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Taking Place and Finding One’s Place: Unhomely Events in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) and Exit West (2017)

Avoir lieu et trouver sa place : L'étrangeté de l’événement dans The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) et Exit West (2017) de Mohsin Hamid
Maëlle Jeanniard du Dot


Dans ses romans The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) et Exit West (2017), l’écrivain pakistanais Mohsin Hamid invite ses lecteurs au cœur d’événements réels et historiques, bien que le mode reste celui de la fiction. Les personnages qui font l’expérience d’émeutes raciales ou du New York post-11-Septembre ont un point de vue bien particulier : tous sont des migrants. Parce qu’il est une énigme à la fois sur le plan philosophique et sur le plan cognitif, l’événement se fait le miroir de la migration, et l’une comme l’autre de ces expériences en viennent à interroger la place de tout un chacun dans le monde – ou, plus souvent, la difficulté d’en trouver une. Cet article s’intéresse à la manière dont l’expression « avoir lieu » (taking place, qui implique aussi de « se saisir » du lieu) illustre les quêtes identitaires à l’œuvre dans ces deux romans de Mohsin Hamid. L’événement et la question du familier seront lus au prisme de « l’inquiétante étrangeté » de Sigmund Freud, en analysant le rôle de l’écriture fantastique dans ces récits. L’interaction entre événement et migration sera également éclairée par une approche géographique de la notion d’apparition. Nous avançons que la confrontation de ces personnages migrants avec leurs identités pluriformes se joue au travers de l’événement mondialisé et des discours qui en émanent, soulignant ainsi une interaction riche de sens entre l’étrange et l’étranger.

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1Mohsin Hamid’s two best-known novels, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) and Exit West (2017), were both praised for opening a window on contemporary global events, notably when they were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The Reluctant Fundamentalist was partly written in the aftermath of 9/11. This short novel gained critical acclaim, especially in the Anglophone world where Hamid’s versatile narrator and partly Pakistani setting differed from the narratives that had then started to emerge in Anglophone fiction. As Anna Hartnell argues, The Reluctant Fundamentalist “[…] subject[ed]the insular tendencies of the American “9/11 novel” to a postcolonial novel, and in so doing ma[de] manifest the repressed political content of the genre” (Hartnell 336). The novel is written in the second person. The Pakistani narrator Changez tells his experience as a financial analyst in New York, before, during and after the 9/11 attacks, to a mysterious American tourist in the Old Anarkali neighbourhood in Lahore. Following the thriller-like suspense, the reader soon understands that Changez’s contrasted stance towards 9/11 might be the reason for this encounter. Madeline Clements notes that while some readers initially mistook the narrator’s polemical perception on 9/11 for the novelist’s, giving way to harsh responses, critical readings have pointed to the novel’s capacity to escape any accusations of partisanship (Clements 75).

2Hamid’s latest novel Exit West tells the story of a young couple, Saeed and Nadia, who need to flee their unnamed Eastern city at war and end up going through some of the “black doors” which magically transport people from one country to the next. Its timely treatment of the refugee crisis propelled the writer to the forefront of the mainstream media, notwithstanding scholarly interest. Whereas some critics largely commented upon the magical realist component of the story (Brauer, Georghiu), others analysed its entanglement with the digital era (Chambers).

3Mohsin Hamid was born in Pakistan and has lived in California, New York and London before returning to his native Lahore. He often defines himself as a “mongrel” (Paul Auster et al. n.p.); like him, his characters resist absolute identification. The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Exit West are respectively Hamid’s second and fourth novels. Not only did they become his best-known works, but they also share a focus on migrant characters, contrary to his other two novels.

4In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the main protagonist leaves his native Pakistan to study and then work in the United States. The novel can be read in the light of a tradition of contemporary narratives of the South Asian diaspora, which question notions such as self-consciousness and assimilation in the host country (Chatterji and Washbrook 6). The term diaspora strictly speaking designates “[a] dispersed population across more than one territory having a durable and salient relationship […] to a common origin, identity or homeland” (Bartram et al. 48). However, Françoise Král notes that the term has been increasingly “[…] divorced from the notion of exile and closer to that of residence in a foreign country […]” (Král, 11). The two main characters of Exit West, on the other hand, are always on the move and are closer to exile than to residence: they are first and foremost refugees, subjects who “[…] engage in migration as a consequence of a significant disruption in their current situation” (Bartram et al. 106).

