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From Refugees To Politics, Mohsin Hamid Writes The Change He Wants To See

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Mohsin Hamid's previous novels include The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.

Mohsin Hamid’s previous novels include The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.

Jillian Edelstein/Camera Press

Author Mohsin Hamid's new novel, Exit West, is about knowing when it's time to flee your country, and what happens when you migrate to a nation that's hostile to immigrants. It's a topic the author himself is personally familiar with.

Hamid was born in Lahore, Pakistan, but spent part of his childhood in California. As a young adult, he lived in New York and London before returning to Lahore with his wife to raise their children. He tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that moving from country to country initially made him feel like "kind of freak," but as he got older, his outlook changed.

"I became more and more comfortable just being myself, a kind of mongrelized, hybridized, weird sort of character," Hamid says. "What I started to realize was everybody feels a bit foreign ... even people who have lived in the same place."

Exit West is about a young couple who have to decide whether to leave their home in an unnamed city that is slowly being overtaken by militants. Hamid says it's just a coincidence that the book was published shortly after President Trump announced his revised travel ban. He says that while his novel doesn't explicitly address the ban, the themes it raises — about who belongs and who doesn't — are directly related to the ban.

"Above all, [the travel ban is] about who has the right to move and who doesn't have the right to move," he says. "I think that when we take the long view, the notion that some people are deemed less worthy of being able to move — to not have the right to cross borders — over time that's going to seem as outmoded and as unfair, really, as racial discrimination or other kinds of discrimination."

Interview Highlights

On how Trump's policies are being received outside the U.S. and the fear that they may fuel radicalization

Outside of America there are many people, myself included, who champion values that in some senses could be thought of as traditionally American: The idea that everybody is equal; the idea that the rights of women and men should be the same; that there should be no discrimination [based] on religious or sexual orientation; that democracy and rule of law and due process are the ways in which society should govern themselves; and minorities should be cared for.

These, in a way, are values that America has championed internationally. Not exclusively, of course — America has a mixed history. But I think for many people around the world, the sense is they've lost an ally, that this very powerful force that used to speak for these things is now silent. That's different [from] radicalization, but certainly it's about undermining fellow travelers.

At the same time, I think radicalization works in a slightly different way. When people — particularly young people and especially young men — can't imagine themselves as heroes in narratives that they construct for themselves, they look to be heroes in some other way. So young men in America of, let's say, Muslim background: Only a tiny, tiny minority — so small as to be almost zero — are likely to ever commit terrorist acts, but what goes through the mind of somebody like that? ... In a sense, by closing off the idea that young Muslims, and particularly young Muslim men, can be American heroes, it increases the chance that they'll try to be some other kind of hero. And that, I think, is entirely counterproductive.

On whether he feels limited in what he can and can't write living in Pakistan, which has Blasphemy Laws that call for the death penalty for anyone convicted of insulting the Prophet Muhammad

It's not that living in Pakistan I feel an enormous constraint on how I can write and what I can say; rather, I recognize that one has to navigate these things. ... Am I aware of things that one could say that would be risky or that could be dangerous? Certainly I'm aware of those things. And then being aware you make certain choices. Sometimes you'll say something; sometimes you'll find a different way of saying something. And many things might be risky to say, but you have no desire to say them because they don't reflect what you believe.

But all of it connects to say that language is a living thing, stories are a living thing — they shape our societies. People will be passionate about what you write, and that is not so much a discouragement, but a reminder that what we're doing isn't pointless, that all of us who are writers are doing something that actually matters.

On the anxiety that can come from following the constant stream of news and social media

This is something that living in Pakistan perhaps has taught me. We live in a world where there is a constant feed from social media, the news, etc., of things that can scare us, and we become so anxious because human beings are designed to be sensitized to dangerous stuff. ... Contemporary culture in Pakistan, just like in America, is continuously hitting us with scary stuff, and so we are utterly anxious.

I think that it's very important to resist that anxiety, to think of ways of resisting the constant inflow of negative feelings — not to become depoliticized as a result, but to actually work actively to bring into being an optimistic future. For me, writing books and being someone who is politically active is part of that. I don't want to be anxious in my day-to-day life; I want to try to imagine a future I'd like to live in and then write books and do things that, in my own small way, make it more likely that that future will come to exist.

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