All posts by Slowlander

Exit West: Read from September 30 to October 16, 2019

The next time someone asks me for a recommendation about a book involving time travel, wormholes, high technology, and something resembling a dystonia, I would recommend this book. Not because this book is a science fiction book, but it uses elements of science fiction (or you could call it magic realism, though I think sci-fi is more appropriate) to tell the story of the times we live in, how technology, science, communications, war, and refugees all play a role in the dramatic events of the world we live in. In other words, this is a science fiction novel that genuinely explores who we are as a people living at the edge of an uncertain future.

And the paradox is that this story is also timeless because all through history humanity has lived on the edge of an uncertain future. We carry the past with is as we go about our present lives as we plan for the unknown future. We exist in three different states: the past, the present, and the future, and these three states are always converging back in on themselves. The future influences the present because we must plan for it, and the past influences the present because it informs us of who we are (which we rely on to plan for the future). Space time is, after all curved, so perhaps time itself is trying to fold back in on itself?

The heart of the story, however has little to do with anything science fiction because this is a work of literary fiction and it deals with the lives of twp people, Nadia and Saeed, two people who are very different, but who have converged in a particular place (an unnamed country which experiences a civil war from which they flee), and we follow them as they make their way further and further west, first on a Greek Island, then the Island of Britain (London), and finally Marin, California on the shore edge of the frontier of the New World. How they get tho these places is immaterial – literally, since it seems a sort of wormhole created from the past, present, and future collapsing in on themselves have allowed for travel anywhere in the world.

Yet the wormhole idea is only a way to explain how the whole world is experiencing the vast migrations of people, many of whom are refugees from war torn countries and now find themselves in western countries who are full of people who are anxious about them being there. One element which jumped out at me, and which Hamid explores a few times, is how the “nativists” (as he usually calls them) would stir up trouble under the guise of it being caused by the refugees in order to exacerbate anxieties and tensions in order to make the refugees pariahs. This is not to say Hamid makes everyone of the refugees out to be saints, but he is pointing out how difficult it is for someone who no longer has a home to find a new home. And it’s not like refugees are unaware that they are living in a new place and that if the roles were reversed they might also be anxious about a bunch of foreigners showing up in their homes.

And what this book is ultimately doing is humanizing the refugees. Saeed and Nadia are the “every-people” who represent all those nameless and faceless refugees we see on the news. Hamid gives them a story, gives them a life, and he allows us to see their humanity, to feel as they do, which is to say that they are no different than we are in the most important ways: that we are all human. And Hamid is also saying that we are going to have to deal with the future being a state of unknown change and that it’s going to go better if we work together more instead of fighting with each other. This might seem idealistic, but the counterpoint is one of civil war and violence.

Because in the end our time, the time for each of us as individual humans, will come to and end. We will lug our past so far into the future that the future will no longer have time for us and we will be cast out. The best we can hope for is to not have done too much damage to ourselves and each other and perhaps leave something of ourselves behind, perhaps in the form of children, or at least in the the kindness we show others.

Brilliant novel!

page 230 of 231 of Exit West

Beautiful ending, the two of them sitting at the cafe, 50 years later, and still able to “find a rhythm together, and they grew younger and more playful as the coffee in their cups diminished”. They are the past alive in the present awaiting the future, but “did not know, then, if that evening would ever come”.

page 223 of 231 of Exit West

And that’s the end of their relationship, “eventually a month went by without any contact, and then a year, and then a lifetime” and so life goes on, the globe keeps spinning (though the fast changing seasons makes it feel as if time is speeding up – which it sort of does the older you get). People are connected and other are disconnected (but still connected in a way, at least through memory and time).

page 222 of 231 of Exit West

Nadia is discovering her new sexuality and Saeed seems a little less conservative sexually in being with the preacher’s daughter. I like how Nadia and Saeed still meet, however. They meet on the shore, that liminal space that is not well defined, just as they :lonely and somewhat adrift in this new place”.

