Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West—an empathetic, allegorical story of the refugee crisis

Exit West Mohsin HamidI have been eager to get hold of a copy of Mohsin Hamid’s slim and timely novel, Exit West, ever since reading a November review in the London Review of Books, and this past week finally I sat down and read it, devouring the book in three days. I’d previously read The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and I was impressed by how he had created a measured and idiosyncratic voice for his narrator, a man who may—or may not—be a terrorist. Exit West is a very different kind of novel, but it shares with The Reluctant Fundamentalist a slightly abstracted, allegorical sensibility.

The premise of Exit West is simple: in an unnamed city that we can guess is located somewhere in the Middle East, a young man and a young woman meet in a continuing education class and fall in love. Nadia and Saeed listen to music and cook for each other and smoke weed and dream of traveling. When war breaks out and the city is taken over by fundamentalists, they decide they will try to flee the country. This is where an element of the surreal comes into play: Nadia and Saeed have heard a rumor that doors around the city are transforming into portals that lead to other parts of the world. They pay a smuggler who takes them to a dentist’s office. They open a cupboard door, step through, and find themselves on a Greek island. The couple stays in a refugee camp there for a while before finding another door, which leads them to London. Months later, they pass through another door to California. The story of Nadia and Saeed’s journey and their relationship is interspersed with vignettes about other migrants in other places.

This conceit allows Hamid to explore the idea of migration without actually describing the arduous process of crossing borders. It feels almost impossible not to read the story as a commentary on the current refugee crisis, and the portals themselves suggest that borders, as delineated by the state, are arbitrary and impossible to enforce. In Exit West, the world remakes itself to allow migration to take place; like it or not, people always have, and always will, move from place to place. In London, Nadia and Saeed witness the fury of UKIP-esque nativists, but the locals eventually realize that they must find a way to live alongside the migrants who have come to their city.

Late in the novel, Hamid writes of a woman who has lived all her life in one house, and who nonetheless finds that much of the world around her seems foreign. “We are all migrants through time,” he writes, and I see meaning in Hamid’s choice to use the word migration throughout the novel rather than immigration or emigration. In Exit West, migration isn’t always a matter of where you are leaving from or going to. By the time Nadia and Saeed leave the city where they grew up, it must seem to them in many ways unrecognizable. Even if we ourselves don’t move, places will remake themselves about us.

Visiting the Library

For the first time since graduating from college, I have a library card once again, and for the past few weeks, I’ve been relishing my visits to my local library here in London.

Growing up, one of the few reasons I went “downtown” was to visit the library. In the summer, the library offered an escape from slow days at home with nothing to do. I would spend hours combing my way through the stacks in the Young Adult and Fiction sections, and then lug home enormous tote bags full of books, which I kept in a stack beside my bed until I had to return them.

Recently, I’ve been reliving this routine: I work from home most days, so a trip to the library is an escape from freelancer cabin-fever. Unlike getting a cup of coffee, it costs exactly nothing, and since the library is walking distance from my flat, it’s also a chance to stretch my legs. But best of all, I get to bring home a glorious stack of books.

This week’s picks, in the order that they have been haphazardly stacked on my bookshelf:

  • Fresh Complaint, by Jeffery Eugenides
  • How to Eat by Nigella Lawson
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
  • My Cat Yugolavia by Pajtim Statovci
  • The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante
  • A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

I won’t get through all of these books this week. I’ll renew some, browse some and return some. I think part of what I love about libraries is this sense of abundance—you can borrow any book on the shelves, and there are more books on the shelves than you’ll likely ever read. Libraries are one of the best public resources we have, and I can hardly believe that I went so long without visiting one.

In the spirit of celebrating libraries and all that they offer, I want to close by sharing an iconic (in my mind) clip from the children’s tv show, Arthur. If you are moved to do so, feel free to join me in chanting the refrain.



Reading the Iranian Revolution

House of the MosquePersepolis

Last month, I found myself reading two very different literary takes on twentieth-century Iranian history: Kader Abdolah’s semi-autobiographical novel The House of the Mosque and Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir Persepolis. My book club had chosen The House of the Mosque as January’s discussion book, and so when I saw a copy of Persepolis at a local charity shop, I bought it—it would be interesting, I thought to read two books that follow the turmoil of Iranian politics through the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. This was a period that I knew little about before reading the two books, and even now I’d say that my understanding of Iranian history and politics during this era is rather hazy. Both books use political events as a backdrop for other stories, and in The House of the Mosque, I found it at times challenging to tell how much of the plot was historical and how much was imagined.

