A Blog by International Students at Leiden University
It isn’t every day that world-renowned authors come to The Hague’s Paard van Troje to speak. But, every now and then, Border Kitchen, a local literary organisation, brings some of the worlds best writers to the city. Since starting in the early 2000s they’ve hosted some titanic wordsmiths like Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Martha Nussbaum and Isabel Allende, to name a few. Last week Mohsin Hamid became a great addition to the list.
It was funny to see him in Paard. He filled the stage, usually dominated by noisy musicians, very well. Calm and collected, his interviewer, by contrast, struggled to match his grace. I sympathise, Mohsin Hamid is an intimidatingly good writer. The Reluctant Fundamentalist launched him to fame in the late 2000s and he deserves the good following he’s had since.
In one of his better moments, the interviewer asked simply ‘why do you write?’ Generalising about all the different kinds that fall under the umbrella ‘writer’ is a risky business. But Mohsin ventured that the writer’s task as to “re-complicate what has been simplified, and simplify what isn’t naturally complicated, but has been”. Awkwardly rapturous the interviewer noted this as “a very beautiful thing to say”.
It was, and Mohsin’s maxim describes very well how he treats his subject matter. This is (beyond boosting Border Kitchen and an author that doesn’t need it) what I really want to talk about in this blog post.
Mohsin writes mainly, and especially in his most recent novel Exit West, about migration. Yes fine, identity, love, perception and a whole load of life’s beautiful minutiae feature too. But migration, movement, transition, this is the center Mohsin revolves around. The ideas are fitting for students living abroad trying to navigate a foreign space, though Mohsin’s characters experience the far nastier vicissitudes of travel.
The main characters in Exit West, for example, two refugees in love, are forced to move constantly from places that persistently reject them. The novel imagines a world where movement itself becomes easy, though belonging and acceptance takes longer to catch up. It starkly and affectionately reminds a reader that we are all migrants: a naturally simple thing, frequently overcomplicated. And it’s an empathic story about refugees in Europe: a naturally complex thing, always overly simplified
Asked about why he has written Exit West, Mohsin revealed himself as a kind of activist. The most institutionalised and widespread injustice, and the one least recognised or talked about, is the freedom some have to move compared to others. To paraphrase him (I was too slow to jot it down exactly), “Oh we think the sexes should be equal, and that different races are the same, and that sexuality doesn’t change how you should be treated, but oh, oh no, where you’re born, that decides what kind of human you are”.
In a week from now, Border Kitchen is bringing the Turkish Nobel Prize-winning author Ohran Pamuk to the Luther Church in The Hague. If you can’t be there, keep an eye out for Mohsin and Ohran’s work. Once writers become renowned, crossing borders gets easier. But before them, their words go first, and words, if used well, don’t care much for border boundaries.