Time after Time after Time and Again

The novel Beloved is a story of an escaped slave and her new twisted reality that is weaved into her even more twisted past. The story of Sethe and her family connects very well to the song Time after Time by Cyndi Lauper.

Time after Time begins with the lyrics:

“Lying in my bed, I hear the clock tick and think of you
Caught up in circles
Confusion is nothing new
Flashback, warm nights
Almost left behind
Suitcase of memories”

Beloved is written in a very interesting and intricate way where different perspectives from the past and present are used to complete a story. The novel goes, quite literally, back and forth between the past and the present which smoothly bridges to Lauper’s song. The part in the first verse which says “suitcase of memories” especially connects to Paul D’s tin box which held his memories.

The second verse stated,

“Sometimes you picture me
I’m walking too far ahead
You’re calling to me, I can’t hear
What you’ve said
Then you say, “go slow”
And I fall behind
The second hand unwinds”

That part strongly reminded me of when Beloved recalled when Sethe left her alone on what we think is the slave ship. The verse obviously differs from the actual event Beloved remembered but it ties into the loneliness and the feeling of being abandoned.

Although the connection is very simple, the theme of the song surrounds the topics of past, present, and love. All of those things are largely important in Beloved as well.

Do Ghosts Have a Place in History?

Often, when we look for historical fiction books, we look for stories that seem real. We look for stories that make the past seem vivid and tangible.

I didn’t expect to find this in Beloved. One of the most important elements of Morrison’s novel is Beloved, a ghostly presence who haunts Sethe as a constant reminder of the horrors of slavery. I don’t believe in ghosts, and so I thought that the intangible Beloved would serve as a distraction of the real-life horrors the book touches on.

But Beloved is part of Sethe’s story. By writing about Beloved, Morrison managed to write about Sethe as a person, rather than just writing about her experiences. And in writing about a person, Morrison was able to describe the haunting impacts of those experiences.

Toni Morrison story was one with depth. It doesn’t just help us to understand history — it creates empathy.

Tiny Tobacco Box

One of my favorite examples of figurative language used in the novel is when Paul D describes his heart as a “tin tobacco box.” After his traumatizing experiences at Sweet Home and, especially, at the prison camp in Georgia, he locks away his feelings and horrors from his past in this box, which, by the time Paul D arrives at 124, “rusted” over completely.

This is a comment on trauma. This way of dealing with trauma is so different then how Sethe deals with trauma. I thought it was so interesting that Paul D has to completely cut off his past whereas Sethe can’t seem to escape her own past. I thought the metaphor of a box rusted over was a very thought out way to express Paul D’s emotions.

By hiding from his emotions, Paul D hopes to preserve himself from further psychological damage. Paul D sacrifices much of his humanity by letting go of his feelings and gives up much of his self by repressing his memories.

Trauma is unique for every person even when they share some similar situations. Toni Morrison does a wonderful job of representing how trauma is a completely personal experience.

What Is Migration?

Exit West showed us a world where people are migrating by the masses. They are moving across the world by literally stepping through a door. Exit West has showed us the struggle of immigration without the journey of immigration. Many who are not so keen on immigration, or specifically illegal immigration, gain more empathy when they put the journey of the immigrants into consideration, but this story has showed a different side. Exit West has showed the commonality between multitudes of people. That even without the long journey of migration, it is still incredibly hard to move through change and leave life as you know, or to witness others move while one seemingly stays stagnant. Exist West has showed its audience that there is truly not such thing as stagnation or true stability.

Exit West has stories of those that physically moved continuously like Nadia and Saeed and stories of those that did not move at all like the elderly man in Amsterdam, or the older woman in Palo Alto. At first glance, it seems like one is moving while the other is not, but the truth is quite the opposite. The elderly man in Amsterdam was a witness to many components in life migrating or changing: his lover leaving, his father dying, the gain of a new love, while he still remained constant in other ways. He stayed in the same place, never stopped smoking cigarettes, he never stopped hanging out on his balcony. In Saeed’s case, it seemed that everything changed. He lost both of his parents, moved into the western world, and watched his relationship with Nadia deteriorate. But he also had things he clung onto that added stability into his life. He prayed, went to sleep next to Nadia every night, and he worked.

I believe the true thesis of Exit West is best said in the quote from the elderly woman in Palo Alto. She said, “… everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time.” Mohsin Hamid beautifully detailed that we are far more similar than we think, although our differences are still prime parts our identities as well. But if we see ourselves in the migrants we hear of everyday and keep in mind our own migrations, although they may not be as intense or life altering, then we would be so much closer to universal understanding.