5Albeit featuring two different kinds of migrant characters – a businessman settled in New York and war refugees –, both novels are informed by the negotiations of one’s identity. For in the midst of events such as 9/11 or an attack on refugees in London, identity is more than ever an unstable concept. Indeed, Mohsin Hamid’s novels reveal how a major event taking place conjures up the need for diasporic and refugee characters to find their place in the world.

6This paper proposes to explore the mirrored movement of taking place and finding one’s place through the notion of the unhomely. The term “unhomely” draws upon Sigmund Freud’s Unheimlichkeit, most usually translated as “the uncanny” – the experience of unfamiliar phenomena, which were once familiar, in real life and in fiction (Freud 134). Although the literal translation as “unhomely” is not the favoured option in translations of Freud’s text, it was more directly taken up by Homi Bhabha, first in his essay “The World and the Home” and later in The Location of Culture. Reading Toni Morrison and Nadine Gordimer’s writings in light of the concept, Bhabha described the unhomely as “a paradigmatic post-colonial experience,” which can however appear in other kinds of “[…] fictions that negotiate the powers of cultural difference in a range of historical conditions and social contradictions” (Bhabha 1992, 142). This paper primarily addresses the formal manifestations of Freud’s uncanny in Mohsin Hamid’s fiction; yet, the translation as “unhomely” cannot be overlooked, as it underscores its crucial resonance with the notion of home in novels addressing the complexity of migration.

7This paper will thus explore how Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West and The Reluctant Fundamentalist shed light on the event as an uncanny chronotope, and unveil what happens when home is caught in the event. Indeed, like any event taking place, the unknown leads the characters and reader to re-assess reality. In both novels, re-assessing reality also means decoding foreignness, and interrogating the interactions between strangeness – manifestations of the uncanny – and foreignness – here, the migrant subject. The two novels ultimately present the event as a place and moment of self-exploration, whereby personal and national identities are questioned through the lens of what takes place.

When home is caught in the event: uncanny chronotopes

8Mikhaïl Bakhtin’s definition of the chronotope as “[…] the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships” (Bakhtin 84-85) could apply to the events narrated in The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Exit West. In the former, 9/11 is not merely a moment in time. The spatial dimension of the event is also taken into account as the narrative encapsulates various viewpoints expressed from different places: it examines how the catastrophe and its aftermath are experienced from New York and from Lahore. In Exit West, space seems prevalent when the characters migrate through the black doors, but these figures always seem to be caught up by time, too, as the regular irruption of violent events prevents them from settling anywhere. Yet the problematic notion of home is also involved in the understanding of these time-spaces: in the two novels, home is not a fixed coordinate from which one can witness what takes place. It is the very instability of home which shows the event to be so highly “unhomely.”

9In both novels, the notion of home is re-evaluated along the plot, and its meaning regularly shifts. For Changez, in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, cosmopolitan New York first becomes like a second home. Upon explaining Lahore’s pedestrian tradition, he exclaims that “[…] New York felt – so unexpectedly – like coming home” (The Reluctant Fundamentalist 36-37). He also mentions the fact that Urdu is largely spoken and Pak-Punjab Delis can be found anywhere. But the feeling is short-lived: after the attacks, Changez undergoes religious and racial prejudice. He no longer feels like a cosmopolitan New Yorker, to the point that he has to leave the city and go back to Lahore.

10In Exit West, the shifting definition of home is the leitmotiv of the novel. The structure of the narrative mirrors this constant shift: besides Saeed and Nadia, other, unknown characters move around the earth, leaving a place or arriving in another. Their micro-stories are inserted regularly in the macro-plot that is Saeed and Nadia’s journey. In every one of these passages, the characters’ relation to the place they are leaving is questioned. The first of these inserted scenes takes place in an Australian house, where an alarm has been installed “[…] by others who had once called this place home” (Exit West 6). Home, therefore, is always already a site of passage, a meeting point of different trajectories. The sentence insists on the instability of the term, and on how it can be assigned to different places in turn.

