All Writing Is Political: A Conversation with Mohsin Hamid

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The country could be any country.

The architecture, the character names, the choreography of the civil war that propels the novel’s plot, they’re all clues, but Mohsin Hamid’s hypnagogic fourth novel, Exit West, is a totem for more than just the Syrian refugee crisis. Told in fable-like poetry-prose, Hamid tracks Saeed and Nadia, as they flee the civil war that has engulfed the unnamed city they once called home. A series of magical doors have begun appearing, opening out onto Western countries and uncertain futures.

But Exit West is less about migrants than it is about migration. Some characters seek escape from the political turmoil that swallowed up their birthlands; others reverse course, leaving comfortable but existentially horrific lives wrapped in the comforts of modernity for whatever deliverance lies on the other end of the thaumaturgical threshold. Even time bends in Hamid’s hands, such that the stories of Saeed and Nadia meld with those of others in a feat of vertiginous simultaneity.

Hamid’s debut novel, Moth Smoke, published in 2000, followed a banker’s descent into crime and heroin addiction against the background of Pakistan’s nuclear tests. Slightly less frenetic, but just as playfully violent and violently playful was The Reluctant Fundamentalist, published in 2007: a Pakistani narrator’s dramatic monologue recounting the collapse, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, of his love affair with an American woman and with America herself. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013) reaffirmed Hamid’s status as one of the subcontinent’s keenest chroniclers of the region’s postcolonial paroxysms.

Mohsin and I spoke over Skype—he from Lahore and I in New Haven—on law, love, the evil that men do, and how much America and Pakistan have come to resemble each other.

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The Rumpus: One of the main themes of Exit West is the mass movement of migrants. Because of this, Exit West has been called the first “post-Brexit novel,” even though the history of immigration is much broader—from the Jewish people fleeing the Third Reich, to internal migration, such as the Great Migration, in the United States. I was wondering, even with the anti-immigrant sentiment fueling the populism that is sweeping through Western democracies, if you thought a term broader than “post-Brexit” might actually be more applicable to the book.

Mohsin Hamid: Well, I think that there is a backlash against migrants at this moment in many wealthy countries. And it’s perhaps more surprising in countries like the United States where the vast majority of the population is descended from people who have migrated in the last couple of centuries, voluntarily or involuntarily, to America from other places. As someone who has often migrated myself—at the age of three, I went to California; back to Pakistan at nine; back to America at eighteen; Britain at thirty; then back to Pakistan in my late thirties—I feel it almost personally, this anti-migration sentiment, because I am such a mongrelized hybridized person. If people like that are no longer acceptable or are feared, it’s almost a challenge to the existence of people like myself. So this novel’s been building for a while, a novel about migration, the universality of migration, the backlash against it, and how, despite that backlash, it’s likely to continue and perhaps even increase.

Rumpus: Certainly. The novel focuses on Saeed and Nadia, but, really, a variety of migrants fleeing conflict zones are implicated in the narrative.

Hamid: Absolutely. There are other migrations that are touched upon—glimpsed—during the novel; many, as you say, fleeing conflict zones, some of them watching others come to where they live. Sometimes, we have the perspective of the person who perhaps is frightened at the arrival of the new migrants or touched in a positive way by that arrival. And other people who have never moved geographically but have grown old in one place and have found that place transformed over time, who have migrated through time. And I think the experience of migration is a universal human migration. We all move. Even those of us who live in the same city our entire lives—the same village, the same town—migrate through time. So, I’m trying in the novel to explore the universality of this, to move away from the idea of some people being migrants and others not being migrants, but to begin with the inevitability of migration and how it actually unites us.

Rumpus: Time was a very interesting aspect of the novel, actually. I’m thinking of one paragraph in particular. Very early on, you describe Saeed’s parents’ apartment balcony, which, you write, “offered the sort of view that might command a slight premium during gentler, more prosperous times, but would be most undesirable in times of conflict when it would be squarely in the path of heavy machine gun and rocket fire.” So there’s this subconscious awareness of “it can happen here” and of changing times. Which is interesting, because it’s so alien to the American perspective.

