Exit West: A Novel

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A Year in Reading: Ayşe Papatya Bucak

I am vulnerable to the word

“‘Once long ago,’ Rogni said, ‘an old woman in a flowered housedress sat on a kitchen chair steeping tea in a cracked brown teapot. She was the Nurse-of-Becoming; she was getting ready to imagine two sisters. Only she made three mistakes.’” So begins Kathryn Davis’s Labrador. The curtain parts. The world disappears.

One of my favorite things to read this year has been Sabrina Orah Mark’s series Happily, on fairy tales and motherhood, online at The Paris Review. “My son’s first grade teacher pulls me aside to tell me she’s concerned about Noah and the Ghost People,” the first essay begins. The curtain parts. The world divides. The ghost people appear by my side.

“In the house opposite, in the dark night of the garden, the governesses are playing cards. Eléonore who seems so straitlaced is laughing like a madwoman,” writes Anne Serre (and translator Mark Hutchinson), in The Governesses, another of my favorites. One that the New Directions catalog copy refers to as a “semi-deranged erotic fairy tale,” by the way. The curtains part. A light comes on the dark.

“Mouths open to the sun, they sleep,” begins Valeria Luiselli’s novel Lost Children Archive, yet another favorite. The curtain parts. The dream begins. Current events become story.

Each year I tell my creative writing classes they must attempt to write literature, and literature does not let readers escape the world, it forces them to engage with the world. Your writing can be in any genre, I tell them, but its goal must be engagement, not escape. There are lots of enjoyable books that serve as an escape, I say. But that’s not what we’re writing.

I am not so sure anymore though.

Don’t I use literature as an escape?

Once I asked a student what he
thought made a good book.

“A book that changes how you
think?” he said.

“Then what makes a great book?”
I asked.

“A book that changes how you
act?” he said.

Do books ever change how I act?

I wonder.

I tell my students that writing
should give the reader an experience.

That implies books could change
how we act. Experiences change how we act. Don’t they? Shouldn’t they?

In the spring, I was supposed to review Kathryn Davis’s novel The Silk Road. I volunteered to do it. I love the strange worlds of Kathryn Davis’s creations, and a novel that shifted between the Philadelphia suburbs of my mother’s ancestors and the silk road journeys of my father’s ancestors seemed custom-built for me. But I read it and I faltered. I didn’t understand it. I wasn’t sure if I liked it. So I read it again, and I liked it more, but understood it less. Possibly I became obsessed with it and the strange siblings that drift across its pages in some kind of maybe physical, maybe metaphysical journey after one of them has died. Possibly I read it three times. Still I couldn’t review it.

I suggested to the editor that I write an essay on Davis’s work as a whole instead. They agreed. So I reread Duplex, my favorite (schoolteacher dates sorcerer in suburban town studied by robots) and Hell, my second favorite (braided narrative of households across time and space, but much stranger than that makes it sound). I read Versailles (an often humorous Marie Antoinette retelling), The Walking Tour (two couples take a tour of Wales, not everybody comes home) and finally Labrador (awkward sister gets taken to Arctic by eccentric grandfather who is eaten by polar bear while graceful sister stays home and gets pregnant).

It was one of my favorite and strangest periods of reading. Dream upon dream. Not daydreams, which are carefully constructed fantasies, but night dreams, made up of recognizable parts assembled in peculiar configurations. I went into each novel and came back out again unable to recount exactly where I’d been. (The Silk Road aptly begins: “We were in the labyrinth.”)  Maybe this doesn’t sound like a positive recommendation; but what I am trying to say is I lived inside of Kathryn Davis’s writing for awhile, and if you are the kind of person who wants to see the world with greater wonder, who is always looking for foreign lands in the backs of wardrobes, who understands death to be close all of the time but also probably not within the realm of imagining—these books are for you. They are an escape, though one from which you return with a greater capacity for seeing and appreciating the wondrous world.

