On the morning of November 18th, 2021, I logged onto a Zoom call with twice-Booker-shortlisted author Mohsin Hamid and his editor Simon Prosser.
Prosser is the publisher of Hamish Hamilton, where Hamid’s works have had their home for the last fourteen years. Both were in the flush of an announcement that Hamid’s latest novel, The Last White Man, would be published the following year. It was a mark, then, of the strength of the novel we had gathered to discuss – Exit West – that the conversation deviated only occasionally to their latest collaboration.
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2017, Exit West proposes a world in which people are able to travel from country to country through a system of doors. Its central characters, Nadia and Saeed, find themselves migrating across the world in a bid to find sanctuary away from the war wracking their home city. The evolution of their relationship frames the novel’s often distressing but ultimately optimistic observations on twenty-first century migration.
On the call, each party’s background seemed the polar opposite of the other’s. Hamid was at home in Pakistan, warmly lit by an overhead bulb in a closed room. Large, dark wood shelving rose behind him: a crumpled Amazon delivery box here, horizontally stacked binders and books there. He flitted in and out of the frame for glasses of water. It was quarter to four in Lahore. Prosser, meanwhile, remained in his chair, illuminated through tall windows by the pale light of an English winter morning. It was ten-forty-five in London. He guided his camera around the new Hamish Hamilton office Hamid had not yet had the chance to visit. The spines of vintage Penguin-orange books appeared. Outside the window: the Thames, Tate Britain, Pimlico.
The distance soon closed. Two friends travelled across the internet to share their memories of creating a novel. Witnessing this recalled Hamid’s description of the origin of Exit West: ‘It seems so easy to imagine just stepping through [the screen of a video call] and being there. And then I thought, what if we could? The idea of people being able to move is in some way approximated by technology – our consciousness moves like that when we’re watching TV or looking at the news online. We are moving through this portal, our consciousness is going across the planet, across the galaxy, across centuries.’
For the duration of our conversation I found that I was, in the most delightful of ways, superfluous. Having not seen each other in person for two years, Hamid and Prosser seemed hungry for each other’s memories, and what was meant to be a conversation about a few archival materials digressed quite naturally into recollections of the dinners, correspondence, disagreements and triumphs associated with them. This led to musings on the nature of book production itself: what is the role of an editor? What is the importance of literary prizes? Perhaps most striking was the mention of Hamid’s wife, Zahra, who, though absent, featured prominently in both editor and writer’s explanations of the way in which elements of the novel had come about. As with the dinners, the notebook pages, the time spent, she was evoked lovingly and at length.
The resultant conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. It nevertheless retains Hamid and Prosser’s consideration of the migratory legacies of Exit West, both through the novel’s creation, and its subsequent generational enactments.
Let’s start with the notebook page for novel ideas. I was really intrigued by this first idea of ghost cities, which seems much darker. In Exit West the processes of migration are put across in a much more humane, understated way. This seems a lot more explicit. Mohsin, I was wondering how you arrived at this original idea, why it got discarded, and whether Simon was aware of it.
Mohsin and I keep in pretty close touch, and talk between books. My regular, exciting question to him is, ‘So, have you started writing again? What next?’ And seeing that page made me visualise how I imagine you working, Mohsin, which is that a lot goes on in your head while you’re responding to the world. Certain themes emerge, particularly geo-political themes, or if you like, ethical or moral ideas. And then you begin to think how they will crystalise around a story. So Mohsin sometimes will say, ‘this is what I’m thinking of; I’m thinking of, for example, an imaginary city’ – but it’s at a later stage when something will suddenly crystalise, and then it feels like the moment has really started. And then often the process is fairly fast, isn’t it? Once you’ve managed to find the idea, and very importantly, the way of telling it, because so much of the brilliance of your writing is the way you approach these subjects, these characters, these stories formally and stylistically.