11Saeed and Nadia exemplify this redefinition throughout the novel: they have to make a home for themselves every time they go through one of the black doors. The reader first witnesses the couple’s attempts at adapting to the chronotope of their city at war. The adjective “odd” is used regularly to evoke the de-familiarization they experience. In the first chapter of the novel, the narrator concedes: “It might seem odd that in cities teetering on the edge of the abyss, young people still go to class […]” (Exit West 1). If, in this instance, the term conveys the discrepancy between daily life and the ongoing war, it is used again on the following page, this time to evoke “[…] the odd car bombing […]” (Exit West 2), and to point to the familiarity of violence. Thus the word is highly ambiguous; it reflects the to-and-fro movement between familiarity and strangeness that is at the heart of Freud’s Unheimlichkeit, and which is patent in the changes war can bring to one’s home city. At the peak of war, this adjustment between home and the event leads to Saeed’s oxymoronic statement: “The end of the world can be cosy at times” (Exit West 77). Saeed and Nadia almost settle in this in-between chronotope, adapting their perception of home to the troubled times.

12Yet when they see their own city becoming foreign to them, after it has been invaded by militants, Saeed and Nadia have no choice but to imagine a home elsewhere. They reach Mykonos, and then escape to London, where they occupy a deserted hotel together with migrants from all over the world. Their desperate quest for a home is most arresting when the migrants are cordoned off by the police and surrounded by helicopters in the hotel they occupy. In this passage, the intertwining of time and space is again described explicitly:

[…] around this zone were soldiers and armoured vehicles, and above it were drones and helicopters, and inside it were Nadia and Saeed, who had run from war already, and did not know where next to run, and so were waiting, waiting, like so many others. (Exit West 135).

13The characters’ claustrophobic experience, mirrored by the ternary pattern of the prepositions “around,” “above” and “inside,” culminates in the realization that a potential home is once again lost. The repetition (“waiting, waiting”) creates a pause in the relentless course of the enumeration, as if to underline the petrification of characters caught inside an event. Saeed and Nadia, it seems, have fled an event more than a place: they have “run from war” rather than from their home country. The event has taken hold of their sense of place, and seems to annihilate any memory of their place of origin.

14Hence, rather than generating nostalgia, this lost country gradually loses meaning to Nadia. Indeed, after Saeed makes friends with other refugees in London, Nadia refuses to live with them simply on the grounds of a shared nationality:

‘They’re from our country.’
‘From the country we used to be from.’
‘Yes.’ Saeed tried not to sound annoyed.
‘We’ve left that place.’ (Exit West 149)

15By proposing that one’s origins might be a transient fact, Nadia challenges Saeed to re-define his understanding of home. She operates a strict break from her country to the point of calling it “that place,” reducing it to one of the many places she has encountered.

16In these novels, a central element of unfamiliarity – which is frequent in narratives addressing migration – is the gap which separates the migrants’ gaze on their country before leaving it from their changed perception when they return. This is reminiscent of Salman Rushdie’s “Indias of the mind” in his essay “Imaginary Homelands” (Salman Rushdie 10). But the experience of a violent event brings yet another dimension to this gap: the migrant gaze is even more destabilized when the home country is impacted by political events. In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Changez cannot but remark the troops “within commuting distance” (The Reluctant Fundamentalist 144) of his parents’ home, as Pakistan arms itself against Indian threats in the wake of 9/11. After arriving in Lahore, his perception of home also seems altered by his experience: “I recall the Americanness of my own gaze when I returned to Lahore that winter when war was in the offing. […] This was where I came from, this was my provenance, and it smacked of lowliness” (The Reluctant Fundamentalist 140-141). Again, the context of the event and its aftermath forms part of the diasporic character’s loss of a sense of home, as Changez’s return to his home city is set against the context of “war […] in the offing.” As the emphasis on the pronoun “[t]his” demonstrates, Changez struggles to recognize the place as his home, so that it becomes almost unnameable. The character acknowledges a change in perception, rather than a change in reality, and thus calls upon the reader to question their own gaze in a time of political instability.