Hamid: Well, I think that this sense that we are only in the present moment exists everywhere, and maybe exists more powerfully in America culturally than some other places. But, of course, most places one can go to in America have equally experienced violence, bloodshed, warfare—slavery, the conflict between native people and settlers, the Civil War, and ongoing levels of almost warlike violence in other forms. And yet one can imagine that these things haven’t happened because America has not been swept by the kind of war in recent memory that Syria is being swept by. But examine the history of so much of American settlement and there is violence there, too.

In the novel, one thing that I’m trying to do—and the passage you quote from does—is move across geography fairly seamlessly so we can be talking about Nadia’s city one moment and next be in Sydney, Australia or in Amsterdam, but also move across time in the same way. So even though we‘re talking about the present moment of the novel, the moment of the narrative, we’re constantly sliding forward and back in time, anticipating a future that hasn’t yet happened. So the novel is slipping across time as well as across geography. And for me what’s useful in doing that is to shake off the notion that any place is static, anyone’s mind is static. It’s all moving, and there’s historical movement unfolding at the same time as geographic movement. And I think in the United States today, perhaps given recent political changes, many people are feeling that sense of historical movement reasserting itself in a country where you sometimes can pretend it doesn’t exist. People feel like things are changing, we’re heading to a future, which may or may not be ominous but is certainly fraught and charged, and that reassertion of history in America in the future tense is something that many people live with every day in other places.

Rumpus: Static is safe.

Hamid: Yes. Static is safe, and it’s also false. One of the important conflicts I think we’re facing in the world today is between our desire to willfully ignore and resist the transience of human existence and the reality which is that transience. In other words, it’s not “how do we experience this beautiful and wonderful—the short lives we have,” but rather “how do we live forever.” It’s not “how can the evolution of our societies and cultures and cities and countries be a poetic and interesting thing?” Instead, it’s “how can we freeze them in the present or perhaps in the past.” So I think, reasserting transience and finding in transience beauty and meaning and hope is very important, because resisting transience usually involves a lot of lies.

Rumpus: These are very big and capacious themes and ideas, and yet it’s such a slim novel. How did you manage, especially depicting the changing face of the unnamed city during the fighting, this sort of drone’s-eye view, so to speak, while still tracking the personal lives of those affected? I’m just very interested on a craft level how you went about that.

Hamid: At the level of craft, I believe in leaving lots of space for a reader. So, writing with just sufficient detail for the reader’s imagination to animate the story and make it their own. Catalyzing a kind of vividness in the reader’s imagination, I hope. And I think written fiction does something very unusual and very important among our different storytelling forms. It’s the one that comes to us least pre-imagined, so there’s so much more space for the reader to bring imaginative creation to a novel. I try to write small books that are vehicles for readers to create experience, and I do that by leaving a lot of stuff out. So, much isn’t described, but little things are described in such a way that the reader’s mind fills in the rest of the details, which happens, of course, in every book. But for me from a craft standpoint, it’s thinking of what I’m doing as constructing a place for experiences instead of a finished product. I think of a novel as an amusement park. Or an aquarium. Or a city. It’s just a place you go to have an experience, and so I’ve tried throughout to write very sparely and sort of write short, brief novels, particularly this one, that can still cover a lot of ground, because so much of the narrative work is happening inside the reader’s head.

Rumpus: It seems reminiscent of the way that screenplays are blueprints for the audio-visual experience of a film.

Hamid: Absolutely! I haven’t actually thought of it in those terms until you just said it. But that strikes me as exactly correct in terms of how I would think of it. A screenplay is quite a lean thing—mostly dialogue and a little bit of description—that then the director and the cinematographer and all the actors and the hundreds of people working on the film collectively animate into a film. I think my novels are like that, except they’re not screenplays meant to be animated by those people, but they’re a different kind of internal mind-play that the reader can then animate.

