Saturday, March 18, 2017

Always The Outsider: Exit West and the Refugee Experience

Mohsin Hamid is another well-established writer who I had not managed to read until now, having The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. But with the much-hyped and incredibly timely tale of Middle Eastern refugees, Exit West, I was quick to reserve my copy of the audiobook.
missed the boat of his best-selling

When I got it and set to play I initially groaned when Hamid announced himself as the narrator on the audio. For the most part, authors should not narrate their own work. They aren't voice actors and usually aren't able to convey the text as well as those trained to do so, despite their intimate knowledge of the work. Thankfully, Hamid was a wonderful conveyer of the text, offering a soft and gentle voice that perfectly captured the mood of Exit West.

The story follows two lovers, Saeed and Nadia, middle-class professionals in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, in the midst of internal turmoil as secular sentimentality and religious fundamentalism struggle for political domination. As militants make headway and society falls into chaotic discord, Saeed and Nadia must make the difficult choice of leaving their lives and family behind and head West.

Far from an escape from uncertainty, Saeed and Nadia find themselves in London, surrounded by nativist anger directed at outsiders, Saeed and Nadia find themselves othered and blamed for the populations' own economic uncertainty. Saeed and Nadia must turn to each other to emotionally withstand the constant onslaught of being undesired, testing their love and friendship.

In the context of the xenophobia and anti-refugee sentiments in Europe and North America, Hamid has offered a powerful and painful exploration of the refugee experience. Unlike the caricatures that populated Laurence Hill's disappointing The Illegal, Hamid's story of the refugees feels so much more real and tangible to the experiences we are seeing before our eyes.

And Hamid tells this story in lush and flowery prose, delving almost into magical realism, with Saeed and Nadia's experiences feeling dream-like as they struggle through a dystopic nightmare of constant fleeing and outsider status.

In terms of recent explorations of the refugee/immigrant experience, I was not as blown away by Exit West as others and would suggest Sunjeev Sahota's The Year of the Runaways is a grander literary accomplishment. That may be my preference for realism, where Hamid's writing at times felt a bit too Coelho-like for my tastes.

That said, this is a powerful work and politically important, even more so in the age of Trumpian xenophobia. So pick it up, shout its praise and exclaim: Refugees are welcome here!

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