17The final chapter of Exit West presents the return to the characters’ home city in more nuanced terms. A lifetime has elapsed since the young couple left a country at war, and the narrator reflects upon the transitory nature of events:

Half a century later Nadia returned for the first time to the city of her birth, where the fires she had witnessed in her youth had burned themselves out long ago, the lives of cities being far more persistent and gently cyclical than those of people, and the city she found herself in was not a heaven but it was not a hell, and it was familiar but also unfamiliar, and as she wandered about slowly, exploring, she was informed of the proximity of Saeed […] (Exit West 227)

18The personified city is characterized by a set of contradictions which emphasize the migrant character’s contrasted gaze on the place. What took place, it seems, is now a mere memory, presented as one among many in a cyclical perception of history; place has been seized by time. The notion of home is once again questioned through this opposition of the “familiar and unfamiliar.” Nadia nonetheless attempts to tame this partly unfamiliar place by “exploring” it anew. “Home” is re-evaluated as the characters move from one place to another, and through the event; its shifting meaning is one of the many displacements expressed through the migrant gaze, to the point that it can be reinvented entirely.

  • 1 “[…] whatever has an uncanny effect in real life has the same in literature.” (Freud 157). Freud re (...)

19While the event destabilizes home, it also destabilizes anything that once seemed familiar. In Sigmund Freud’s extensive definition of the uncanny, which extends to “creative writing” and “imaginative literature” (Freud 155),1 the unfamiliar feeling leading to horror and rejection is heightened by repetition: “[…] we have no difficulty in recognizing that it is only the factor of unintended repetition that transforms what would otherwise seem quite harmless into something uncanny and forces us to entertain the idea of the fateful and the inescapable […]” (Freud 144).

20In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Changez experiences such repetition in the aftermath of 9/11. While New York once seemed familiar to him, the now frequent beatings and interrogations of innocent Muslim men de-familiarize the city. He ends up reasoning like the narrator of a fantastic story, who shares his hesitations with the reader (Todorov 46):

I ignored as best I could the rumors I overheard at the Pak-Punjab Deli: Pakistani cabdrivers were being beaten to within an inch of their lives; the FBI was raiding mosques, shops, and even people’s houses; Muslim men were disappearing, perhaps into shadowy detention centers for questioning or worse. […] I reasoned that these stories were mostly untrue; the few with some basis in fact were almost certainly being exaggerated; and besides, those rare cases of abuse that regrettably did transpire were unlikely ever to affect me […] (The Reluctant Fundamentalist 107-108)

  • 2 “La rumeur […] est anucléique. Elle se diffuse horizontalement, se propage en nappes décentralisées (...)

21The numerous accounts of retaliation stand in sharp contrast with the narrator’s seemingly methodical reasoning, so that there is no authoritative discourse any more: stories of what took place can no longer be taken for granted. The accumulation of the adverbs (“mostly,” “certainly,” “regrettably”) conveys, on the one hand, the ironical gap between reality and perception and, on the other hand, the possible gap between what takes place for most and the dilemmas that take place for the migrant. The rumours do not only spread in Changez’s environment, but seem to redefine altogether the places that he once perceived as home. The Pak-Punjab Deli, once a token of familiarity, but also mosques and shops, are subjected to this reinterpretation. In “Poétique de la Rumeur,” Xavier Garnier contends that unlike the vertical, authoritative discourses of power, the narrative use of rumour is decentred (“non-nuclear,”)2, and appears horizontally (Garnier 892). In this passage, the horizontal spreading of rumours forms part of the uncanny effect; their insertion in the narration destabilizes the gaze cast on places that were once familiar, and replaces it with the unfamiliarity of what takes place.

22Instability brings about the hermeneutic process experienced both by the readers and the characters. The frequent call for interpretation in the two novels is also an attempt at understanding how the foreigners themselves – not only their environment – appear as doubly alien in the event: both strange and foreign.