It’s interesting because Simon and I have been working together since my second novel. The association and friendship with Simon began around the time The Reluctant Fundamentalist was done. My first two novels [Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist] took fifteen years, with fourteen years between them, and were draft after draft, after draft – just groping in the wilderness. The subsequent three [How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Exit West and The Last White Man] have fitted Simon’s description very well. The first two books had many drafts that looked almost nothing like the finished book. It was me crawling until I met Simon and began to walk, basically. These notes here were me thinking about ‘this kind of a story, this kind of a form’. I’ll write about some language, some random ideas and some characters…but as Simon has said, it then keeps evolving. My first two novels evolved on the page for several years with drafts.
The last three novels, including Exit West and the book that’s forthcoming, evolved in my head quite substantially. Those novels had maybe ten, twenty pages of abandoned drafts, but would only be two, three weeks of trying something, finding it doesn’t work, and moving on. Which is an enormously improved process from the old way, which was just write an entire book and then throw it away and then try to write it again. What you see here on this page was the notion, in a sense, of migration, but very specifically, a migration related to partition and the departures of Hindus from Pakistan. And that things were going to happen in a surreal or not entirely real fashion. Also the idea of being quite story-telling focused. That last point is significant because the novel before this, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, was a novel that was quite concerned with how books work, and what a novel is, and what the relationship between a reader and writer is. I wanted in this book to step away from those overt concerns and more towards a story-telling mode.
Migration is a universal human experience. We experience it as a movement through time: every year that passes, every decade, we arrive into a time we haven’t been in before— Mohsin Hamid
These two impulses would find their way eventually into a novel that looked at migration much more broadly than something in this particular India/Pakistan context, and that bent the rules of reality in a different way with these doors. With Exit West, and with my novel yet-to-come, I made a move towards a form that was more traditional, in a sense – just a story – and the departure from realism happened in the sense of actual physics and biology: people could move through these magical doors, as opposed to a direct address to the reader that breaks down the reader barrier…I look back at this and in some ways, it looks completely different. The way that a photo of you as a small child looks completely different to when you’re grown up. Yet at the same time there’s a real flash of recognition for me as I look back at this page.
Yes. I remember so clearly you telling me about the doors. The conversation we had was so interesting. There was in many ways a very difficult question to answer ahead of the book being written, which is, ‘what are the physics of these doors? How do they work? Do you need to describe that as might be described in, say, a science-fiction novel?’ And the answer, pretty rapidly, was – no, you don’t. They just exist. People step through them and that takes you somewhere. And what’s been amazing is how absolutely every reader I’ve ever spoken to, every reviewer I’ve ever read, has never questioned it.
Yes, it was just given within the style of the novel. In the draft, characters aren’t named yet, and there’s this kind of rapidity to it. While it’s interesting to see that Nadia’s brown beauty mark remained as a detail, really, the doors are never a question in the final version because, in the same way that the city Nadia and Saed are from is never named, it’s never framed as an uncertainty. It’s just there: that’s the universe we’re operating in.
Yes! And Mohsin, can you recall when you realised that you actually didn’t need to go into any detail on that?
There was a first step that I’m not even sure Simon is aware of. Long ago, shortly after The Reluctant Fundamentalist was published, Simon and Anya [Simon’s wife], and Zahra and I were invited down to this Arts in Marrakesh festival, where we stayed in this old city courtyard house which had been converted into a hotel. And at one point, we talked about migration, and I remember saying that it’s a mistake to think of people as migrants and non-migrants. That actually migration is a universal human experience, and that we experience it as a movement through time; through each time period we enter into, not just one second after the other, although that too, but each time we wake up in the morning. Every year that passes, every decade, we arrive into a time we haven’t been in before. In the sense of us all being migrants through time, there’s something quite universal and fundamental to what it is to be a human being. The ‘being’ part of human is the temporal aspect.
So, that idea stayed. And eventually it became the kernel around which Exit West formed. What then brought it to life was this notion of the doors. I had come back to Pakistan, and was having conversations with people in London and New York where I had lived previously, often times like this: over video-call. This idea of looking through this window, of looking at someone like Simon through this magical door, made me think: what if we could actually step through? I mean, I know Simon’s office and Simon’s house well. Those are familiar places to me. And so that idea arrived, and when that idea arrived, the sort of nascent ‘all migrants through time’ idea was waiting for it. The two came together and made the novel.
