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Mohsin Hamid: Writers need to create 'optimistic' futures

Sabine Peschel
September 13, 2017

Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid believes it's important for writers to help society imagine radical, optimistic new futures. He spoke with DW about his latest book, "Exit West," a story about migration and basic humanity.

Mohsin Hamid  Copyright LeonardoxCend
Image: Imago/L. Leemage

Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid is at home in the East and the West. Born in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1971, as a child he moved to California where his father taught at Stanford University. Hamid would later move to the US East Coast, to study at Harvard Law School and Princeton University.

After his studies, he worked in New York as a business consultant and began to write. As a Muslim, Hamid's experiences living in the US after the 9/11 attacks found an outlet in his 2007 novel "The Reluctant Fundamentalist." The book, an international best-seller, was translated into 25 languages.

Hamid then relocated to London and worked as a freelance journalist and novelist. In 2009, he moved back to Lahore. His 2013 novel, "How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia," made the shortlist for Germany's 2014 International Literature Award. His latest novel, "Exit West," was published in March and has made the longlist for the Man Booker Prize. DW spoke with Hamid at the International Literature Festival in Berlin.

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DW: "Exit West" is a parable of a world where doors stand open, with migration as the central theme. Do you believe the freedom to migrate should be a basic human right?

Mohsin Hamid: I think it should. We are at a state now where we have embraced partial equality. We think that if you are a man or a woman, you should be equal. If you're black or white, you should be equal. If you are religious or atheist, gay or straight, you should be equal.

Book cover Mohsin Hamid Exit West
'Exit West' is a humanistic vision of the refugee crisis

And yet, we seem unprepared to say that if you are born in Mogadishu or in Hamburg, in New York or in Lahore, you should be equal. We recoil from the idea of equality, regardless of the place of birth. I don't think that's sustainable. Eventually, it will be accepted that regardless of where someone was born they have an equal right to live where they choose. This might be 100 years from now, or it might be 500 years from now.

And I think it will be liberating for us. Slavery was not abolished only because slavery demeaned the humanity of people who were slaves; slavery demeans the humanity of people who are masters. And in this sense, trying to live in countries which claim to champion equality while fundamentally denying it to people born in other places demeans people as well. So we all have to gain. But it's a multigenerational process.

How should the world deal with the current all-time high of 65 million migrants?

The first question when it comes to the future is, how are we going to articulate optimistic visions of the future that include everybody, that we find desirable? And that we think can actually come into existence. What's amazing about this moment in human history is the complete lack of any such visions. Instead of optimistic inclusive visions of the future, we hear nostalgic visions of the future. ISIS [another name for the so-called "Islamic State" — Editor's note] is about returning to the caliphate. Brexit is about returning to pre-EU Britain. Donald Trump wants to make America great again, the way it used to be.

When we fail to articulate optimistic new visions, we leave space for those who pedal nostalgia. Nostalgia is very dangerous — we cannot go back in time, and the old days were never as good as we thought they were. One of the important things we need to do as citizens, and certainly as writers, is to begin to imagine optimistic futures that are not nostalgic. Would a world of universal migration be terrifying for us? Yes, but a world where our grandchildren could live in Rio de Janeiro, Beijing or Lahore, if they wanted — would they find this world horrifying? Maybe not.

Berlin's International Literature Festival opens

You lived in London for eight years, you met your wife there and your first child was born there. What do you think of Brexit?

I'm completely horrified by Brexit. I don't think the EU is a perfect institution, but there are aspects of the EU that I find wonderful. The free movement of people inside the EU, the breaking down of nationalism — those are wonderful ideas. It's a project that can be improved, rather than a project that Britain should have exited. And now, we've discovered Brexit has nothing to do with controlling migration. Brexit sets in place a dangerous rhetoric of who is British.

Your novel deals with the world's present situation. Why did you choose to write it in the past tense?

The present moment of the book's narration is about 50 years in the future; we look back at the story from then. I wrote it in the past tense, even though it's a slightly future-orientated book, because I think the story of migration is the original story of humanity. We think these are contemporary events, unique to our moment. But the story of human beings has always been a story of geographic migration.

"Exit West" ends on an optimistic note; the future for the refugees Nadia and Saeed seems bright. Why did you opt for a fairy-tale ending?

The book's optimistic ending has to do with my sense that it's actually now politically imperative for us to find optimism. The biggest danger that we face at the moment is a sense of pessimism about the future. Because we're pessimistic about the future, we're drawn to charlatans, bigots, chauvinists, xenophobes, regressive forces that try to take us into the past. It's important to have an optimistic view. I also think it's historically and statistically correct to have an optimistic view. The world is actually becoming a better place.

Is it an author's responsibility to create optimism?

Book cover Mohsin Hamid "The Reluctant Fundamentalist"
'The Reluctant Fundamentalist,' a best-seller, was made into a 2012 film

It's important to imagine critical radical optimism. Which is not the same as saying that the way things are going is great, we should all relax and go with the status quo. But rather to say that it's entirely possible that if we engage, we can make things better. For a long time, we thought that the task of journalism was to reveal how messed up the status quo was. If you said the status quo was great, it would mean that the powerful people who have created the status quo [would see] their power perpetuated.

But now we live in a world where their status and power depend on them telling us that the status quo is a disaster. Take Donald Trump, for example: Trump being a phenomenon depends on the view that America is in a disastrous situation. If you say America is in a disastrous situation, you're actually not diminishing the power of someone like Trump, you're enhancing them.

We have to find new ways of being critical. Not blindly saying that things are good in America, obviously not. But saying that it's entirely in America's capability to solve its most important problems. It's entirely within Germany's capability. It's entirely within humanity's capability to solve these problems. However, it will require very significant departures from what's happening now.

One of the things writers can do is to serve as a kind of research and development department for humanity's imagination, for what could be. And when you imagine what could be in a radical way, you are contributing to this process. It's not a mandatory task for the writer, but it's one of the tasks that fiction can play, and I think it's an important task.

In your novel, Nadia and Saeed flee an unnamed city and go to the Greek island of Mykonos, where they are confronted by angry opponents of immigration. Is this your comment on what's happening in Europe, especially in Southern Europe, with the migrants?

Book cover Mohsin Hamid "How to get filthy rich in rising Asia"
Hamid's 2013 novel was shortlisted for Germany's International Literature Award

People have been made terrified of refugees and migrants. They've been told that these people will destroy their way of life, that they bring terrorism, disease, crime. And no one is asking: What is the consequence of being a human being or a society that turns away people facing death? If someone is drowning in a swimming pool right next to you and you don't reach out to help, it's not as if nothing happened to you in that moment. Something profound has happened to you. Your humanity has been diminished forever. You have suffered a huge loss.

And this appears to be a side of the equation that we seem so unwilling to talk about. Maybe we don't want migrants, we don't want refugees. Do we want to be the kind of people who imprison them? Who shoot them? Who let them drown? And if we do become that kind of people, how will we behave toward ourselves?

It's an illusion to think that one can have a relation to migrants and refugees which fundamentally denies them humanity, and retain the ability to grant humanity to one's children, one's friends, one's fellow citizens. We lose that. The battle for the protection of migrants is not just for the protection of migrants, it's the battle for the protection of our own sense of decency. And that sense of decency has an enormous price. Perhaps that price is worth the crime the terrorism, the disease, that migrants may or may not bring.