Reading the signs, or decoding foreignness in the event

23In an essay entitled “Enduring Love of the Second Person,” Mohsin Hamid acknowledged the impact of Albert Camus on his writing, most specifically of La Chute (Hamid 2015 78). The legacy of Camus can also be read in Hamid’s repeated exploration of what is étranger – whether it is foreignness, strangeness, or alienation. In this essay, published in his collection Discontent and its Civilizations – an obvious reference to Freud’s almost similarly titled work –, he also explained that with The Reluctant Fundamentalist he wanted “[…] to show, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, how feelings already present inside a reader – fear, anger, suspicion, loyalty – could colour a narrative so that the reader, as much as or even more than the writer, is deciding what is really going on” (Hamid 2015 78). With Exit West as much as with The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the reader is invited to “decid[e] what is really going on” by following the characters’ own questionings on contemporary issues. The highly topical subject of mass migration is directed at the readership in a striking echo of the ongoing journeys between the Middle East and Europe. In both novels, this “deciding” process implies that we should decode unfamiliarity in all its manifestations, and thus develop a multifaceted understanding of what étranger can mean.

24One of those manifestations is described at length in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, when Changez returns to post-9/11 New York with a beard after spending time in Lahore. At first, the narrator attempts to decode the symbolical impact of the beard in a mockingly surprised tone:

It is remarkable, given its physical insignificance – it is only a hairstyle, after all – the impact a beard worn by a man of my complexion has on your fellow countrymen. More than once, traveling on the subway – where I had always had the feeling of seamlessly blending in – I was subjected to verbal abuse by complete strangers […] (The Reluctant Fundamentalist 148)

25The beard becomes the ultimate signifier of foreignness, but also of the unknown at large, leading to extreme reactions. Sigmund Freud notes that a person can be thought to be uncanny, “[…] when we credit him with evil intent. But this alone is not enough: it must be added that this intent to harm us is realized with the help of special powers” (Freud 149). The character’s beard has indeed taken on the dimension of a “special power” in the course of the event, so that its unfamiliar effect alone generates violence. Yet, in his interpretation of the scene, Changez turns the unfamiliarity of the symbol upside down by reflecting on its “insignificance,” but also by telling the story from his viewpoint, as an experience of rejection – and, for him, too, of unfamiliarity. Interestingly, he calls the abusers “complete strangers,” thus inverting the paradigm of the foreigner in a familiar place.

26Besides the visual dimension of symbols, a more internal experience requires decoding: that of the split self, which Freud identifies as a frequent motif of the uncanny. The Doppelgänger experience consists in “[…] substitut[ing] the other’s self for his own” (Freud 141). The uncanny feeling causes a systematic rejection, which Freud describes as “[…] the defensive urge that ejects it from the ego as something alien.” (Freud 143). Mohsin Hamid incorporates such experiences in his narratives of migration. In Exit West, a startling scene shows the character of Nadia reading the news on her phone, on the steps of a London building. While scrolling on her screen, she notices a woman sitting exactly as she is at that precise moment:

[…] [she] wondered how this could be, how she could both read this news and be this news, and how the newspaper could have published the image of her instantaneously, and she looked about for a photographer, and she had the bizarre feeling of time bending all around her, as though she was from the past reading about the future, or from the future reading about the past, and she almost felt that if she got up and walked home at this moment there would be two Nadias, that she would split into two Nadias, and one would stay on the steps reading and one would walk home, and two different lives would unfold for these two different selves, and she thought she was losing her balance, or possibly her mind, and then she zoomed in on the image and saw that the woman in the black robe reading the news on her phone was actually not her at all. (Exit West 154-155)

27Nadia’s experience of the split self is highly uncanny, as the woman she sees is both familiar and unfamiliar. The scene, which runs over a full page, efficiently conveys Nadia’s uninterrupted confusion through the use of parataxis. The description of “time bending all around her” partakes of this almost fantastic narrative, creating a specific time frame for the displaced subject. But the passage also presents two different splits through the divided Nadia. The first split is that between home and the here and now for the migrant subject. Nadia imagines one of the two Nadias “walk[ing] home,” a notion which is undefinable for the refugee. But the character’s smartphone, which repeatedly appears in the novel, is also in itself an example of a split reality: lived experience is opposed to the filtered experience of the event, which Nadia reads on her screen. In the end, this double reality leads Nadia to consider herself as a piece of news, taking place on the stairs of the building – a form of alienation which noticeably calls to mind the anonymization of migrants in mass media.