That was how Exit West was really born: it happened after the notes, it happened after the Marrakesh festival, it happened after I moved back to Pakistan. It was really the coming together of those two things. What you’ll see in the proto-draft of these two materials is that the novel was called All Migrants Through Time –
My first two books had many drafts that looked almost nothing like the finished book. This one had maybe ten, twenty pages of abandoned drafts before moving on. Which is an enormously improved process— Mohsin Hamid
I was about to ask! How did that title change?
Well…it changed because, in a way, I’m not sure people loved the title.
I didn’t love it. It has to be said. If Mohsin had felt it was the only title then I would have settled for that and so would his loyal American publisher. But it almost gave too much away, and at the same time sounded a little overly poetic, I think.
Somewhere between overly poetic, and ‘non-ficiton-y’, were your two opposite ends of the spectrum. Weirdly lacking in any actual plot, I suppose.
I think we felt it didn’t have quite the power or ‘Mohsin Hamid-ness’ of the others. But there’s an interesting story as to how you got to the final title…
I thought the first one was masterful. And Simon was sort of neutral on it, and my American editor Becky said – ‘Look, this is really not going to work’. So I turned to my wife, Zahra, to say, ‘Look at these fools I’ve been working with all these years! How I respected them! Look at this!’ And she said, ‘They’re right. I’m not in love with this title either. If you like it, it works, but it’s not –’ anyway. I immediately of course thought, ‘I can’t believe these two terrible editors, this wife who doesn’t understand me. How do I go on?’ But of course they were right. I still like that title. But in a way, it’s present in the DNA and the soul of the book, and not on the cover, as it should be. There’s a line in the novel which is that line. So, it is still there.
I’m not sure people loved the original title. I thought, "I can’t believe these two terrible editors, this wife who doesn’t understand me. How do I go on?" But of course they were right— Mohsin Hamid
And then, Zahra and I were in Dubai for some reason, as this was happening. We needed a new title, and I was typing stuff onto my phone because I wasn’t at home, I didn’t have my desk, my notebooks, or anything. I was just typing in title after title, and texting to them to Zahra so that I would have some record of what I was doing. She rejected title after title. I was getting more and more irritated. And then she said, ‘Oh, I have an idea! To Exit West.’ And I said, ‘That’s so wrong, I don’t even know where to begin. I think you misunderstood the book, and I can’t believe this is happening—’ And we go on, with the cab guy sitting there in silence, until I say, ‘I have an idea. Exit. West.’ She says, ‘That’s almost exactly what I said!’ I said, ‘No it’s completely different! They’re unrelated. It’s nothing to do with yours.’ So basically, Zahra came up with the title for the book. Her To Exit West became Exit West.
When I told Simon and Becky about this one, they were happy. Then, as fate would have it, I was flying through JFK airport in New York, and on exiting the airport there was a sign, with orange and black and yellow lettering that said, exit west. And I guess there were others, exit east, exit south; but that was the exit I passed out of. It seemed like fate. So that was the tortuous journey to that title. It’s the only one of my titles that involved this much anguish. But I think this is why you have editors. They save you from the mistakes you are completely committed to making.
Aw, that’s very generous. We had to pay an awful lot to have that sign put up at JFK. I know how much you worked for that title, and I still think it could have been the one. But Exit West just has a force that carries the book in a very good way. It sets up certain associations in the mind that are really helpful when you’re reading the book without giving too much away.
Do you find yourself in agreement with Zahra very often, Simon? And is that a source of frustration to you, Mohsin?
I do! I mean, she’s a very wise woman. She’s also done many things brilliantly in her life, one of them being that she worked at Verso, a publishing company. I think she would have been a very good editor, although she wasn’t in the editorial department.
