immigration

Thoughts on Exit West

exit westI recently finished reading Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Like the meme about toilet paper, this book only picks up the pace right toward the end. However, I think it is a beautiful novel. I like how it starts in the microcosm of a couple falling in love in a city, and eventually gets to the macrocosm of two whole lives lived in the aftermath of a war. Though the novel is about migration, I think Hamid’s most powerful messages are actually about human relationships and how closely people are connected in spite of violence.

I actually find Hamid’s tone to be surprisingly similar to that of Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games series–very even-keeled, though he is talking about heavy subjects. Perhaps that is the point. To dramatize violence is naive; it is so much a part of people’s lives everywhere in the world. Only in the Western world do we believe the lies we are told about how safe we are.

Against this backdrop, the kernels of truth Hamid offers are especially poignant. The way he talks about how Saeed and Nadia move from one country to another borrows somewhat from magical realism. We do not actually know how they get from one place to another–the two protagonists are said to go through “doors” (p.83) that take them from one place to another. The sinister implications are that, in the modern world, where borders are heavily policed, poor and desperate people will take huge risks to travel, and to ultimately survive. In fact, the novel could be arguing that migration is necessary. Lack of resources or lack of security forces people to take whatever route necessary to leave a country, often leading to massive, technically illegal migrations of people. I think here, Hamid begs the question of why we need to police borders with such fervor. What are we really “keeping out”? What does it say of our humanity that we would not allow other human beings to just live peaceful lives? Was there not a point in precolonial history when migration and exchange helped humanity thrive?

I’m intrigued as well by Hamid’s decision to intersperse throughout the novel anecdotes that at first seem to have nothing to do with the plot, but one realizes are like trail stones on the path that Saeed and Nadia travel. The anecdotes in the beginning are terrifying and quite violent–like the one about the Japanese man who is incensed to find Philipina women walking in his territory (I cannot remember the page for this). And then after a while, the stories become softer, with more connection among the characters. Perhaps my favorite is about a Dutch man and a Brazilian man who at first have not much to say to each other, but eventually fall in love (p.175).

The protagonists travel from their city–which sounds like it could be somewhere in the Middle East or North Africa–to Mykonos and London, and finally end their journey in Marin, a suburb of San Francisco. While they travel, their relationship to each other changes from that of two young lovers to…something else. And perhaps that is the more interesting transition than their physical journey. While they migrate, they get to know each other intimately, but the romance declines. They sometimes experience the annoyance of two people who are close out of necessity, but they do not hate each other.

Eventually, Nadia and Saeed part ways (p.220), which seemed inevitable from the start. They have wildly different personalities, in some parts truly only getting along because they have to. Hamid comments on what we change about ourselves when we move to other places because of culture, because of necessity, or just because we finally can. Though she does not come to terms with her queerness until near the end of the novel, Nadia may always have been attracted to women. She just had never lived in a place where it was socially acceptable to admit. She claims she wears a robe so men won’t fuck with her (p. 16). Of the two, she is better conditioned for survival after living alone for a long while before migrating and navigating without the support of her family. In contrast, Saeed is like a pampered mama’s boy at the beginning of the novel (p.9). He lives in a comfortable middle class home with both his parents. As the novel progresses, he learns to understand life from more perspectives than his own. Often, it is Nadia who points out these perspectives to him, like she does when they talk about the differences between migrants to England and to their home country (p.162).

I like the implications about faith and humanity that Hamid makes. In the novel, Saeed never loses faith, though his relationship with religion changes. Near the end, he prays “as a gesture for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way…he touched a feeling that we all lose our parents…and we too will be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity…” (p.202). It reminds me of Antonio, of how strongly I still remember him. And of my grandfather and how the family I have that is part of my generation is at peace with the fact that he is dying because he was already so old when we came into the world, but my mom and her siblings are maybe less accepting because he was not old when they were born, and for so long he was not old. And that for them it is so hard to accept that they won’t even look at the reality that one day, Koka will leave us because that is the natural way of things. They don’t accept yet that we will be okay, we are still here for each other. And I will experience losing all of them as well. And one day, hopefully a very long time from now, other people will experience losing me.

I think what I like best is the very last sentence of the novel–that they do not know if that evening will come. I like that it leaves the door open for possibility, and that there is this hope that something good, something beautiful and pleasing, is on its way, perhaps. It might take its time coming to us, and maybe we have to get through hardship on the way to it, but it is there, waiting.

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Re-Evaluation of a Memory

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So aesthetic pretty wall to remind you of rustic old places. Location: Poet’s Seat Tower, Greenfield, MA. Credits: Me

I do a type of counseling where I am encouraged to look at a lot of my early memories, and I recently had a re-evaluation (what, in other counseling methods, may be called a “breakthrough”) in a very important place. I felt like putting it here because maybe this would be helpful to someone.

