Exit West and Focusing on the Why of Immigration

The story Exit West by Mohsin Hamid helps imagine a reality where the how of migration is not the focal point of immigration but instead something that just happens, something where anyone could walk through a door and instantly be in a new country. This idea Hamid constructs his book around, these passages being reduced to walking through a door, helps to focus on what was happening that made it necessary for someone to leave their homes in the first place. That idea he invokes helps to restore humanity into these characters while reading, in contrast of the real world where stories of immigration focus on the how instead of the why, stripping humanity away from the people who partake in this journey. Often, this dehumanizing makes it easy to alienate but Hamid challenges that idea throughout the whole book and through his characters of Saeed and Nadia. As Saeed and Nadia go through change with each journey they take through the doorways, we see that migration is normal and identities can alter as a result. Though it is easy to other when looking at the journey of someone else, one you may not be able to relate to, we are all migrators as the world and people around us shift and change as well.

Exit West and Don’t Turn Back

In the novel Exit West, Mohsin Hamid writes a beautiful story regarding the migrant experience. The aspect of the story that struck me the most, however, was the emphasis on time and, more specifically, how to deal with the past. Throughout the novel, Saeed and Nadia frequently move from one place to the next, often in horrible conditions. Yet, despite all odds, they are able to move on and start their own lives without getting caught up in the past. I believe this is because they take the following approach: accept the past for what it is, value the aspects of it that deserve to be valued, and acknowledge that the past cannot be changed so it is best not to hurt yourself worrying over it.

The first significant move was Saeed and Nadia moving from their home country. That was a huge decision to make, especially for Saeed. They both had to leave behind their homes in which they had spent and dedicated their whole lives. Saeed even left his father, who had refused to go with them. They were able to cope with this traumatic departure by understanding that they had no choice but to leave, and still value the time they had in the country. Specifically for Saeed, he maintained his religious practice of prayer that was taught to him by his family, which allowed him to feel connected to his home even if it was in the past.

In my opinion, the novel’s most significant life development was Saaed and Nadia moving away from each other. I, being a rather nostalgic person, had trouble understanding how two people who cared for each other and went through so much together could possibly let go of each other. I realized, upon reflection, that if Saeed and Nadia had tried to cling to the past and stay together, it would have only been harmful. Splitting up was by no means easy for them, but it was the best for each of them so they could develop as a person and move on with their life.

I learned that, although there is value to the past, you can’t expect to live in the past and still successfully move on into your future. The more time you spend looking back at the events of your past unnecessarily, the more time you waste in which you could be growing as a person.

Exit West and the End of Borders

Mohsin Hamid’s novel Exit West tells a story about our world if random doors became portals to other random locations on Earth. People in the novel begin using the doors to escape their own countries in fear of war, poverty, or various other real-world issues that people emigrate from. First world countries such as the United States and England receive an influx of refugees from the portal doors, and respond harshly to this immigration. Efforts are made to forcefully remove the migrants from their shelters, and nativist militias organize and begin attacking the migrants. However, shortly after the conflict escalates to violence, it ends as neither side wished to cause any bloodshed, or do evil things. The world governments organized the construction of new cities specifically designed for the new presence of migrants.

This idea of borders disappearing is something I have thought about before. We are currently in an age of increased global connection, and especially with the creation of the internet and instant international messaging, the separation between nations is gradually decreasing. Immigration has also increased, and many nations are becoming more diverse. But global connection is not without hindrance. Events like rising nationalism in the US and the European reactions to refugees from the Middle East cast doubt on the possibility of a world without borders. I personally believe that too many people are rooted into their nationalist beliefs of their countries, and that if a scenario similar to the one presented in Exit West were to occur in reality, there would not be a peaceful conclusion to the conflict. Sadly, I think humanity has a far way to go before a border-less world can be accepted by many.

Big Trouble in Little China’s Complicated Relationship With Orientalism

On the surface level, Big Trouble in Little China (1986) is just another American martial arts movie. It stars a white protagonist who enters a mysterious oriental world, and is chalk full of Fu Manchu caricatures and other stereotypes evoking the East-Asian mysticism trope that plagues Hollywood. However, what sets Big Trouble apart – and elevates it to the status of cult classic – is the unique way its protagonist operates in the story.

