From Refugees To Politics, Mohsin Hamid Writes The Change He Wants To See
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today's guest, Mohsin Hamid, has written a novel about immigration, war and political crises called "Exit West" that has just come out in paperback and is this month's pick for the new "PBS NewsHour"-New York Times book club Now Read This. It's about a young couple in a city slowly being overtaken by militants. Beheadings are becoming common. The city is unnamed, but it resembles Lahlore, Pakistan, where Hamid lives. The novel examines the difficulty of knowing when it's time to flee, how it feels to leave family behind and what it's like to arrive in another country, one that's hostile to immigrants.
Mohsin Hamid was born in Lahore but spent part of his childhood in California, where his father was studying at Stanford. Hamid returned to the U.S. to study at Princeton and Harvard Law School. He lived in New York in his 20s and London in his 30s but moved back to Lahore with his wife to raise their children. His other novels include "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" and "How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia." Terry spoke to Mohsin Hamid in March 2017.
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TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Mohsin Hamid, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You had no way of knowing that the publication of your novel about migration would coincide with President Trump's second version of an executive order blocking migrants from several Muslim-majority countries. Do you think your novel addresses that ban without mentioning it by name?
MOHSIN HAMID: In a sense, yes because the ban is about trying to determine, you know, who belongs and who doesn't belong in a place, above all. Of course, it also has the effect of restricting certain people's movements and in some cases, like refugees, with potentially deadly effect. But above all, it's about who has the right to move and who doesn't have the right to move. And I think that when we take the long view, the notion that some people are deemed, you know, less worthy of being able to move, to not have the right to cross borders - over time, that's going to seem to us as outmoded and as unfair, really, as racial discrimination or other kinds of discrimination. So, yes, the book does address the ban without specifically addressing the ban.
GROSS: I'm really interested in hearing what the discussion is like in Pakistan now about Trump's anti-immigrant policies, the discussion both among your friends and family but also in the press.
HAMID: Well, my 7-year-old daughter was frightened that I was going to America. And she had come to New York with me and my wife and other child, our son, in August. We stayed for a month, and she loved it. And if you asked her in, perhaps, September, her favorite place in the world, she might have said New York. But when I was coming to America just now from Pakistan, she was saying, you know, Baba, don't go. And among the 7-year-olds in her class, there's a fear that there's this person out there - she knows his name is Trump - and she thinks that he hates Muslims, that he is not nice to women - that - in a sense, that he's a villain.
And I think that sentiment, at the level of a child - because she could probably name no other international political figure - that's becoming quite widespread, the notion that there's a person who's the head of the most powerful country in the world who dislikes so many people around the world. And naturally, that creates a sense of resentment and dismay.
GROSS: There's a fear among a lot of Americans that Trump's policies will radicalize people, you know, radicalize Muslims who might otherwise be very pro-America and supportive of American values. Do you see any evidence of that?
HAMID: Well, I think that there are perhaps two parts to it. Outside of America, there are many people, myself included, who champion values that, in some senses, could be thought of as traditionally American - the idea that everybody's equal, that the rights of women and men should be the same, that there should be no discrimination on religious or sexual orientation, that democracy and rule of law and due process are the ways in which society should govern themselves and minorities should be cared for.
These, in a way, are values that America has championed internationally - not exclusively, of course. America has a mixed history. But I think, for many people around the world, the sense is that they've lost an ally, that this very powerful force that used to speak for these things is now silent. And that's different from radicalization.
At the same time, I think radicalization works in a slightly different way. When people, particularly young people and especially young men, can't imagine themselves as heroes in narratives that they construct for themselves, they look to be heroes in some other way. So young men in America of, let's say, Muslim background, only a tiny, tiny minority - so small as to be almost zero - are likely to ever commit terrorist acts. But what goes through the mind of somebody like that? You know, very often, if you look at the kinds of communications that they're getting in an ISIS recruiting video, the videos that, you know, that one hears of as radicalizing them, these are like action movies. And so in the sense, it's that by closing off the idea that young Muslims and particularly young Muslim men can be American heroes, it increases the chance that they'll try to be some other kind of hero. And that, I think, is entirely counterproductive.
