“Hearts set about finding other hearts the moment they are born, and between them, they weave nets so frightfully strong and tight that you end up bound forever in hopeless knots, even to the shadow of a beast you knew and loved long ago.”
I believe in the writer—the writer, above all. That’s how we started off: admiring the writer. We organized the New York Review according to the writers we admired most: Edmund Wilson, Wystan Auden, Fred Dupee, Norman, Bill, Lizzie, Mary among them. Each of them had a confident sense of their own prose, and it meant a great deal to them—the matter of a comma, a semicolon, a word—and it does to our writers today. And so, when it comes to making a change, we should not do it without their permission. If a moment comes at some point where we see something should be improved, we don’t just scribble it in but call them up wherever they are. And that is, I think, crucial.
Robert Silvers, co-founding editor of The New York Review of Books , died today, March 20, 2017, after an illness. He was 87 years old.
By Jennifer Harvey
DES MOINES — Last year at this time, my 7-year-old was running around singing the praises of George Washington. I was happy to see her so engaged with what she’d learned at school. But I was dismayed that the peace- and diversity-centered curriculum she gets at her public school had left her with such a one-dimensional view of history.
I struggled with how best to respond. Then one morning, she overheard the news on our kitchen radio about a politician charged with ethics violations. “What’s that about?” she asked. I told her someone in the government had done something wrong, and she asked how an adult who was a leader could possibly do something bad.
“Unfortunately,” I responded, “a lot of our country’s leaders have done bad things.” When her eyes grew big and she said, “Like who and what did they do?” I knew I had my opportunity.
“Well,” I said, “you know how you’ve been running around here celebrating George Washington? We always talk about George Washington fighting for freedom. But George Washington also owned black people as slaves.” Her intrigue turned to horror.
Fast forward, one year. For those of us raising children, the future couldn’t be more on our minds. With the news full of reports about vandalized Jewish cemeteries and mosques on fire, police officers who terrorize and endanger black and Latino children, and engineers from India being shot while enjoying a meal after work, it’s tempting to shut off the radio, turn off the TV and cancel those news alerts on our cellphones. But it’s more critical than ever that we talk about difficult and morally complex issues with our children.
Of the many dangers this presidency poses, one of the greatest is deep damage to our children’s perceptions of race, gender and other kinds of difference. We know the youngest children internalize racist perceptions of themselves and others. As early as age 5, children recognize differential treatment and understand something about the social status of different racial groups, their own group and others. These effects are powerful in normal times. In this political climate, they’re on steroids.
Meanwhile, studies have long shown that generic messages about equality aren’t effective in countering such racial socialization. Right now, then, it’s even more urgent that parents who rely on messages like “we’re all equal” or “we’re all the same underneath our skin” in the hope of teaching our children the values of inclusion, equality and difference significantly up our game. And let’s be frank, it’s parents of white children, like myself, who tend to rely on these sincere, but ineffective, strategies.
The consequences are serious. When we don’t talk honestly with white children about racism, they become more likely to disbelieve or discount their peers when they report experiencing racism. “But we’re all equal” becomes a rote response that actually blocks white children from recognizing or taking seriously racism when they see it or hear about it. This is at best.
At worst, the consequences are akin to what happens when you breathe in polluted air. Not realizing the pollution is there doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect you. White children are exposed to racism daily. If we parents don’t point it out, show how it works and teach why it is false, over time our children are more likely to accept racist messages at face value. When they see racial inequality — when the only doctors or teachers they see are white, or fewer kids in accelerated classes are black, for example — they won’t blame racism. Instead, they’ll blame people of color for somehow falling short.
We have better models. Parents of black and Latino children have long made thoughtful choices about when and how to engage in difficult and nuanced discussions about difference. Studies show that such parents are two to five times more likely than whites to teach their children explicitly about race from very young ages to counter negative social messages and build a strong sense of identity.