The film’s IMDb summary would have you believe that Big Trouble stars Kurt Russel as the lead and a Chinese-American actor named Dennis Dunn as his sidekick. Upon watching the movie, you’ll find that it’s the other way around. While Russel’s Jack Burton may begin the film as the focal character, it quickly becomes clear that he isn’t meant to be the typical white savior character who inexplicably masters the ancient ways of a foreign culture immediately upon entering it. No, Burton is a buffoon who bumbles his way through the movie and [mild spoilers] even spends most of the climax unconscious after accidentally dropping a rock on his own head. Meanwhile, Dunn’s Wang Chi and the other Asian-American members of the cast take on the threat they, as residents of “Little China” (a fictionalized version of San Francisco’s Chinatown), are actually equipped to handle. So instead of being a story about a white man saving a foreign culture, it’s a story about people saving their own culture.

All that being said, the movie does use an excessive amount of oriental tropes. While you could argue that it does so in a tongue in cheek manner, it’s still perpetuating harmful stereotypes. Whether the positive elements outweigh those negatives is up to the viewer. Personally (and obviously I am in no way an authority when it comes to Asian-American representation), I find Big Trouble to be a refreshing subversion of the white savior narrative, and altogether a pretty fun movie.

The Takeaway from Exit West

In the novel, “Exit West,” by Mohsin Hamid, the novel posits that people immigrate to other countries to find better opportunities. Early in the novel, the people who go through the door follow the narrative of refugees in search of safety. As we see with Nadia and Saeed, life in their hometown becomes dangerous, without freedom, privacy, or financial opportunities. Furthermore, Exit West questions what it means to belong somewhere and suggests that country of origin only plays a small role in a rapidly globalizing world. Nadia has never felt a sense of “home” when being in her country. This embodies this philosophy in her ability to find friends in all the places she travels. She doesn’t value nationality because she associates her home country with the representation of her childhood. On the other hand, Saeed stays close to people from his country.

Migration In Exit West

Exit West showcases that characters have the freedom to migrate almost instantly through doors. Resulting in characters doing so in search of new possibility or to escape the dangers of where they were previously. When Saeed and Nadia migrate they leave their lives they had before and use migration as an opportunity for change. Most would depict migration as an interval between departures and arrivals but Hamid depicts it as a condition of living in the world. Hamid shows us that migration is a normal aspect of life and that identity can fluctuate because of this. He displays this through both Saeed and Nadia, when they go through change in each of the places they visit through the doors. In the end, most would view migration as the struggle that one goes through, but Hamid changes that view and turns it into something positive. Where characters who do migrate mainly experience positive outcomes.

Exit West: Why Magical Realism?

Exit West is a novel full of complexities and commentary on migration, relationships, death, war, loss, and the evolutions of our identities over time. What one has to wonder, amid all these layers, is why Hamid chose magical realism as the framework through which to tell this story. Arguably, he could have written a realistic fiction novel that could tell a distinctly similar narrative–or at least communicate the same themes–without the use of magical doors.

I would claim, however, that magical realism is a critical part of Hamid’s story. Through the clearly fantastical element of the doors, Hamid creates a world that is just removed enough from our reality for him to comment on modern society while maintaining a certain distance from it. It’s not hard to draw connections between Saeed and Nadia’s story and real-world debates around immigration, international tensions, racism, and xenophobia. Hamid does not try to hide those themes, but he also doesn’t comment on them directly. He creates this world that is almost ours, but with the distinct difference of the doors, in order to explore these ideas in a more theoretical context. Exit West is the story of our world, if something were to happen tomorrow that destroyed our notion of nations and borders as we know them. That theoretical gives Hamid room to explore vast societal issues without directly commenting on any current events. It allows him to create a vividly relevant novel without referencing any specific real-world events, which both makes his commentary more powerful–as it can stand on its own, without the need for outside context–and helps the reader maintain a Nabokov-style impersonal imagination throughout the story.