GROSS: Let's talk about your novel, "Exit West," which is about a young man and a young woman who kind of fall in love in Pakistan and eventually decide - well, I shouldn't say Pakistan. It's an unnamed country...
GROSS: ...That I assume is modeled on Pakistan (laughter) because that's where you live. But anyways, they kind of fall in love or they think they've fallen in love. And slowly, things in their country start to get to the point where it's becoming increasingly dangerous to live there. And the question is always in the background, how do you know when it's time to leave? And in the novel, things start changing slowly. It's tolerable at first. And then a turning point is the first time that a person you know is killed.
And you write, (reading) in time of violence, there is always that first acquaintance or intimate of ours who, when they are touched, makes what had seemed like a bad dream suddenly evisceratingly (ph) real.
And for these two people, one of the things that makes the danger real is that they know a middle-aged local man who ran a small side business who was beheaded with a serrated knife to enhance his pain. Then his body was strung up by one ankle from an electricity pole. So was there a first person for you, who you knew, who was touched by the violence of the Taliban in Pakistan?
HAMID: Well, not necessarily by the Taliban but certainly by extremists. The first person that I knew personally that I can think of in this moment - I had lunch with the governor of our province. And he was the husband of my mother-in-law's best friend. And he had been campaigning to remove or change the country's blasphemy law, which he argued was being used to victimize religious minorities, particularly Christians. And this was an unpopular position among, you know, certain strands of the religious right in Pakistan. And his own bodyguard assassinated him.
And, you know, I remember meeting his family and coming for the funeral. And this is a person who was alive and speaking, you know, the day before. And then a day later, he was gone. It was incredible shock. It's always a shock when somebody dies. But in this case, really, it marked a change. It felt real.
And also - it might be worth pointing out that, you know, so often people say, well, you know, why don't Muslims, you know, speak out? And why don't they - and I think people who say that have no idea what's going on in countries like Pakistan, where there are thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people, millions speaking out. And in the case of my family friend, people who, you know, risk their lives to stand up for the rights of Christian minorities in Pakistan. And, in fact, I've been to the funeral of somebody who did that. So it was enormously jarring and shocking. And also a reminder that many good people around the world are willing to risk everything to live inside a decent society.
GROSS: What do you think your profile in Pakistan is?
HAMID: It's hard to say. I mean, I - my books are read by young people in Pakistan. And in particular, on university campuses when I go, many young people have read them. I'm perhaps most likely to be recognized, if I go anywhere in the world, it's in Lahore or Karachi or places in Pakistan. There's an interesting phenomenon in the first, you know, 50 years of Pakistan's history. Perhaps a million students graduated from university in that entire time.
Now there's about a million students enrolled in university in Pakistan. In other words, instead of a few thousand or tens of thousands a year, there's hundreds of thousands who graduate every year. And many of these young people read novels because in the novels, not just my novels but the novels of many other Pakistani writers, they encounter ideas, notions, ways of thinking about the world, thinking about their society that are different. And fiction functions in a countercultural way as it does in America and certainly as it did in the, you know, '60s.
And so I would say I feel engaged with young people in Pakistan. But that said, it's still a small minority that reads novels, literary fiction. But it isn't necessarily a small minority of the wealthy elite in the city of Lahore. It can often be and I often do meet at literary festivals students who've ridden a bus 12 hours from a very small town just to hear some of their favorite writers come and speak.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Mohsin Hamid. His new novel is called "Exit West." It's about migration. We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is novelist Mohsin Hamid. His new novel is called "Exit West," and it's about a young couple from an unnamed city that seems very much like Lahore, Pakistan, where Mohsin Hamid lives. And they decide that things have gotten so bad, the militants have made so many moves restricting freedom, that they need to migrate. So it's about their decision, their experiences in the city, their decision to leave and the countries they go to.
