Imagining a Cosmopolitan Future in Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West

by Guy Chadwick

While the current trajectory of humanity appears to be one of increasing globalisation, the idea of global citizenship still faces considerable resistance today. In 2016, UK Prime Minister Theresa May declared that ‘[i]f you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere’, a statement in which Jeremy Adler perceives not only echoes of nineteenth-century ‘German antisemitic discourse’, but a rejection ‘of Enlightenment values as a whole’.[1] To him, the pinnacle of Enlightenment philosophy is cosmopolitanism, an ideology whose name derives from the Greek kosmopolitês (‘citizen of the world’), and whose core belief is ‘that all human beings […] are (or can and should be) citizens in a single community’.[2] Regardless of whether or not a future guided by cosmopolitan principles would be a desirable prospect, however, there persist even greater doubts about its feasibility. As a species, many of us have become so accustomed to living within the narrow boundaries of nation, our identities so dependent on their differentiation from that of an Other, that it can often be difficult to envision how a cosmopolitan world might function at all.

Simon Gikandi is one such sceptic, to whom ‘the larger universal claims of cosmopolitanism only make sense as an “abstract faith”’.[3] In his essay ‘Between roots and routes’, Gikandi outlines several issues with the ideology that may render a cosmopolitan future problematic unless resolved. He first identifies a contrast between the intellectual who ‘free-willing[ly]’ adopts a cosmopolitan stance, and the refugee who vacates his or her home without choice.[4] The latter’s ‘journeys across boundaries […] do not necessarily lead [them] to a cosmopolitan attitude’, and so they are typically ‘incapable of, or simply disinterested in’ the ideology altogether.[5] And yet, it is these ‘coerced migrants’ who still dominate ‘global cultural flows’, leading Gikandi to question what it means ‘to think of the refugee, rather than the intellectual, as the quintessential figure of life across or outside boundaries’.[6] Doing so reveals a contradiction, as the refugee also represents a ‘dislocated locality’ and will often ‘seek to relocate [this] locality in the metropolis’ – a goal that ‘seem[s] to be at odds with’ those of cosmopolitanism; Gikandi therefore asks how we might explain this ‘reconstruction of locality […] where one expects it to collapse in the face of cosmopolitanism’.[7] This ‘clash between the desire to secure locality and the claims of universal being’ poses a third question: where does the local fit into a cosmopolitan world?[8] Finally, with these issues in mind, Gikandi asks more generally how we can possibly determine ‘[w]ho qualifies for the term cosmopolitan’ and who does not.[9]

Despite such pressing queries, Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid remains optimistic about the potential of cosmopolitanism. He believes that it is ‘important for us to begin to imagine […] these futures’,[10] and his 2017 novel, Exit West, does precisely this.[11] The novel follows the lives of Saeed and Nadia, two refugees who flee their unnamed, warring country to London through magical doors that have begun to materialise all over the world. These ‘portal[s] of complete blackness’ can teleport those who enter them ‘elsewhere’, serving not only to revolutionise the concept of space, but also to accelerate the rate of global migration.[12] Hamid uses these doors to precipitate what he sarcastically calls ‘the migration apocalypse’ – the mass migration that he foresees in the coming years – and thus to demonstrate that such an event ‘perhaps wouldn’t be all that apocalyptic’ in reality.[13] In its deconstruction of national borders, Exit West can be read as a response to Gikandi’s questions, primarily due to Hamid’s use of the black doors as a symbol of globalisation through which to imagine a cosmopolitan future.

Gikandi’s essay and Hamid’s novel share a common emphasis on boundaries. Hamid, who ‘trie[s] to advocate the blurring of boundaries’ in his writings, deems national boundaries to be ‘illusions: arbitrarily drawn constructs with porous, brittle and overlapping borders’.[14] He argues that although ‘there may be some fences’ between countries, the ‘line across which people can’t walk doesn’t actually exist – […] it’s in our minds’.[15] In Exit West, physical borders are only as impenetrable as the ideologies that support them. With the advent of ‘the migration apocalypse’, first-world natives take to ‘building walls and fences and strengthening their borders’, but their efforts are ‘seemingly to unsatisfactory effect’ because the black doors provide migrants with an alternative route across those boundaries.[16] Regular doors are described in the novel as ‘binarily either open or closed’, but the black doors ‘[cannot] be closed’, and thus the existence of even a single door within a nation will render its borders penetrable.[17] These doors deconstruct national boundaries both literally and metaphorically; ‘[w]ithout borders’, the concept of the nation begins to appear ‘somewhat illusory’ to the public.[18] Whereas Gikandi struggles to imagine the refugee as the quintessential symbol of ‘lives lived across boundaries, outside nation’, Hamid’s answer is to champion the open door as this symbol instead.[19]

[1] Jeremy Adler, ‘Theresa May’s rejection of Enlightenment values’, The Guardian (9 October 2016), <https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/oct/09/theresa-may-rejection-of-enlightenment-values> [accessed 14 February 2019].

[2] Pauline Kleingfield and Eric Brown, ‘Cosmopolitanism’, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. by Edward N. Zalta, 21 September 2014, <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2014/entries/cosmopolitanism/> [accessed 14 February 2019].

[3] Simon Gikandi, ‘Between roots and routes: Cosmopolitanism and the claims of locality’, in Rerouting the Postcolonial, ed. by Janet Wilson, Cristina Sandru and Sarah Lawson Welsh (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2009), pp. 22-35 (p. 29).

[4] Ibid., p. 28.

[5] Ibid., p. 24; p. 31.

[6] Ibid., p. 28; p. 23.

[7] Ibid., p. 23; p. 25; p. 33

[8] Ibid., p. 26; p. 32.

[9] Ibid., p. 31.

[10] Mohsin Hamid, Mohsin Hamid, “Exit West”, online video recording, Politics and Prose, YouTube, 16 March 2017, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xVM7xEMJPk> [accessed 28 December 2018].

[11] Hamid, Exit West (London: Penguin Books, 2018).

[12] Ibid., p. 27; p. 69.

[13] Hamid, Politics and Prose.

[14] Hamid, Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York and London (London: Penguin Books, 2015), pp. xvi-xviii.

[15] Amina Yaqin, ‘Mohsin Hamid in Conversation’, in Wasafiri, 23.2 (2008), pp. 44-49 (p. 48).

[16] Hamid, Exit, pp. 70-71.

[17] Ibid., p. 164.

[18] Ibid., p. 155.

[19] Gikandi, p. 23.