Dissent

In looking over recent blog posts, it seems like there are a lot of people arguing about the broader messages of Exit West and ideas it brings up. In fact, by my count there are at least 17 posts in the last few weeks who’s title includes some form of the word “other,” a word that, somewhat amusingly, appears in the actual book only 5 times. In light of this, I think it might be worthwhile to examine the book on it’s own merits — independent of broader societal or social ideas that might contextualize it. The question I intend to tackle is this; as a work of art, as a piece of fiction, is Exit West “good?”

As a prerequisite to tackling this question, I must establish a criteria by which to measure the novel’s “goodness.” While there are certainly a variety of ways to conduct such a measurement, I will use Nabokov’s standard for a good writer laid out in Good Readers and Good Writers for two reasons. First, it is a standard with which I personally agree and already has substantial arguments in its favor laid out by Nabokov in the actual essay. Second, it is the standard we established in class at the beginning of the year. The rest of this post will focus entirely on my interpretation of Nabokov’s standards and weather or not Exit West aligns with them; if you disagree with those a-priori standards then I suggest you stop reading now.

So, what does Nabokov demand of a good writer? For clarity’s sake, I will follow the chronological order of Nabokov’s work in outlining each standard. The first such standard for good writing appears at the beginning of the 4th paragraph of Nabokov’s essay but is most poetically summarized near the end of that paragraph; “The material of this world may be real enough (as far as reality goes) but does not exist at all as an accepted entirety: it is chaos, and to this chaos the author says “go!” allowing the world to flicker and to fuse. It is now recombined in its very atoms, not merely in its visible and superficial parts.” Nabokov is arguing that a good writer does not simply take the world as it exists and modify it or mold it to illustrate a point; a good writer, through the artistic process, completely reconceptualizes the meaning of the universe and uses the novel as a lens to provide insight into that new world.

So, where does Exit West fall in all of this? Well, the most notable “recombination” in the world of the novel — one which generally mirrors ours — is the inclusion of doors between different parts of the world. And what is the relevance of these doors from a literary perspective? Hamid answers this question directly during a book talk in 2017, explaining how “the doors in a way allowed me to focus on the sorrow of the departure and also the radical change that happens in a new place, while not having to spend so much time on how we get from place to place. Because so often we think of migrants and we think of refugees and we think how did they cross the Rio Grande…so different from me” (13:50). This is a tacit if not explicit admissions that the doors as a world-building tool serve a particular message based purpose. They allow Hamid to focus less on some details of our reality and more on others in service of making a particular political point about the world around us. This goes directly against the Nabokovian ethos of creating a new world, because Nabokov’s conception of writing is one of pure art — an expression of aesthetic mastery that might have political implications but transcends them in particularity. Hamid’s message, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of “ornamentation of the commonplace” Nabokov describes — a tool to serve a purpose.

In paragraph 9 of his essay, Nabokov brings up another trait of food writing: the ability to evoke an order of imagination deeper then the reader simply “relating” to a character or feeling a connection to one. Nabokov contrasts this lower level of imagination with a model of “impersonal imagination and artistic delight” where the reader maintains a level of “aloofness” and enjoys the “inner weave” of a masterpiece. While there are many respectable things about Hamid’s literary skill and “inner weave” in Exit West, any interpretation that is faithful to the true construction of the novel — explicitly outlined by the author — must utilize the first, lower order of imagination. Hamid does not attempt to hide that this is a novel about migration, explicitly saying this in countless interviews and going to great lengths throughout the novel to demonstrate it (I won’t go much further into examples in the novel here but suffice it to say the name of the novel alone is a strong indication). The ability to understand migration in a different way, to, as a non-migrant reader, attempt to understand migration at all is inherently an empathetic one because only through empathy can the experience provide political impetus. Put another way, ask yourself this; would the message of the novel be nearly as meaningful if you weren’t able to “see the world” through Nadia and/or Saeed’s eyes? Would the book be so impactful in uprooting common western notions of migrants if you couldn’t see the world through Nadia and/or Saeed’s eyes? Can you even coherently read the novel without seeing the world through Nadia and/or Saeed’s eyes? Hamid’s explicit political message forces the reader to use an empathetic level of imagination that falls exactly into the literary pattern Nabokov critiques.

