Mohsin Hamid Speaks to Mayor's Book Club

Author fills Central Library for talk about his Exit West

It was as if a rectangle door of Exit West had opened into the Austin Central Library and migrants through time had poured into its Special Event Center for a transient moment en route to their next destination. So it felt on Wed., April 11, when Mohsin Hamid, author of the much-praised novel, arrived as a guest of the Mayor's Book Club.

Bret Anthony Johnston (l) and Mohsin Hamid (Photo by Sumaiya Malik)

The Mayor's Book Club had selected the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted Exit West as one of three titles for the city to read in 2018, all on the theme of "Exit and Flight: Narratives of the Refugee Experience." With all the conversations about immigration, border control, and sanctuary cities taking place in the world, the city wanted its residents to read books that highlight stories about people who are forced by uncontrollable circumstances to move from their home of choice as a means for them to think about such refugees as people they can relate to. (The other titles are Wendy Pearlman's We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices From Syria and Osama Alomar's The Teeth of the Comb & Other Stories.)

The house was full for the Hamid event, which was hosted by the Library Foundation. At 7pm, the 350-seat room had so few places to sit that latecomers were settling on chairs with "Reserved" signs on them, hoping that they would not be asked to move. There was a familiarity about the evening. It seemed like no one was a stranger there. Austin, the heart of Texas, and Hamid, the heart of reason, were thinking alike. How could people who had never met before – or even been in the same city – be so comfortable with each other? The familiarity stemmed from what Hamid had said in Exit West and how Austinites had thought he had read their minds.

Bret Anthony Johnston, director of the UT Michener Center for Writers and a bestselling author himself, was on hand to interview Hamid. He called Exit West a book of fiction and magical realism. It follows Saeed and Nadia, whose story is like many timeless and great love stories. Saeed is devout, while hijab-clad Nadia is independent and open to experience toward liberation. In many ways, they are familiar: They are engrossed in their phones, enjoy sex, smoke pot, and are bold and afraid. They also live in an unnamed city and country besieged by militants. Then mysterious doors appear.

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

The two lovers adapt as their environment changes and land eventually in what appears to be San Francisco. Along the way, they contribute to societies and experience resistance and apprehension.

According to Hamid, the magical black rectangles are actually a take on cell phones. “Imagine that there is a door here. It leads to a supply cabinet. But imagine that one day this door turns to a big black rectangle and if you would walk though it, you would find yourself not in Austin but instead in Islamabad or in Harare or São Paulo. The iPhone [in this case rectangle doors] weaves us to the rest of the world,” Hamid clarified. In this story, it also acts as a device of compression.

Hamid wants readers to think of the act of human migration as something everyone experiences. “We are all migrants through time,” said Hamid. “We think that we haven’t gone through the barbed wire of the U.S.-Mexico border or crossed the Mediterranean in a boat. So we think that is a different kind of person than us. When you remove that part, you are left with somebody who is in a place and moves even from one house to the next and that is something that everyone does."

Hamid has migrated his entire life - to the U.S. at the age of 3, to Pakistan at 9, back to the U.S. at 18, to England at 30, and finally to Lahore at 38. His logic pours out eloquently as he steps back and looks at the entire life in general and weaves a story that acts like a bridge between communities – somewhat in the style of Paulo Coelho in his novel The Alchemist. The reader identifies himself in the story and takes ownership of that wisdom.

Hamid reasons that man is a hybrid, right from conception. He is a product of two human beings, so the impurity is inherent. He goes through time and space with inputs that "mongrelize" him or make him less pure, but in the process he becomes a better person.

Andrea Doorack from Austin sat in the second row in the audience. She had heard about Exit West on PBS Newshour the previous month and got the book. To her, Exit West “has a science-fiction effect. It can make your mind expand and take in situations you have never been exposed to. I had been feeling a lot of sympathy for the refugees. When I read the work, I realized how much more challenging it is than I imagine. It gave me more sympathy and respect for their circumstances.”

Ending on a positive note, Doorack matched Hamid’s wisdom: “The book is hopeful. The human spirit and what can be accomplished [is a lot] when we overcome our tribalism.”

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Mayor's Book Club, Mohsin Hamid, Exit West, Wendy Pearlman, Osama Alomar, Paulo Coelho, refugees

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