I wonder what the thimble that allows a person’s vote to be counted once is all about?

page 209 of 231 of Exit West

Nice little story about the Chinese lady who lived her whole life in the house in Palo Alto but still felt as if she had migrated without ever moving from her house. “We are all migrants through time” is more true than we realize since we can’t help but arrive in the future as strangers and tourists from the past and the people we find in the future are all new and different than us, but they’re migrants too.

page 205 of 231 of Exit West

The tiny, hummingbird sized drone that crashed and that they buried is a beautiful scene. To say this is a simple image would be a lie – that drone represents fear, the media, technology, artificial life which sort of mirrors how their relationship has become, maybe not artificial, but different, changed.

page 203 of 231 of Exit West

“We are all children who lose our parents … and this loss unites humanity, unite every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow”. He’s right, of course. The only thing really separating us is life and death, but even with prayer we are still connected through remembrance and ritual. Nothing is forgotten as long as it is remembered.

page 202 of 231 of Exit West

Saeed’s praying is like earlier when Hamid describes the cell phone’s “antennas sniffed out an invisible world, as if by magic, a world that was all around them, and also nowhere, transporting them to places distant and near” (39) – a way of connecting without being present. For Saeed, praying is the connecting to his idea of being a man, of honoring his parents.

page 198 of 231 of Exit West

I wonder if he’s playing with the idea of cultural relativism as also being related, as in a relative. Aren’t all humans related? Aren’t all our experiences relative to each other in that they are related because we all think and feel the same? Something being relative does not have to mean distinct, it could also mean related. That’s the trick of English, anyway.

page 42 of 52 of Master Letters of Emily Dickinson

Letter 3, sheet 6,

The imagery is like that of a bride “in white” and growing into old age (“cane”) but there is a great distance between them, perhaps the distance between heaven and earth, between horizon and shore. There is a real longing here, a genuine desire to be together with “master” but also the anxiety that perhaps she might “disappoint” (wound?)

page 36 of 52 of Master Letters of Emily Dickinson

Letter 3, sheet 4,

Perhaps the volcanic imagery is a symbol of her heart’s passion which might have caused both of them pain, and that’s why she needs a leech to bleed out the excess in her which is larger than her (letter 1, sheet 1, letter 2, sheet 1)? Is she overflowing with pain? With passion? Is there a difference? Then she combines the horizon with the edge of the sea, as if the horizon is closing in at her?

page 36 of 52 of Master Letters of Emily Dickinson

Letter 3, Sheet 3,

She continues with the theme of redemption in relation to repression and that which is forbidden. This leads into her wondering if master’s heart is in the same place as hers, so does she mean to admit she’s done something wrong which requires redemption but only because she’s human and makes mistakes of the human heart? Is it jealousy? Is the wound a wound she caused?

page 35 of 52 of Master Letters of Emily Dickinson

Letter 3, Sheet 2,

She’s asking for “Redemption”, and she’s asked this before in letter 2 when she asked not to be banished. Is this “redemption” related to the image of Thomas and Christ’s wounds? And how is she altered, is it only in age since she still loves the same? She also wants to breathe the same air that “master” has, inhabit the same space, feel the same thing, but she feels sorrow at their separation.

page 32 of 52 of Master Letters of Emily Dickinson

Letter 3, Sheet 1,

She begins with a wound again (like 2’s Tomahawk) then follows it up with the image of doubting Thomas and Jesus’ wounds as proof of faith. Does she think of “master” this way, as like Christ’s wounds that she must see to believe in him? Is “master” a wound she feels? And this is related to the image of the heart, first seen on this sheet as the one “He built … in me”. Wound leads to heart.

page 31 of 52 of Master Letters of Emily Dickinson

It is really unusual how much she worked on these letters, but then it might offer some insight into how she went about the writing process with her numerous revisions in pencil and ink, and how she turned “He” into “I dont”. I wonder why she’d make such a careful alteration, but then later add many changes in pencil below? Did she mean for the letter to be done at one point then thought of something new to add?

