Compelled to leave their unnamed home city because militants have taken it over, lovers Saeed and Nadia leave his father behind and escape via mysterious black doors that have begun to transport people across the world. Exit West (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99) is an otherwise realist novel from the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist that explores migration, communication and identity.
I don’t know where you are in the world as I’m phoning you – it’s almost like a strand from Exit West, with the idea of separation but interconnectedness.
In a sense the novel is a novel of the digital world. These doors that open up in the novel, they are not congruent with our understanding of physics but in another sense they already exist – you and I are speaking now through a very small door, a magical rectangle that allows people in different places to speak. So yes, we do now live in this interconnected world and the notion of what place is and how we move between places is changing.
The locations in the US, Australia and Japan are given specific names but the city that Nadia and Saeed live in is nameless – although I think it’s Lahore. What did that contrast between the two allow you to do in the novel?
I wanted to open up a starting point so that anyone could imagine this happening in their home city or at least a place they have been to. Also, I just didn’t have the heart to do to Lahore, where I live, what happens to Saeed and Nadia in the city where they live. There are so many narratives about the downtrodden of Pakistan and how Pakistan is on the verge of collapse. But I didn’t really want to contribute to that kind of narrative so I intentionally didn’t write a novel about the collapse of Pakistan to the Taliban.
Saeed and Nadia are more wholesome than the characters in Moth Smoke, your first novel. Were you trying to explore a different kind of morality in Exit West?
Yeah, I guess so. When I wrote Moth Smoke I was a younger person and it seemed to me the more charged, interesting journey was to explore unwholesome characters and a society that falsely exists upon wholesomeness. But in our world today, which is so consumed by unwholesomeness, I’m more interested in what are the possibilities open for human beings to remain at least partly wholesome, in the face of the horrific world in which we live.
When you’re young the bad boy character is the easiest one to write or imagine being because it’s something that young people so naturally gravitate towards being and doing. But as I get older my sense of people who I have something in common with gets bigger. There might be people who are completely on the opposite side of the political spectrum but they too may have children and so therefore there’s a way into them because I’m a parent, and I can find a way into characters like that.
The depiction of the vibrancy and the diversity of the unnamed city, right down to the characters taking magic mushrooms, might surprise some westerners. Do you think conversely depictions of the West might surprise South Asian readers of the novel?
They might but at the moment there is so much cultural output that moves east from the West that there are fewer surprises out there. Of course there will be some surprises – some people in Pakistan maybe know very little about America but they encounter lots and lots of American films and TV shows and music and cultural representations, whereas I think people in Britain or America encounter much less from Lahore, for example.
But one thing that is happening is the emergence of these large megacities – 10, 15, 20 million people – in places like Pakistan or Nigeria or India. Inside these urban environments a new kind of modernity is coming into existence, which isn’t like what I think lots of people imagine Pakistan or Nigeria or India to be like. In many ways might have a much more in common with Glasgow or Birmingham than people are used to. I’ll give you an example. The other day this young guy who repairs my cable connection was over and I was talking to him about his work and what he wanted to do with life. He was saying that it was getting tough, that the cable company was outsourcing its repair jobs, that as a freelancer his pay would be much less and if he could find a way to move to another city, maybe Dubai, that would be amazing. I don’t think his reality is anywhere near as far removed from his colleagues, his co-cable repair man in Britain, than from someone who was a farmer in the Pakistani countryside.
Is migration the most important theme in literature nowadays?
Yes, in two ways. I think migration is the fundamental state of being a human being. Everybody is migrating. We migrate across geography, many of us, but all of us migrate through time. For a 70-year-old person who’s never left their city their whole life, that person is migrating, because their school has gone, their childhood friends have dispersed, the park where they used to play has become a cinema. Their neighbours have changed. They’re living in another country even though they haven’t moved.
The universal experience of migration is actually something that can unite us if we stop to reflect on it. And in a sense those people who voted for Brexit in the UK, they are also migrants. They’ve watched their country change and evolve and they too feel a sense of migration, so one thing I’m keen on exploring is to what extent this shared sense of migration can unite us instead of dividing us, as it tends to do at the moment.
And the other point is, when you talk about migration, I suspect we’re going to see lots more of it. When you look at certain geographies from which the work, the jobs have left, there’s economic blight, these people, many of them, will have to leave. They might move within the country, they might move to other countries… We limit ourselves at the present moment if we assign to some people the status of migrants and others not. We are all potential migrants.
Someone called your book the first post-Brexit novel, which seems a bit of an Anglocentric view, but the vision it conjures up of Britain, although disturbing, doesn’t seem entirely far-fetched. When did you conceive the novel?
The final draft was handed in before the referendum, late last spring. If I was a British citizen I would have voted against Brexit. But if you’d asked me at the time is it likely to happen I’d have been almost completely certain that it wasn’t. And if you’d asked me at the time is Donald Trump likely to be next president of the USA I’d have said no way. So I would have been completely wrong – I wouldn’t have been prescient in the least. But the impulses for those things have been evident for a long, long time. And it was those impulses I was responding to in the novel, more so than the actual events that then occurred.
Did you have to work at making the black doors work in the novel or did they fit in naturally?
In a strange way the novel began with the doors. I was having a conversation like this, or maybe on Skype, and it felt almost like I was looking through a window and had been travelling. Or you go on social networks and you drift into the past or other places. I felt myself surrounded by portals. I had a sense that we live in a world with doors but also that there was enormous pressure building behind those doors and that gave rise to the novel. It wouldn’t have been possible to write this particular novel without the doors – it compresses the next century or two of migration into a year.
And also it’s a novel that talks about the experience of before we move and after we’ve moved to a place – the normal focus of these types of stories is how we got from place A to place B. The drama is about crossing the straits in a small boat that could sink and drown all its passengers and of course that’s horrific but that’s a tiny moment in people’s lives. The majority of their lives is what led you to leave that place where all your loved ones are and what happens to you when you get to the new places. I wanted to focus on those things.
There’s a love story at the heart of this novel, with all the tumult around Saeed and Nadia. How optimistic for the future are you?
I’m often deeply depressed, very worried and sad and frightened and that’s why I wrote this book – because I feel like we are in a global state of depression. It’s become so difficult to imagine the kind of future that we’d like to live in that’s likely to happen. That’s a very weird situation for the human species to be living in. It makes many of us depressed. The one thing the imagination allows us to do is to be somewhere else, explore different places. So my novel is a response to my sense of depression to these issues, and collectively we all need to start imagining different kinds of futures. This is why we have stories – it’s part of being human.
Photo: Jillian Edelstein