These parents have responded to the racial epithet overheard at recess in age-appropriate ways. They’ve figured out when to have “the talk,” explaining how their children must conduct themselves around police officers. They’ve had complex discussions about equality: “We should all be equal, we all have equal worth, but we don’t all experience equality yet.” Parents of children who are not white have long contemplated how to make their kids aware of painful racial realities in the United States, while simultaneously nurturing resilience and a healthy sense of self.
Those of us who are not immigrants or Muslim and who are raising white children stand to learn much from parents like these, even as we apply the teachings differently for our particular families.
For example, I’ve tried to go beyond the abstract “be kind to everyone” to encourage my children to recognize racial meanness and understand that white kids have a particular responsibility to challenge racism. These are necessary skills when the racism emboldened by this administration shows up in the world.
One-dimensional, generic teachings are tempting. They feel easier and safer. That’s the only reason my daughter’s school would settle for partial truths about George Washington. But raising children who are resilient for justice and able to do their part to create an inclusive society takes more, especially now. And it’s not as hard as it might seem.
After I told my daughter the whole story, she asked, “If Washington held slaves, why do we celebrate him as if he was such a great man?”
What a good question — one that allowed us to engage in moral reasoning together. I asked her what she thought the reason was. In turn, I speculated that sometimes it’s hard to admit our white predecessors did bad things because it makes us feel bad. Then we talked about how we don’t have to just feel bad about the past, but instead should find ways to challenge injustice today. We talked about the importance of telling the whole truth, even when it’s hard.
It’s always risky to tell other people how to raise their children, and I don’t want to imply that I’m some kind of perfect parent. On top of that, our children and families are all different and there are many distinct ways to have conversations about race with our children. But however we talk about it, we need to talk about racism now more than ever.
Celeste Ng, whose 2014 debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, was a stunning success, will release her follow-up novel, Little Fires Everywhere, on September 12, 2017.
Little Fires Everywhere, follows Elena Richardson, a tightly-wound rule follower, whose carefully planned world is shaken up when a mysterious, alluring single mother, Mia Warren, moves to Shaker Heights and rents a house from the Richardsons with Pearl her teenage daughter. Elena is already suspicious of Mia, but when an attempted adoption of a Chinese-American baby divides the town in two — with Elena and Mia on opposite sides — she’s determined to figure out her tenant’s secrets once and for all, no matter the cost.
Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down. All spring the gossip had been about little Mirabelle McCullough—or, depending which side you were on, May Ling Chow—and now, at last, there was something new and sensational to discuss. A little after noon on that Saturday morning in May, the shoppers pushing their grocery carts in Heinen’s heard the fire engines wail to life and careen away, toward the duck pond. By a quarter after twelve there were four of them parked in a haphazard red line along Parkland Drive, where all six bedrooms of the Richardson house were ablaze, and everyone within a half mile could see the smoke rising over the trees like a dense black thundercloud. Later people would say that the signs had been there all along: that Izzy was a little lunatic, that there had always been something off about the Richardson family, that as soon as they heard the sirens that morning they knew something terrible had happened. By then, of course, Izzy would be long gone, leaving no one to defend her, and people could—and did—say whatever they liked. At the moment the fire trucks arrived, though, and for quite a while afterward, no one knew what was happening. Neighbors clustered as close to the makeshift barrier—a police cruiser, parked crosswise a few hundred yards away—as they could and watched the firemen unreel their hoses with the grim faces of men who recognized a hopeless cause. Across the street, the geese at the pond ducked their heads underwater for weeds, wholly unruffled by the commotion.
