It's not often that I read contemporary literature, and it's especially not often that I read literature focused on modern themes: the iPhone, the Internet, gentrification -- these are topics that don't interest me as much as others.
But for a number of reasons, I've recently read Exit West, Mohsin Hamid's novel of migration and dislocation in the modern world. Reading it was an unusual experience -- if for no other reason than I felt I was re-reading the news. For me, this was fundamentally depressing: for while the novel endows that news with a human quality, with people and places, the story it told was familiar. Sure, this shouldn't be held against its author, but for me, it didn't provide enough of an escape.
Which is not to say that I target science fiction or fantasy: indeed, I don't. But thinking about it, I do target novels which chart a different space, which uncover a different way of seeing, of being. Often, these spaces, these worlds are set in the past -- they might, for instance, be Victorian. Regardless, there's something about them -- in their strange qualities, in their distance from the contemporary -- that holds my attention, that serves as a mirror for our experience today.
I was talking with a friend about Exit West and she argued that while the story is familiar (in the sense that we continue to read about migration from the Middle East and North Africa), the novel has the potential to attract a different sort of attention to the crisis: it has, as I say, the potential to humanize the sorrow -- and in so doing, inspire action.
All of this, of course, I agree with: there's no doubt that novels like Exit West cast a light on horrific stories, on stories that need to be told. But at the same time -- for me, at least -- they do that in a way that can be generic, almost rushed: the characters in Hamid's novel, for instance, show and share emotion; they do it, though, without the sort of intensity or detail I might have expected. The same goes for their motivation: Hamid makes it clear why they're on the move, but the way they process this change, as fictional entities, felt limited.
Ultimately, Exit West was most successful, I felt, when posing questions about the idea of "home." What is it? How do we construct it? And what does it take to leave it? These questions were at the heart of the novel and helped reorient my approach to "the news." When seen as a quest for home, contemporary migration becomes a fundamentally human journey. There's no looking away when it comes to building a home: we all share the desire for rootedness, even as we exit our native land.