28Presenting Nadia as a piece of news actually establishes a parallel movement between the event taking place and the migrant striving to find a place. In the novels, experiencing the event and reading the signs of the uncanny both lead to an exploration of identity, which, in turn, seems to be taking place.

How identity takes place

29In what he calls a “philosophical topography,” geographer Jeff Malpas explores the notions of space and place through the lens of other concepts upon which they depend. According to Malpas, the idea of appearance is closely tied to place. Whenever something appears, it simultaneously points to the place where it appears: “[a]ppearance, as it is, is always a taking place, which is to say that it is always the establishing of a certain there […]” (Malpas 237). Mohsin Hamid’s narratives of the event can be read as the joint appearance of place and identity: through what takes place, identity is allowed to appear. Whether they tackle the fantastic emergence of migrants through a black door, or the emergence of 9/11 in the everyday environment of a diasporic subject, both narratives grapple with the identity conundrums which result from the sudden, radical experience of the event in an unfamiliar place.

  • 3 Italics in the original text.

30What characterizes the relation between place and appearance, for Malpas, is the conjunction of salience and withdrawal,3 which can also be read as the conjunction of focus and field, or foreground and background (Malpas 237). These dualities are paramount in Mohsin Hamid’s writing of the event, in that migrating subjects see their identities drawn along the lines of the event; in other words, their complex identities are made salient by what takes place.

31In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the retrospective narration of 9/11 by Changez leads to several such realizations on identity. In one passage, the aftermath of the event reveals his adopted American identity as a fragile construct:

I wonder now, sir, whether I believed at all in the firmness of the foundations of the new life I was attempting to construct for myself in New York. Certainly I wanted to believe; at least I wanted not to disbelieve with such an intensity that I prevented myself as much as was possible from making the obvious connection between the crumbling of the world around me and the impending destruction of my own personal American dream. (The Reluctant Fundamentalist 106)

32Changez attempted to build a place for himself in New York, as the metaphor of foundations and construction shows. Once again, the event leads him to re-assess every aspect of his American life, and his incredulity in the face of the aftermath leads to a fundamental dissociation. The macro event of 9/11, which he calls a “crumbling,” emerges along the micro-event that is the loss of the American dream. The migrant’s identity comes tumbling down like a house of cards, the foundations of which were based on an idea of the United States ultimately shattered by 9/11.

33The migrant subject’s social alienation is shared by others: the novel comes to offer a broader perspective on how the event may impact all marginalized subjects. While Changez is made to re-consider his identity entirely after 9/11, other characters experience a double alienation similar to that of the foreigner in the midst of uncanny events. Jim, Changez’s boss at Underwood Samson, shows empathy towards Changez’s uneasiness and tells him his own “rags to riches” story, coming from a poor American family. Erica, the woman with whom Changez falls in love, is also an embodiment of alienation: her progressive relapse into depression is triggered by 9/11, and follows Changez’s growing uneasiness after the event. In his review of the novel, James Lasdun remarked that Erica could easily be read as an allegory of “Am-Erica,” retreating into fear after 9/11 (Lasdun). The character’s psychological struggle indeed appears as a striking echo of the nation’s confused self-definition. Beyond the specificity of the migrant’s experience, the novel therefore hints at the many ways in which a sense of belonging can be impacted by the event.

34In Exit West, the impact of the event on identity manifests itself as an evolution in the main characters’ relationships. Their forced migration, provoked by the war taking place in their city, progressively modifies their perception of one another:

Every time a couple moves they begin, if their attention is still drawn to one another, to see each other differently, for personalities are not a single immutable colour, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us. So it was with Saeed and Nadia, who found themselves changed in each other’s eyes in this new place. (Exit West 186)

  • 4 See Mohsin Hamid’s essay on his choice of 9/11 for The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Hamid 2015).