Mrs. Richardson stood on the tree lawn, clutching the neck of her pale-blue robe closed. Although it was already afternoon, she had still been asleep when the smoke detectors had sounded. She had gone to bed late, and had slept in on purpose, telling herself she deserved it after a rather difficult day. The night before, she had watched from an upstairs window as a car had finally pulled up in front of the house. The driveway was long and circular, a deep horseshoe arc bending from the curb to the front door and back—so the street was a good hundred feet away, too far for her to see clearly, and even in May, at eight o’clock it was almost dark, besides. But she had recognized the small tan Volkswagen of her tenant, Mia, its headlights shining. The passenger door opened and a slender figure emerged, leaving the door ajar: Mia’s teenage daughter, Pearl. The dome light lit the inside of the car like a shadow box, but the car was packed with bags nearly to the ceiling and Mrs. Richardson could only just make out the faint silhouette of Mia’s head, the messy topknot perched at the crown of her head. Pearl bent over the mailbox, and Mrs. Richardson imagined the faint squeak as the mailbox door opened, then shut. Then Pearl hopped back into the car and shut the door. The brake lights flared red, then winked out, and the car puttered off into the growing night. With a sense of relief, Mrs. Richardson had gone down to the mailbox and found a set of keys on a plain ring, with no note. She had planned to go over in the morning and check the rental house on Winslow Road, even though she already knew that they would be gone.
It was because of this that she had allowed herself to sleep in, and now it was half past twelve and she was standing on the tree lawn in her robe and a pair of her son Trip’s tennis shoes, watching their house burn to the ground. When she had awoken to the shrill scream of the smoke detector, she ran from room to room looking for him, for Lexie, for Moody. It struck her that she had not looked for Izzy, as if she had known already that Izzy was to blame. Every bedroom was empty except for the smell of gasoline and a small crackling fire set directly in the middle of each bed, as if a demented Girl Scout had been camping there. By the time she checked the living room, the family room, the rec room, and the kitchen, the smoke had begun to spread, and she ran outside at last to hear the sirens, alerted by their home security system, already approaching. Out in the driveway, she saw that Trip’s Jeep was gone, as was Lexie’s Explorer, and Moody’s bike, and, of course, her husband’s sedan. He usually went into the office to play catch-up on Saturday mornings. Someone would have to call him at work. She remembered then that Lexie, thank god, had stayed over at Serena Wong’s house last night. She wondered where Izzy had gotten to. She wondered where her sons were, and how she would find them to tell them what had happened.
From Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Celeste Ng, 2017.
Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more so that we may fear less.
Nobel Laureate Poet Derek Walcott has died this Friday at 87 years old. Walcott’s poetry centered around his life in St. Lucia in the Caribbean, and with the complex colonialist legacy that created his world — but it contains multitudes, and it travels around the world as much as its voraciously erudite author did. By turns epic and compact, Walcott’s poetry has a dazzling musicality and lyricism. It begs to be read aloud; you can almost taste the words as you read them.
To celebrate his legacy, here is a stanza from In the Village, a poem about Walcott’s time in New York’s Greenwich Village:
Who has removed the typewriter from my desk,
so that I am a musician without his piano
with emptiness ahead as clear and grotesque
as another spring? My veins bud, and I am so
full of poems, a wastebasket of black wire.
The notes outside are visible; sparrows will
line antennae like staves, the way springs were,
but the roofs are cold and the great grey river
where a liner glides, huge as a winter hill,
moves imperceptibly like the accumulating
years. I have no reason to forgive her
for what I brought on myself. I am past hating,
past the longing for Italy where blowing snow
absolves and whitens a kneeling mountain range
outside Milan. Through glass, I am waiting
for the sound of a bird to unhinge the beginning
of spring, but my hands, my work, feel strange
without the rusty music of my machine. No words
for the Arctic liner moving down the Hudson, for the mange
of old snow moulting from the roofs. No poems. No birds.
Related Story: Derek Walcott In The New Yorker
Excellent article by The Washington Post (factually specific, multi-sourced, data-driven) detailing: how much foreign aid the United States provides; to whom; and the stated purpose for the aid.
A construction site in the Israeli settlement of Efrat in the West Bank. (BAZ RATNER / REUTERS)
Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday joined a growing chorus warning that the so-called two-state solution, which he called “the only way to achieve a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” could be on the verge of permanent collapse.
The two-state solution has for decades been the primary focus of efforts to achieve peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the contours of what it would actually look like — and why it has been so hard to achieve — can get lost. Here’s a basic guide.
What is the two-state solution?