The House of the Mosque follows the rising and falling fortunes of the occupants of a house attached to a mosque in Senejan. Aqa Jaan, the patriarch of the family is a traditionalist, but not a fundamentalist, and we see him and other members of the family examining their relationship to Islam, first amid the Shah’s push for Westernization, and then under Ayatollah Khomeini’s religious regime. While many members of my book club enjoyed the novel’s atmospheric vignettes, I found myself frustrated by how characters dropped in and out of the meandering plot, often without a clear purpose. I was also unimpressed by the characterization of most of the women in the novel—Abdolah spends a lot of time depicting various women acquiescing to their lovers, but doesn’t tell us much about the women’s motivations for the actions outside of the bedroom (a plot line in which one woman becomes a brutal interrogator for the secret police is barely explained).

Persepolis, on the other hand, is primarily a coming-of-age story, and its plot follows Satrapi’s life from her childhood to her early twenties. Like The House of the MosquePersepolis shows characters evaluating their religious and political beliefs, but unlike most of the characters in Abdolah’s novel, Marjane and her family are radical leftists, and the graphic memoir is full of discussions of Marxist theory. When Marjane is eventually sent away to school in Austria, she falls in with a crowd of anarchists, thinking they’ll understand and respect her experiences in Iran. She is disappointed to find that her new friends are more interested in getting high than talking politics—for them, Marxism and anarchism are simply a cool shorthand for punk culture.

Though I decidedly preferred Persepolis to The House of the Mosque, I am glad that I read them in tandem. The two books refer to many of the same historical events, and it was informative to glimpse those events through the eyes of two sets of characters with very different values. I also left both books with a renewed sense of curiosity about Iranian history, and I was reminded of how, as a teen, reading historical fiction sparked my interest in studying history more formally. It’s always a good sign, I think, when you close a book feeling eager to learn more.

Things to read, watch, and listen to


I spent the weekend trying to recover from the kind of cold that makes you not want to do anything except lie on the sofa. Sure, I’m technically well enough to do the things I’m meant to be doing: editing for freelance clients, applying for jobs, attending Christmas parties and networking events, apartment-hunting, and making meals for myself, but with a cold, all of these things are harder than they ordinarily would be, and I’ve been letting those job application deadlines slip by, choosing instead to swaddle myself in my beloved crocheted blanket. The good news is that this is an ideal place from which to consume media—so here’s a taste of what I’ve been reading, watching, and listening to:

  • Season 1 of The Crown—yes, I know that Season 2 premiered this week, but I’m still back in Season 1, which I began this time last year, when I stayed home from work with a back injury. I can’t quite decide if I like The Crown — do Margaret and Elizabeth have to be so nasty to each other? and why is everyone so riled up about divorcées? — but it’s so well done that I just keep watching.
  • Cat Person—I woke up yesterday morning to see that the New Yorker short story had gone viral in the US while I was asleep in London. Reading the story made me think about conversations I’d had with friends in college about their dating lives—there’s been a lot of talk about how timely the story is, and I agree that this is true. But I was most impressed by how Kristen Roupenian describes Margot’s thought process, how she assesses potential dangers, risks—and her own shifting desires.
  • Baby Driver—several friends raved about this film to me when it first came out, and last night, I finally got around to renting it on Amazon. With the hindsight of the last few months, Kevin Spacey’s presence as a mastermind of heists is discomfiting, but Baby Driver is worth the watch for the chase sequences, the soundtrack, Ansel Elgort’s baby-faced sincerity, and Jon Hamm as a vengeance-crazed baddie. It’s a lot of fun.


History, memory, and imagination blur in Lincoln in the Bardo

History, imagination, and memory are not so far apart – history is largely remembered, and memory can do funny things: we invent, we mythologize. This is often a difficult admission for historians, for whom it would be tidier to say that history is entirely a pursuit to determine The Historical Truth—but the deeper you go in history, the harder it is to decide on what is objective. This is disconcerting, but most people agree that the answer is not to throw out the notion of truth altogether. Instead, historians think about how subjectivity shapes the way we record, discuss, and remember the past.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about history and memory this week, as I’m midway through George Saunders’ Booker-winning Lincoln in the Bardo, which I bought in a Waterstones on the way home from a dinner party, after a few glasses of wine had softened my usual reluctance to pay for a shiny new hardback edition. I had heard of the book of course—I knew it was about Lincoln and his son’s death, that it was good, great, brilliant—but I somehow hadn’t heard anything about its structure.