35The narrator’s proverbial tone, which forms part of the novel’s thrust towards the philosophical tale, is an invitation for the reader to observe how they evolve themselves in the process and in the aftermath of an event. The screen simile is an extension of the novel’s (and the writer’s) agenda: while it enhances the universality of the impact an event can have upon human beings, it also implies that the narrative itself can be a screen, reflecting different “shades” according to who reads it, and offering the reader an opportunity to question their own position when they read about their contemporary world.4

36Because they explore the impact of the event on the migrant’s identity, Exit West and The Reluctant Fundamentalist come to tackle one’s sense of place and what it entails when one is confronted with the event. For whoever experiences it, the event is what takes place: it modifies the place itself – in the case of 9/11 – or it modifies one’s perception of it. In both novels, however, the definition of a place is never a given; rather, the event taking place is an occasion to address the complexity and subjectivity of place in the global era. The twofold unfamiliarity of migration and the event is what enables the narratives to re-invent our spatial imaginaries and, ultimately, to imagine how the migrant characters might find a place despite the turmoil of global events. These novels highlight how spatial imaginaries can be re-mapped through the circulation of discourse surrounding contemporary events.

37The very structure of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is built upon this reinvention. Besides 9/11 taking place, the novel also revolves around an encounter in a specific place, that of Changez and the American man in Lahore. The latter, we understand in the last pages of the narrative, might be an agent sent to inquire on Changez’s post-9/11 politics. Changez narrates his past to the man, but his story is continually interrupted by what takes place on the square in Old Anarkali – on one occasion, Changez notices bats “circling rather low” which seem to “anger” and “surprise” the American man (The Reluctant Fundamentalist 86). The American man’s experience of Lahore is then highly uncanny, and is artfully made to mirror Changez’s experience of growing uneasiness as a Muslim in post-9/11 New York, to the extent that the American man becomes a foreigner in turn. The choice of re-telling the events from Lahore, rather than New York, allows for a displacement of the Pakistani character’s position in the post-9/11 world order.

38Telling the story from Lahore is also a means for the narrator to uphold his perception of space, thereby re-appropriating his origins and de-constructing the American man’s prejudice on his Pakistani identity. While presenting the history of Lahore to the American man, Changez explains:

[…] in the stories we tell of ourselves we were not the crazed and destitute radicals you see on your television channels but rather saints and poets and – yes – conquering kings. We built the Royal Mosque and the Shalimar Gardens in this city, and we built the Lahore Fort […] (The Reluctant Fundamentalist 115-116)

39Changez rejects the identity assigned to him through the event, that of a “crazed and destitute radical,” to better reclaim the place of his origins. The term “conquering” calls to mind an appropriation of space which echoes the re-appropriation operated by Changez. The two italicised “we” enhance this newfound pride in his Pakistani identity in the aftermath of the event. This “we,” implicitly opposed to the “you” assigned to the American man and his comparatively young nation, is an example of the relational reconfiguration which ensues from what took place. In this passage, the post-9/11 United States is no longer at the centre of the world map, and the history and geography of Lahore become the axis around which the protagonist’s map of the world revolves.

  • 5 In a passage from Exit West, the narrator sets the scene in an era that questions the nation: “[w]i (...)

40Although this passage investigates the status of Pakistan as a nation, Mohsin Hamid’s novels – Exit West and The Reluctant Fundamentalist in particular – subtly address the limitations of the nation-state.5 Because they both investigate the impact of world-scale events on individuals, the novels shed light on the universality that stems from experiencing the unfamiliar, a universality that extends beyond national borders. The question they ask is whether the nation-state is still a relevant entity in regard to contemporary experiences of space and time in the globalized world. Exit West, for instance, initially takes place in “[…] a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war […]” (Exit West 1). The city is never named; instead, it is identified by what takes place there – the beginnings of war. Although other cities are identified later in the novel, the narrative never dwells on their national characteristics; rather, they stand as symbols of the global era, with as many common points as differences.

