By Mohsin Hamid
Riverhead Books, @2017, 231 pages
Mohsin Hamid is one of my favorite authors. This is because he is so adept at casting the spell, transporting me straight into his story and keeping me there. I found this out first with his book The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
I believe Exit West is a book that every high school student in the U.S. should read. It’s a book about two university students, a man and a woman, who come together as a couple as their society unravels. In their quest to survive, they find they must flee their home and “Exit West.”
Hamid employs the use of magical realism to skip over the mundane details of what it might take to go West, inventing the concept of magical doors that transport people instantly to other locales. I’m a big fan of magical realism, so my attention narrows whenever I see it. Hamid doesn’t overdo it but instead uses it just enough to increase the intrigue of his novel.
Hamid is from Pakistan, and I find that interesting as I am becoming more and more enthralled with their neighbor to the south, India.
So a small digression here about India. India, big, fascinating, mysterious—there’s clearly a lot going on. The people seem friendly and yet my dear Indian friend assures me that they are quite racist. She also tells me that men there don’t easily talk with white women, which is quite contrary to my experience, where it seems every man I met was very interested in talking with me, or maybe very interested in something else.
All of a sudden, it is I who am mysterious.
But, back to Exit West.
I find myself painfully wanting the the couple to stay together, to fully love. But it is not to be. Instead, as they exit from their country, they also exit from each other. Hamid gracefully describes the disintegration of their relationship.
“Saeed and Nadia were loyal, and whatever name they gave their bond they each in their own way believed it required them to protect the other, and so neither talked much of drifting apart, not wanting to inflict a fear of abandonment, while also themselves quietly feeling that fear, the fear of the severing of their tie, the end of the world they had built together, a world of shared experiences in which no one else would share, a shared intimate language that was unique to them, and a sense that what they might break was special and likely irreplaceable.”
Before my experience with India, I never thought much about the “battle of the sexes.” I guess I never truly saw it as a battle. And while here in this story Saeed seems to be the timid one and Nadia the self confident assertive one, my experience with South Asian men seems quite the opposite. There seems to be this unspoken code that men must be aggressors and the job of women is to always deflect, to never give into their own desires, to remain chaste and pure. Full on harlotry is but a small transgression away, like removing one’s finger from the small crack of a dam only to find the force of all the raging waters upon you. We American women have no idea how far we’ve come in this world to fully claim our own liberty, independence, and sexual space.
To be sure though, the battle rages on, even here, even in the United States. Women face a continuous force that tries endlessly to objectify us and we often give in and even embrace dangerous objectifying scenarios such as, for example, Tender.
So why do I go on and on about this even though Exit West isn’t particularly a book about the “battle.” It’s because Hamid reveals that our strong female protagonist, Nadia, who keeps men from “fucking with her” by wearing a burka, is in fact a lesbian.
I am left wondering about a couple of things with this. First, I am finding that men seem to have a strong desire to imagine women coupling. This may be a way for them to up the ante and have two objects of their desire together, a state of affairs that most often is impossible to achieve. The other thing I find disturbing is that Nadia wasn’t allowed to simply be a strong woman. Is Hamid in some way implying that a woman strong and secure in her sexuality and self confident in the way she handles her life can’t be heterosexual? Does allowing a man into one’s heart necessarily set a woman up for subservience and domination? And worse yet, do we as women actually like that?
And even as I complain about all this, I must say that I find Indian men incredibly caring, much more so than Western men. Maybe this is because Western women no longer need to be taken care of?
In my new friendships, I consistently find a ready ear, attention, and advice. I find this quite charming as Western men seem to have abandoned all these traits.
How can women have it all these days? —-The man who cares and the man who is strong, and who is even strong enough to let his woman be herself, and to claim that power that is the birthright of every human being, that of independent thought and action?
Forgive me Mr. Hamid, for I do adore your writing, but your book has propelled me in directions you probably weren’t intending.