And I should mention Mohsin Hamid grew up in both Pakistan and the U.S. He spent his 20s in the U.S. and his 30s in London and since then has lived in Pakistan. One of the decisions that this couple has to make is not only when to leave but should they leave even though Saeed's father isn't going to go with them. And I think that's something that must be very difficult for all people who become immigrants. Are you saying goodbye to your family who's staying behind? Are you saying goodbye to them forever?
And one of the reasons why the father decides to stay behind in this unnamed city and not emigrate is that his wife, the main character's mother, was shot in the head and killed by a stray bullet. And so I'd like you to read a short excerpt from your novel about the father's decision to stay behind and his encouragement of his son to leave.
HAMID: (Reading) Saeed asked why his father was doing this. What could possibly make him want to stay? And Saeed's father said, your mother is here. Saeed said, Mother is gone. His father said, not for me. And this was true in a way. Saeed's mother was not gone for him. Saeed's mother was not gone for Saeed's father - not entirely. And it would have been difficult for Saeed's father to leave the place where he had spent a life with her, difficult not to be able to visit her grave each day. And he would not wish to do this. He preferred to abide, in a sense, in the past, for the past offered more to him.
But Saeed's father was thinking also of the future, even though he did not say this to Saeed, for he feared that if he had said this to his son, that his son might not go. And he knew, above all else, that his son must go. And what he did not say was that he had come to that point in a parent's life when, if a flood arrives, one knows one must let go of one's child, contrary to all the instincts one had when one was younger, because holding on can no longer offer the child protection. It can only pull the child down and threaten them with drowning, for the child is now stronger than the parent. And the circumstances are such that the utmost of strength is required.
GROSS: What made you think about this, about how sometimes things get to a point where in order for the child to survive, they have to separate from their parent, that the child - the parent can no longer protect the child, that the parent is actually holding the child back and might lead to the child drowning, or, in this case, lead to the child being stuck in a city that is doomed?
HAMID: Living in a place like Pakistan, very often you meet people who are migrating abroad. And sometimes you'll ask their parents, you know - you didn't try to stop them? Like, why didn't you say, don't go - I'll miss you? Stay with me. And, you know, people say, well, it's best for them. They have to go. And parents, you know, take on that sadness because they know it's better for their children if they leave.
And so for me, it was borne partly out of my own sense of sorrow. If I had to leave Pakistan again - and my parents are getting older now - what it would feel like to leave them behind. And also thinking about my own children - how would I feel if they were older and they decided no, they couldn't live where I was and moved abroad?
And so for Saeed and Nadia, the - particularly for Saeed - the amount, the power of what is driving him to leave, imagine how strong it has to be for someone to let go of their parent. And imagine how frightened a parent has to be for what awaits their child to say, you know, it's OK. We won't be part of each other's day-to-day lives, but you must leave.
GROSS: In your novel, when your main characters migrate, they basically slip through portals, through doors, and are immediately in another country. So it's a kind of, like, magical touch (laughter) to your novel. But it's also - it seems like a very convenient device for a novelist because you don't have to get them, like, visas and put them on, like, a boat or a plane and have them pass through customs, you know. Like, you you don't have to deal with any of that in the narrative, and you can keep it really lean. And like...
GROSS: ...They're suddenly in another country. Was that one of your reasons for doing it that way?
HAMID: Yeah. I mean, partly, I feel the doors kind of already exist. They are a representation of a technological reality we already live inside. We can open up our computers and Skype with someone, and we see them. It's like looking through a window. Or we can surf the Internet through our phones, and it's like our consciousness is far away. Or we can step through a airplane door and be in another continent a few hours away. So technology feels, to me, like the doors sort of already exist, at least emotionally.
