Mohsin Hamid, the author of EXIT WEST, came to my hometown last week for a book discussion and signing. When I first read the book back in February, I enjoyed it but I wasn’t the biggest fan; I felt like it was missing something. However, after hearing Hamid speak about EXIT WEST, his latest novel, I developed a greater appreciation for the work and the way in which it deals with such difficult topics like immigration and first love.
Hamid began the night by speaking about his childhood and the identity crisis he faced growing up. He was born in Pakistan and spoke Urdu before he was one year old. When Hamid was around three years old, he moved to California where his father attended Stanford graduate school. Living in the grad school housing, Hamid was surrounded by children of all different nationalities, yet he was essentially censured for speaking “funny,” as he didn’t know English yet. After a neighbor criticized him for speaking Urdu, Hamid did not speak for a month, and afterward, he only spoke American English. A few years later, his family moved back to Pakistan, and he had to relearn Urdu, which he had no memory of despite it being his first language. Though English was Hamid’s second language, he acknowledged it as his best, as the language he writes in.
This identity crisis allowed Hamid to understand how difficult it is to “categorize” people. Even still, we place so much emphasis on defining someone by clunky terms like black or white, gay or straight, Muslim or Christian. Hamid shared his belief that the only thing that matters is love- who we love, what we love, and how we express our love.
Having lived in Pakistan, California, New York, and London, Hamid stressed migration as both a global and a personal experience. He emphasized that “we are all migrants through time,” a quote from his novel EXIT WEST, that everyone comes from somewhere, and that no one is native to a place. Hamid spoke personally about his experiences moving around from country to country, saying that if he had to choose a central “home,” he wouldn’t fit in anywhere, and he wouldn’t know where to choose. Though he was born in Pakistan, he spent much of his early childhood in the United States, and eventually moved on to school in England, all very formative periods in his life.
Beyond a physical migration from place to place, Hamid also mentioned a sort of figurative migration, through technology. He claimed that collectively, we have become obsessed with sending our consciousness from place to place online. In this sense, the infamous doors of EXIT WEST, said by many to be a magical realism device, can also be thought of metaphorically. Hamid himself compared the doors to our cell phone screens, both ominous black rectangles leading to someplace new and different. Hearing him speak about EXIT WEST in this way was eye-opening, and now I see the book in a whole new light.
The last thing Hamid spoke about, and perhaps the concept that will stay with me the most, is what happens when we read. We sit alone with our thoughts, lost in our own mind, and yet we are sitting with the author’s thoughts as well… and so who are we in that moment? Are we truly ourselves, or are we some type of hybrid, a mixture of our thoughts and the author’s? Hamid definitely left me with a lot to think about.
Photo Credit: Melody Lane Photos for Just Buffalo Literary Center