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Mohsin Hamid is a British-Pakistani writer. He was born on July 23, 1971, in the city of Lahore, Pakistan, and moved at the age of three to the San Francisco Bay Area, where his father completed a doctorate at Stanford University. The family returned to Lahore when Hamid was nine years old. At eighteen, he left Pakistan again to attend Princeton University, where he studied under the famous novelists Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison. He then pursued a law degree at Harvard University and went on to work at a New York consultancy firm, taking three months off each year to write. His first novel,
Moth Smoke, was published in 2000, and found success both internationally and in Pakistan, where it was adapted into a television miniseries. Soon after this publication, Hamid moved to London, again dividing his time between working in the finance industry and writing. His second and most famous novel,
The Reluctant Fundamentalist, came out in 2007 and was adapted into a wide-release film in 2012 by Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair. Hamid returned to Lahore in 2009 and now divides his time between Pakistan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Exit West is Hamid’s fourth novel. He got the idea for the novel’s magic doors that can transport people anywhere from having video chats with friends in different countries. The internet opened up windows to other places and people he couldn’t otherwise see. The novel’s focus on refugees grew from the ever-present fear he has of something terrible happening to Lahore in the midst of Pakistan’s frequent unrest. In an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Hamid explained that one of the reasons he didn’t name Saeed and Nadia’s city was because he didn’t want to imagine Lahore falling. However, he has also stated that he believes this fear belongs to cities in general. Any city can fall, from war, economic collapse, or natural disaster. He has also stated that the novel emerged from a need to find hope in a world so focused on borders and national and ethnic “purity.”
Exit West received great critical praise, landing on the shortlist for the 2017 Booker Prize. The Russo Brothers purchased the film rights to the novel in August 2017, and in March 2020, Barack and Michelle Obama joined the project as producers.
Critics often discuss
Exit West in the context of the Syrian refugee crisis. Inspired by the Arab Spring civilian uprisings of 2010–2011, Syrians protested the human rights violations of President Bashar al-Assad’s government. The military responded violently in March 2011, and the situation eventually deteriorated into a civil war with multiple factions. As a result, millions of Syrians were displaced, fleeing mainly to neighboring countries like Lebanon and Jordan. The UN High Commission for Refugees has reported that the crisis in Syria has increased the number of refugees around the world to levels not seen since World War II. Hamid also considered refugees in Pakistan while writing
Exit West. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in the 1970s, many Afghans sought refuge in Pakistan. Another wave of refugees came in 2001 when the United States bombed Afghanistan following the terrorist attacks of September 11. Over the decades, Pakistan has hosted millions of Afghan refugees, but despite the continuing violence in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s government has periodically attempted to hasten the repatriation of these refugees. In February 2017, Hamid penned an article in the Pakistani newspaper the
Herald, criticizing the government for a recent decision to push the repatriation of Afghan refugees.
Hamid also felt the need to warn about the worldwide increase of nationalist sentiment, and due to his background, he was uniquely placed to do so. In writing for
The Guardian, he described himself as a “mongrel” in terms of thought and idea, as someone who has lived all over the world. He described “mongrelization” as something inherently creative, a co-mingling not unlike that between lovers or between reader and writer, and that impurity creates breakthroughs. In discussing
Exit West, he has referred to his fear that in the “Land of the Pure,” a literal translation of Pakistan’s name, no one is pure enough or Muslim enough to live without fear of social or political repercussions. However, he expressed the view that Pakistan is merely an example of a general trend, as several countries around the world have elected reactionary governments and openly pursued anti-immigrant agendas. Seeing these far-right, nationalistic impulses frightened Hamid and spurred him to action through his writing.