Though distinct, both the points I made above draw from a common well: because Hamid’s message is trying to serve a political point, it undermines the work as an independent artistic endeavor. This is not to say that works that make a political point are all necessarily bad. Indeed, as the son of migrants, I happen to agree with the political point Hamid is making and think he makes this point effectively and eloquently. Many people enjoy fiction with a political message, and feel it helps them better understand the world. And even Charles Dickens himself, one of the author’s cited by Nabokov in his essay, was a strong believer in ethical and political fiction, using his works to draw attention to some of the social and economic problems of British urban life. But in Nabokov’s view, the effectiveness and eloquence of the political message behind a novel is distinct from the “goodness” of the work artistically, as demonstrated by the boy who cried wolf example he gives near the end of his essay. Nabokov reasons that the lesson of the boy who cried wolf story — the fact that the boy was eaten — is “quite incidental.” Instead, this is what he says is important: “Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.” Hamid’s novel, while effective in making a point about migration, is an embrace of the “moral,” the “lesson” of the story, be it about migration literally or other concepts that interact with it, like, as many of my classmates have observed, western notions of “the other.” And as Nabokov points out, this comes at the cost of the novel as a work of art.

Exiting “Exit West”

There are many important takeaways that come from “Exit West.” The prevalence the novel has on modern day situations is immense. Understating what life is like for people in other countries is a necessary element of life. Empathy is built through understanding. I really enjoyed reading the book, largely because of its non-fiction components and real life scenarios. While initially I was unsure how I felt about the idea of “doors” due to their unrealistic powers, in the end I realized that they were needed to tell the story. At times the long sentences were difficult to consume, but as the book progressed it became easier. Unlike my summer reading book, I did not find a single typo which is impressive considering I am always on the hunt.

One thing I would have liked to see was more detail on the life of Saeed and Nadia after they separated. The last chapter jumped many years and left a lot out. It would have been fascinating to know what they were up to. I enjoyed seeing the progression of the relationship between Saeed and Nadia grow as the book progressed. I expected the book to end with them happily together, but it does not seem like that was the case. I was fascinated by the unrelated stories that were thrown into the book as well. Initially, I though the stories would connect with the events in the novel. I am unsure as to the purpose they served. Overall, “Exit West” is one of the most enjoyable books I have read during my time at OPRF.

Exit.Inc

While reading Exit West, there was some familiarity with the story. But, I could not pinpoint what it was. Until I read this, “…But approached the door, and drawing close she was struck by its darkness, its opacity, the way that it did not reveal what was on the other side, and also did not reflect what was on this side, and so felt equally like a beginning and an end” (103). Suddenly, I figured it out. The movie Monsters Inc., I couldn’t stop thinking about how the doors in the movie led to new places and new opportunities. I also compared the movie to when the militants from Nadia and Saeed’s country came to attack migrants in Vienna, I thought of the monsters trying to scare the kids. While this could be a pure conscience, I’m curious if Mohsin Hamid was inspired by the childhood classic. What are your thoughts?

The Myth of The Other: An American Tradition

From its earliest stirrings to the present day, The United States has continued to construct itself on the foundation of maliciously mythologized others. The first writers of the American story saw fit to demonize the “Indians,” painting them as savages and uncivilized, conveniently lending settlers the right to take their land. Today, not much has changed. Now the other is in the Middle East, labeled a terrorist in a third world country, and just as conveniently paves the way for America to take their oil.

It is obvious that these stories are born out of greed. A greed that begs for moral justifications. But how does a country create a myth of the other? The ingredients are age old.

The first ingredient is fear. This fear can come in many forms, usually entailing some kind of loss. Loss of culture, loss of stability, loss of jobs. Other times, it comes as the fear of violence. Ironically, slave holders used their fear of slaves to justify their slavery, and yet this group of “others” were the foundation of the southern economy. In the lead up to the Iraq War, this same fear of violence, or nonexistent WMD’s, was used to manipulate the public into supporting an unjust and catastrophic disaster.

The second ingredient is nationalism. This is purely an extension of tribalism, and is just as small-minded. A group bound together by a common fear will act together out of that common fear. This is why many times political leaders will beat the drums of war to silence opposition and maintain power. American exceptionalism is yet another way of creating an “other.” If America is the best, all other nations are inferior. Comparison creates division, and these divisions can be exploited.

The third and most dangerous ingredient is dehumanization. Historically speaking, The United States has been very skilled at dehumanizing groups of people. The most glaring example is represented in The Three Fifths Compromise. If a population dehumanizes another population, it will readily commit inhumane acts against them, oftentimes ending in genocide. But how does a population dehumanize another? Here rhetoric is key. The media and leading figures paint the “other” as an animal, vermin to be exterminated, or as savages who won’t “properly” develop the land, or cannot look after themselves and must be looked after. Once these ideas are planted, they are hard to uproot.

