“It’s very contrary to the notion of what America is, to imagine that we can stop migration,” Mohsin Hamid says in a phone interview with Paste. Exit West, the bestselling author’s fourth novel, follows a love story between two refugees who traverse thousands of miles by passing through otherworldly doorways. The doors provide an escape, but they also have a catch: you cannot be certain where each door will lead—or if you’ll be able to find the next exit.
Critics are using the word “prescient” to describe Exit West, referencing President Trump’s executive order barring travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries. Hamid completed the novel less than a year ago, but he has always had a finger on the global pulse.
“I found it hard to imagine that [the travel ban] would actually occur,” Hamid says from his home in Lahore, Pakistan, recalling the stump speeches made during the campaign. The author describes himself as a “fairly hybridized person,” having spent 17 years of his life in the U.S., another 10 in the U.K. and about 20 years total in Pakistan. He studied law at Harvard and remembers how most of the American students held their Constitution in high regard, as though it were a religious document. “It struck me as so contrary to the American Constitution to deny a particular group of people access in that way,” Hamid says.
“I studied about the internment of Japanese Americans during the second World War and about how the Constitution was written by men, many of whom were slave owners,” he adds. “So I suppose the travel ban strikes me as coming from an era I thought we’d left behind, but I guess we haven’t entirely left it behind.”
Leaving things behind is central to Exit West. The first page opens in a city on the brink of an abyss, tipping towards civil war and swollen with a sea of refugees. Hamid leaves it unnamed in the text, leading the reader to imagine it could be located in any of the seven countries listed on the travel ban. We witness two students, Saeed and Nadia, taking a class about corporate entity and product branding to bolster their chances in the professional world, even as their own world is falling apart.
Saeed and Nadia’s relationship progresses with a steady beat over the first 50 pages. But with the flux of militants, drones and gunfire disrupting the tempo of their courtship, it soon enters a fugue state. Just as the very ground beneath them seems like it will disperse, hope is kindled by rumors of a doorway that grants passages another land.
“People will find a way,” Hamid says. “They always have. In the novel, I think the doors function to make physical what is already an emotional reality: that people are going to move, and they’ll move physically and mentally.”
Rather than fall into the realm of magical realism, Exit West finds itself in “a slightly skewed realism” according to Hamid. He pauses and admits, “It’s strange to say, but I really believe in these doors…I think the doors exist in our world, just not the physical manifestation that I’ve given them [in the novel].”
Hamid has demonstrated a proclivity for this “slightly skewed realism” with his three previous novels, including The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Exit West, however, can read like an experimentation with something resembling fantasy. Even if these doors aren’t leading to Narnia, it’s impossible to ignore their magic.
Exit West, like Hamid’s other novels, also takes place in the present. His other books referenced highly topical events at the time of their publication, such as 9/11 or the 1998 nuclear tests in India and Pakistan.
“I feel no desire to write a novel that takes place in the past,” he says. “I think we need to radically reimagine the future. Citizens, artist, writers, politicians, everyone. What’s happening now is our failure to come up with radical new futures that we think could maybe come in to existence. If we don’t, then that space is abandoned to people who are peddling nostalgic disasters.”
With Exit West, Hamid challenges his audience to reframe their experience in a new context. “I’m hoping that it is possible to expand the sense that we are all migrants. Everyone is a migrant—even people who are in the same place, because that place changes over decades. If we can have this shared notion of migration, it becomes easier to have a conversation.”