But still I didn’t write the

Maybe this had less to do with
the difficulties of writing and more to do with the difficulties of life.

My father died this year. Now I have another father, of memory and story and imagination, an autofictional father existing in another dimension. Now I tell stories about him that he will never hear. On his death certificate, the funeral home listed him as female. They also handed his box of remains to my mother inside of a sparkly green gift bag. Upon receiving this gift, my mother and I did not react, nor look at each other, until we stepped outside of the building and burst into laughter.  “It’s okay, I’ll reuse it,” my mother said. We laughed even harder. But my father, who appreciated jokes, perhaps would not have appreciated this one.

“Will you weep when I die?” he
used to ask me, as if there was any doubt.

Once once once. I had a father.

Escape engage. Escape engage.
The story of mourning.

In Turkish there is a storytelling tense, not past, not present, not future. The tense for repeating things you heard secondhand but did not have direct experience of. The once-upon-a-time tense. In that tense I still have a father.

When my father died he had both
Alzheimer’s and a rare form of mouth cancer. Because of the Alzheimer’s he
sometimes forgot he had cancer. My mother would have to tell him again.  And again.

If she could have, my mother
would have let him forget. But my father would moan, or scream, or really
scream, that his mouth hurt, why wasn’t she taking him to the dentist, why
wasn’t she helping him. Even after weeks of chemo, he could still forget.

Wouldn’t it be nice if
forgetting was an escape? But all it did was make his pain inexplicable.

Because I am both Turkish and not, every year I read as many Turkish writers as I can.  This year I had much appreciation for: Ayşegül Savaş’s lyric novel Walking on the Ceiling; jailed politician Selahattin Demirtaş’s sometimes charming, sometimes brutal story collection Dawn; Ece Temelkuran’s dire but believable warning that engagement without activism becomes the mere “expression and exchange of emotional responses” How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship; Can Dündar’s surprisingly humorous and even joyful We Are Arrested: A Journalist’s Notes From a Turkish Prison; and journalist Ahmet Altan’s more somber I Will Never See the World Again (translated by Yasemin Congar), also written in jail and smuggled out via his lawyers.

But the book that stopped me in my tracks was More by Hakan Günday (translated by Zeynep Beler). You can’t find a summary or review of the novel that doesn’t include words like harrowing, disturbing, and unsettling. The narrator is a teenager engaged in the family business—smuggling refugees for money with zero concern for the refugees’ safety or survival. It is no surprise that this novel has not had the popularity of its much sunnier bookend, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West. Where Hamid uses fantasy to create hope, Günday uses it to create horror. The title comes from the refugees’ cries for “more” food as the narrator scrapes excrement off the floor of the concrete bunker they are buried in during the smuggling process. The novel, which to be clear, I admired tremendously, reads very much like a nightmare—appropriately so given the real life circumstances it is trying to place the reader inside of. But even it, was also, for me, an escape. What have I done for the Syrian refugees other than imagine their nightmare? Doesn’t educating myself about the horrors of the world make me feel proud! But what does it do for those who suffer them?

I guess I believe reading
generates empathy. I feel pretty sure it can offer readers life experiences
they would not otherwise have. But does it change how we act?

Engage escape engage

When I read Ahmet Altan, I am outraged at his imprisonment. When I read the news of his release, I feel joy. When I read the news of his re-arrest, I feel outrage again. But feelings aren’t engagement, are they?

Are they?

For me, the action that reading triggers is writing. And here is my bigger fear: that writing isn’t engagement either.

I don’t doubt the value of
literature, of representation, of the framing of narratives, of making our pain
explicable, but writing isn’t enough. How could it be? And yet, at times, I
have treated it as if it is. Even now, even now as I type this and imagine you
reading it, I am hoping that you, not I, will be moved to act, to right the
world, right…now.