It helps to start with the problem the solution is meant to address: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At its most basic level, the conflict is about how or whether to divide territory between two peoples.
Graphic showing Palestinian land loss since 1947. This visual speaks to the absurdity of any possible two-state solution that does not re-apportion the division of the land. (Added to original article by wordnerdproblems.com editor, Melissia Lenox.)
The territory question is also wrapped up in other overlapping but distinct issues: whether the Palestinian territories can become an independent state and how to resolve years of violence that include the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the partial Israeli blockade of Gaza and Palestinian violence against Israelis.
The two-state solution would establish an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel — two states for two peoples. In theory, this would win Israel security and allow it to retain a Jewish demographic majority (letting the country remain Jewish and democratic) while granting the Palestinians a state.
And most important, the current Israeli leadership, though it nominally supports a two-state solution, appears to oppose it in practice.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister since 2009, endorsed the two-state solution in a speech that year. But he continued to expand West Bank settlements and, in 2015, said there would be “no withdrawals” and “no concessions.”
Mr. Netanyahu appears personally skeptical of Palestinian independence. His fragile governing coalition also relies on right-wing parties that are skeptical of or outright oppose the two-state solution.
Israeli public pressure for a peace deal has declined. The reasons are complex: demographic changes, an increasingly powerful settler movement, outrage at Palestinian attacks such as a recent spate of stabbings, and bitter memories of the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, which saw frequent bus and cafe bombings.
And the status quo has, for most Israelis, become relatively peaceful and bearable. Many see little incentive for adopting a risky and uncertain two-state solution, leaving Mr. Netanyahu with scant reason to risk his political career on one
Are there other solutions?
There are, but they involve such drastic costs that the United States and many other governments consider all but the two-state solution unacceptable.
There are multiple versions of the so-called one-state solution, which would join all territories as one nation. One version would grant equal rights to all in a state that would be neither Jewish nor Palestinian in character, because neither group would have a clear majority. Skeptics fear this would risk internal instability or even a return to war.
Another, advocated by some on the Israeli far right, would establish one state but preserve Israel’s Jewish character by denying full rights to Palestinians. Under this version, Israel would no longer be a democratic state.
With few viable or popular alternatives, the most likely choice may be to simply maintain the status quo — though few believe that is possible in the long term.
What happens if there is no solution?
A common prediction, as Mr. Kerry stated, is that Israel will be forced to choose between the two core components of its national identity: Jewish and democratic.
This choice, rather than coming in one decisive moment, would probably play out in many small choices over a process of years. For instance, a 2015 poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 74 percent of Jewish Israelis agreed that “decisions crucial to the state on issues of peace and security should be made by a Jewish majority.” That pollster also found that, from 2010 to 2014, Jewish Israelis became much less likely to say that Israel should be “Jewish and democratic,” with growing factions saying that it should be democratic first or, slightly more popular, Jewish first.
Many analysts also worry that the West Bank government, whose scant remaining legitimacy rests on delivering a peace deal, will collapse. This would force Israel to either tolerate chaos in the West Bank and a possible Hamas takeover or enforce a more direct form of occupation that would be costlier to both parties.
This risk of increased suffering, along with perhaps permanent setbacks in the national ambitions of both Palestinians and Israelis, is why Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, told me last year, “Perpetuating the status quo is the most frightening of the possibilities.”
Follow Max Fisher on Twitter @Max_Fisher.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Viet Thanh Nguyen tells stories about people poised between their devastated homeland and their affluent adopted country
Consider the distinctions between the words “expat,” “immigrant,” “refugee.” “Expat” suggests a cosmopolitan spirit and resources that allow mobility; to be an “immigrant” suggests some measure of need. A “refugee” is, by definition, desperate: he has been displaced from his home, has been rendered stateless, has few or no resources. The expat retains an identity as he retains his citizenship, his privileges; the refugee loses his identity amid the anonymity of many others like him. In the way that enslaved persons are truncated by the term “slaves,” defined by their condition, there’s a loss of identity in the category term “refugees.” It might seem to be more humane, and accurate, to give someone who is forced to seek refuge a more expansive designation: “displaced person.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen, one of our great chroniclers of displacement, appears to value the term “refugee” precisely for the punitive violence it betrays. Born in 1971, he is, by self-description, the son of Vietnamese refugees, and he has been a refugee himself; he has married a refugee, a fellow-writer named Lan Duong. In the acknowledgments of The Refugees (Grove), his beautiful and heartrending new story collection, he speaks of his son, Ellison: “By the time this book is published, he will be nearly the age I was when I became a refugee.”