Rumpus: Going back to the variety of migrants and their experience of fleeing conflict zones and the universality of that, a very interesting thing that occurred to me while reading. I was recently talking with many first-generation friends. And one of the things that came up often was that they were nonplussed by a lot of what was going on in the United States, politically. And then I got to thinking that by the time my mother—who migrated from Nigeria—was my age, she’d seen three violent transfers of power, a civil war, and at least two military dictatorships. And it was sort of like this “when I was your age…” moment.

I’m not quite sure that there’s a question attached to this, but given your background and how you’ve straddled these different worlds, I was wondering if there might be some other threads in that tapestry, so to speak, regarding your reaction to what is happening in the US right now.

Hamid: I think you’ve touched on something which is very interesting about how globalization and how the weaving together of our contemporary world is working. So, it’s not just that the experience of modernity in a city like Lahore, where I live, is becoming like the experience of modernity in large Western cities, but that the experience of modernity in cities like New York, is becoming more like the experience of modernity in Pakistan. In Pakistan, too, we’ve seen politicians lash out at the judiciary, we’ve seen questions about whether politicians and their families are enriching themselves. Are political parties true to their principles or simply vehicles for a kind of tribal loyalty? Are elections really reflecting the will of the people? Can we trust our militaries and police to behave in a way which is congruent with democracy? All of these questions that are now coming up in America have been a live thing in Pakistan and much of the world for my entire life. So, the reality is that the experience of democracy is becoming fraught everywhere. In some places, it’s been fraught for a long time.

But certainly what we are learning is that we cannot simply inherit a political culture that we get to just enjoy without active effort. Society requires the engagement of its people for it to function. And in America, a large swathe, for example, of many liberal minded people living on the Coast had effectively been de-politicized. I mean, they might vote, but beyond that, the degree of political engagement in the society around them was quite small. And now they realize they’re in the fight of their lives. That they have to motivate, and they have to get out there, and they have to engage. And I suspect we might see another similarity, which is the rise of much more political fiction coming out of America. There’s always been political fiction coming out of America, particularly from groups that have felt the heavy hand of the state upon them. But I think that might become much more prevalent in a way that it perhaps already is in places like Pakistan, or Russia, or Kenya. So we are seeing America becoming more like the rest of the world, even as the rest of the world becomes more like America.

Rumpus: An Arab friend jokingly referred to the FBI as the American mukhabarat.

Hamid: Exactly! In a sense of the national security state, the surveillance state, which has been growing up everywhere. As the nation-state tries to find some renewed purpose in a globalized world where so many problems are bigger than the nation-state, or smaller, so many things are read at the level of the world or the level of the locality, and so local government, and a government of human beings bigger than the nation-state, are becoming more important, and the nation-state is resisting that, and it’s telling us it can keep us safe, and all over the world we’re now asking the question “is it keeping us safe or is it making of our countries a new kind of prison?” In that context—what is the function of the police and the intelligence agencies?—it’s not entirely dissimilar to the kind of questions you have to ask in both Egypt and America. Of course, the American nation-state is still much more responsive to its people than Egypt or Pakistan, but that can’t be taken for granted.

Rumpus: That’s absolutely fascinating in light of what you said earlier about the literature. I was wondering whether there would be an increase in literature that dealt in themes of mass migration given what’s playing out now. And in my mind, that always seems to come with the image of writers from that demographic of migratory populations. But it hadn’t occurred to me that it might come from host countries or authors residing in host countries.

Hamid: Absolutely. I think it has and will, I suspect. When you feel that the direction of history is basically aligned with your own personal values, it’s easy to imagine that you’re not a political writer, that you’re just doing your thing. But when you find that the direction of history is deeply in conflict with what you would like to see, it’s difficult to resist being political as a writer and overtly political—which doesn’t mean everyone has to write political fiction, but writing fiction from the standpoint of being deeply politically engaged becomes more powerful. And the other position, which is to say “oh, my writing is not political,” that position has always been the position of saying “I disavow the political consequences of my writing.” All writing is political. If you write about a tea party on a plantation during the slave-owning era and don’t talk about slavery, that’s a deeply political gesture, even though you’re writing about the tea party. So I think there’s a very strong “pro-status quo” political position in much of fiction that claims not to be political. And when the status quo becomes less acceptable, I think people go out of that position quite quickly.