page 29 of 52 of Master Letters of Emily Dickinson

Letter 2, Sheet 4,

Again with the nautical / boat imagery she likes to use about the journey of life being like an ocean voyage (and a nice play on the word “tug”). And who is the “tug”? Is it “master”, is it inspiration? She seems so eager to please and not offend and I’m also reminded of those imaginary conversation we have when we’re lonely and want to express ourselves but can’t in person.

page 26 of 52 of Master Letters of Emily Dickinson

Letter 2, Sheet 3,

This feels very stream of consciousness in how she goes from “wonder” stinging her more than the bee to saying the bee never stung her – is this thinking / writing the “gay music” she hears? But overall she talks of injury, of a “Tomahawk in [her] side” but she does not complain (like ‘I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself” DH Lawrence). Has “master” hurt her? What’s the injury?

page 22 of 52 of Master Letters of Emily Dickinson

Letter 2, Sheet 1,

Again, more uncertainty in her inability to find the right words. Here she describes being shunned like an odd “Backwoodsman” who has is on the verge of being banished from civilization, from “master”. She wants forgiveness and at this point in the letter she seems more certain of her word choice once she asks for forgiveness. Are these related?

page 21 of 52 of Master Letters of Emily Dickinson

“As Dickinson wrote she also revised – cancelling words, substituting others, and setting down unresolved alternatives as she proceeded” – “unresolved” being the greatest thing about her writing. I love how this intuits her process as an inertia that she worked with, as if she saw writing as riding a current, making a rudder correction as she went, but not worrying about the journey having any specific meaning.

page 19 of 52 of Master Letters of Emily Dickinson

Letter 1, Sheet 4,

The idea of sickness still lingers and though she seems relieved that Master isn’t in “Heaven”, she is still concerned for their health and wants to hear news, but from whom? How? They way the lips speak of “Dawn”, or the way sailors long for home but can’t communicate to the land? There’s a real longing in this letter for news of health, connection, and its relationship to the universe.

page 15 of 52 of Master Letters of Emily Dickinson

Letter 1, Sheet 2,

She speaks of the “Violets” that are next to her (perhaps in the garden as well on her desk), and she mentions “Spring”, so could master be the season of renewal that cures (sick) winter?

She wants to create, like an artist, but she scolds the flowers?

Funny how there is a connection to The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock with “to and fro” & “Mr. Michael Angelo”. Did Eliot know of this letter?

page 8 of 52 of Master Letters of Emily Dickinson

I love how it’s the analysis of her handwriting, specifically the word “the” which gives us a clue as to when these letters were written. I mean, we don’t know the “the” of the poems, so all we can do is analyze the how of the “the” (not the why of the “the”).

I sometimes get the impression that if Emily were looking down on us that she’d be having a great time seeing all the trouble she’s put us through.

page 195 of 231 of Exit West

“A year had passed” since they were last in their home country, and I believe this is the first mention of how much time has actually passed. In a way it feels longer, like a lifetime has passed, but it’s only been a year. A lot can happen in a year, but it’s odd because the Earth is right back in the same place relative to its orbit around the sun, though not in the relation to the other stars.

page 194 of 231 of Exit West

“It seemed to Nadia and Saeed that somehow they lived at once on the ocean and among the peaks” – a liminal space, neither here or there, somewhere in between, like the weirdness of the present which is always here yet never here, shifting and changing, like the fog of Marin and San Francisco, but also never changing.

page 189 of 231 of Exit West

Though unexpected, it’s also not unexpected that he is perfectly willing to give up everything they’ve built in London to take a chance somewhere else and try to reconnect with each other. Though can they reconnect, will moving actually connect them? No matter the distance they travel together, will that only increase the distance between them? I’m wondering if they can be reconciled in love?

page 187 of 231 of Exit West

Just as the further he is from his original place the more he wants to strengthen his connections to that place through his interactions with other people from that place, he also wants to reconnect to Nadia, but he is a refugee in their relationship, and he is just as adrift as he is as a refugee from his country.