But in the novel, it was important to me to focus on, what makes someone want to leave, which is all of their life before migration, and what happens to them in the new place, which is the life after migration? Which is something that every human being participates in. The part of the story that often gets emphasized - how did you cross the Atlantic or how did you cross the Pacific or how did you cross the Mediterranean in a little boat, which capsized and people died? That is a very dramatic and horrific, in some cases, part of the story.
But it's a tiny moment usually in the time and in the emotional journey. I wanted to focus on the more human and lasting stories of Saeed and Nadia. What happens before you move, and what happens after? And so the doors allowed me to focus on parts of the migration narrative that often get de-emphasized. The other thing, of course, is the doors allow the world to change very quickly. So the next century or two of migration that are likely to happen on planet Earth, in the novel, occurs in just a year or two.
GROSS: A question that's raised in the novel, about your main characters- which I'd be interested in hearing your reflections about - is in a new country, do you share this bond with migrants from other countries or only with migrants from your country? You know, like...
GROSS: It's an example of, like, when I'm in another city far away and I find myself sitting next to somebody from my neighborhood in Philadelphia, it's like - wow, we have so much in common. We're from the same neighborhood or from the same city, whereas if I run into them in the neighborhood, they're just a stranger to me. It doesn't mean a thing.
HAMID: You know, sometimes we are looking for somebody we can connect with on the basis of a shared past or a tradition or experience. And so finding that you're sitting next to someone very much like you in terms of where they come from is enormously reassuring.
I think sometimes feeling that you've been marginalized opens you up to the realization that, in their own lives, almost everyone experiences marginalization, a kind of foreigner sense. And that has - in my fiction in particular, in particular my later fiction - made me investigate and explore the idea that we're all united in this, that every human being migrates through time, that the place we grew up in in our childhood is gone when we're in our 50s and 60s and 70s. You can live in the same city your entire life and still be completely a foreigner when you step out, in your old age, onto the street.
And that is the basis, I think, for asserting a kind of shared human experience. So whereas if you'd asked me this 25 years ago - would I say international people are my clan? - I probably would have said yes. But now, I quite enjoy meeting people who haven't moved, don't feel at all international and recognizing an enormous shared experience that they also have with me.
BIANCULLI: Mohsin Hamid speaking to Terry Gross in March 2017. He's the author of "Exit West," which is now out in paperback. Their interview continues after a break. Also, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a vintage live concert recording by Charles Mingus. And film critic Justin Chang reviews "A Wrinkle In Time," the new fantasy adventure film from Disney. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's March 2017 interview with Mohsin Hamid. He's the author of the novel "Exit West" - now out in paperback - about a young couple whose city is slowly overtaken by extremists. The novel is about how you know when it's time to flee and what it's like to become an immigrant in a country that is hostile to immigrants. The fictional city this couple is from resembles Lahore, Pakistan, where Mohsin Hamid was born and lives today. He spent part of his childhood in the U.S. and returned to study at Princeton and Harvard Law School. He spent his 20s in New York, his 30s in London and returned to Pakistan with his wife to raise their children. His other novels include "Moth Smoke" and "The Reluctant Fundamentalist."
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GROSS: You wrote about that when you traveled to India, which is - has a very large Muslim population but it has a larger Hindu population. Do I have that right, that the Hindu population is larger?
GROSS: Yeah. So when you go there, say, to speak or to do a reading, you have to check in at each police station - in the police station of each city before you make an appearance. Is that because you're Muslim?
HAMID: Well, that's because I'm Pakistani. So...
GROSS: Because you're Pakistani. Right. OK.
HAMID: Even if you travel on a British passport, let's say, or, you know, if you're connected to Pakistan in a way, given the history of animosity between India and Pakistan - and it's reciprocal. I mean, Indians undergo similar things in Pakistan. It's not that only India does it to Pakistanis.
And it sometimes would be very strange. So I might arrive in a hotel for a book launch, and the hotel manager will come up and say, oh, I've read one your books, and I really liked it. I'm so glad you're here. And then two hours later, I'm off in a police station, you know, waiting. And then I'm on TV. It's a very sort of strange thing.