I’ll tell you now: this Lincoln in the Bardo is all about structure, and I’m a sucker for novels that break with traditional narrative conventions. Saunders’ central conceit idea is this: some chapters are made up of dialogue between ghosts in the graveyard where Willie Lincoln, the president’s son, is buried, and others are a collage of historical sources, block quotes of text that look not unlike the notes I used to prepare when writing my history essays in college. I was intrigued, but not totally convinced that this structure was necessary—and I reached chapter five:

Lincoln in the Bardo V


I was struck by the  Saunders’ juxtaposition of these conflicting accounts: the effect is not to make us question the narrators’ honesty, or to ask us to infer whether there was indeed a full moon that night, but to show us the unreliability of memory. How much of what we know about our life is real, Sauders asks, and how much is imagined?

A few days later, I stumbled across  Marina Warner’s “Diary” for the Nov 16 issue of the London Review of Books, which argues that memory and imagination are not so far apart:

“It isn’t just saints and visionaries who have dreams and relate them as if they were real events—in a literary sense, as well as a psychological sense, they are real events. Recent findings in the field of cognitive studies tend to show the ways in which thought is interwoven with reality. Memoria and fantasia used to be considered distinct faculties and were assigned to separate chambers of the mind, but it seems the same synapses fire whether you are remembering something that happened to you, recalling something you saw on the news, or inventing it from scratch. The speculative mind generates experience—imagined experience.”

Warner’s essay references Augustine, Proust, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Nicole Krauss—but as soon as I read this paragraph, I thought of Lincoln in the Bardo. Saunders’ bricolage of historical texts accomplishes captures the phenomenon of invented memory and unreliable history. We know that not all of the voices in Lincoln in the Bardo are speaking the truth; and yet none of them are lying.

Why is Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life so… disappointing?


I joined the Gilmore Girls fan club late; while many of my middle- and high- school friends were watching the show back when it was, you know, actually on television, I discovered it on Netflix during my first week of college, when I was too wound up to sleep. I had just arrived in Massachusetts, neighbor to the Gilmores’ native Connecticut, and I was awestruck by prep schools, WASPs, and preppy style, none of which really existed in my home state of Oregon. You’ve heard it before: like so many bookish, ambitious, brown-haired girls, I saw myself in Rory. And at the same time, I didn’t see myself in Rory: no one I’d grown up with had coming out parties; I never had a high school romance; and while I enjoyed spending time with my mom, she wasn’t my closest confidante. Nonetheless, I watched season after season, a first by myself, and later with my roommate and best friend. We railed against Rory’s lingering feelings for Dean, rooted for Paris through her tyrannical reign at the Yale Daily News, waited for Lorelai to see that Luke was truly the one, and scorned Rory’s pseudo-Skull-and-Bones escapades with rich-kid Logan. When Rory stole a boat, we still loved her.

Yet, in spite of my love for the show, I managed to put off watching the Netflix reboot Gilmore Girls: A Year For The Life for almost a full year after its release date. First, I was going to wait to watch it with a friend; then, I read the first batch of bad reviews and decided to put it off a little further. But this week, holed up in my new London apartment with a nasty cold, I watched all four movie-length episodes. If I hadn’t known from the reviews, I knew from the first half hour of “Winter” that it was a disappointment. And yet I kept watching, hoping that it would turn a corner. It didn’t.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what it is about A Year in the Life that doesn’t work. It has all the ingredients: the banter, the coffee, the small-town charm, the mother-daughter closeness, the side-kicks and best friends, backdrop of New England privilege and WASP-y elitism, all certified by the show’s creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino. Even Rory’s failing journalism career and quarter-life crisis aren’t without precedent—in the final season, we saw her anxious about her life after graduation—but somehow the pieces don’t quite come together.