page 185 of 231 of Exit West

They continue to grow apart even though they are building their new home in their new city together, they are on their own islands, and they both have their own private lives, just like the teenage girl of the white family has hers which she keeps locked up in her diary, a book of secrets she will not tell her family because she too is separate from her family – though aren’t we all on our own?

page 184 of 231 of Exit West

Interesting observation on being ashamed. This new (white?) family “did not yet know that shames, for the displaced, was a common feeling, and that there was, therefore, no particular shame in being ashamed”. If everyone is ashamed then no one is ashamed – if everyone is a refugee then nobody is a refugee.

page 178 of 231 of Exit West

The foreman “felt he was caught between then past and the future”. Once again we have the past / present / future issue, and here it’s one that sort of reminds me of the ancient Egyptians building the pyramids with all their massive labor resources juxtaposed with the machinery and automation of the present that can do the work of millions in a week. They are building for the future, just like the pharaohs.

page 175 of 231 of Exit West

Wonderful image of the old Dutch man and the wrinkled Brazilian man having a conversation even though they don’t speak each other’s language but the gaps in the conversation “were eminently comfortable, almost unnoticed by the two men, as two ancient trees would not notice a few minutes or hours that passed without a breeze”.

page 172 of 231 of Exit West

Sad to hear Saeed’s father has died, but also there is some peace to it in that he died surrounded by his relatives and was buried next to his wife. Of course this came as second hand knowledge so it might not be true, or it might only be true that he died but not of pneumonia, but something worse that his cousin doesn’t want to say. Hard to trust anyone with news of anything anymore.

page 170 of 231 of Exit West

Is Hamid referencing 40 acres and a mule (40 meters and a pipe), the promise to African Americans after our own Civil War that they would be provided for? Apparently inflation intrudes on promises too since 40 meters is far less than 40 acres, though a pipe connecting me to utilities is more useful than a mule – at least when there are utilities.

I started Early – Took my Dog

Portrait of a Young Boy and His Dog at The Beach, 19th century, Goldsworthy
Background Image: Portrait of a Young Boy and His Dog at The Beach, 19th century, Goldsworthy

Nice to see Emily’s dog, Carlo making an appearance in one of her poems. Something about the idea of Emily and Carlo hanging out makes me feel good, as in it seems fitting her closest friend would of course be a dog. And I believe that the dog is the “He” in this poem, and that his “bowing” is how a dog who is playing hunkers down excitedly, perhaps as he barks at the sea.

Perhaps what she is describing here is how even the simple friendship of a dog can save a person, that friendship doesn’t necessarily have to be between people (or God) for it to be meaningful.

The first stanza speaks of a whimsical adventure where the speaker and their “Dog” go for a walk on the beach and while it seems at first that the “Mermaids” are looking at her, it’s also possible the “Dog” senses them too. Dogs have keen senses and when you take them to the beach (or really anywhere) they are nearly overwhelmed with sensory input, but they also lack the understanding of what things are the way we do and so for them it’s not a stretch that what they sense under the water might as well be a mermaid. Thus there is a sense that the speaker is not only describing what they imagine is under the waves, but also what the “Dog” might be imagining, too.

The second stanza seems to keep up this blending of the fantastical with how a “Dog” might be imagining the world (if you could ask them). Here the “Frigates” are not just crewed by deck “Hands”, but the ships themselves seem to be alive, as if the ships are waving back to shore because they are living things. From a dog’s point of view it would all be the same, ship and man, and the dog would gladly bark back as if to wave too. I also love how she’s playing with the word wave and the waves of the sea without once having to use the world. Finally, the “Mouse” might be of special interest to the “Dog” since some dogs are keen to catch small animals, so perhaps the “Dog” has run off on its own adventure leaving the speaker to watch the sea.

