In his novel Exit West, Mohsin Hamid forces the reader to imagine what it would take to make them leave everything they know and love behind. Rather than focusing on the difficulties of the physical journey that refugees must go through, Hamid shifts the reader’s attention to the reasons behind the journey, unveiling a tragic story unfathomable to those who have never experienced it. Critic Eva Menger believes Hamid elicits empathy from the reader through the use of magic realism, where he implements doors as a way to help communicate his message. Doors were used to allow the characters to travel anywhere in the world just by walking through them. He then demonstrates that while there is an element of fiction to his novel, it is also very much rooted in truth. He shows the truth he seeks to portray through his use of cell phones, as he uses the cell phone as they are in our current reality. The distinction mentioned here adds a strong element of underlying truth to the novel. Critic Liliana M. Naydan piggybacks on Menger’s idea that cell phones are used in the novel to demonstrate a connectability with the refugee experience. While both these critics make valid arguments about how Hamid breaks down psychological barriers creating empathy for the reader, I feel the overall purpose of the magical doors and cell phones were to break down geographical barriers, ultimately enabling readers to empathize with refugee experience.
In Exit West, magical realism is used to turn doors into objects that give the user the ability to teleport anywhere in the world. Going through these doors “was both like dying and like being born” (Hamid 104) and in Saeed’s and Nadia’s case it was their only escape, leaving their old lives and everything associated with them behind to die while looking ahead to what is now their new life. As Saeed and Nadia continued to travel, more and more doors appeared everywhere and instant travel was found everywhere leading to a world without any borders. In a world without borders nations no longer retained any sovereignty, turning everyone into an immigrant of sorts. Hamid expressed the new found confusion by writing “without borders nations appeared to be becoming somewhat illusory, and people were questioning what role they had to play”(158), proving how much of one’s identity is tied to the nation they call home. Here, Hamid helps exemplify the identity crisis refugees are forced to suffer through, as they leave a lot of who they are behind. Hamid expresses that with magical doors all people were one diverse nation, creating empathy for the immigrant in the novel with the people who were local. Menger agrees that while the magical doors create empathy in the novel she believes Hamid is also reaching out to help the reader truly visualize the profound effect these magical doors would have in order to better understand “today’s pressing immigration issues”(Menger 81). By allowing the reader to picture what a world without borders would be like, it creates an optimistic outlook on what the world could be. Menger argues that through the use of the doors Hamid is questioning our own reality, “magical doors through which Saeed and Nadia travel are by no means scientifically plausible; yet the way in which they distance the reader from his or her own world is what allows them to question reality” (Menger 81). While Menger argues that the physical door is what makes the reader question their own reality, Hamid’s use of portraying a real world with no borders is what actually creates empathy for the refugee experience. Magic doors are just a tool Hamid uses to portray a world with no borders invoking empathy in his audience.
Hamid then transforms his way of writing by using cellphones as they are in the real world, showing that while in many ways the novel’s alternate reality strays from the world we know, there are also many things that remain true in both realities. Cell phones are explained by Menger as “a novum of the real world”(83). Hamid uses phones as a novum, or an item used in science fiction that is seen in the real world, in order to open up the minds of the reader into a world that could be. Throughout the novel Nadia and Saeed use their phones as a tool to connect them to the outside world, while also connecting the outside world to their own perspectives. Hamid describes cell phones as “portals to each other and to the world provided by their mobile phones”(Hamid 57). Through the usage of cell phones both Saeed and Nadia are connected with what went on in “places distant and near, and to places that had never been and would never be”(Hamid 39), demonstrating how Hamid breaks down geographical borders through the connectivity of phones. Naydan argues that while Hamid is breaking down borders, she believes it is the phones that create empathy, “traversing time and geographical space with the help of digital screens despite the boundaries and borders — screens of a different sort that divide people from one another — that nationalism, xenophobia, and state- and non-state-sanctioned terrorism work together to create”(433). She explains that although there are physical borders built by people of high political power, the use of phones destroy what these people seek out: the division of people to keep them weak. If the people were able to join together as one strong group, they could overthrow the aforementioned imbalance of power. While cell phones offer a paradigm for those who will never experience the world of immigration, it is the fact that without borders people are connected, provoking the reader to imagine a world where everyone has a place in the world. The refugee crisis is a global issue that will not be solved unless we are able to all unite together, offering everyone their own equal place in the world, as it should be.
In Exit West, Hamid wants to evoke empathy from people who could not comprehend what it would be like to be an immigrant. He creates empathy by his use of the destruction of geographical borders through his implementation of magical realism to transform both doors and phones. While magic doors may seem implausible, Menger explains that Hamid is using them as a symbol of hope for all refugees, as it gives them the power to instantly travel anywhere in the world in the blink of an eye. The doors are not only for the people in the novel to escape from where they are, but they’re used to form optimistic ideologies in the reader hoping for a near future without borders. Hamid helps us envision ourselves in an isolated scenario where we are all immigrants, helping the reader understand why we ought to break down the unnecessary barriers that our ancestors placed upon us.
Hamid, Mohsin. Exit West. Riverhead Books, 2018.
Menger, Eva. “‘What It Feels like to Be an Other’: Imaginations of Displacement in Contemporary Speculative Fiction.” Studies in Arts and Humanities, vol. 4, no. 2, Jan. 2019, pp. 79–95. www.sahjournal.com, doi:10.18193/sah.v4i2.141.
Naydan, Liliana M. “Digital Screens and National Divides in Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 51, no. 3, Sept. 2019, pp. 433–51. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/sdn.2019.0048.
Honor Code: DB