It is hardly surprising that the refugee is obsessed with identity, both personal and ethnic. He is likely to be highly sensitive to others’ interpretations of him and of his “minority” culture. And so his peripheral status confers certain advantages, for he is in a position to see what others do not. As Nguyen has recounted, in an afterword to his début novel, The Sympathizer (2015), “I watched ‘Apocalypse Now’ and saw American sailors massacre a sampan full of civilians and Martin Sheen shoot a wounded woman in cold blood. I watched ‘Platoon’ and heard the audience cheering and clapping when the Americans killed Vietnamese soldiers. These scenes . . . left me shaking with rage.”
Thrilling in its virtuosity, as in its masterly exploitation of the espionage-thriller genre, The Sympathizer was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and has come to be considered one of the greatest of Vietnam War novels. The book’s (unnamed) narrator speaks in an audaciously postmodernist voice, echoing not only Vladimir Nabokov and Ralph Ellison but the Dostoyevsky of Notes from the Underground:
I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of the minor talents, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess.
The speaker is indeed a spy: he was, in the Republic of Vietnam, a Communist mole on the staff of a South Vietnamese general, before being evacuated from Saigon and taking refuge in America after the Vietnam War.
His confession is fraught with irony and his history is tragicomic; unlike the refugees of The Refugees, he regards himself with the distance of self-loathing, for he has participated in assassinations while following orders. Obsessed with “universal and timeless” questions, he is the epitome of twentieth-century man: “What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others? And is it sane or insane to believe, as so many around us apparently do, in nothing?”
The stories in The Refugees, too, feature protagonists who are poised between the past of a devastated homeland, Vietnam, and an affluent, adopted country, the United States. The book takes one of its epigraphs from James Fenton’s A German Requiem:
It is not your memories which haunt you. It is not what you have written down. It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget. What you must go on forgetting all your life.
To survive, for the refugee, is to be buffeted between the grief-suffused admonition to remember the losses of the homeland and the self-protective counter-admonition to “forget,” the effort of which will be enormous and lifelong.
Ordinary existence, to the death-haunted, is populated by ghosts. These are not ideas of ghosts, or poetic metaphors. These are ghosts who leave behind damp carpets and the brine-soaked clothing in which, twenty-five years before, they drowned while escaping a war-torn homeland. They are family ghosts: a fifteen-year-old boy, for instance, who had traded his life to save a sister threatened with kidnapping and rape by pirates. “These fishermen resembled our fathers and brothers, sinewy and brown, except that they wielded machetes and machine guns,” we read in the almost unbearably moving opening story, “Black-Eyed Women.”
Compulsive and unflinching introspection—another symptom of “refugee” consciousness—may lead survivors to realize harsh truths about themselves, as with an eighteen-year-old refugee who, in “The Other Man,” has been taken into an affluent San Francisco household:
He tried to forget the people who had clutched at the air as they fell into the river, some knocked down in the scramble, others shot in the back by desperate soldiers clearing a way for their own escape. He tried to forget what he’d discovered, how little other lives mattered to him when his own was at stake.