But it's happened to me in America as well. You know, there are sometimes when I seem to be, you know, always selected for random security searches at airports or stopped, you know, flying in and taken to secondary inspection and questioned for hours. And then on that same trip, I might be having a conversation with you or giving a reading in New York or even, you know, giving a talk, you know, at some U.S. government, you know, school of foreign service or something like that.
And it's very strange because you experience both the idea that people want to hear what you have to say and you're being welcomed as an artist and, at the same time, you belong to a suspect class where there's a suspicion that really, deep down, you're a terrorist. And these two things seem - how can they possibly co-exist? And they don't. It's just that we're incoherent. And in India in particular, that incoherence comes across very strongly if you're a Pakistani writer.
GROSS: Do you carry a copy of one of your books around so you can say - hey, this is me?
HAMID: I do, although I have to say I usually don't carry a copy of "The Reluctant Fundamentalist."
GROSS: (Laughter) Right. "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" is one of your novels that was also made into a film. That would give, maybe, the wrong cue to whoever was looking at it (laughter).
HAMID: Yes. I mean, it's quite funny because, you know, sometimes they'll stop you at the airport and say - oh, what do you do? I'm a writer. Really? What have you written? Oh, I've written multiple books. What is your most recent one? Um, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," you know. And that used to be...
GROSS: It's a memoir (laughter).
HAMID: That used to be troubling. But I'll tell you this, you know. I really do believe that people surprise you. And one of the powerful things about novels is that they're about characters, and those characters live their lives. But so are the people you meet at airports. You know, I've met immigration officers. And I've said, you know, I wrote this novel "The Reluctant Fundamentalist."
And somebody looks at me and you're thinking, it's not going to go well. But they'll say, you know, my kid wants to do an MFA, and I don't know if it's a good idea. It's a lot of money. What do you think? And you wind up having a 15-minute conversation about the writing life and the values and pros and cons of MFA programs.
So I'm often surprised that, you know, you encounter all types of humanity. And very often, there are some very decent people who don't stereotype even when you might, in your own mind, have stereotyped them to think that they will.
GROSS: On the dust jacket of your new book, there's a photo, an author photo. And you have a pretty short beard. And if you don't mind my asking, is the beard because you're better off with one if you live in Pakistan or because you like the style of it?
HAMID: No, I don't think it makes any difference if you have a beard in a city like Lahore. I mean, for some people, it's a signifier of different kinds of religious things. For me, it's never been that. You know, I'm pretty close to bald and so...
HAMID: ...I think the beard helps offset - it's the only hairstyle I can really pull off. But I'm often clean-shaven. I think, you know, for me, it's not that signifier. What's interesting to me though is although the beard isn't a signifier of that to me, other people very often think that it is. And so people in America might react differently. The, you know, border agents might react differently. The guys at airport security might react differently.
And people in Pakistan sometimes react differently. So a beard is something that is almost like a mirror to the viewer. When someone sees you wearing a beard, they're seeing something in their own imagination because it's still me whether I'm bearded or not.
GROSS: So the beard could be a positive in Pakistan and a negative in the U.S., particularly at an airport?
HAMID: Yeah, or the other way around. So, for example, in some contexts in Pakistan, maybe a beard is negative. It depends. And in some contexts in America, maybe a beard is positive. I think there's certainly lots of hipster communities where having a beard makes me look a little bit less like a, you know, middle-aged fuddy-duddy. And there's some places in Pakistan where having a beard, you know, certain corporate contexts, certain social contexts where it's not an advantage to have a beard.
GROSS: Something that you have to navigate so that people don't assume you're a terrorist (laughter) and so that people don't assume you're a middle-aged fuddy-duddy (laughter).