Schrodinger’s Jew: Exit West and Jewish Migration

I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating exactly how Jewish I am. I promise, I am bringing this up for a reason.

I contemplate how Jewish I am because it’s not exactly a clear cut answer, as it it for most people. My mother is Catholic and my father is Jewish, so I would be 50% Jewish, right? Except Judaism traditionally is passed down through the mother’s line. So I’m 0% Jewish. Except that alongside Christmas and Easter, my family celebrates Hanukkah and Passover. My last name is very Jewish; it roughly means “date branch” in Hebrew. The vast majority of my family migrated to the United States long before the Holocaust, but not all. I will never know who those distant relatives were, or if I would have ever gotten the chance to meet them. They would have been so, so distant, but I still wonder.

My family, both sides of it, is frequently obsessed with genealogy. We can trace my mother’s family all the way back to the United Kingdom and Ireland. In fact, a fun anecdote I was told as a child is that not only were my ancestors on the Mayflower, my great-great-great-however-many-greats grandfather fell off the Mayflower and had to be rescued. With my father’s side, however, it’s not so easy.

We can trace my father’s family back decently far for a Jewish family. Inevitably though, as many Jewish families do, we end up hitting a dead end: we simply have no idea what country we are actually from. Not only that, those places we would be from have changed throughout the years. Depending on when you look, I could be Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, or Latvian. With my mother’s side, we know most of my relatives were from Scotland and Ireland. We can trace exactly where they were and where they went. With my father’s side, however, all I know is that I am vaguely Eastern European. That’s it. I have no more information.

Towards the end of Exit West, friction between Saeed and Nadia starts up as to exactly how much they want to stay connected to their homeland. As Nadia becomes more and more separated, Saeed in turn yearns for connection with other Middle Eastern migrants. This friction is a part of their inevitable conclusion, which I won’t say because we’re not supposed to have finished the book yet. Despite their different reactions to migration, however, one thing is clear: their home is not their home anymore, no matter how much they may or may not want it to be.

I never got to choose how much I wanted to connect with my roots. I wear green for St. Patrick’s Day. My parents went and visited the place in Scotland my mother’s family comes from. I even chose a Celtic name for myself. But I don’t get those same things on my father’s side.

For all it matters, I’m a practicing Unitarian Universalist who is an active and passionate member of Unity Temple’s youth group. UUism is neither Christian nor Jewish; indeed, it was chosen by my family because it is a religion where my parents can still exist in the faiths of their childhood while still attending the same church.

I don’t know how Jewish I am. I’m not even sure it’s my decision to make. I’m stuck in a strange limbo between Jew and goy. I’m both and neither at the same time. I’m less Jewish than my Jewish friends, but more Jewish than my friends of other faiths. I’m not not Jewish, but what does that really do for me? At the end of the day, though, it’s not really a question of how Jewish I am. It’s about this sense of home that I don’t get to have. It’s about the fact that I more-or-less get to choose whether I am affected by anti-Semitism. It’s about me playing three-way tug-of-war with religion while not believing in a God. I can see it Saeed and I can see it in Nadia, being pulled every which way, not knowing which direction is right for you, endlessly straining to stay in the middle and always, always failing.

The Love Formula

The film Trust written and directed by Hal Hartley portrays the romance between two troubled misfits who feel disowned by their parents. 

Maria, who is pregnant and a high school dropout, supposedly kills her father because of disgust and disappointment. But in reality, he died of heart failure. Her mother immediately disowns her, forcing her to move out of the house. While Maria wanders town looking for a place to stay, she comes across Mathew, an educated and moody electronics repairman. 

They develop a strong connection to each other in which they are accepting and understanding of one another. They understand the hardships one another faces as they continue to live with their insulting parents.

Throughout the film, Maria and Mathew build a sense of mutual admiration and trust. When Mathew asks her to marry him, Maria constructs a formula: respect + admiration + trust = love

I believe that this formula represents their relationship because they are essential factors in what makes them happy. In addition, I think that Maria and Mathew’s relationship solves the problems they face because it allows them to comfort each other. Maria helps Mathew stay sane as he struggles to keep the same job for a long period of time. Mathew cares for Maria by making her feel loved. He helped her become more confident in wearing her glasses, which ultimately allowed Maria to accept herself. Both Maria’s mother and Mathew’s father are emotionally abusive, and Mathew’s father is physically abusive too. By getting married, they have the opportunity to start a new life without any constraints such as their parents.

