” are inextricable from the processes that designated the native populations of the Americas, Africa, and Asia as less than human and thus subject to removal and land seizure, enslavement as property, and coolie labor. Lowe reveals how the people whose bodies, labors, and lands created the conditions of possibility for “freedom” and progress are assimilated or forgotten in narratives of the Western world’s “progress.”
In aligning exiting West with progress and freedom, Hamid’s novel also enacts such erasure. For example, in the Marin of Exit West there are almost no Native Americans, “these people having died out or been exterminated long ago.” This characterization consigns all but a few indigenous people (that the narrator sees at trading posts) exclusively to the past and also leaves unacknowledged that Marin is dispossessed native land. And while the novel makes brief mention of indigenous people and the Bay Area’s relatively small African American population, the region’s significant Asian American and Latinx populations are ignored. So we might ask ourselves this: As we exit the novel, how do we enter back into the real world and reimagine and realize a future that includes those it has forgotten?
-Wendy Lee, Assistant Professor of English
In Exit West, author Mohsin Hamid takes the reader on a journey through the [eyes] of Nadia and Saeed. He describes the mounting civil restrictions and curbed freedoms in the city of their birth,while interjecting multiple vignettes from alternative cities across the world. This is a global story that connects us all in the purgatory of approaching war: ‘War in Saeed and Nadia’s city revealed itself to be an intimate experience…front lines defined at the level of the street one took to work…’ (p. 68). The couple’s home could be anywhere, and anyone’s home can disintegrate via disaster and turmoil.
Saeed’s war time inclinations, processed through the filter of his devotion to God and family, make him appear more cautious, while Nadia’s choices, based on intuition, cast her as fiercely independent and dangerous. Their city’s landscape deteriorates, tensions heighten, and urgency accelerates the closeness of their relationship. Each survival choice they make further clarifies who they are, what they desire, and what they can tolerate as individuals and as a couple.
In the novel, migrants bypass restrictions on geographic movement via portals, a commonly used literary device (A Wrinkle in Time, Dune, Time Bandits, The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe,A Window to Paris). Hamid’s doorways, however, are unique, because access to them is not limited to elite entities possessing advanced scientific techniques, or rarified psychotropic commodities, or a coveted map, singular wardrobe, or window. His doors pop up randomly: ‘A normal door…could become a special door, and it could happen without warning, to any door at all’ (p. 72). Stripped of civil liberties, citizens lose the luxury of inertia, as well as the need for motivational axioms (such as carpe diem) and risk stepping into the unknown. Nadia and Saeed’s decision to step through a transformed door reminds readers of the importance of the individual’s choice and power to risk action in the face of seemingly impossible circumstances. Successfully taking that step builds the couple’s strength and confidence to move forward and take on future challenges.
By illustrating the effects of increasingly oppressive policies and beliefs (whether militant, government, or nativist), Hamid suggests that working to keep the flow of humanity tightly dammed up is futile, and will inevitably end in a bursting open of multiple, if tiny, leaks (Exit West’s intra-geographic doors). The artistic commentary is extremely relevant to current real world policy proposals for the building of walls, exclusionary immigration quotas, detention, family separation, and deportation. This is an example of how art can educate, inform, and elicit the empathy so necessary for readers to begin addressing current world issues.
At its very core, Exit West is an examination of human flexibility and adaptability. The characters are in crisis, and must adjust to accelerated rates of change. Their options are obvious, and their choices critical. Ultimately, it is the attitude with which they negotiate change that shapes their experience. ‘Days passed…full of waiting and false hopes,…but Nadia had the idea that they should explore the island as if they were tourists…this was the first time he had laughed since they arrived, and it warmed her to see it…’ (p. 113).
Embracing one’s vulnerability, as well as one’s power, and consciously choosing a perspective from which to proceed can nourish flexibility. Whether one decides to stay fixed or move forward, no one is able to escape change; ‘we are all migrants through time’ (p. 209). The human and humanitarian lessons within Hamid’s novel can bring readers to an awareness of their individual vulnerability and power, and offer them inspiration to recognize and traverse their own personal magical doorways.
- Patrice A Malatestinic, Lecturer of Music
I read (or should I say, devoured) Exit West by Mohsin Hamid while in Finland for a summer travel seminar, Social Work in a Global Context, with seven Skidmore students. Little did I know how relevant the book would be to the course content and to social work in general. The travel seminar included nearly 90 participants from multiple countries, including Austria, Finland, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Lebanon, Nigeria, Philippines, and the U.S. As part of their participation both faculty and students gave presentations, which frequently focused on immigrants and refugees, the role of social work, and the response of social welfare systems. Participants grappled with complex situations regarding human rights and social justice and processed their intimate, affective reactions to both suffering and resilience.