Rumpus: I think that’s fascinating, the idea that trying to extricate oneself from political writing or that onus is essentially saying, “No, I disavow the consequences.” I’ve never heard that perspective before.

Hamid: When can one say, “I don’t need to stand up and be counted. My words don’t need to be part of a political position”? Taking that stance is most sustainable when the political position around you is fairly comfortable. When it’s uncomfortable, to say that itself becomes a statement. And people start to recognize it as such. So much of the conversation about literature in America—the last ten, twenty, years—has been about “what does a novel need to do now?” For instance, “Shouldn’t we just have words that are constructed in radical new ways that don’t add up to a narrative or don’t necessarily communicate a meaning” or “let us only blur the boundary of memoir and fiction and create a deeply personal account that is really just about my life.” These are not necessarily apolitical forms of writing. They might be very political and intentionally so, but their preoccupations with the form as form and with the privileging of a question of authenticity to myself and fiction versus non-fiction may not seem as pressing as concerns at a time when you have to worry about whether the state is marginalizing entire groups of human beings and whether democracy will still exist in ten years.

We have storytelling as an element of human culture, because storytelling is a powerful thing. And I imagine that storytelling is going to reassert itself. Not that there won’t be memoir or people who break apart language and focus on how it works, but that those will not be thought of as the only activities of literature or the dominant activities of literature, that they’ll just be part of what are many strands, and the re-privileging of the story strand is likely to come.

Rumpus: I want to talk again about host countries. I recently read an essay by Aleksandar Hemon at Lit Hub on how war and authoritarianism and catastrophe undo the common civic project and destroy the ethical code and, with it, our moral and psychological continuity, and how a thing like fascism, for instance, releases the evil in people. And it seemed like the camp described in London in Exit West seems primed for the fate that befell Calais for instance. You write about the extinguishing party and how, if the migrants were exterminated, the party of the host country would have been changed. And I was wondering if you could speak to that in terms of how fear gets released in these situations.

Hamid: I think human beings can do terrible, terrible things. And often do and will continue to do so. But the split between terrible and wonderful is probably forty percent terrible, sixty percent wonderful. It’s slightly more wonderful than it is terrible. So, more often than not, human beings come back from the brink. America is sort of the exception where you had an indigenous population that was exterminated or largely exterminated by an incoming colonizing population, so many people in America were white, then a separate class of dark-skinned people were imported as labor and slaves. That’s an unusual development model.

More often, what would happen is what happens here in Pakistan: most people are brown! Light-skinned people came in; darker-skinned people were already there. They all intermixed, then you wind up with brown people. It’s less common that we exterminate each other. We tend to wind up in the end stepping back from that apocalypse. It’s by no means guaranteed that we won’t fall over the brink into outright attempts to exterminate each other, but I think there is some level of human decency that tends to reassert itself. The problem is that that decency is more likely to assert itself in certain contexts. Once you begin the march of fascism and civil war, the part of us which is capable of atrocity is more likely to express itself. So we can create circumstances where the good in us is more likely to come out and circumstances where it’s less likely to come out. Once you begin walking down this direction towards civil war, for a time, it’s less likely to come out. But in human history, we have tended to see more of the good than the bad.

Rumpus: Aleksandar was writing from the perspective of someone who had survived the Bosnian War, and he has this small story in the middle of the essay about his great-grandfather who during World War Two had found himself on the way to having his throat slit by one of his neighbors. And he had his hands tied behind his back, and he was going to get thrown into a freezing river, but he escaped. And after the war, Aleksandar’s grandmother sees her father drinking coffee with a man who ends up being the man who was originally going to slit his throat: “He was my neighbor, then he was my potential assassin, and now he’s my neighbor again.”