Exactly right. She was at Verso for many years. She had that background. Zahra in another life could have been an editor. Now, though, she runs a restaurant in Lahore.
Are her notes always so brutal?
Interestingly enough, what happened with these notes from the 12th of June, 2016, about ten months before the book was published, was that Zahra was reading the full draft in its near final form. She had already given me notes on earlier versions. I’d write about a third of the book and then give it to her, and then she’d come back with some notes; then the next third and she’d give back some notes. And these clearly focus on the last third of the book. So this is at least the third instalment of notes I got from her over the previous year or eighteen months that book was in process. I didn’t perceive the brutality of these notes, maybe because that’s the only way you can really give notes…I suppose it’s worth saying that these are not Zahra’s notes to me. These are Zahra’s notes to herself for a conversation she was going to have with me.
I’d write about a third of the book and then give it to my wife, and then she’d come back with some notes— Mohsin Hamid
So the way I would get these notes is that she’d sit me down and talk me though these ideas. But she would usually have something like this, that she would have written down. So it’s entirely possible that, ‘the scene at the orphanage: don’t love the description,’ for example, which is note number four here, would have been couched a bit more gently in conversation. But I’m honestly not sure that it would bother me.
I also get notes from Simon and Becky, or my agent, Jay: the four people who ever read my stuff before it’s published. You find people who you know are committed to your project and supportive. You develop a relationship with people you feel are on your side. You recognise that the comments you’re getting are not from people who are trying to get you to write a different book, or the book that they would want to see exist in the world. Rather, and I think this is what a good editor brings, they are people who understand what you are trying to do. And then you do what you want to do better. I think these sorts of comments are entirely intended to make the book more the book I wished it was. To that extent, to be very direct is actually helpful.
Maybe the idea that these notes are brutal is something that comes out only because the underlying relationship is anything but. Simon, or Becky, or Zahra will say, ‘I love the book’, or even, ‘I love the book it’s going to become.’ Then they point out wrinkles where they stubbed their toe as they were passing through a particular chapter. I think something would be brutal if the energy of the editing were contrary to my desire for the energy of the book. What Simon and Becky and Zahra bring is energy that propels the idea for the book forward.
When was the last time you saw each other?
Just before lockdown?
Yep. January 2020. The last time I was in the U.K. The Last White Man was something both Simon and I were very excited about. It was beginning around that time. That book was largely written over lockdown.
Yes, it’s so interesting. For me so much of reading The Last White Man took me back to some of the other aspects of Exit West we haven’t talked about, which is this thing which many people think will be catastrophic, migration. This book was published into the teeth of a nativist moral panic from the Daily Mail and others about migration across the Channel. But as it was, there were pictures of children dead on beaches coming off these inflatable boats. And rather than that provoking a welcoming response from the majority, there were many, many people who just thought, ‘no, send them all back, who cares?’I think what you imagined was a world in which all of this happens in the same place. The doors are open. People move, they go. What would really happen? Does everything come to an end? Or does it evolve? And in that evolution, of course there will be pain, there will be suffering, anger and rebellion. But can we come through this? Can it lead to something positive? And I think the book takes you on that journey. It’s a radically unusual and brilliantly handled thing to do. And telling it through a love story was remarkable. It is a book that is hopeful.
I think that there have been some bleak moments in these past few years for so many of us individually, but even for one’s political imagination. You think, how are things going to change? And I used to think that change happened over time as people modified their positions. And I think that does happen to an extent.
But I think we underestimate how much change happens when one generation dies off and the next one grows up. Right now the age demographics in places like Europe and the United States are so young-light and older-heavy because the birth rate has shrunk. People are having one kid instead of seven, and so there are many more middle-aged and older people, including myself. What we’re seeing is a big part of, in a way, youth not being expressed in our current politics. But that doesn’t mean that youth politics has gone away. At some point the Greta Thunbergs of the world will be seventy five, and when that happens and they’re the old conservative farts sitting around, just think about how radical the young people are going to be.
