Passages to Erewhon: Subtexts of the Muslim Migration Narrative in Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West

Authors: Judy Schaaf*, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth
Topics: Immigration/Transnationalism, Social Geography
Keywords: Muslim diaspora, fictional geographies, utopian fiction
Session Type: Lightning Paper
Day: 4/6/2020
Start / End Time: 4:40 PM / 5:55 PM
Room: Plaza Ballroom F, Sheraton, Concourse Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Hamid's “utopian” novel Exit West expresses dismay about contemporary events and their human consequences. An omniscient narrator follows beleaguered travelers to new realms, but Hamid’s "nowhere" is existential more than palpable. Reluctantly fleeing a home place radically reshaped by violence that has erased their identity with it, Saeed and Nadia slip through a series of magical "doors" to the West. Their journeys reflect experiences of contemporary refugees from terror-laden places, desperately seeking asylum in the west. Hamid never identifies their place of origin but does name the places they go - first to a refugee camp on the Greek island of Mykonos, then to London’s West End, and finally to Marin, California. These are among the world’s most affluent places, radically unlike the sites where the lives of actual refugees play out. Linking the invented world firmly with the real one in readers' minds thus paradoxically, Hamid generates cognitive dissonance to probe unexamined assumptions and initiate wider understanding. This presentation explores the imaginative interplay between the novel’s actual and fictional places to inquire about the book’s intentions. By keeping it a romance abstracted from time, Hamid evades limitations that attend more realistic forms of fiction, helping ensure that perennial themes - love in times of crisis, exile and alienation - survive exigencies of place and time. But he also emplaces a powerful critique of western response to the Muslim diaspora in a manner that shelters it from easy assumptions and stereotypes, much as his precursor Thomas More had protected Utopia.

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