Words and Worlds: A Review of Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid’s new Man Booker nominated novel, Exit West, centres on Saeed and Nadia — two young working professionals in an unnamed city. They meet in an evening class and we watch their relationship build as their city unravels. They flirt, take drugs, and have ambiguous sex as bombs explode and militants rise up, eventually taking control of their urban landscape. They decide to leave their home and Saeed’s elderly father to embark on a risky journey into the unknown. For this unnamed city has begun sprouting mysterious doors by which people are leaving, but never returning. Where they lead is a mystery, but one that desperate people are willing to gamble on. Nadia and Saeed’s travels take them to Mykonos, London and then Marin, California. These places, and their experiences there, change both protagonists. Saeed finds increasing comfort in his religion and fellow migrants from his country, while Nadia embraces the foreign landscapes and seeks out other avenues that she had been blind to back home.

Hamid’s writing, at times poetic, is sparse yet captivating, and this work— in keeping with his other novels— is a quick read. His detailed description of the descent of the city conveys the anxiety, terror, and banality of his characters’ experience, without using the shorthands of shock or sensationalism.

Exit West was published in the UK in March of this year, just a few months before another Pakistani literary debut of sorts in London. On May 20th, the annual Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) was held outside Pakistan for the first time as part of Alchemy — a South Asian cultural festival. London is a logical choice for an offshoot. Many Pakistani writers, including Hamid, have called it home, and the city has a sizable Pakistani diaspora of several hundred thousand. Pakistani literature can find large audiences in Britain, and if a book or an author makes it in London, success at home is sometimes an afterthought.

With over 60 speakers, the London festival hosted many of the regulars from Karachi and showcased Pakistan’s diverse literary talent and culture in celebration of the country’s seventieth anniversary.

Commentators spoke frankly of sensitive material. Three panelists debated elements of Pakistan’s LGBTQ+ subculture that still remain, if not taboo, than distained, within much of Pakistani society. Ali Zaidi, Faizan Fiaz and Leyla Jagiella discussed the changing environment for Pakistan’s hijra community— a transgender community specific to South Asia— and the legislation granting them new rights. “In Pakistan, transgender are at the forefront of change, unlike in the west,” said Fiaz. “Other sexuality and gender is swept under the carpet. People are still very frightened.”

When Fiaz made her 2016 film, Poshida, about the complexities of LGBTQ+ in Pakistan, the transwomen she interviewed were the only ones who consented to be shown in the publicly available film trailer. “There is a history there, so the transition is much more smooth than in the west,” said Jagiella, referencing hijras historical place in South Asian culture. However, Kami Sid, a Pakistani transgender model, who was supposed to be a panel participant, was denied a visa to enter the UK.

Even in London, a global capital of finance and art, and where the chaat on offer as street food costs five times the Karachi price, homeland realities intrude. In his opening address at the festival, Mohammed Hanif raised the issue the many Pakistani citizens who disappear each year.

“As a writer and a journalist, one is forced to confront the killing and the dying and the tortured and the missing,” said Hanif. “If you are really interested in the dilemma of our people, you have to be curious about those who are not heard from or those who have been disappeared.”

According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 728 people vanished in 2016—activists, social media darlings, or Baloch villagers, they are all people whose families and friends continue to press for answers from a silent state.

What does it mean to write amidst all of this uncertainty? These complicated realities are explored in Exit West, and one thread of this story is a nativist backlash. At first Nadia and Saeed only hear about it happening elsewhere over social media, but in London they come into contact with one of the nativist mobs roaming the city, and later find themselves in the thick of military operations to clear London. For some it seems, the new arrivals instill fear and a desire to hold onto a rigid sense of identity and nationalism that is nostalgic for a past that may itself be a fiction. As the two protagonists are slipping away from their old lives and shedding former touchstones of identity, concurrently their foil is a furious militancy that seeks fixed borders and personhoods.

“I don’t really believe entirely in nations or religions or genders,” said Hamid, when I interviewed him in 2014. “I am a man who speaks English and lives in Pakistan, but part of me is American and I spoke Urdu before I spoke English, even though my English is better than my Urdu. Do I feel entirely male gendered? Not all the time. I don’t really buy these categories; they are not helpful.”

Hanif remarked in his opening address to the KLF that, as it approached seventy years of independence, Pakistan had won one cricket world cup and lost half the country. It was some delightfully dark humour, but it was also a reminder that before this current flow of migrants, there have been a plethora of other geopolitical waves washing away people and lines on maps, and the plasticity of human nature persists through it all. In Discontent and its Civilizations, Hamid speaks of the impermanence of nonfiction, how there has been change, not only in his writing style, but also of his views and his vantage for those views. He writes that he is inventing himself as he goes, shifting into a different person, a quality he has in common with his characters.

“Whatever you think Pakistan is,” said Hamid, the reality is much more complicated, and confusing than that.”