'Political community' and the Figure of the Refugee in Mohsin Hamid’s 'Exit West'
by Rebecca Bevington
Polyphony, Volume 1, Issue 1
First Published March 2019, Manchester
As the future of the nation state is pushed ever closer to the brink of obsolescence by a burgeoning need for global freedom of movement, Giorgio Agamben’s bid for a new kind of political community which holds the figure of the migrant at its centre becomes an increasingly urgent issue. According to Agamben and his predecessor in conceptualising the reconstructive power of the migrant, Hannah Arendt, the seemingly marginalised figure of the refugee, rising from the dust of a postnational, globalised world, will find themselves within an overwhelming majority across humanity with the potential to recreate the political landscape of the world. This essay explores how the use of political imagination in Mohsin Hamid's dystopian novel Exit West allows us to philosophically test out the questions of a postnational future by playing with the boundaries of realist writing and the fantastical.
The instrumental power of imagination in constructing national identity forms the crux of political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities. Anderson emphasises retrospective imagination for its role in constructing a unified national memory, creating an 'image of antiquity, so central to the subjective idea of the nation'. (See note 1) As strong as this unified nostalgic thinking is, some have suggested that it obscures the need for a more progressive, innovative political imagination in order to navigate challenging current phenomena, such as the pressure of globalisation bearing down on the fixed structures of nation states. Speaking about his dystopian novel Exit West, Mohsin Hamid considers the power of imagination:
It allows us to imagine futures that are not bound by the tyranny of the past and the present [and] in the political domain we are seeing a real failure of that. People are struggling to articulate ways forward that don’t look like the past. (See note 2)
This essay will argue that through fiction, Exit West imagines a world beyond nation states through its use of magical devices which release the text from some of the geographical, political and temporal obstacles that currently confound international freedom of movement. I will approach the text by exploring its presentation of the refugee experience throughout chapters 8 and 10, which actualise the sociopolitical developments that might occur as nation is de- and re-constructed. (See note 3) I will also explore the connection between magical realism and postcolonial literature, and propose that the genre also has significant applications to postnational writing.
Firstly, I will examine the central argument of Giorgio Agamben's vision of refugees as the 'sole category' in which a future beyond nations can be imagined, before exploring their role within Exit West. (See note 4) Fifty years on from Hannah Arendt's original essay of the same title, Agamben's 'We Refugees' reflects on her contemplation of the futility of the Jewish refugee experience. (See note 5) Whilst Arendt's central argument focuses on the figure of the non-assimilating refugee as 'the vanguard of their peoples', (See note 6) Agamben develops this idea through a broader critique of the 'trinity of nation/state/territory'. (See note 7) He exposes the incompetence of these structures, which 'make nativity or birth [...] the foundation of [their] own sovereignty', at sufficiently representing and accommodating for the unprecedented growth of refugees. (See note 8) Agamben asserts we must 'abandon without misgivings' the concept of nation-states and rebuild political community with refugees at the centre; Hamid tests out this diagnosis and its possible consequences through the perspective of the two protagonists, Nadia and Saeed. (See note 9) Having been forced to flee their homes, families and occupations, Hamid deliberately leaves the 'city of their birth' unnamed, alongside the unspecified 'militants' (187) it was lost to, which reinforces the immense proportion of refugees worldwide and their diverse cultural or geographical backgrounds. The characters can be seen to embody Arendt's vision of refugees 'keep[ing] their identity'. Nadia continues to wear her traditional black robe despite her lack of religious conservatism as a visible marker of her identity: '[she] chose to, because it sent a signal, and she still wished to send this signal' (110). Likewise, although markedly more committed to religious principles than Nadia, Saeed continues to 'join his fellow countrymen in prayer' (148), another visible element of his identity and origins.
In Chapter 8, Hamid reveals his use of the characters to personify divergent reactions to the apparent apocalypse that unfolds as nations are deconstructed. Nadia can be seen to represent a progressive, radical ideology, embracing the chaos in the wake of change; 'she saw all these people of all these different colours in all these different attires and she was relieved [...] a new time was here, and, fraught or not, she relished this like the wind in her face on a hot day when she rode her motorcycle' (156). Conversely, Saeed remains deeply bound to an emotional connection towards 'a house of people from his country' (147), evoking strong feelings of familiarity and acceptance in him. Saeed's attitude partially reflects that of the oppressive nativist extremists, relying on the existence of a threatening 'other', described by Hamid as 'something tribal' (146), to find community and acceptance. Saeed recognises the potential for violence in himself and feels 'like he was rotting from within' (152). However, Hamid carefully presents Saeed's perspective to underscore the enduring importance of a cultural or religious 'unisonance' within a community, which he is careful to acknowledge as a powerful element of nationalism; Benedict Anderson reflects, 'it is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love'. (See note 10) Saeed's participation in the group prayer raises the importance of this familial, accepting love: '[it] made him feel part of something [...] and for a wrenchingly painful second he thought of his father' (148). In this way, Hamid is acknowledging that elements of patriotism begin with the 'self-sacrificing', visceral bond of blood, birth and territory, but can quickly dissolve into violence and hate. (See note 11) Saeed's experiences as a displaced refugee, particularly having lost his mother to ostensibly patriotic extremist violence, remind him of the dangers of this self-segregating philosophy, aligning with Agamben's view that refugees occupy a space beyond the 'inscription of bare natural life', which erodes the basis on which nations assert sovereignty. (See note 12) The protagonists' perspectives therefore present the journey of two differing ideologies as they move through a seemingly apocalyptic 'world full of doors' (152).