I won’t be the first viewer to write that Rory and Lorelai have not grown up much in the last ten years—if anything, they’ve grown less likable. But I think part of the trouble with the Netflix special is its medium. Gilmore Girls, the tv series, had hour-long episodes with individual story arcs, building towards season-long arcs that were usually oriented around Rory and Lorelai’s love stories and Rory’s education. Gilmore Girls was never a strict adherent of the Chekov’s gun rule—and indeed, its propensity to clutter the story with quirky tangents was always part of its charm—but A Year in the Life takes this too far. There are too many guns and almost no gunshots; it’s obvious that all of the characters, including Rory and Lorelai, are only here to make long-time fans smile. We wanted to see Paris, so she’s running a fertility clinic that Lorelai visits; we wanted to see Dean, so Rory bumps into him in the grocery store; we wanted to see Jess, so he resurfaces in the diner; Sookie appears for a single scene (presumably Melissa McCarthy has bigger fish to fry these days); similarly, Logan’s college contingent of posh boys from Yale appear more or less out of nowhere. Yet none of these characters feel necessary to the plot. This may be because there isn’t really much plot to be had.

Gilmore Girls was always built around “will-they-won’t-they” suspense: Will Rory get into Harvard? Will Emily and Lorelai reconcile? Will Lorelai and Luke ever get together? Which boyfriend will Rory end up with for good? What about Rory’s education and career? A Year in the Life is sort of driven by the latter two questions, but it’s also sort of driven by vague questions about loss and grief: Rory’s career and love life are both foundering badly; Emily has lost her husband; Lorelai has lost her father and is worried about her relationship with Luke. These could all be perfectly good plot points—we’ve seen the Gilmores in crisis before (see stolen boat above). Yet stretched out over movie-length episodes, A Year in the Life begins to meander and loses the “will-they-won’t they” suspense that made the season-long plot arcs of Gilmore Girls work. I didn’t believe for a minute that Lorelai would break up with Luke, that Logan would leave his fiancée for Rory, or that Rory wouldn’t figure something out career-wise. Instead, we get bogged down in the tangents, jokes, and cameos, and the plot fizzles.

My five favorite email newsletters

I oversubscribe to email newsletters. It’s a bit of a problem. Every day, I wade through my inbox, searching for the important from-a-person-who-needs-a-reply messages amidst the dozens of less-important ones from publications and stores (truly, CVS knows my shopping habits better than I know myself). Lately, I’ve been thinking of beginning an inbox purge, unsubscribing and getting away from it all—but here are a few newsletters I know I’ll keep:

JSTOR Daily Weekly Digest
—My most recent newsletter discovery, JSTOR Daily offers a genre of essay that I would call “academics having fun.” These pieces cite their sources, but they’re often conversational and quirky. Better yet, the JSTOR Daily blog and newsletter are free even to those of us who don’t subscribe to the JSTOR database. Recent favorites include “Synthetic Fabrics Inspired A Cultural Revolution,” “Sorry, Graphology Isn’t A Real Science,” and “Selling the Men’s Wedding Ring.”

Poem-a-Day – I go through phases where I read Poem-a-Day daily. Right now, I’m in a phase where I periodically go back to try to catch up on the poems I’ve missed. But either way, this newsletter is a wonderful way to discover new poems and poets – it covers a mix of contemporary writers and older poets with work in public domain. I discovered “Settling In” by Jenny Factor over a year ago via this newsletter, and I still love this poem dearly.

The Guardian Today—I subscribe to a bunch of New York Times newsletters, too, but The Guardian, based in London, has a more international angle and, though solidly left-leaning, is a little more distanced from the turmoil of American politics. Sign up for their daily newsletter here.

Lenny Letter – I’m ambivalent about Lena Dunham as a figure of public controversy, but I enjoy many of the things she makes (see my thoughts on Girls here). Lenny Letter, edited by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, is a weekly feminist newsletter featuring original essays, articles, and interviews—and their content is consistently stellar. Recent favorites include this piece on Spiritualism and exorcism in Maine and this article about a nun who became an attorney general.

NYT Cooking – The New York Times’ daily cooking newsletter is written in a distinctive voice that makes you feel you’re receiving an email from a warm and rather urbane friend. I love the non-recipe recipes that tell you how to cook things in the vague way that one actually remembers later (sauté some onions and garlic, then add your tomatoes, throw in some salt/pepper/basil/sugar…)