While a novel, Exit West offers a particularly timely and relevant reflection on the current migrations throughout the world, due to both choice and circumstance. The reader is introduced to intriguing main characters on the precipice of love amidst days “full of war and migrants…full of fracturing too.” Hamid does a masterful job of bringing the reader into the intimate journey of two lovers, from initial spark to ultimate separation, as well as on parallel processes of global transformation. Indeed, Exit West is a beautifully written representation of the simultaneous universality and uniqueness of both love and loss.
In a time of war, as individuals aim to flee the horrific, hopefulness is found amidst despair in the potential for escape via secret doors. As the book’s main characters consider leaving their homeland for the unknown, the reader can feel their desires for freedom and liberation tinged with fears of dependence. The likelihood of pain and loss is high, for “when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.” Hamid highlights the violations inherent in war, from the individual/personal to the societal/global and is sure to inspire thoughtful analysis and dialogue on current world events. Although there are variations in forms of mobility and migration, whether geographically, in relationship, or internally, there is inherently loss and transformation. In this way, Exit West is a story about holding tensions - between loneliness and connection, panic and relief, cruelty and compassion, dark and light.
Exit West is engaging and easily digestible, full of captivating prose and imagery. Hamid challenges stereotypes and assumptions and introduces readers to characters that defy expectations and thought-provoking examples of courage, family protection and self-preservation. Throughout the book Hamid introduces brief stories of other people and places, seemingly distant from the main characters and plot but simultaneously deeply connected. These “side stories” offer both parallel and alternate perspectives on the main plot, providing an interesting opportunity to consider how the presumably disconnected stories of others can shed light on our own experiences.
Exit West is a timeless story about the power of relationships and the universality of love, joy, and sorrow. It is a stark reminder that “to love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you.” Overall, Exit West left me with a deeper appreciation for the fragility of life, the importance of the present, and our profound connection to people across space and time.
-Kelly Melekis, Assistant Professor & Associate Chair of Social Work
Those are important themes. We should discuss them. But, here, I want to reflect on something entirely different.
In this book, Mohsin Hamid deploys doorways as magical conduits between worlds. Doors are interesting objects, and Hamid is not the first author to observe that the door can be used as a literary trope. My oldest son just read C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In that novel too, the door opens a path to a new world. Interestingly, the four children in that novel are also refugees from war.
When I was in my first year of college, I read a book by then-Pope John Paul II entitled Crossing the Threshold of Hope. In that work, the Pope outlined the life of faith as a series of journeys. Passages, as if through a door, over a threshold, and into a new world.
To be certain, passing through their respective doorways did not mean that Pope John Paul, Nadia and Saeed, or Lucy and her siblings ended up in the same place. Not all doors are equal.
I am alert to the context of those who have been asked to read this book, a group of several hundred students all on the threshold of a new door.
If there is one thing that Exit West tells us, it is that we do not quite know what to expect when we pass through a door. Students coming to Skidmore in the Fall of 2018 will go through an intensive and well-planned period of “orientation.” This process will be designed to help smooth the transition “through the door.” There’s nothing wrong about that, I suppose.
But, I would ask, how much did Saeed and Nadia learn – about the world, about others, about themselves – in the dis-orientation they experienced at each new door? Wouldn’t having been pre-oriented have taken something from what we see and from what they experience?
I fully recognize that what Nadia and Saeed experience is painful and dislocating. Their refugee status gives this book a heart-wrenching overtone that, as I observed before, deserves its own conversation.
Still, I don’t think it’s too big a leap to connect Nadia and Saeed to a group of newly-arrived college students. Hamid himself does this in Chapter Seven. There, Nadia and Saeed live in a packed house that feels like “a university dormitory at the start of classes, with complete strangers living in close proximity, many of them on their best behavior, trying to add warmth to conversations and strike poses of friendship, hoping these gestures would become more natural over time.”
For Nadia and Saeed, their home is not a dormitory. It is only like one. The simile matters. Students newly arrived at Skidmore will find themselves in a real dormitory. Their passage will be a safer and more privileged one. But, crossing any threshold is destabilizing.
To the incoming first-year students, then, I would say this. If, despite the college’s best efforts at orientation – you still feel lost in those first days after you enter the door to Skidmore, that feeling is good. Be dis-oriented. Like so many before you, both real and fictional, you will find that it is while you are dis-oriented that you learn the most.
-Tillman Nechtman, Professor & Chair of History
As an applied mathematician, I often consider how variables change. Many variables such as the temperature outside or our height change in a slow, steady fashion as time passes. If we draw a curve to describe this change, we can do so without picking up our pencil. The curve would be smooth and not too steep. However, other moments of change are much more drastic. One state follows the other, not through a steady evolution but following a precipitous jump.
