Category Archives: Books

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 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.

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.

page 136 of 231 of Exit West

Maybe not the most romantic vow ever, but perhaps the most true when she says “Let’s agree to try harder not to speak shittily to each other”. And in a way this is the most romantic thing they’ve done in this house, holding hands in the dark, listening to pirated pop songs on a cell phone’s crappy speaker.

page 133 of 231 of Exit West

She’s describing that they are building up a tolerance to the intolerance that is growing between them, like allergies. And this is related to how she describes people in dorms forcing themselves to be on their best behavior in order that it might become second nature to how once you are also unkind, that too can become second nature, Tolerances work both ways.

Now they are borrowing on time itself, from the future for relief today and this creates the image of time folding in on itself, the future folding back towards the present as the past is also catching up to their present. In this house they are in an eternal present with the curve of space-time quickly folding in like a black hole. Perhaps that is what these doors are, “black holes in the fabric of the nation” (129)

page 131 of 231 of Exit West

While I’m not sure I agree that this suicidal man has found peace in the beauty of seaside Namibia, I do like the contrast of his unhappiness though he is surrounded by plenty while Saeed and Nadia are struggling to live even though they have nothing. Yet everyone is miserable in their own way, and the “nearby blackness” of the door is like that misery lurking inside everyone.

page 129 of 231 of Exit West

Hamid is playing with how the locals (whites) fear migrants moving into the ‘nice’ neighborhoods and buying the ‘nice’ houses and thus removing the whiteness of a neighborhood. As if nice houses can only be occupied with the white people.

He’s also playing with the excesses of the west in how the wealthy often have multiple homes and they leave them empty with only foreign housekeepers coming by to clean them

page 127 of 231 of Exit West

Sad to see their marriage (though they aren’t married) falling apart even though they are free from war. The more free they are the easier it is for the pressures of the world to drive them apart, as if two different winds were blowing at them in different directions and these winds were getting stronger. In London, with a moment of luxury, they seem further apart than ever. Is this a comment on the west, too?

page 125 of 231 of Exit West

“she thought her body looked like the body of an animal, a savage” is a complex line because it deals with the issue of how people who belong to a place see refugees as animals, not as humans. And here Nadia also sees that animal in her and she wants to wash it away, as if a shower will remove how other people who belong will see her. Hamid might also be alluding to how the Nazis forced the Jews into “showers”.

page 118 of 231 of Exit West

Even when they do meet someone kind, I feel as if all our defenses are up and so our first reaction is to not trust the young volunteer who cares for Nadia’s arm injury. But even with how bad things have gotten they found a moment of kindness, at least for Nadia and the girl – we don’t know who Saeed feels about this. And then they do get to another door, but it feels like it won’t be to anywhere better.

page 113 of 231 of Exit West

“The Island of the Winds” lives up to its name by blowing his acquaintance and Saeed together, but of course it all turns out to be a scam. The lemon tree’s leaves wither a little more and Saeed and Nadia are more miserable now than they were back home and no amount of temporary happiness or laughter is going to change that they will soon perhaps turn their backs on each other the same way the now sleep back to back

page 110 of 231 of Exit West

It’s frustrating how easy it is to manipulate a social situation these days – in this chapter the militants cause violence in a country where the refugees have gone in order to turn public opinion against the refugees. The public will only see the violence and blame the refugees for it and then everyone will take sides and very few people will be in the middle trying to erase the border.

page 109 of 231 of Exit West

“They were each at the crest of the hill only briefly, and at different times”. They both see something different, and neither sees each other – at least not the same way they did. Perhaps Hamid is saying that when you remove a person from their home it changes who they are as a person. It’s like if you grew up speaking another language, your worldview would be different because language, like place, shapes you.

page 107 of 231 of Exit West

Mykonos is also known as ‘The Island of the Winds’, so perhaps it’s fitting Saeed & Nadia emerged there, like a leaf blown on the wind, perhaps the last of their lemon three’s leaves blown all the way to a place that “was pretty safe … except when it was not”.

It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to be a refugee, to have no where to go, nowhere to go back to (except probably death). To be Foreign everywhere.

Saeed and Nadia being opposites is coming into sharper contrast now that they are in the refugee camp. He seems to be growing bitter and a consuming sense of guilt, whereas she seems to be taking things in a practical stride. He can’t connect over the phone to his father, she connects right away to her friends over social media. She tries to kiss him, he turns his head.

page 104 of 231 of Exit West

Time collapses, it “felt equally like a beginning and an end”, “was both like dying and like being born,” a moment that is somehow enlarged, like a kinked hose where there is not going forward in time and no going back, just an ever expanding present. This is the time of the refugee – no past, no future, just trapped in a kink of time with only memories behind them and hope in front of them.

page 96 of 231 of Exit West

Saeed’s father also wishes to remain rather than become a refugee because “Your mother is here”, which she is in a way, but also in time as in she is there in the past, just as her bones are there in the present, and where he will be in the future regardless of his opportunity to leave. Even facing death many people will not leave their home, it takes something extraordinary to force them to leave.

He creates the image of graves built atop the graves of our parents, “the arc of a child’s life only appears for a while to match the arc of a parent’s, in reality one sits atop the other, a hill atop a hill, a curve atop a curve”. He’s not just speaking about the arcs of life, but of death because an arc has two points, a beginning and an end, but it’s only in arc in relation to another arc or straight line.

page 94 of 231 of Exit West

No wonder the lemon tree died, not even plans are eager to be moved. And when Nadia frets about being a refugee and how she’d be at the mercy of strangers, both of these scenes speak to how most people do not want to leave home and become refugees, people just want to survive. Even in the bombed out apartment with trenches dug for toilets, they hang onto home even though home is in the past and maybe in the future

page 93 of 231 of Exit West

Wonderful shift in POV to the cameras of the security force of Dubai as the one family pops out of a doorway into Dubai. Who knows what will happen, but I can see now how this is a story of refugees and how the “suddenly appear”. The TV screen image of the security footage is good too because we’re talking media images of what we see on the news, but from the state’s POV in wanting to get rid of these “invaders”

page 90 of 231 of Exit West

Couldn’t Saeed and Nadia pretend to be brother and sister? Seems like that would be a lot safer? Also are the robots supposed to be drones?

I like hos they are unsure if they are “making a down payment or being robbed”. It’s probably both, but with an emphasis on being robbed.

“Let us hope,” because that is all that’s left, hope in stories, the way someone who is about to die will turn to the bible.

page 86 of 231 of Exit West

The worse the situation gets, the more willing Saeed is to taking risks. As people are executed for being unmarried and having sex, Saeed and Nadia – who are unmarried – do have sex. And the timing is interesting because he chooses this right after the murder upstairs, while the blood is on their ceiling, like the blood stain after having sex the first time, but somehow this loss of virginity hangs above them.

The “bodies hanging from streetlamps and billboard like a form of festive seasonal decoration” is one of those images that, while it isn’t true because this is a work of fiction, is true because it feels true which makes me assume this has happened somewhere in reality. And has it? At what point does a fiction also become a truth? I think of The Painted Bird, that awful book and its truth / fictions of Eastern Europe

page 85 of 231 of Exit West

The violence is handled so matter-of-fact, it comes at the end of a paragraph without (much) warning: “The neighbors upstairs were not so lucky; the husband was held down while his throat was cut, the wife and daughter were hauled out and away.” And that’s it, this is all we know other than the man’s blood staining the ceiling of Saeed’s home. Even the body disappears when they attempt to bury him.