More from A Year in Reading 2019
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Their Lives Go On Until They Don’t: The Trouble with Refugee Novels

1.“Writing poetry after Auschwitz,” the sociologist Theodor Adorno proclaimed in 1951, “is barbaric.” This particular phrase has become so famous because it is both transparently false—ask Levi about that one—and, on a gut level, powerfully true. There is no real connection between aesthetics and reality, and artists are basically foolish if they believe they can alter the course of history. But, if art is in one sense the processing of reality, how can an artist truly hope to process that which, in all its horror and incoherence, resists interpretation?

According to the UNHCR, some 68.5 million people are currently displaced around the world, more than at any time since the end of World War II. Refugees, by definition, are people we become concerned with only when they have been driven from their lives and into our own. As depicted in media, they tend to be denationalized, an essentially undifferentiated mass lacking a past or a future, with only an eternally tragic present. They are defined, wholly, by their displacement. But life is not only catastrophe; it begins before the disruption and, hopefully, continues afterward. Tragedies can define lives when nothing is done to ameliorate them. This, in a sense, is the dilemma that refugees pose for the countries they flee to: Can their new countries do what needs to be done to facilitate a life deserving of a person’s dignity?

Can a novel measure up to the life of even one displaced person? Per W.H. Auden, it seems unlikely. The structure of the novel, which demands drama and plot—action, in other words—is ill-suited to the stuff of life, which is alternately chaotic, incomprehensible, and boring. Even the most straightforward and realistic novel is a combination of the internal and the external, the literal and the metaphorical. And “the trouble,” as Parul Sehgal wrote for the New York Times in 2016, “is that the migrant is not a metaphor.” A number of prize-winning books, as well as some recent translations, have attempted to make sense of the above dicta, and to find some way to make their mark on this reality. Where they succeed depends as much on which side of the above dichotomy—the life or the disruption—as on how they go about it.

2.All for Nothing, originally published in 2006 but newly translated this year by New York Review Books, tells the story of the Georgenhof, an old East Prussian estate that lies “in the landscape like a black island in a white sea.” Walter Kempowski intends to make the building, with its flooded basement and gardens and “battered metal finial in the shape of a mace,” stand out for the reader as surely as it would for a passerby on the road below. It is January 1945, and the von Globigs—mother Katherina, son Peter, dog Jago, as well as Auntie from Silesia, the tutor Dr. Wagner, and the servants from Poland and Ukraine—play host to a trickling of refugees, a political economist and a violinist and an artist on crutches, a number that swells to a flood by the book’s end. Those from the east tell of the approaching Russians, though the threat seems infinitely distant: “a glow like fire on the horizon, and a rumble that rose and fell in the distance.” Their lives go on until, suddenly, they don’t.

This is a novel with the steady rhythm of breathing. It flickers in and out of the past, to peacetime and the war before that; even the Napoleonic conquest hangs over their heads, in the ruins of the old Georgenhof, torched by the French in crazed retreat. Its characters calibrate and recalibrate themselves by the approach of conflict, fleeing to towns that go on as normally as theirs once had, only to fall into disarray and flee elsewhere again. The refugees, as they see themselves, have not been remade because of the realm of violence they have entered. Looking at a photo, Peter thinks: “A perfectly normal woman and perfectly normal daughter.” They possess no special quality that makes them refugees. Their lives have simply been unmade by what we would now call history.

Richard, too, is interested in the things which make and unmake our world. The narrator of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone is a recently retired classics professor, wiling away a long draw-down in complacent silence. After he comes across a protest by refugees camping in the center of Berlin, he spends much of the book reading, researching laws, compacts, news articles; he even breaks the cardinal law of the internet and reads the comments. This brings him to an intellectual understanding of the predicament of his refugee neighbors. But, as he increasingly discovers, this is not enough, not close. “Richard has read Foucault and Baudrillard, and also Hegel and Nietzsche,” goes one of the book’s best lines, “but he doesn’t know what you can eat when you have no money to buy food.”