I guess I had imagined, maybe, that these things could be accelerated. That there was a way to articulate a vision that would get people to be more accepting of the need to be more humane towards migrants. But now I think instead that it’s probably more likely to happen on a generational timescale. My kids have friends all over the world. Even as they play Minecraft, they’ve got some Slovenian girl who is on my daughter’s coding team or whatever. I’ve gone from being a bit more pessimistic (and I did go through a period of profound pessimism) to now thinking, okay, maybe I just got the timeline wrong.
And as far as fiction is concerned…fiction can’t make change happen, but it can do the job of bringing into the imagination different visions of what life is. And once in the imagination, those ideas are fertile things, and people play with them, and grow up with them. I’ve grown up a bit about the timeline of things changing. But I haven’t lost my faith that they will change.
One of the biggest changes for me that has come into my life is having kids. The sudden awareness of generational realities imposes itself on you.
I had a thought. I have a diary that I periodically…There’s a tiny amount of space for each year, so you can write five years’ worth of things. It’s for people who don’t have the time or energy to write diaries in a conventional way. But I had a look this morning to see whether I’d recorded an Exit West Booker moment, and I had! It’s very short: Tuesday, October 17th. Monday was: lunch with Mohsin Hamid, just arrived from Lahore ahead of Man Booker. Then the evening: shortlist readings at Royal Festival Hall. And then the evening of: Tuesday, Man Booker day for Ali Smith, Autumn and Mohsin Hamid, Exit West. Saunders wins. Mohsin keen to celebrate as ‘Best Loser Ever’. It was so typically generous of you, because the whole Booker process is one in which you’re not just the writer, the publisher, but the other people you have as company, and everyone is very invested in it. Your response was to say, it’s okay, I just want to be the best loser ever, and then carry us with you, as you did, and we went back to the hotel with Zahra and the family and friends, and celebrated what really was worth celebrating, which was to be shortlisted for this incredible prize for the second time. You didn’t win that year but personally I believe you will.
The Booker Prize ceremony was like: if my book was getting married, these were the people I’d want there for my book’s wedding— Mohsin Hamid
I remember that day very, very well. There was a fantastic shortlist. Ali [Smith]’s book and George Saunders’ book, which won…wonderful books. I mean, it comes down to what these prizes are. You can imagine it a little bit like walking into a room and this sort of flirtation occurs. Somebody smiles at you or starts making a conversation. Now, maybe you wind up going home with that person, or spending a night with that person, which is certainly a fantastic outcome. But it’s also quite a wonderful story to have walked into the room, made eye-contact with this stranger, had a wonderful conversation, really felt great about yourself, and then gone off with your mates someplace else. In a sense, these prizes are unwarranted, undeserved sudden flirtations by this wonderful literary force, which is the Booker Prize, and they’re a lot of fun to be part of.
I don’t think it’s possible to pick the best novel of a year because doing so would imply that somebody is more important than the reader in determining what the best novel of the year is, and that of course is completely absurd. Each reader will decide for themselves what kind of relationship they had with a book. When we say that a book is the best book of the year, we just mean, it’s the book that I liked this year. But that said, to be admired on that stage, to have a book celebrated on that stage, is something that nobody is entitled to. If you have the good luck to have it once or twice, it’s a fantastic journey to have been on in life. I remember going to Guildhall with Simon twice. It’s a lot of fun! You’re in this place, there’s all this stuff, these books you love. Everybody’s dressed up. It’s great.
So in that sense, as Simon says, I said, look, we have to be the best losers in the history of this prize. Our goal is to be the winners of the losers of the prize contest. Let’s go and have as much fun and be as happy about this as we possibly can. Simon was there, Becky had come from America, my agent Jay had come. Zahra was there. It was like, if my book was getting married: these were the people I’d want there for my book’s wedding. And there they were. It was a real highlight of that book’s journey.
But I do think that although winning the prize does huge things for books in general, at the end of the day, something much smaller than the prize is much bigger, which is, what happens when a reader takes that text, and animates it to an actual experience, without which it is nothing. Those are the things that really matter.