Last night I attended an event at Brighton University, organised by Man Booker, in which the novelist Mohsin Hamid read from his book ‘Exit West’ and answered questions about this. The novel is a love story amidst the refugee crisis, painting a nuanced portrait of contemporary migration, from the horrors of Western hysteria to what it really means to leave one life behind in the hope of building another. It is a story of our times, with the great device of characters exiting through portals, which he says, avoids stories of boats of refugees. I was interested in his observation that we are all migrants, or foreigners in different ways, refugees from our childhoods. His own life shaped the world of the book – he moved from Lahore to California as a three year old, stopped talking Urdu for a year and at four spoke only American, having lost his first language. He moved back to Lahore, relearned his first language, and lived in London, Rio, Amsterdam, feeling as he called it a hybrid person. Are we all hybrid people? In a world where politics increasingly calls on an idea of purity – from Brexit’s notion of a false nostalgia to Trumps ideas of birthright and the development of fascist politics across the globe, we need to embrace our hybridity.
He also talked about wanted a reader to really root for and care for his characters and their outcome, not to be neutral, but guided by an incantatory language, long sentences, guiding us at a deep level to feel in a certain way, like a magic spell. I felt this when I read his novel, it really cares about the consequences for the lovers. He compared it to the children’s novel Charlotte’s Web, a novel I loved as a child, where we really want Charlotte the spider to save Wilbur the pig. Its not a neutral story.
He talked of taking a class on creative writing as an undergraduate with the writer Toni Morrison who was inspirational and enabled him to write a novel in three months! Being in a group of writers with a role model like Toni Morrison clearly galvanised his work and his desire to write about two good characters and how when their first love has ended, they might let go of each other in a good way. Good characters letting go well, through death or new love, was really key for him in writing the novel.
Toni Morrison herself has said she is interested in the good characters and how they might behave in a complex world.
“I just think goodness is more interesting,” Morrison said. “Evil is constant. You can think of different ways to murder people, but you can do that at age five. But you have to be an adult to consciously, deliberately be good – and that’s complicated.”
While researching goodness, she found texts by psychiatrists and psychologists suggesting that altruism was simply “something wrong with you, almost like a deviant behavior”. Disappointed by these reductive conclusions, she wanted to work a deeper understanding of the concepts into her books.
“I want very much to have every book I write end with knowledge,” Morrison said. “You begin at a certain place, a literary journey, and at the very end there has to be the acquisition of knowledge which is virtue, which is good, which is helpful – somebody knows something at the end that they did not know before.”