With shades of science fiction and Gulliver’s Travels, Exit West is very reminiscent of another recent, and similarly important and poignant, release, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Both of these novels use fantastical elements to help explore and illuminate the fight of immigrants/refugees and African Americans, respectively, for a wider audience. And both, I believe, should be required reading for adults in America today.
“This story is so necessary and timely. With each of the “doors” Saeed and Nadia travel through, we are shown a different part of the struggle, the journey that all immigrants and refugees faced. And parallel to their story, some are able to get through each door, to make it to the next stage, and in every case, there are those that get stuck at certain points and never find that next escape. We are able to experience all these stages through the eyes of Saeed and Nadia: the physical, emotional, and philosophical challenges of leaving your home country, living in refugee camps, adjusting to a new culture in a land that doesn’t want you there, learning to create a new space for yourself, and fighting to both remember and forget when you came from. And we also see what each step does to them, to their relationship with each other, as they learn to adjust and cope in their own ways, to figure out how to both lose and hold onto what they share and what they’ve lost together, to know what role they have for each other as they build their new lives. It is an exploration of the bonds forged in peace and strengthened under fear and pressure, the changes in those connections after so much stress, and the knowledge of how to grow apart comfortably after sharing so much.
In addition to the main story, that of Saeed and Nadia, we get a snippet, once per chapter, of random and worldwide experiences with the door. These represent a great variety of situations, both positive and negative – families reuniting, new lovers meeting, militants creating surprise havoc and death, and visits to those who refuse to use them. And overall, the intermingling on a worldwide scale – inhabitants of this world escaping to/from different places for as many reasons as there are people – to create an international community that must learn to transcend borders and insulation. There is commentary on and suggestions for the many ways that such intermingling can happen, the ways it can go wrong and, if we can find the bravery, “for courage is demanded not to attack when afraid” (p.166), the ways we can cooperative and move forward to safer solutions.
Hamid’s language is beyond gorgeous. Although at times his sentences go for so long you can get lost in them if you aren’t careful, they also pull you along with them almost without you realizing it. It’s a reading experience different from any other I’ve ever had. The vocabulary he uses, like “native” and “migrant” are both incredibly neutral and strongly evocative. As a reader, you really need to think about and unpack what they mean to you and what associations you are [automatically] making. I thought it was interesting that, though many of the destinations Saeed and Nadia travel to through the doors are specified, their original home, their city of birth, is never named. They seem to have similarities to a number of, for lack of a better way to describe it, troubled homelands, that make it hard to tell for sure where their journey began. And you have to wonder if that wasn’t an incredibly purposeful commentary on the part of the author – that the place or point of origin should not (and does not) matter, but that all those final destination points, the lands “on the other side” of the doors (read: Greece, the UK, America), should absolutely be called out for their less than welcoming reactions to those truly in need. For if a person leaves everything behind except for their hope that there’s something better through that door, the natives should have the courage to face any fear of change and help provide that better, safer, future each migrant dreams of and deserves. And in the end, “we are all migrants through time” (p.209).”
As examples of the insight, the illustrative language, and the beauty of Hamid’s unique style, here are some of my favorite quotes:
“…for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.” (p.98)
“The island was pretty safe, they were told, except when it was not, which made it like most places.” (p.107)
“…and when the tension receded there was calm, the calm that is called the calm before the storm, but is in reality the foundation of a human life, waiting there for us between the steps of our march to our mortality, when we are compelled to pause and not act but be.” (p.138)
“…love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you.” (p.165)
“Every time a couple moves they begin, if their attention is still drawn to one another, to see each other differently, for personalities are not a single immutable color, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us.” (p.186)