Which leads into the third stanza where the speaker lets the tide come up bast their “Shoe”, then their “Apron”, then “Belt”, and finally the tide rolls in all the way up to their “Boddice”. Why does the speaker not move? Do they want to drown? Or are they unable to move because their “Dog” is not currently with them because they have run off to catch a “mouse”? If we think of this tide as the troubles of life that sometimes seem to want to drown us, then these troubles seem unconquerable when we are alone and have no friend to help us with them. And in the fourth stanza when the speaker has been pulled under water (perhaps there was a strong riptide / undertow) they seem resigned to their fate that they will be consumed, until they “started” because something has come along to save them.

In the fifth stanza the “Dog” reappears by the speaker’s side – “I felt His Silver Heel” – and with his gentle mouth he nips at the speaker’s “Ancle” (ankle) as if to pull the speaker back to shore and to safety. Then, once back on shore – “the Solid Town” of the sand / beach – “The Sea withdrew” as the “Dog” barks at it, head down playfully but alert, as if he’s barking at the “Mermaids” or the “Frigates”. The “Dog”, because he is a fearless companion, has saved the speaker from the troubles that had been consuming them because the “Dog” is a perfect friend, a friend who does not judge or complain and who will always be by your side when you most need them.

When you’re having a bad day, your dog will cheer you up seems to be what EMily might be saying here, and it’s a wonderful poem.

page 164 of 231 of Exit West

“Imagine if you lived here. And millions of people from all over the world suddenly arrived” is something a lot of people don’t assume refugees would say, but it’s not like they wouldn’t know they were in a strange land, that they weren’t wanted. But where can anybody go? The earth is round enough that no matter where you go, you’re still stuck on the same globe, in the same situation.

page 158 of 231 of Exit West

Clever how Hamid analyzes all of Britain’s history with just a slight allusion to Churchill, “islands endure” and also the Norman invasion of 1066. Do islands endure? Aren’t nations just another example of Theseus’ ship? If you replace everyone in England with refugees, is it still England? If everyone speaks a different English, is it still English? Does it matter? Doesn’t it matter?

page 157 of 231 of Exit West

Time bends again and as she sits on the steps reading the news she thinks she sees a picture of herself sitting on the steps reading the news and “she had the bizarre feeling of time bending all around her, as though she was from the past reading about the future, or from the future reading about the past” all the while on an endless island of the present.

page 153 of 231 of Exit West

Nadia makes a good point about not wanting to move in with “our own kind” because “we’ve left that place”. It does seem from one point of view to be silly to want to remain with your own people after you’ve left your home country, but then it also makes sense to want to be with all the same people who fled your country. Both make sense and both don’t make sense.

page 151 of 231 of Exit West

And while Nadia has been accepted by the Nigerian women and women from other countries and is respected by the others, Saeed is “emasculated” by the woman with the chipped tooth. He has no respect and he couldn’t be any more different from Nadia. He remains on an island alone while she has found a new land in a way. Nadia is tougher, a survivor, Saeed is more sensitive and not cut out for all this.

Nadia doesn’t seem interested in trying to be with people like herself, while Saeed wants to be with people like him. Is one ideology necessarily better than the other? Is Saeed’s desire to remain with “like to like” something that can be defined as good or bad? Is Nadia’s lack of desire to remain with her own people something that can be defined as good or bad? Are all humans our people or are our people our people?

page 140 of 231 of Exit West

I hadn’t thought about how they are also buying time for their cell phones, how they have purchased units of future which can be exchanged for packets of data-nowness that equate to a connection between people. And as Saeed worries about how cell phone connections are unreliable, Nadia worries about the connection / promise she made to Saeed’s father to stay with Saeed – yet now they wander London separately.

If the fox, as the old lady suggests, is a symbol of their love, and if the fox / love is a noble thing that also roots around in the trash, then perhaps Hamid is saying that even in the trash there are pockets of love, that the animals we see (and that we are because we are “monkeys who have forgotten that [we] are monkeys”) are not animals but expressions of love only. I’m reminded of Bergson.