I will now explore how Hamid employs the 'doors' to further deconstruct the concept of nation. (See note 13) Suzanne Baker in 'Binarisms and duality: magic realism and postcolonialism' writes: 'a narrator of magic realism accepts most or all of the realistic conventions of fiction but introduces "something else," something which is not realistic, into the text [...] woven in seamlessly.' (See note 14) The obvious magical device woven into Exit West is the appearance of 'doors', transforming mundane 'closet doorways' (6) into portals defying the laws of physics and transporting individuals to far-away locations. Hamid incorporates the fantastical feature of door-portals to principally imagine a future world where movement is unfettered by the numerous limitations of travel, enabling an environment where virtually anyone can migrate, expediting the growth of refugees globally and transforming Agamben's prescient warning into a matter of immediate importance.
Whilst this reality is rather straightforward, the use of magical realism does not serve a purely logistic purpose. Baker asserts the symbolic consequences of this genre for postcolonial writing: 'the deployment of magic realism in literature can signify resistance to central assimilation [...] which is the dominant style of imperialism'. (See note 15) If magical realism delivers postcolonial intellectual impetus because of its ability to occupy and undermine two binarily opposite categories, such as coloniser/indigenous, so too is it able to deconstruct the binary prerequisites of nationalist ideologies by occupying the space in between diametrically opposing categories of citizen/stateless, included/excluded; or, in Agamben's words, 'political life (bios)' and 'bare life [...] (zoe)' (See note 16) As identified by Arendt, the refugee identity also occupies a contradictory, dualist space: that of the 'super-patriot' (See note 17) and the 'enemy alien'. (See note 18) I propose that Hamid is far more sensitive to the power of binary deconstruction offered by magic realist writing, and harnesses it to not only meet the logistic requirements of envisioning a global refugee crisis, but also to conceive of a world which no longer relies upon the Eurocentric, imposed notions of reality and order, and can therefore approach the issue of citizenship with greater fluidity.
Baker also proposes that the 'objective and dispassionate narrator who maintains a tone of complete equilibrium' is another core feature of magic realist writing, and this can be seen through Hamid's third-person omniscient narrative, which offers minimalist description throughout much of the text. (See note 19) The frank, unsentimental language, such as 'the apocalypse appeared to have arrived [...] and life went on,' (215) lacks any of the aesthetic imagery that might be employed in other fiction; instead, it is pragmatic, following the fast-paced plot to mirror the protagonists' utilitarian needs for survival. Further to this, the magical doors are illustrated briefly and ambiguously as 'dark, darker than night [...] the heart of darkness' (6). Whilst Hamid's authorial reticence serves to draw no more attention than necessary to the doors in a bid to reinforce the truth of their existence from the characters' and narrator's perspectives, there is a deeper layer of symbolism on offer here. The doors, as the underlying magical device of the novel, represent the 'indigenous' side of the 'coloniser/colonised' dichotomy described above. (See note 20) The repetition of 'dark' emphasises the doors as black spaces rupturing white, European areas, and subvert the inscription of whiteness inherent in colonial notions of reality. These neutral thresholds can be viewed as conduits to allow an environment which allows for Agamben's suggested spaces of 'aterritoriality', where the borders of nations are 'perforated' by refugee groups, and political communities exist 'in exodus one into the other', whilst bearing postcolonial significance to undermine nationalistic dualisms.