Hamid: That’s a reminder of how context and political context can completely change our relationship one to the other. We, in a certain context, can view each other as tribalized and associated with a group that we are in mortal combat with. But we can also come back from that and once again see each other as individual human beings. And in America, this gathering tribalization is a dangerous force, and the need to reassert the individual humanity of Americans is very important, because if America walks too far down that direction, it does wind up looking more like countries that have been through the experiences that Aleksandar talks about. And in the novel what is happening is precisely this. The first half or third of the novel is about how a city changes from that. You’re living in your urban reality, which feels completely contemporary. People aren’t slaughtering each other, but we know somewhere not far away people are killing each other. It just hasn’t come to us. Walking through the breakdown of that, which is how the novel begins, and then being in a state where we just don’t know, and then coming back from that, is part of the arc I wanted to explore.

Because I think it’s very important at this moment to begin to think of hopeful futures as well. That if we only think of the terrifying futures, we’re likely to become depressed, to recoil from the future, and when we do that, we are vulnerable to xenophobes and demagogues and people who have nostalgic visions of politics. And so I wanted to walk down that path but then back up the other end towards an outcome where some glimmers of hope begin to re-manifest themselves.

Rumpus: An “after the apocalypse” kind of viewpoint.

Hamid: Yeah, I thought it’d be interesting to explore the apocalypse of this idea of nations and tribes and to discover in doing so that perhaps that isn’t actually the apocalypse. It might be the apocalypse of an idea, but our children and our grandchildren and great grandchildren in that future mongrelized, miscegenated, intermixed world might get along just fine. If the future of the world looks more like Brazil, that in some ways is perhaps frightening if you live in New York or Stockholm. But on the other hand, in some ways, Rio de Janeiro isn’t all that bad. People get on with life there, and life goes on. People fall in love. I’m not saying Brazil is the future of the world. I’m just saying that the kinds of change that we could see happening in the next century or two, which the novel compresses into a year or two, are frightening to many, many people. But I think I wanted to imaginatively go there, because, unless we go there and explore that, we can’t begin to disarm this fear of mixing and hybridization, which is terrifying people everywhere, from ISIS to Donald Trump. Let’s imagine that apocalypse of mixing and find hope in it and perhaps be less terrified of what is likely to come.

Rumpus: You write later in the novel about nativeness being a relative manner. That line resonated a lot with me for a number of reasons, but I was hoping you could elaborate on it, especially given what’s already been said about the mongrelization of identity and also given your past experience as a migrant.

Hamid: We’re all mongrels. We’ve all migrated. Basically, we’re all African genetically. We all evolved in Africa, and then we moved from there all over the world and some of us arrived in America more recently, some longer ago, some have never gone there. But none of us are truly native except to a very small patch of African territory, and even the people who live there today probably left and migrated back. So nativeness is always relative. And in Pakistan, I see it in skin color. I see it in people’s eyes and hair and in the many different clans and sub-groupings of ethnicity. Each claims to hail from this that or the other people.

And similarly in America, it’s layer upon layer of migration. Even the Native American populations didn’t arrive all simultaneously. And Native American probably is not a correct term. One could say “First Americans” perhaps, but nobody really is a native American. So even the people we think of as indigenous, the pre-Columbian population of America, are migrants, and then, of course, the people who came subsequently are migrants. Those who right now seem to be most frightened of immigrants are the descendants of the pioneers. And even the notion of being white in America is a mongrelized concept. The people who came weren’t white. They were Germans and Swedes and Poles and what have you. Only in America did this combine into a sense of whiteness, which unified these people into a new group, just as we Pakistanis have been unified even though we’re descended from all kinds of people who come from different areas.