It is incumbent upon individuals and entities to be able to recognize these trends and stop them. If we are to break these cycles, it will be through strong measures. The media must tell stories of the decency of people we once feared. The American priorities of endless wealth and power must be called into question. We must redefine greatness. Above all, we must treat each other with compassion. If we act on that, we can begin to see our reflections in our “others.”

The Relationship between Nadia and Saeed

When I first started reading the book I really thought that Nadia and Saeed would be married and have a happily ever after. That was before the plot began developing. I think they would of had a chance as a couple but I think that they were trying to survive which put a lot of stress on them as a couple. But as a couple I liked how loyal and caring they were to each other. You could tell that they tried to be there for each other even though they were individually “going through it.” I think that them just staying together and not stepping out on each other helped them get through the rough situation they were in,”and whatever name they gave their bond they each in their own way believed it required them to protect the other, and so neither talked much of drifting apart, not wanting to inflict a fear of abandonment”(203). But toward the end of the book I started seeing that as a couple they would not be the best fit and they started to drift away from each other. I think that them drifting away helped them meet more like minded people. At the end of the book I liked the possibility of them maybe getting back together I thought that gave everyone reading the book a little of a happy ending.

Finding Security

In Exit West, Hamid toys around with the idea of what makes people feel safe, secure. The protagonists of the novel, Saeed and Nadia, find themselves in constantly changing situations. They see their home dissolve into violence and war, they try to seek asylum in western countries, and they have to support themselves when separated from everything they once knew. How can they feel safe?

When in their home country watching it fall apart around them, they find a sense of security in each other. Saeed, Nadia, and Saeed’s father are living together, protecting one another. They developed a close-knit family that trusted each other and depended on each other. This is demonstrated when Saeed’s father asks Nadia to “remain by Saeed’s side until Saeed was out of danger.”(97). In their home, where windows were dangerous and doors were a luxury, they were each others only source of protection and the sentiment of safety.

After immigrating through the doors, Saeed and Nadia are not free of problems. They are faced with racist, xenophobic acts from natives and the constant fear of not knowing what comes next. They are still not safe. Nadia’s method of combating the uncertainty is finding a sense of normalcy. In Marin, she does this by sharing a joint with Saeed, something they shared before they immigrated. Saeed found a safe haven through prayer. He began to pray more often and when he did “he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched…”(202). Praying provided a connection to the people he loved and lost, who also happened to be the same people who made him feel safe. Religion also lead Saeed to find communities where he felt he could belong. In London, he became a part of a house that was inhabited by people from his home country. The familiar food, language, and prayers drew him in. “It made him feel a part of something.” (152). Saeed must have realized how being a part of a religious community made him feel safe, because in Marin, he finds the preacher and quickly became a part of that community.

Hamid understands the importance of security when escaping trauma and how everyone’s needs when it comes to security are different. This is illustrated by Saeed’s praying and his commitment to religious communities and Nadia’s desire to relive the happier memories of their past.

The Dating Game

My opinion on relationships is very similar yet very different to the opinion of the author of Exit West. I feel like relationships are very important yet I feel if they are the relationships you are supposed to have then they will last. I don’t like how Nadia and Saeed kind of fell of at the end of the book and it doesn’t represent how lasting relationships should act. Yes most marriages end in divorce or at least half but maybe those relationships weren’t supposed to be. I’m a big believe in faith and I feel people end up with the person they are supposed to end up with. I agree with the Author and I do believe that a life without relationships isn’t really a life and I personally thrive off of them. I don’t even just mean dating when I say that, I mean friends, family, and dating. People need other people to get through hard times caused by other people. It’s kind of funny how human nature works: we get hurt by humans and lean on humans to get us through that pain. That’s exactly what happens in the story with Nadia and Saeed. I agree with the author that relationships are needed but I don’t like how they ended for Nadia and Saeed.

Progression

Throughout Exit West Nadia and Saeed go through doors to escape, but when they get to the next world they realize their problems haven’t been solved as another replaces it. Additionally as they are running the reader sees the pair start too loosing their connection, as each decisions they makesthem realize they want more or something diffrent. This is especially prevalent in the last door they go throught to get to the California sea side town. They left the house they where in to find each other and be happier but they didn’t realize that they where already being pushes apart as migration and these major life decisions split their relationship in half.

