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Mohsin Hamid's Novel 'Exit West' Raises Immigration Issues


The novelist Mohsin Hamid has written a book about a world that can sound a little like our own.

MOHSIN HAMID: The news in those days was full of war and migrants and nativists. And it was full of fracturing too, of regions pulling away from nations and cities pulling away from hinterlands. And it seemed that as everyone was coming together, everyone was also moving apart.

INSKEEP: That's a line from Hamid's book "Exit West." In his book, globalization is pulling people closer, even as people everywhere grow uncomfortable with the closeness. Mohsin Hamid is a Pakistani writer who's also travelled much abroad. His characters often shift from one country to another or one class to another. "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" spoke of a man who turned toward extremism. "How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia" spoke of a young man's struggle to get ahead.

Now, in "Exit West," he tells the story of a young couple who fall in love as their country, which seems a lot like Pakistan, is falling apart.

HAMID: It begins in a city which is a lot like Lahore, where I live. And the city is beginning to be rocked by these militants and terrorists. But partly, I just couldn't bring myself to write the collapse of a city like Lahore, where I live. I just didn't have the heart to write it.

INSKEEP: So it's an unnamed city in an unnamed country which the young couple decides to flee. A magical opportunity opens to them. It becomes possible for migrants or refugees like our young couple to travel from place to place in an instant.

HAMID: These doors start to open up. And people begin to step through them and find that they're some place very far away. Millions, in fact, billions of people move. And the whole planet undergoes a great migration.

INSKEEP: Doors open up, meaning you step through a doorway in Pakistan and you're suddenly in Sydney or London. Is that what you're saying?

HAMID: Yes, a bit like "Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe." But the doors, although they're not true to physics, I think they're emotionally true to our current technological reality. You can open your computer and look at somebody via Skype. And it looks like you're looking at a window. Or I can step on an airplane, as I did the other day, and within a few hours be in New York.

INSKEEP: Did you try to write about human movement in a more conventional way, and it didn't work?

HAMID: Strangely enough, the doors were at the very center of the idea for this book. I wanted to explore the question of, what made you want to leave, and what happened when you arrived? I was less interested in the journey of how you went from place to place. And the doors were a way to avoid that.

INSKEEP: You know, the conflict you're describing, I guess, might be referred to as a struggle between newcomers and natives. In your travels, have you been both?

HAMID: I think we're all both. The simple fact of being a human being is you migrate. Many of us move from one place to the other. But even those who don't move and you stay in the same city, if you were born in Manhattan 70 years ago, you're born in Des Moines 70 years ago, you've lived in the same place for 70 years, the city you live in today is unrecognizable. Almost everything has changed. So even people who stay in the same place undergo a kind of migration through time. And in the novel, what I'm trying to explore is how everyone is a migrant.

INSKEEP: So you're pro-migrant then?

HAMID: I'm pro-human. And I think recognizing the human nature of migration is very important. But yes, I'm pro-migrant. I personally tend to believe that there is a right to migration, the same way there's a right to love whom you like and to believe what you believe and to say what you want to say.

INSKEEP: What do you think about when you hear about or even experience the anger that seems to be afoot in the world? It's an anger that I think you can hear when you talk with people in Pakistan about the state of the country. It's an anger that you can sense in the United States, regardless of which side you're on the political divide here. What do you think about when you hear that?

HAMID: I think two things. One is that I think we're failing in our imaginations. We're not imagining a future that we really want to live in. And because we're not able to articulate a future where most people can do well and find a way to be the way they want to be, we can't articulate that. So we look to go back to where we were. We can't go back, but we want to. And that's one source of the anger.

And the other source of the anger is people are designed to treat negative things, frightening things much more seriously and intensely than good things. And when we're surrounded by lots and lots of news, much of which has negative stuff in it, it's like having glimpses of lions and tigers every five seconds. We become incredibly anxious. And we're so anxious that we don't realize that in many ways, human beings are better off as a group than they ever have been before. Even the United States in some ways, America as a whole is better off. It's just the way that America's better off is not divided well. And not everybody's participating in it.

INSKEEP: That's some of our conversation with Mohsin Hamid, a novelist from Pakistan. He lives in a country where the United States has spent a lot of time and money to spread its ideas of democracy and good government. And as we talked, Hamid offered to spread some wisdom back the other way.

HAMID: It would be interesting to learn from us. So much of what I look in America today looks like Pakistan, (laughter) which obviously isn't necessarily a great thing, a lot of it. But there's a lot to be learned. I mean, you know, the governing family that is unwilling to divest itself from business interests, lack of respect for rule of law, groups that vote sort of along a kind of almost ethnic basis as opposed to in their rational self-interest, all kinds of stuff.

INSKEEP: Let's remind people that the prime minister of Pakistan is part of a political family. And he is politely termed an industrialist. That is the term for it. He's a business guy.

HAMID: Absolutely. And he's accused of all sorts of bad dealings. And truthfulness is continuously being questioned in the courts. And media, which is being attacked and constantly threatened. And I think America needs to be very careful. America has built something with great difficulty over a large period of time. And for America to start to become the kind of democracy that Pakistan is would be an incredible loss for America and for the world.

INSKEEP: So what lessons have Pakistanis learned from that experience that are transferable here?

HAMID: The biggest lesson is you get the country you work for. If you sit back and simply allow your country to be, it is highly unlikely to be the kind of country you want. You have to be active. And many Pakistanis are struggling for political rights. People are risking their lives in some cases. And I think in America, something similar is called for - real activism and real passion to protect democracy.

INSKEEP: The newest novel by Mohsin Hamid is called "Exit West." Thanks very much.

HAMID: Thank you.


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