The majority of Go, Went, Gone is delivered via one-on-one interviews between Richard and the people who, because they have been driven from their home countries or fled poverty and hunger, are known to him as refugees. He asks them all sorts of questions: What country are you from? What people has its home in Niger? What is it like to be a slave? This may sound dry, but it is emphatically not. The stories that emerge are heartbreaking, edifying, and hard to situate. The refugees, whether the Nigerian Rashid, who explains the celebration of Eid, or Karon, who wants to buy a plot of land for his family back in Ghana, are not well-meaning abstractions or straw men. They are people, they have stories, and they tell them. Their uncertain status in no way dictates the content of their lives, in the way that it completely defines them for us. Their statelessness is not an existential threat to our nations, our life ways. It is a transitory condition that cannot hope to encapsulate the full humanity that it disrupts.

Richard, a former citizen of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, cannot believe in the supposed inviolability of borders and the importance of national identities, because he saw both crumble in his own lifetime; he knows the fragility of European self-confidence. “In 1990 he suddenly found himself a citizen of a different country, though the view out of the window remained the same.” Erpenbeck guides us through Richard’s internal contradictions—his late wife, a doomed affair and a dully impending future—with the same confidence that the refugees convey their own experiences. Each has lived a life that is, in its own way, a mixture of the emblematic and the extraordinary. “Did it matter,” he wonders, “what something was called?”

Erpenbeck writes about a structure which very much cares what it calls itself. She depicts a purgatorial system that traps the desperate inside of an iron code, where unfathomable punishments are doled out for insignificant transgressions. Refugees, Richard learns, can be refused asylum for not properly registering at their point of entry, for not returning to that point of entry after a mandated period, for taking too many free rides on the bus. “The iron law knows all of this.” Refugees do not have to follow the law: They must surmount it, convincing the residents of their new home that they are not only fleeing violence, or poverty, or hunger, but have done so in total compliance with a law that natives routinely ignore. Riding the bus without a transit pass results in a German getting a fine; for a refugee like Rufu, it can upend their life forever. This is a form of second-class status that applies even to citizens: Think of recent proposals in Denmark, whereby an immigrant, or the child of an immigrant, who does not raise their children with properly “Danish” values can lose custody of those children or even go to jail, while a Dane who refuses to celebrate Christmas, or, in the latest legislation, refuses to shake a woman’s hand, remains a Dane. To be stateless, Richard discovers, is to be subject to a law outside the law.

3.The most acclaimed stateless novel, by far, comes from the British-Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid. 2017’s Exit West, bestselling and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, concerns Saeed and Nadia, who meet “in a city swollen by refugees, but still mostly at peace,” that becomes increasingly less so over the course of the book. Their unnamed middle eastern city becomes occupied by fundamentalists and bombarded by government forces, and eventually they make the decision, as a couple, to mirror the title and flee through a magical door in a disused doctor’s office to Greece, England, and eventually the United States. They join a camp on the beach, occupy a tony house in London, work at a food co-op in California. They drift apart, and their relationship falls to pieces by the end.

Hamid’s writing is feather-light, evoking fables and folk tales in its generality. “The city” remains the city, “the militants” never more than militants. The pair might as well be Hansel and Gretel for all we learn about them. His magical realism allows him to easily bridge the West and the rest, and he inserts brief, speculative vignettes that probe how an easier migration between the two might shape lives on both sides of the doors. These characters, whether a lonely Londoner or elderly Mexican painter, are sharply defined, and one wishes Hamid had written the protagonist-less novel he hints at here. A generation of uprooted people deserves a polyphonic rendering to do justice to the multiplicity of its perspectives, an Invisible Cities for all-but-invisible people.