I will now focus on an area where these subtle motifs of darkness/lightness are cemented in Chapter 8. Hamid employs colonial dichotomies to his full advantage during his comparison of 'Dark London', the affluent boroughs of Chelsea and Kensington suddenly saturated with refugees, and 'Light London' (142), which remains intact as a capital city. It is difficult not to see Hamid's biting critique of the gross surplus wealth of these boroughs, with luxurious, extraordinarily expensive homes being left empty as the property of a tiny percentage of the population, and he accordingly balances this inequality by conjuring 'a black hole in the fabric of the nation' (126) here. It is interesting to note that not only does Hamid's simplistic and sometimes repetitive language invert preconceived notions of whiteness, by plunging a wealthy area into darkness and filling it with 'dark bodies', but also with the casual introduction of the terms 'native' and 'migrant' (136). Hamid reappropriates the noun 'native', inscribed with the racism of colonial history towards indigenous peoples, and uses it to refer to those living in the desirable, wealthy places; in this way, the dehumanising, Eurocentric colonial gaze is turned back onto the descendants, and beneficiaries, of its perpetrators. At the same time, 'migrants' (rarely called 'refugees', which echoes the powerful opening sentence of Arendt's 'We Refugees': 'In the first place, we don't like to be called "refugees"') (See note 21) enter the natives' homeland to find safety and prosperity, inverting the colonial power structures which sowed instability and poverty into the homelands of the indigenous. The use of postcolonial discourse furthers the text's aims to show how there is a future beyond the accepted wisdom of the day, and in much the same way as the overwhelming might of colonial empires came to an end, so too will the current structure of nations evolve to better meet the needs of 'growing portions of humanity'. (See note 22)
Finally, I will consider the fictional future city of 'Marin' in Chapter 10. As Nadia and Saeed find the opportunity to build communities outside of 'bare life', and as the fallout of the refugee crisis finally settles, the birth of new modes of 'political life' can be seen. (See note 23) Imagery and the exploration of the senses is finally incorporated: 'the place was a taster’s paradise,' 'a great creative flowering' (217), emphasises 'a' assonance which produces a rhythmic effect that mimics and amplifies musical and creative freedom in Marin, contrasting with the silence, enforced through law or necessity, which pervades the rest of the novel. A key area of this section is Hamid's introduction of the 'plebiscite movement', which seeks to create a 'regional assembly' to exercise moral authority, so 'greater justice might be less easily denied' (219). Hamid dismisses the practicalities of such an assembly a little too easily; it is difficult to imagine that the creation of new kinds of power and government would be so swiftly accepted by existing and competing political groups. However, as the original structures of nations have been irrevocably changed, and as the novel presents 'the whole world' (218) as being in a state of migration, this imagined future society does actualise Agamben's model of 'reciprocal extraterritoriality' at work; in accordance with his view, any political community comprised of migrants could not 'make nativity or birth [...] the foundation of [its] own sovereignty'. (See note 24)
To conclude, Exit West turns a powerful critical gaze onto the structures which fail to account for the increasing numbers of those with no choice but to leave the country of their birth; in a world where technology now supports full global mobility, Hamid exposes the archaic nature of nations through magical realism, using doors as a metaphor for the opportunities that could enable new ways of life, if we were not bound by conceptions of 'included' and 'excluded' individuals within political communities. At the end of the novel, Hamid notes that 'a door was opening up' for Nadia, 'a door [...] shaped like a room' (208), implying that the doors throughout the novel represent full international freedom of movement, and the next ‘doors’ to appear would support other human needs – having a safe place to live and to build community. In this way, Hamid poignantly reminds us that a more prosperous, egalitarian and peaceful world is not too far away, and that even after seemingly apocalyptic times, life will progress.
1. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin
and Spread of Nationalism, (NewYork: Verso Books, 2006), p.57
2. Rob Hopkins,‘Mohsin Hamid on the need for a"radical engagement with the future"’, Imagination Taking Power, Accessed 5 October 2017<https://www.robhopkins.net/2017/05/15/mohsin-hamidimagination-allows-us-to-imagine-futures-not-bound-by-the-tyrannyof-the-past-and-the-present/>
3. Mohsin Hamid, Exit West, (London: Penguin Random House,2017) All inline references are from this edition of the text
4. Giorgio Agamben, ‘We Refugees’, Symposium (Periodicals Archive Online,1995), p.114
5. Hannah Arendt, ‘We Refugees’, Altogether Elsewhere: Writers on exile, (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1993)
6. Ibid. p.119
7. Agamben, p.118
8. Ibid. p.116
9. Ibid. p.114
10. Anderson, p.141
12. Agamben, p.116
14. Suzanne Baker, ‘Binarisms and duality: magic realism and postcolonialism’, Span: Journal of the South Pacific Association for Common wealth Literature and Language Studies, (1992) Accessed 15 October 2017<http://wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/readingroom/litserv/SPAN/36/Baker.html>
16. Agamben, p.116
17. Arendt, p.116
18. Ibid. p.112
21. Arendt, p.110
22. Agamben, p.117
23. Ibid. p.116