So, I think that the relative nativeness is very interesting. And often the irony of that is lost on people. There are many communities in America, which are suffering economically right now, and people are deeply angry. “How can this have befallen us?” But their forefathers and their ancestor mothers came because similar things had befallen their communities centuries ago in wherever they’re coming from. And people leave places like Pakistan or Syria or India or China when similar things befall their communities. They move. The idea that “we should never have to move” and the willful ignorance of the fact or attempt to ignore the fact that we very recently did move is an attempt to ignore the layered nature of nativeness, and particularly for America it’s important to examine that.

Rumpus: This has basically been a political discussion the entirety of the interview, but at the center of Exit West is a love story. In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, there’s a love story. But this novel seems somewhat softer or less caustic than the earlier novels, which featured wry, maybe cynical, male protagonists.

Hamid: When I started writing Moth Smoke, the stultifying effect of cultural parity in Pakistan made it feel more important to resist that and to write about adultery and drug use and people who didn’t fit the dominant mold of the country and culture. But in this moment of such deep cynicism and conflict and fear, it seems to me the more interesting inquiry is “how do we manage to be decent in these circumstances.” The more radical action is “how do we be decent people in this world.” It’s far more rebellious to emerge decent, it seems to me, in our current world than it is to be somebody who is the Bad Boy or the Bad Girl, so to speak. So that was of much more interest to me.

So often we think of love as a possessive thing; we possess the person we’re in love with. But Saeed and Nadia’s love story is a love story that ultimately is about a love that isn’t able to succeed in possession. As so many of our first loves are. Many of us have a first love that didn’t end up in possession. We wound up going our own ways. And oftentimes that idea of love ending is accompanied with hatred or anger, animosity or jealousy. If I can’t have possession, I want destruction. But it can also manifest itself in friendship. And I think the idea of a love between two people—a romantic, passionate love that has within it a friendship and the possibility for a friendship that endures and is non-possessive—is something I really wanted to explore in the context of these two characters and their journey and also just between men and women and between human beings more generally.

Saeed and Nadia are in some senses characters who, had they met in different circumstances, might not have wound up together. When you’re on a summer holiday some place or you meet somebody who’s on a summer holiday some place, you can have this relationship, and it can feel so dramatic and wonderful. And yet if you were living in the same place or if you do decide to try to move to the same place, you quickly discover “wait a second, we aren’t particularly suited at all.” Dramatic circumstances create dramatic feelings. Saeed and Nadia are a bit like that. And they represent different strands of humanity. Nadia, who is resolutely non-nostalgic and resolutely opposed to organized religion. And Saeed, who has a much more nostalgic temperament and also a temperament which is more entwined with faith. I wanted to explore [their relationship] in that context and it’s a context. The sexuality of their relationship is itself a context. How will this couple have sex? Will they have sex? What does sex mean? Can they find some mutual way of being? To me, that’s an issue I wanted to explore because I don’t think that we’re going to see a victory either of the forces of religion or secularism or atheism. We’re going to have to find some kind of coexistence. The alternative is to try to exterminate each other. So this particular love story was also about that. About two very different kinds of people and how they find a way together at least for part of their journey.

Rumpus: Given how much the current state of affairs almost worldwide resembles post-apocalypse, it’s very refreshing to have a novel that’s ultimately hopeful and optimistic and written with that that belief in human generosity, on the macro scale but also on the micro.

Hamid: I think that finding a way to be hopeful is a very important task at this moment in history. I think it’s an important task politically but also an important task fictionally, because we writers are part of the way in which society and human beings imagine what could come. So I think finding a way to be hopeful in our own narratives and hopeful in our approach to our craft and hopeful in what we think the novel can do, to me, is a very important project. It’s a form of resistance against the hopelessness that tries to coerce our consent.

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Author photograph © Jillian Edelstein.


Tochi Onyebuchi is a writer and legal professional who works in civil rights and criminal defense. Much of his non-fiction can be found at "Boy Boxes Bear," and he has an M.F.A. in Dramatic Writing from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. He is currently at work on a YA novel. He tweets, on occasion, at @TochiTrueStory. More from this author →