Hamid wants to write both a planet-scale story and a tenderly felt romance, and the result is a book that feels slightly inhuman. His light touch loses control, spiraling into the unlikely and the fantastic. We get a military build-up outside occupied districts in London, Japanese gangsters chasing Filipinos down alleys, a flood of refugees that quickly remakes the societies into which it exits. Every event is titanic in scale, hysterical in effect. None of it hits, and even the knottiest questions dissipate into air. Even the novel’s most reflective portions, which discourse on the nature of identity, the shades of “nativeness” that accompany any place that has seen its own waves of dis- and replacement, feel essentially speculative. His novel about refugees frequently threatens to become an exercise in novels about the idea of being a refugee. He sometimes forgets, to paraphrase Sehgal, that the refugee is not a vessel, not a construct. They are a person.

4.Erpenbeck thanks 13 refugees at the end of her book. Kempowski, who was born in East Prussia and fled the end of the war, writes from his life. Both authors traffic in specificity, and their characters and stories could never be swapped out for other, more generic forms. In Go, Went, Gone we hear the many refugees explain themselves, their histories, their wants and desires, understanding that they share what they think Richard, and by extension the reader, will be able to grasp. They play up certain details, hide others, and must find a way to fit all of them into this new and uncertain world. Richard himself receives an incredible amount of attention: The final moment of the book involves a revealed shame from his own past, connected suddenly with the men around him. But he is folded always back into the world of the refugee, each story bolstering every other.

Kempowski’s Gogolian method eases us into many perspectives, giving us glimpses of just about every character’s interior life. We hear from Peter, Auntie, a Baltic Baron and Jewish hideaway; even the horse and the dog get their say. Every moment is weighted equally, even once they have to flee their homes and suffer random and horrific violence. They, like us, cannot see what is coming. They can only hold on to what matters and search out the life they want to live.

What all these characters are searching for, acknowledged or not, is that exact thing we read novels to escape: banality. Again and again, Erpenbeck’s refugees and the residents of the Georgenhof turn from their extreme, extraordinary circumstances to the basics of life, recalling families, jobs, routines upturned in a flash. Katherina, held by the police, wants only to talk about a romantic weekend with the town mayor. Dr. Wagner spends the final afternoon of his life wondering how he had avoided reading a certain philosopher. Rashid, driven by Christian violence from Nigeria, talks about his mother, his sisters, his father’s funeral. They are consumed by cycles of order and disorder, banality and disruption, but they never stop living, never cease in their personhood.

These novels exist at a fundamental distance, that of the foreigner, the survivor. Richard remains as divided from his many counterparts as Kempowski does from his autobiographical protagonist, separated by birth, language, time. Their authors look onto the subjects with a certain cold acuity. And yet both provide fuller and more humane portraits than Exit West, a book that struggles mightily to embody the specific experience of displacement. The trouble is that Hamid is looking in, too, even if his writing rarely acknowledges it. He wants to represent a reality he can see only in its most general forms. The story that emerges is all cursory forms and incidental outlines, prioritizing the easily categorized—drama, tragedy, narrative—over the unspoken and unplaceable. Worst of all, his protagonists are flat, their relationship uninteresting: Because these characters could never carry a book on their own, their lives only become interesting, and therefore valuable, because they have been disrupted, not despite it. Their dignity arises only when they interact with “us” as readers, citizens, hosts. Everything before then might as well be a product of our imaginations.

I don’t want to argue that books need moral content; they don’t. But for a novel that seeks to probe the causes and consequences of our displaced era, this seems wrongheaded. Everyday life is not simply prelude to disaster, banality not a false state waiting for the hammerblow of history; it is the thing itself. Thinking otherwise is a disaster.

A Year in Reading: Rachel Khong

For better and worse, books are how I learn things. Kissing, for instance. Though I wouldn’t get the opportunity to implement this knowledge for another solid decade (or, uh, more) I referred, with hope, to the Junior Girl Scout handbook. Year after year, I read to understand, knowing that it’s a futile exercise—limitless in both the exhausting and reassuring ways. Exhaustingly, reassuringly, there is always more to know. 2018 was another Year in Reading to know more—embarrassingly literally at times. The books I read fell into a few main categories:

Literal self-help! In 2018 I did things I’d never done before and read books about them. In January I started a business; I read Starting a Business for Dummies. I read Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, about letting your employees go surfing (the self-help realm is all about the subtitles, and Chouinard’s is: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman). A book that legit changed my life was one I found on a shelf in an Airbnb: David Allen’s Getting Things Done, about Getting Things Done®! (Subtitle: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.) I thought I was sort of spending too much time on my phone so I read a book called How to Break Up With Your Phone and it more or less worked. In June we adopted a kitten from the SPCA. I read Total Cat Mojo (The Ultimate Guide to Life with Your Cat) by Jackson Galaxy, in which he recommends blinking slowly at your cat to express love. I read a book called Adventure Cats: Living Nine Lives to the Fullest, about taking cats on hikes. Indeed, I remain as cool as I was at age 9.

In the category of fiction that is haunting/beautiful/devastating and wholly engrossing: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Tommy Orange’s perfectly calibrated There There. In a single sitting, I read The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon—an otherworldly, wonderful thing.

In the category of opening doors to other worlds, a la Exit West: I read memoirs that put me squarely in other people’s bodies: This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins, Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot, All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung, and The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich—all memoirs from distinct, memorable, assured voices.

In the category of laughing/crying perfection and exactly my cup of tea: I teared up (for sad and happy reasons!) at Less by Andrew Sean Greer, Kudos by Rachel Cusk, and The Idiot by Elif Batuman. These were books that made me laugh and broke my heart—a combo I love wholeheartedly.

In the category of the female experience made scarily visceral: You Are Having a Good Time by Amie Barrodale, a book of too-real, resonant short stories. And The Power by Naomi Alderman and Sheila Heti’s Motherhood were books that articulated my questions exactly, in perfect timing.

Maybe I read also to get mad? In the category of books I read and got mad at: The Corrections and Freedom (I know, I know, but I enjoyed Purity, and honestly, truly was open to enjoying these too). There were a few books I should have put aside and read anyway, due to my I-always-have-to-finish-a-book-even-though-I-know-life-is-short rule. And I know it makes me a chicken to not name names, but listen, I just won’t. One was an acclaimed thing that made me actually throw it across the room because of its overly, well, florid descriptions of flora. The other was by an exceedingly acclaimed author that included incredibly racist descriptions of all its Asian characters (and when I googled the author’s name with “racist against Asians” the search yielded nothing, meaning that even though this was the year of Crazy Rich Asians, it remains a year in which casual racism against Asians is still okay).

Speaking of being tired, tired, tired of the way things are, I read texts like manuals. In the category of books I read to make things different, make things better: Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown. bell hooks’s Feminism Is for Everybody. Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. These are books that both galvanized me and made me hopeful—that pointed me in the right direction.

Most recently, in the category of nonfiction that describes the invisible and real, I’ve read: Ai Jin Poo’s The Age of Dignity, about the ways in which we’re woefully underprepared to take care of our aging in America. And Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes, about the invisible world of microbes. What I learn is this: Counter to everything we’ve been taught about evolution, change doesn’t necessarily happen glacially, especially when bacteria are involved. There’s fluidity to how bacteria and their hosts interact: exchanging information, changing constitutions, and swiftly adapting. A woodrat living in the desert can eat poisonous creosote plants because they have bacteria that live in their guts that can detoxify it. If you put the same bacteria into the guts of other animals, they can start eating poisonous creosote, too! And this change doesn’t take hundreds of years, it just happens! There is a metaphor somewhere in there about reading, maybe.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

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Inaugural Aspen Words Literary Prize Announced

The inaugural Aspen Words Literary Prize, which was announced tonight during a ceremony in New York, was awarded to Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West. The award, which was established this year by Aspen Words, is an annual $35,000 prize for “an influential work of fiction that illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture.” In a recorded acceptance speech, Hamid said “Exit West is a novel about migration and how the world is changing — and could change — and how we are all migrants, and how we can find an optimistic future together.” (Make sure you read our review of Hamid’s award-winning novel).

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