HAMID: You know, it's amazing the range of places that I can, you know, occupy from deeply dangerous to so undangerous as to be completely desexualized. You know, it's a wonderful canvas on which I can live out my different facial hair experiments.
GROSS: It is lucky you have a sense of humor about that.
HAMID: There's no other way around it. You know, I think life is too short to go around being continually, you know, angry about being seen in this way. But that said, the anger is useful too because when things about the world upset you, that is really a fertile feeling to channel into fiction and to put out into books.
GROSS: In the part of your novel where your main characters are still living in the unnamed country that's being overtaken by militants, they realize that the meaning of windows has changed, that a window, which used to be, like, a great view, something wonderful to have in your home. Now a window is really dangerous because it's the place through which bullets can pass. Shattered glass itself can become, like, shards that are dangerous and wound you. And you write, (reading) a window had become a border through which death was possibly most likely to come.
What made you think about that, about how windows can become really dangerous in a dangerous area?
HAMID: Well, that had to do with a friend of mine who was living in Lahore. And there was a bomb blast not far from his house. And it blew the windows in. And, you know, his wife was asleep, and the glass flew over the bed, hit the wall and sort of fell down onto her. So she woke - you know, she woke to the blast and to this sort of glass falling on her. But had she been standing, she would likely have been very badly lacerated. And in that realization, you know, we think of a bomb blast as being something that kills people right nearby.
But the truth is a pressure wave does very strange things to glass. And my architect friends, many of my friends in Lahore actually are architects, you know, they would often say things like, well, if it was invented today, the glass window wouldn't be allowed in any structure. It's just not safe. So I guess you could say that one is brushed up against the reality of that in Pakistan. And there are many people in public places that install blast-resistant film on glass windows to make them safer.
GROSS: Do you worry about the glass in your children's bedrooms?
HAMID: Yeah. I mean, I, you know, do think about those things but try not to think about them too often. There's - every parent, wherever you live in the world, there are fears that we have for our children. What happens when we drop them off to school? What happens, you know, when they're making their way home? What happens when we're not with them? And this particular fear that you've mentioned is part of that. And in a way, every parent is sort of dependent on the benevolence of the society around them to take care of their children.
And we get these reminders that maybe it isn't as benevolent as we'd like. But we're sort of helpless in the face of that. And that's, for me, a call to engage and to be sort of politically active because society requires each of us to intervene. It won't just be the way we want it to be.
GROSS: So one more question. How do you deal with anxiety?
HAMID: I think that we live in a world - and this is something which living in Pakistan, perhaps, has taught me - and, you know, we live in a world where there is a constant feed from social media, the news, et cetera, of things that can scare us.
HAMID: And we become so anxious because human beings are meant - are designed to be sensitized to dangerous stuff. You know, you get a bad review as a writer, you remember it for 10 years. You get a hundred good reviews, you forget them all. You say hello to a hundred people in the city and it doesn't mean anything to you. One racist comment passes by, and it sticks with you a decade.
We keep the negative stuff because it's the negative stuff that's going to, you know, potentially kill us. That fin in the water - maybe it is a shark. That yellow thing behind the tree - maybe it is a lion. You need to be scared. But contemporary culture in Pakistan, just like in America, is continuously hitting us with scary stuff. And so we are utterly anxious. I think that it's very important to resist that anxiety, to think of ways of resisting the constant inflow of negative feelings, not to become depoliticized as a result but to actually work actively to bring into being an optimistic future.
And for me, writing books and being, you know, someone who's politically active is part of that. I don't want to be anxious on my day-to-day life. I want to try to imagine a future I'd like to live in and then write books and do things that, in my own small way, make it more likely that that future will come to exist.
GROSS: I wish you success with that. Thank you so much for talking with us.
HAMID: Thank you, Terry.
BIANCULLI: Mohsin Hamid speaking to Terry Gross in March 2017. His novel, "Exit West," is now out in paperback. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new CD release of a 1975 recording of a concert by Charles Mingus. This is FRESH AIR.
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