Truths about others are no more comforting. At any time, the refugee is likely to be confronted—confounded—by the myopia of non-Vietnamese. In “The Transplant,” Arthur, the beneficiary of a liver from a Vietnamese donor, has “trouble distinguishing one nationality of Asian names from another,” and is “also afflicted with a related, and very common, astigmatism wherein all Asians appeared the same.” In “Fatherland,” a Vietnamese girl working in an upscale Saigon restaurant overhears tourists speaking of “delicate and tiny” Vietnamese women, whose “dresses look stitched onto them.” A Vietnamese tourist guide entertains his credulous American customers for whom “act was fact”—“we’re all the same to them . . . small, charming, and forgettable.” As the sharp-eyed narrator of The Sympathizer tells us, the “all-American characteristic” is not sympathy or generosity but racial paranoia: “In America, it was all or nothing when it came to race. You were either white or you weren’t.”
Which you were, of course, could be a matter of context. In “Fatherland,” a young Vietnamese-American woman, Vivien, goes to Saigon to visit the children of her father and his second wife, her half siblings. (Vivien’s mother had fled to America with her kids after the war.) Her visit is a grand occasion for the family. She gives them expensive gifts and treats them generously, taking them to the sort of restaurants that native residents can’t afford. In particular, Vivien’s half sister, seven years younger than she, is in awe of Vivien’s glamour, and has fantasized about coming to the United States to live with her, and to emulate what she believes to be Vivien’s success as a doctor in Chicago. Disillusion comes when she discovers that Vivien isn’t a doctor but, rather, an unemployed receptionist with prospects as limited as her own. After the American half sister leaves, the Vietnamese half sister burns photographs of the two together: “Vivien’s features melting before her own, their faces vanishing in flame.” It is the final image in The Refugees, ashes blown into the sky above Saigon.
Although only now published together in book form, the earnest, straightforward, relatively conventional stories of The Refugees would appear to have been written before the more stylized and experimental The Sympathizer. But all Nguyen’s fiction is pervaded by a shared intensity of vision, by stinging perceptions that drift like windblown ashes. By the end of The Sympathizer, we have doubled back to its thematic beginning, as the narrator, now a survivor of torture in a Communist reëducation camp, becomes a refugee again amid anonymous “boat people”—a name, the narrator notes, that “smacks of anthropological condescension, evoking some forgotten branch of the human family.” Nguyen leaves us with a harrowing vision of the sprawling tragedies of wartime, and of the moral duplicities of which we are capable. And yet, The Sympathizer ends with a proclamation that would work as well for the displaced Vietnamese of The Refugees: “We will live! ” ♦
Joyce Carol Oates, a visiting professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of, most recently, “A Book of American Martyrs.” More
This article appears in other versions of the February 13 & 20, 2017, issue, with the headline “Not All There.
A Refugee Crisis in a World of Open Doors – NYTimes.com
By Mohsin Hamid
231 pp. Riverhead Books. $26.
You own a house or rent an apartment. You live with your family or by yourself. You wake in the morning and drink your coffee or tea. You drive a car or a motorbike, or perhaps you take the bus. You go to work and turn on your computer. You go out at night and flirt and date. You live in a small town or big city, although maybe you are in the countryside. You have hopes, dreams and expectations. You take your humanity for granted. You keep believing you are human even when the catastrophe arrives and renders you homeless. Your town or city or countryside is in ruins. You try to make it to the border. Only then, hoping to leave, or making it across the border, do you understand that those who live on the other side do not see you as human at all.
This is the dread experience of becoming a refugee, of joining the 65 million unwanted and stateless people in the world today. It is also the experience that Mohsin Hamid elicits quietly and affectingly in his new novel, “Exit West,” which begins “in a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war.” The city and the country are unnamed, unlike the two characters at the story’s center: Saeed and Nadia, a young man and woman whose courtship begins in this moment of impending crisis. They are cosmopolitan city dwellers who meet in “an evening class on corporate identity and product branding,” and whose first date is at a Chinese restaurant.
Hamid’s enticing strategy is to foreground the humanity of these young people, whose urbanity, romantic inclinations, upwardly mobile aspirations and connectedness through social media and smartphones mark them as “normal” relative to the novel’s likely readers. At the same time, he insists on their “difference” from readers who may be Western. Their city is besieged by militants who commit terrible atrocities, evoking scenes from Mosul or Aleppo. As for Nadia, she was “always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a flowing black robe.” But while this robe seems to be a form of conservative Islamic dress, one of the starkest signs of difference between Nadia and non-Islamic readers, she is more daring than Saeed. She is the one who offers him marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms, and she is the one who initiates sex. The robe, it turns out, is camouflage to allow Nadia to be an independent woman.