Further this book comes full circle as they start as friends Nadia happy and independent, Saeed curious and happy with his family. Throughout the book as they enter the first 2 doors they learn about being a foreigner and the unrest that can come from the people who see you as freeloaders/invaders of their land. After they realize in London they are un happy they go through the door to California and there Saeed prays multiple times a day, as that is when he feels closest to his parents. As he tries to hold onto the reality he had, and the childhood he once had that has a mother and father. Likewise their realtionship soon turned to a friendship and the war or violence hadn’t come to the town. Their enviornment was someone safe and peaceful such as that of their home town before the fighting. As all the elements of this final town coencide with that of their hometown happiness, as the war had made them scared of loosing one another but in the peace they realized they wanted diffrent things. Nadia needed freedom and she went to live in the supply office at work, and Saeed moved on with another girl who brought out the version of himself that was hopeful and curious.

Throughout this story we see the want to come back to the happiness that came while they where in their hometown. Additionally that the war was the one who brought the couple together and bonded them, and that in freedom they had realized their ideas of freedom and life moving on was diffrent. Thus Tragedy creates a great divide while also bringing diffrent people and cultures together.

The “Global Others” Conundrum

In Exit West, Saeed and Nadia become immigrants, leaving their war-torn country. In other words, they become “global others”. These “global others” are often seen as the unwanted members of society, and many don’t see them as people at all. The irony behind this is that there isn’t much separating them from everyone else. What makes someone a “global other”, as opposed to someone else, is simply where they were born and the conditions they were subjected to. Discriminating against and ostracizing the “global others” is not only harmful to the victims of that treatment, but also to the perpetrators of it. Those that treat “global others” negatively limit their worldview and also set a precedent for how to treat all future “global others, maybe including themselves. Who can say what the next war-torn or hunger stricken nation will be? Who can say who the next “global others” will be?

Not to get political, but with our current President, the next “global others” could have easily been us Americans, the same Americans that make up a nation doing its best to keep “global others” out. If we keep others out when they need help, who is going to let us in when we need help? Many Americans would and have denied this as a possibility, claiming to be a superior nation. They would say that “global others” exist because their nations were poorer (spoiler: the United States owes a lot of money), or that their nations were not as sophisticated as our own. Exit West does a good job of displaying just how incorrect this is throughout the novel. When introducing Nadia’s character, it described her “sitting at her desk at the insurance company, on an afternoon of handling executive auto policy renewals by phone, when she received an instant message from Saeed asking if she would like to meet” (23). Nadia lived a normal life, one that any American woman might live, working a modern-day desk job and texting a crush on her cellphone; she had all the resources and capabilities we would consider important to lead a successful life in the United States, only she was not born in the United States, she was not raised in the United States, and unlike those of us that were born and raised in the United States, she was forced to flee a war zone.

Together as The “Others”

The novel Exit West by Mohsin Hamid highlights the unity that forms among migrants. Hamid emphasizes the fact that it is not each individual migrant against the world, it is all migrants against the world. They form a bond, which is created by having similar struggles and lives that they need to leave behind. As Nadia and Saeed leave his father behind as they travel, it is described as, “When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind” (98). This is not a common occurrence, it is something tragic that connects those who can relate to it. Migrants leave their home, their family, their entire past life and often can never return.

Due to this connection through trauma, it is shown throughout the novel that migrants stick together and fight for each other. One example of this is when the police showed up to the house Nadia and Saeed were staying at with other migrants. The police asked them to leave the house until “Other people gathered on the street, other dark- and medium- and even light-skinned people” (128). These people bonded together and made a racket until the police decided to withdraw. This is an important event that shows the power of people of all different backgrounds and skin colors coming together and standing up for each other. Another example is when they have to decide what to do as people become more hostile and scared of the large groups of migrants coming in. One option included “A banding together of migrants…cutting across divisions of race or language or nation, for what did those division matter now” (155). This perfectly emphasizes how migrants do not fight for themselves, they fight for each other. They are all “others” in their new locations and their previous distinctions are put aside. The quote continues and states, “The only divisions that mattered now were between those who sought the right of passage and those who would deny them passage” (155). The migrants recognize that to survive and be successful, they must work together. This unity is present in Exit West and in the real world when migrants stand together as one against the rest of the world.

A Captain Must Always Go Down with his Ship

When reading the section of the novel when Nadia and Saeed decide to leave Saeed’s house (pages 95-98), and end up leaving Saeed’s father behind, the first thing that popped into my head was the scene in Titanic when the captain was standing in the flooding room just waiting to die.

