Donna Seaman, Booklist Adult Books Editor and co-chair of the SJP Picks selection committee, spoke with Mohsin Hamid recently about his book Exit West and its selection as the second SJP Pick.
Seaman: Exit West offers a beautifully distilled and intimate perspective on complex global, geopolitical, and humanitarian crises. What inspired you to focus so closely on the relationship between Saeed and Nadia?
Hamid: I wanted to explore a love story between two characters who are drifting apart and yet do so gently. So often we think of anger and recrimination and conflict when lovers separate. But it doesn't need to be this way. It is possible to find beauty in transience and to wish someone well while going in a different direction.
Seaman: What was the source for these two sensitive characters? They are full of surprises, beginning with Nadia’s wearing of a modest black robe versus her deep irreverence, and Saeed’s evolving feelings about being Muslim.
Hamid: Saeed captured some of the gentleness I have seen in some religious people, people like my own grandfather. Often we imagine religion being paired with intolerance, but that isn't at all always the case. And Nadia comes from many women I know, ferociously independent and complicated women who do not fit a stereotype in terms of how they dress or behave.
Seaman: Saeed and Nadia leave their besieged city through a “special door” that delivers them to a Greek island. Why did you venture into magical realism, or a poetic form of speculative fiction, by imagining “doors that could take you elsewhere, often to places far away?”
Hamid: I think the doors are true to the emotional reality of our present-day world. Technology is collapsing distance. Babies in America are watched over Skype by their grandparents in Pakistan. Kids in Nigeria are watching TV shows set in London. Refugees on the move are WhatsApp-ing with friends and relatives who have already arrived at their destination, asking for tips that might help them on the way. We are reading about Antarctica on our phones, about the surface of Mars, about the history of the Game of Thrones’ Westeros, and as we do these things our consciousness passes through the black rectangle–the door–of a screen and appears somewhere far away.
Seaman: You’ve mentioned C. S. Lewis and Jorge Luis Borges as influences. Can you speak to their role in your imagination? And can you explain your observation: “Those of us who thought Jorge Luis Borges was a pioneer of magic realism were mistaken; he was a pioneer of science fiction.”
Hamid: I suspect the doors in my novel were born when I first read Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a child, even though I didn't make that connection until after I finished writing Exit West. Then one day somebody asked me about it, did I think I had been influenced in this way, and I suddenly thought: of course. As for Borges, he writes of forking paths and mirrors and reality and unreality, and in this sense, he is a writer of the current moment, when our online lives and our offline lives are merging and diverging and forking in such strange, Borgesian ways.
Seaman: These doors to other lands are the most overt form of magic you conjure, but through Saeed’s eyes, we also appreciate the marvels and menace of technological magic. You subtly contrast these wonders with the medieval violence of the unnamed militants your protagonists are forced to flee. What are you hoping readers will take away from these passages?
Hamid: I am interested in the emotional resonances of these things. Not technology for technology's sake or political violence for the purpose of reporting the news, but rather how these things make us feel. A novel is an emotional journey, and if it has emotional honesty, it has the power to do things that logical argument often cannot do.
Seaman: Did your experiences living in diverse places shape your depiction of the challenges Saeed and Nadia face once they reach London, where hundreds of thousands of refugees from all over the world are transforming the city?
Hamid: Very much so. Exit West is not an autobiographical novel in the sense that the events that happen to Saeed and Nadia are not the events of my life. But it is autobiographical in a geographic sense. It is set in places where I have lived and places I have visited, places that have had a powerful impact on me. I have lived in Lahore, which is not unlike Saeed and Nadia's unnamed city, before the war begins there, and I have lived in London and the San Francisco Bay Area, and I have traveled to and been struck by Tokyo and Amsterdam and Rio and Tijuana and all the other places in the novel.
Seaman: How do you see Exit West in relationship to your previous three novels? Does it continue a line of inquiry? Extend a particular view of the world?
Hamid: I think there are strands that carry through all of them. All four of my novels are, for example, love stories in one way or another. And all four bend our notions of realism. But there are differences too. My first three novels each had a formal structure that signaled to the reader that they were untrustworthy narratives. Exit West is different. It tries to say what it means. In that sense, it is informed by children's literature, by the books I have been reading to my own children over these past few years. It is written as though it is on the side of its characters, and on the side of its reader, too. That's how Charlotte's Web is written, and The Wind in the Willows.
Seaman: You wrote Exit West before Brexit and before the election of President Trump and his executive orders regarding immigration. Did you have a sense that such xenophobic attitudes would prevail? How do feel about readers reading Exit West with these developments in mind?
Hamid: I didn't think things would get so bad so quickly, but the currents of anti-migrant sentiment were already strong when I began writing, and I was responding to that. I wanted to explore the idea that we are all migrants, and that this universal human experience can make possible a sense of shared compassion and can break down some of the us-them thinking we see so much of.
Seaman: By selecting Exit West for Book Club Central, Sarah Jessica Parker will be encouraging libraries all across the U.S. and beyond to choose your novel for their book clubs. How do you feel about this? What affects do you hope Exit West will have on readers?
Hamid: When I read that question, I feel a bit like I have stepped through a magical door. I have watched Sarah Jessica Parker and admired her work for many years, as so many of us have. She existed in a fictional world. And now our stories have connected somehow. There's something really beautiful to that, for me. And it seems fitting that this should happen in the context of libraries, because, as a child, libraries were magical places for me. It was in libraries that I became a reader, and it is because I became a reader that I became a writer. As for the effect of Exit West on readers, I have written a half-book, and readers will write the other half with their imaginations, and together we will make the experience of the novel. That's what I hope for. The book is not a prescription, it is an invitation to dance.
Learn more about Exit West, Sarah Jessica Parker's newest pick for Book Club Central.
Donna Seaman is Adult Books Editor for Booklist, a recipient of the Studs Terkel Humanities Service Award, a member of the Content Leadership Team for the American Writers Museum, and a frequent presenter at literary events and programs. Seaman’s new book is Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists.
Mohsin Hamid is the internationally bestselling author of Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and Discontent and Its Civilizations. His award-winning novels have been adapted for the cinema, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and translated into more than 30 languages. His essays and short stories have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The New Yorker, among many other publications. Hamid now resides in Lahore, his birthplace, after living for a number of years in New York and London.