OPINION: Reflecting on Exit West as a First-Year
What does it mean to be a refugee? While many people throughout history have had the shared experience of forcibly leaving their homes to journey to a new place, there is still a lack of awareness regarding the emotional and physical hardships that refugees face on a daily basis. This is why Mohsin Hamid’s thought-provoking book, Exit West, was an excellent choice for the first-year class to start their career at Skidmore. The book deals with the controversial topic of global displacement, providing a brief window into the daily lives of refugees. While the book provides a lively perspective into the experiences of refugees, Hamid’s novel ultimately does not go as in depth as is desired.
Specifically following two refugees by the names of Nadia and Saeed, Exit West deliberately focuses its narrative on the daily lives of these refugees in the time period prior to their first departure. In the early chapters, readers witness the deteriorating political climate of Nadia and Saeed’s unnamed home, and eventually, its descent to a brutal civil war. The book follows the two as they flee their home country to the island of Mykonos, then London, and finally to the city of Marin.
Hamid’s choice not to mention the name of the country that Nadia and Saeed are fleeing from stops the reader from being able to connect the experience of Nadia and Saeed to any current global conflicts. This authorial choice makes it difficult to access a historical context to understand the tensions in Nadia and Saeed’s home country which would shape the readers’ of the conflict. Instead readers focus on the personal conflicts that the characters have with the notion that their country is at war.[Text Wrapping Break] [Text Wrapping Break]A unique element in Hamid’s novel is its magical “doors” that teleport characters from one place to another. As far as readers know, these doors just appear out of nowhere, and the character simply walks through their openings to reach another place.
Walking through one of these doors is described in the novel as a physically exhausting process; the book describes a grown man being reduced to something “like a newborn foal” upon going through one. The doors are meant to parallel the process of fleeing that refugees go through in real life, and how it is a grueling and exhausting experience.
The concept of doors and focusing on the aftermath of fleeing centers the book on the struggles that refugees face as they attempt to integrate into new societies. This decision, however, raised more questions than they answered. First, the lack of context regarding the doors seemed random, because it was not fully explained where they came from or how they worked. This fantasy element in an otherwise painfully realistic book also felt unexpected, and perhaps, dangerous in misconstruing the very harsh experiences of refugees with a “magical” and “fun” or “weird” world of sci-fi . The doors almost seemed like a fictional device aimed to make an emotionally exhausting book a bit lighter.
Yet, at the end of the book, it felt as though Hamid was giving fewer and fewer details at the cost of merely summarizing Nadia and Saeed’s lives instead of telling their story. The confusing fictional-fantastical aspect, at the expense of providing a critical lens into the lived experience of displaced people, which left me wanting something more out the story.