I was thinking about the nature of change when I read Hamid's Exit West. In part, after the recent death of a family friend, I've spent some time considering the absoluteness of death. Even if the arrival of death follows a slow, steady progression, the moment it appears is precipitous. Hamid writes, "One moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does." In that instant, change is epic, and in many cases irreversible.
Not strangers to death, Hamid's characters experience transformative change each time they pass through a door transporting them to a different place. Even though the change is often desirable, they are reborn into a new environment. They must relearn how to care for themselves, how to satisfy basic needs such as finding food and shelter and to continue or develop new relationships with others in this new context.
Migrating several times, we see Nadia and Saeed adapt to several environments. As they do, we watch their relationship evolve before they slowly grow apart. In the time before their separation, Hamid shows us the progressive drifting apart of Saeed and Nadia. But on the day Nadia walks away from their Marin shanty, the relationship transitions to a different state--a state of separation rather than of coupling. Even at this new level, their separation in space is somewhat gradual before jumping precipitously, first spanning a few days, then a few weeks, until the better part of a lifetime passes before they meet again.
Hamid writes, “We are all migrants in time.” Most of us have the luxury of not living in a country torn by civil war, but like his characters, we are all experiencing constant change and transition. For the most part, our experiences pass gradually, but some transitions are momentous: the birth of a child, the breakup of a relationship, the point of graduation, the death of a friend.
After years of preparation for college, you, the incoming Class of 2022, will soon walk away from your family, your home, your past, and for some of you, your country. You will walk through a door and enter a new space. In this space, you will first need to care for your basic needs. You’ll make your bed, find the d-hall, and form new friends. Eventually with these needs satisfied, you will be able to address deeper needs within yourself. You will develop questions, search for answers, and perhaps as time passes even seek new doors.
-Rachel Roe-Dale, Associate Professor & Chair of Mathematics and Statistics
My parents were the first – and for a long time the only – members of their respective families to immigrate from Pakistan. Fortunately, I was able to visit often while growing up, and I have returned for extended trips as an adult. Although the city that is the focus of the first half of Exit West is nameless, I found myself thinking of Lahore, Pakistan, when Saeed described the city of his parents’ youth as well as the unnamed city’s apprehensive and tenuous status quo in the early pages of the book. No surprise, I suppose, since Mohsin Hamid himself discusses using Lahore as his template in numerous interviews about Exit West. But as the city without a name succumbed to violence and destruction in Exit West, I thought more about the crisis in Syria and the horrific devastation of its cities, its communities, and its people. With alarm, I wonder what is to stop Lahore and other “cities teetering at the edge of the abyss” from succumbing to similar fates? How do such horrors become imaginable? How do they become lived fears, real threats, and actuated nightmares?
Hamid’s unnamed city is transformed from a city of cinemas, cafes and bookshops to one eventually ravaged by war, with barricaded homes, abandoned houses, and wrecked buildings; it represents actual cities in different parts of the world that have fallen as a result of wars between governments, militants, and rebels, as well as religious and ethnic groups. Lahore is also not the same city I grew up visiting. When I last lived in Lahore on an extended research trip fourteen years ago, I stayed by myself and walked everywhere alone, but on my most recent trip, I decided to stay with relatives and I hired a car. Lahore isn’t as safe as it once was, and the city has transformed so much that parts of it are altered almost beyond recognition. But the systematic devastation happening to the city of Lahore at this moment is a different type, caused by aggressive urban expansion, commercial growth, and Western-style development. New underpasses and flyovers, an overground railway system, widened roads, and seemingly continuous construction have rendered much of the city virtually unrecognizable. A city known as the cultural center of the nation of Pakistan now faces existential threats to several of its most important historic sites. Lahore’s newest landmarks ostensibly are multi-storied shopping centers, clothing boutiques, and restaurants. Although activists have fought to resist threats to the city’s heritage, the Punjab Government continues to destroy the city’s historic fabric.
It is perhaps ironic that Lahore’s dramatic urban development – especially in the last decade – has coincided with increasing concerns about Lahore’s security. As the city continues to “modernize,” threats by militants undermine its stability and prosperity. Both the government and militants – otherwise seen in opposition to one another – appear aligned when it comes to harming the city’s cultural identity. Whether the obliteration of the unnamed city in Exit West or the government’s demolition of Lahore’s historic fabric in the name of development, the result leads to overwhelming loss and displacement.
After Saeed and Nadia leave the unnamed city through a magical portal and travel to other cities, we learn of a larger world in crisis, one that mirrors our global predicament. Our current crisis – marked by shocking violence, the ordeals of refugees, and hostile xenophobia – is a stark reminder of the ways in which the conflicts of places and people seemingly far away are part of the here and now, and that we are all complicit in contributing to and perpetuating problems occurring across the world. But as Mohsin Hamid continues to hope, we are also all part of the solution.
-Saleema Waraich, Associate Professor & Associate Chair of Art History