Where in the World Are Nadia and Saeed?

When I began to read Exit West, I wondered about the setting of the book, as it is never stated. It clearly is our world, or at least an alternate version of it, because there are references to places such as Australia, Japan, and the United States. However, the city that the two main characters, Nadia and Saeed, call home is never named, nor is their country or even general region of the world. Although it is never specified what religion the characters practice or what is predominant where they live, as I read I began to assume they live in a majority-Muslim area, primarily because their names can be Arabic in origin and because they reference evening prayers and Friday religious services (someone please correct me if I’m wrong, because I’m not Muslim, but I believe traditionally Muslims pray multiple times per day and observe the sabbath on Fridays). However, I wondered why the author, Mohsin Hamid, chose not to specify what place that might be. Obviously, it was a very deliberate choice and a very noticeable one. 

In a video we watched in class, Hamid mentioned that Nadia and Saeed’s city is based off his home city of Lahore, Pakistan, but that the situation that is occurring there is more based on the situations occurring in certain places in Syria, such as Aleppo. This made me wonder why he didn’t just set the book in Aleppo. It does not seem like it would cause any major plot issues if he adjusted the events in the book to be historically accurate to what has been occurring there over the past few years. However, this may just be my ignorance; it is possible that things have occurred in Aleppo that I don’t know about and that would have been impossible to include in the book. 

But since I didn’t know for certain that Exit West’s plot required it to not be set in a specific city, I began to wonder about other motives Hamid might have had for leaving its setting unnamed. So I looked online, and found that Exit West was first published in Great Britain and the United States, not Pakistan. This made me wonder—was Exit West meant to provide a view of migration that was palatable to a Western audience? By this I mean, did Hamid purposefully avoid giving the characters in his novel a nationality so that all readers, but especially people in Great Britain and the United States who would make up the majority of his readership, would be able to better identify with them? And if he did this, was that the right choice?

Watching the clip of Hamid’s talk that we did in class, I saw clearly that a major goal of his was to humanize and “de-other” refugees. He said this was why he decided to include magical doors that his characters travelled through to a different place in the world rather than having them undergo a long and arduous journey to get there: he wanted to focus more on what made them the same as non-refugee readers rather than on what made them different, and a dangerous journey would have made them different as it is something many people who have never been refugees could never imagine experiencing. 

I realized the same logic would apply to not giving his characters a nationality or religion. Making them say, Syrian, or even mentioning outright that they are Muslim would put up another divide between them and Western or non-Muslim readers, make those readers come in with all kinds of preconceived notions and even more of a reason to say “Those characters are not like me at all.”

However, I question Hamid’s decision to leave the nationality and religion of Nadia and Saeed ambiguous. While I understand the appeal of making them more relatable to Western and non-Muslim readers, I wonder if by not giving them a clear nationality or religion, Hamid fails to challenge those readers’ tendencies to “other” and refuse to relate to Muslims and people from places such as Syria. In my opinion, Nadia and Saeed are extremely likeable characters. I mean, Nadia is a total queen. She’s a strong, independent woman who is surviving on her own against all the odds. And Saeed is sweet and charming; he’s a respectable family man and always a perfect gentleman toward Nadia. I, and I imagine other readers as well, immediately feel attached to them and root for them just because of their personalities. If Hamid were to make them from an actual place, such as Syria, I believe it would have a powerful impact and lead Western readers to better humanize people from that place rather than pitying or fearing them. And I believe if he specifically mentioned they were Muslim rather than just hinting at it, it would have the same effect: non-Muslim readers would grow in empathy for Muslims.

However, by leaving their nationality and religion ambiguous, Hamid does not challenge Western and non-Muslim readers to put aside their preconceived notions. Readers get comfortable with Nadia and Saeed because they, by nature of the fact that those characters are not stated to be from any particular country or religious group, do not connect too closely to our world. My fear is that Western and non-Muslim readers’ comfort with Nadia and Saeed might not translate to real people from real places, because Nadia and Saeed are simply not real enough without a real country or religious group to be from. Therefore, Exit West might not go far enough to challenge xenophobia and Islamophobia. 

What do you think? Why do you think Hamid chose to leave Nadia and Saeed’s nationality and religion ambiguous, and how does that impact the story he’s telling? Or, am I just dumb and there’s a really obvious plot reason that I’m missing for why Exit West is not set in a specific place? If the last one is the case, someone please let me know!