Watching the movie on repeat growing up, I was always confused on why the captain never tried to escape the sinking ship and was displaying nothing but external relaxation as his life is slowly taken away from him but as my dad used to say,

“A captain must always go down with his ship” .

Whether he feels it is his duty to accompany the ship as it perishes because it is his job or because he feels some sort of unexplainable connection to it in that he does not want to let go, a captain must always go down with his ship.

I feel this same vibe when reading this section of chapter 5. There are violent outbreaks occurring and intrusive militia ivading the houses in Saeed and Nadia’s city and because of this, there is no question in why people would do everything in their power to get out as soon and as safe as possible. However, Saeed’s father refuses to leave. When questioned by Saeed, he justifies his decision with his feeling that his wife’s presence remains in the city.

‘”Your mother is here.’

Saeed said, ‘Mother is gone.’

His father said, ‘Not for me’ (95)”.

These few lines on their own demonstrates Saeed’s fathers exceptional connection to the city in which he raised Saeed, solely because of the memories made and time spent there with his recently deceased wife, who was his best friend.

When Rose approaches the captain in the Titanic scene, the captain expresses his connection to the ship and although it may seem hard for Rose to comprehend, similar to how Saeed’s father’s desire to stay in the crumbling city would appall Saeed and Nadia, when one feels such a strong bond to a person/place/or thing, nothing has the potential to break that bond, unless it physically is destroyed (i.e. the ship sinking with the captain inside or Saeed’s house being demolished with his father inside). However, these connections and associations that we form are what allows a place that may be just a plot of land for someone to mean the world to someone else. Relationships to places that make us happy, content, and comfortable are all part of human nature. And in some cases, maintaining that relationship with the risk of death transcends the guarantee of a life ahead without being able to foster that relationship.

Slightly Different Ways to Read Exit West’s Title, Exit West

While Exit West‘s nebulous title has been touched on during class, I want to catalog a few interpretations I can think of.

Exit west, like a highway

It’s the most familiar language and is what people I’ve asked commonly guess the title means. It certainly sounds like a highway sign, using every word efficiently. This interpretation also supports Saeed and Nadia’s traveled based story by being an abbreviate highway sign. My initial choice.

Exit West, referencing perspectives

This title tells the reader to abandon western expectation for the story. It follows Exit West‘s habit of subverting western stereotypes about the middle east. Although it isn’t fair to say these stereotypes are directed towards the middle eastern due to Saeed and Nadia’s hometown never receiving a name. Which is also another way Hamid removes readers from their preconceived notions and biases. Anyways this title reflects the books empathy generating content. Also thanks to whoever first said this one from 1st period.

Exit West, like manifest destiny

Another one created by the wonderful students of period 1. An inversion of western expansion in the USA’s history with Saeed and Nadia’s destiny interfering with american’s destiny. I enjoy this one almost entirely due to illogical logical extent of this title. Particularly the idea of Nadia and Saeed invading the United States. Of course a more reasonable explanation would be an exaggerated description of migrants gravitating towards better lives, which maybe be in America, but that’s not nearly as fun.

Hamid’s Style of Writing and How, Really, It’s Much Different Than What We’re Accustomed to, and That Adds to the Story As a Whole, Specifically, His Use of Overly Long Sentences to Stress a Point and Keep Us Engaged.

I loved Exit West. I think the way Hamid writes adds another layer of engagement to this story because he keeps us tethered to his characters and their thoughts. Had he ended his narration with short, choppy sentences, it wouldn’t have felt as free flowing. It’s almost a type of third person stream of consciousness, which is unlike anything I’ve read before.

In terms of keeping the reader engaged, the tiny voice in our heads that reads is out of breath by the time it stumbles upon a period. We have to keep reading because the sentence hasn’t finished yet. Even when that sentence is a page long, we naturally want to finish it because the thought it incomplete.

Many times, we confuse simplicity with quality. The simpler something is, the better and more profound it can be. One of Hamid’s sentences struck me hard:

Saeed was grateful for Nadia’s presence, for the way in which she altered the silences that descended on the apartment, not necessarily filling them with words, but making them less bleak in their muteness

(82).

That sentence is one of his shorter examples, yet it is still just as profound. He manages to clarify himself before the reader has time to object in “not necessarily” as if he is speaking this to us and can see our face change as if to speak and he corrects himself before we can get a word in.

I could go on forever about Hamid’s style but I’ll wrap it up here before I end up writing a page long sentence.