My early memories indicate that my father was a very happy person who made it clear that he wanted me very much. Every day, he came home from work and was eager to play with me. He was the one I asked to push me on the swings and let me run around outside and play games with me. He was a lot of fun! Oftentimes, when I have a crush on someone, it is frequently because they remind me of my dad. The thing is, they often have his shortcomings as well. He left every day for work, often before I was even awake. I spent most of my mornings and afternoons without him. I spent that time with my mom.

I don’t remember my mom well from that period and that told me something about my relationship with her (this is before my brother was born, so before I was 3 years old. Most people are shocked I can remember that far back in my life, but I can). At first, I thought it was because she didn’t want me. I thought she was upset about the career she did not get to have. Or perhaps because she had immigrated to the United States. But neither of these explanations really made much sense. She had me 3 years after she moved to the country. I have seen photos of her from before my birth, and she looks happy. She and my father used to travel a lot. They went to lots of theme parks, had many friends, and visited many states. It is only after I was born that I remember my mother sleeping for long periods of time in the middle of the day, which is what initially made me think she didn’t want me.

I have worked on this memory dozens of times, and it never made much sense to me until recently, when a few important things happened. First, I recently broke the crush I have had on my math professor for the last two months. A counselor of mine said precisely what I forgot was true: it is nice to focus on a crush when everything else is going wrong. It provides escape. And I realized something else when she said that. I feel as though he (my crush) gives me something that few other people are giving me right now: he is not asking anything of me. And that is why I have fallen so in love with him. My father was not asking anything of me either, all those years ago.

Yesterday, I also got a good direction from a counselor that helped me figure out the other half of the puzzle with my mom. My counselor said “she was doing the best she could.” I was also working on other family matters at the time, talking about my cousins, who all live very far away. I was talking about how I wish I knew them more intimately, and I was thinking about how well I now know my math professor. I know what he likes, I know what he smells like, I know that he likes to dance. I don’t know any of those things about my cousins. That is why it is sometimes hard for me to understand why my mother thinks those relationships are important. My cousins are strangers to me, and I know I could change that, but I just don’t believe the internet is enough for me to really feel their presence.

I then had to connect that feeling with the time when I was pregnant. In the weeks leading to my abortion, I really wanted to carry my child to term, but every time I asked myself how I would make it work financially, I knew I couldn’t do it. I got an abortion. I thought about mom being pregnant 27 years ago, and what it must have felt like to realize that her baby girl would grow up with none of the people or things that she was familiar with. I would not have my cousins, aunts, uncles, or grandparents. It would take a much greater effort for me to learn and maintain speaking Assamese. I would know nothing but what she taught me about the place where my ancestors are from.

I imagine all those things weighing on the mind of a 29-year-old immigrant woman. And I realized the reason why I cannot remember my mother from all those years ago is not because she didn’t want me. She wanted me very, very much. She was sad after I was born, but I was not the problem. The problem existed long before I did. She was sad, is probably sad still, because every time she looks at me, she thinks of all the things her little girl had to grow up without. My counselor said, if anything, this is a gift. My mom loved me so supernaturally that she is sad she cannot give me the things she really wants to give me.

And the thing I have to keep in mind is that I cannot give her what she wants. It is something I want so badly to do even now. When someone senses my hyper-responsiveness and latches on, draining me of all my energy, I still think I will be the one to give them what they want. I couldn’t make sense of what was missing as a child, and I thought I had the power to give my mother what she wanted. Again and again I would try. Her responses never made any sense. If I was doing well, the activity was too easy. If I wasn’t doing well, it was my own fault. She was impossible to satisfy. Eventually, I learned to shrug her off, to cut her off even, because after a good amount of time, I could identify her duality for myself. It still confused me. I have spent years trying to figure out what she could possibly want.

I love her, and it is not my responsibility to fill that gaping hole for her. I know now that the reason I could feel my father’s happiness is because somehow, he sees what I have, and what I am. I don’t know if it makes sense to hope for that from my mother. On a physical, material plane, I know she will retire some time in the next 10-15 years and perhaps after that her mind will settle enough to lead her to what she wants. In the spirit realm, who knows how to fill that abyss of hers. It comes out of her in every way, especially toward me. If anything, without knowing it, every time I pull away, every time I reject her, I make it worse for her by reminding her strongly that I am not like her. What I am making of my life here is not at all what she made of hers, nor is it something she ever could have made of hers. How many years of counseling would it take for her to unravel over twenty years of feeling inadequate, of feeling she couldn’t provide, of feeling I should have had more that she could never give me?

That I wasn’t asking for.

That I don’t know, and will never know.

I wonder which is better, having the mother that wanted me to know, and therefore told me everything, setting expectations I could never reach, or the mother that chose to never tell, bottle the truth, and let her child continue in blissful ignorance.