The backdrop for “Exit West” is both the plight of refugees from places like Syria and the specter of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. Hamid takes full advantage of our familiarity with these scenes to turn “Exit West” into an urgent account of war, love and refugees. Politics also matters as it does in his other novels, which likewise dealt with pressing issues: the troubles of contemporary Pakistan (“Moth Smoke”); 9/11 and the tensions between being Pakistani and American (“The Reluctant Fundamentalist”); and naked capitalism and ambition in an unnamed country (“How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia”). Throughout his oeuvre, Hamid envisions an interconnected world in which East and West inevitably meet as a consequence of complicated histories of colonization and globalization. The dramas and love stories of individuals like Saeed and Nadia cannot be separated from these histories, even if, in their own lives, those histories are not necessarily preoccupations. Until, that is, those histories erupt.
When they do, people die. They do so often, unexpectedly and in violent circumstances. Hamid offers a few incidents like this, and in their spare detail they are enough, as when Nadia’s cousin is “blown by a truck bomb to bits, literally to bits, the largest of which, in Nadia’s cousin’s case, were a head and two-thirds of an arm.” Refusing to dwell on the morbidity of such a scene, Hamid declines to turn the destruction of the city and its people into a spectacle, the way they would normally be visible to those outside the country, watching its doom from a digital distance. Examining the destruction at a slight remove, Hamid discourages readers from pitying the city’s residents. Instead, focusing on Saeed and Nadia, and removing the particularities of the city, the country and its customs, Hamid aims to increase the depth of a reader’s empathy for characters who can be, or should be, just like the reader. The reader, of course, must think about what would happen if her own normal life was suddenly, unexpectedly upended by war.
Most likely, the reader, like Saeed and Nadia, would flee. They do so through the sudden, unexplained doors that appear throughout the city and that are portals to other places. While the city is unnamed, these sites of refuge are named — Greece, London, the United States. In their concreteness, versus the deliberate vagueness of Saeed and Nadia’s city, they call for identification from readers of the novel who live in these kinds of desirable places that the refugees want to go. The novel implicitly asks these readers why doors should be closed to refugees, when those readers might become refugees one day? How these doors work is not Hamid’s concern. The doors can be manifestations of magic realism, fantasy or science fiction, or all three, but they simply stand in for the reality that refugees will try every door they can to get out.
What happens once Saeed and Nadia arrive at these promised lands makes up the second half of the novel, in which it seems that “the whole planet was on the move, much of the global South headed to the global North, but also Southerners moving to other Southern places and Northerners moving to other Northern places.” Here Hamid’s novel reveals itself to be a story not only of the present but of the future, where migration will be the norm. Depending on one’s point of view, this is either terrifying or hopeful. When everyone is moving, then mobility becomes normal rather than disturbing. While these movements cause unrest on the part of the “natives” — what Hamid, in a postcolonial reverse, calls the inhabitants of the host countries — the vision that he ultimately offers is peaceful. After the natives get over their initial fear of strangers, both the natives and the strangers discover they are just as likely to get along as not. From this measured, cautious recognition of a mutual humanity, the natives and strangers attempt to forge a new society.
This gentle optimism, this refusal to descend into dystopia, is what is most surprising about Hamid’s imaginative, inventive novel. A graceful writer who does not shy away from contentious politics and urgent, worldly matters — and we need so many more of these writers — Hamid exploits fiction’s capacity to elicit empathy and identification to imagine a better world. It is also a possible world. “Exit West” does not lead to utopia, but to a near future and the dim shapes of strangers that we can see through a distant doorway. All we have to do is step through it and meet them.
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel, “The Sympathizer,” won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. He is also the author of “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War” and, most recently, the story collection “The Refugees.”