Friday, November 03, 2017

Exit West and the stories of refugees

“In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet only at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.”

So begins Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West: A Novel, the story of a couple falling in love in a nameless city slowly overrun by violent insurgents, until an unexpected hope of escape appears. That hope takes the form of the book’s one sci-fi/fantasy element: the doors. Their power is never explained, but countless doors are discovered across the world as the story unfolds—formerly ordinary doorways—which lead, not into the next room or out of the house anymore, but into a closet in a house in a neighboring country, or maybe into a kitchen in a hotel across the world. The doors may take you anywhere.

As the first line of the book hints, this is not simply a story of love in a time of turmoil. This is a story of refugees.

The first appearance of these mysterious doors also marks the first appearance of a refugee in the novel. Hamid sets the scene: night time, a dark room. A fair-skinned young woman sleeps alone, her husband away on business. Wearing only a T-shirt, her bare leg sticks out from under the bedsheets. Her window is cracked open. The home security system is usually set when her husband is away, but not tonight.
Her closet door is open, “a rectangle of complete darkness... And out of this darkness, a man was emerging.” With dark skin and dark hair, the man forces his way through the door into her bedroom, silently, so as not to be heard.

Every detail is fine-tuned to indicate vulnerability and imminent danger—the white woman preyed upon by the dark man.

Once through the doorway, he slips through the window and escapes out into the world.

This scene, while revealing the capabilities of the doors, also serves to define a “refugee” in this story: it is someone—generally someone who is brown—who, though likely feared by the reader and the characters, is probably just looking for an exit, an escape. We’re thinking about what they can do to us, but they’re only thinking about fleeing violence, fear, and oppression, finding safety, hope, and a future. This scene forecasts the reception these immigrants will receive from the rest of the world as the novel continues, while also forcing you, the reader, to examine your own prejudices and judgments. A refugee is not to be defined by your perception of them, recently arrived in your setting, but by their perceptions of themselves, coming from their settings. Too often we don’t know their stories and don’t care to know their stories, but we’re happy to come up with a story for them, a story framed by our own fears and biases.

Well, Exit West is their story. Hopefully it’s a book that will help readers like me pay more attention to the real stories of refugees in the future.

The book is most powerful when it plays with your expectations. The way the young couple grapples with life surrounded by other refugees—characters we perceive as other than us, surrounded by characters they perceive as other than themselves. The brief appearance of Native Americans and how they are understood in this world. Things do not always go the way, are not always described the way, one expects. The magic is in how, each time, Hamid uses these moments to shine a light on the reader.
For the most part, Exit West doesn’t moralize. It simply tells a very human story, about people whom circumstance turns into refugees, a story which you may catch yourself reading in very particular ways... ways you may not be proud of. The novel’s lesson is found not in the pages, but in yourself.

Though occasionally it’s more direct. One of the several destinations this couple arrives at on their journey through the doors in search of stability and opportunity, after resisting the influx of immigrants long and hard, finally decides to adapt and create a space for the refugees. “Perhaps,” the fairy tale-like narration suggests, “they had grasped that the doors could not be closed, and new doors would continue to open, and they had understood that the denial of coexistence would have required one party to cease to exist, and the extinguishing party too would have been transformed in the process.”

The doors in our world aren’t closing, either. So, as we continue to hear, ignore, or disdain the stories of refugees in the news and receive, welcome, or reject them at our borders, I wonder how we are being transformed?

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