41Access to information is another important stake of the mapping process, as it questions the interaction between place and taking place. Scenes involving social media run through Exit West, as the main protagonists use their phones constantly during their journey. Early in the novel, while Saeed and Nadia remain trapped in their city at war, smartphones are depicted as an almost magical escape from space and time:

In their phones there were antennas, and these antennas sniffed out an invisible world, as if by magic, a world that was all around them, and also nowhere, transporting them to places distant and near, and to places that had never been and would never be. […] Saeed partly resisted the pull of his phone. He found the antenna too powerful, the magic it summoned too mesmerizing, as though he were eating a banquet of limitless food […]. (Exit West 35-37)

42The passage turns the use of smartphones into a surreal phenomenon, in a description akin to magical realism– material elements of the modern world are playfully blended together with telekinesis and hypnosis. Phones are likened to doors to unknown places, mirroring the “black doors” of the novel. Since they disrupt geographical boundaries and reproduce events anywhere, they also point to the impossibility of limiting the event to a place. For these characters caught by events, the use of digital connection becomes a means of existing in the world, an unlimited form of place-making. Nadia, we are told, “[…] frequently explored the terrain of social media, though she left little trace of her passing, not posting much herself, and employing opaque user-names and avatars […]” (Exit West 37-38). Social media is evoked in spatial terms, and the character moves through this territory in the same way that she moves across the world in search of a home. The user-names and avatars are a form of narrative that Nadia can create for herself; the internet is the place where she can reinvent her identity, while the physical space of her city at war offers no possibility for being in the world. This temporary reinvention of self illustrates what Arjun Appadurai expressed in 1997 in Modernity at Large. He explained that mass migration and mass media were expected to form jointly the new subjectivities of the global era:

The story of mass migrations (voluntary and forced) is hardly a new feature of human history. But when it is juxtaposed with the rapid flow of mass-mediated images, scripts, and sensations, we have a new order of instability in the production of modern subjectivities. […] [W]e see moving images meet deterritorialized viewers. (Appadurai 4)

43The double instability constituted by mass migration together with mass media echoes the twofold unfamiliarity which can be perceived in Mohsin Hamid’s novels. What Appadurai later terms the “production of locality” (Appadurai 178) – the practices and rituals that determine the relation of a community to a given place – is, according to him, challenged by the prolific amount of mass-mediated images in the global era. Similarly, Exit West and The Reluctant Fundamentalist address the changed relation to place and to belonging that emanates from the use of social media, especially when the user himself or herself is on the move.

  • 6 The novel’s instances of home-making and defence of precarious lodgings echo what the migrant worke (...)

44Finally, the treatment of language as a theme in Exit West symbolizes the negotiation of national identities that unfolds in the midst of the event. When Saeed and Nadia occupy a London hotel together with other refugees, the common experience of migration seems to unite them in spite of linguistic differences. As they are discovered by the hotel house-keeper and the police arrives, the hotel becomes a Babel of sorts, with the migrants suddenly forming a unity in the face of danger: “The residents of the house were terrified, […] and in their terror they spoke more to one another than they otherwise might, strangers speaking to strangers” (Exit West 124). In this passage, the boundary between languages – and, by extension, nations – no longer has any hold on perception. Rather than drawing the limits of knowledge along the lines of foreignness, what prevails is the limit between the familiar and the unfamiliar: all the residents recognize the event – the arrival of the police – as a threat upon the home they have built.6

45But the narrative avoids the pitfall of depicting an idealized community of migrants who leave their differences aside and make a stand together against the local oppressor. Nadia is welcomed among the Nigerian community of the house, and starts attending their meetings – she understands their hybrid language, because, we are told “[…] her English was like theirs, one among many” (Exit West 143). Yet, while she embraces this newfound familiarity in a multicultural environment, Saeed rejects it and remains strongly attached to their roots; he finds a house inhabited by his fellow citizens, and is “[…] drawn by the familiar languages and accents and the familiar smell of the cooking” (Exit West 148). Saeed then asks Nadia to move with him into that house, which she refuses to do. The characters’ radically opposed reactions to their unstable situation show that the event – here, the nativist and police assaults on their community – unsettles entirely one’s ethical and cultural standpoint. What prevails, at heart, is the need for human beings to adapt their personal narrative to what takes place.

Towards an ethics of the unfamiliar

46In his essay “The Location of Brazil,” published in Imaginary Homelands, Salman Rushdie discusses familiarity in these terms: “Migrants must, of necessity, make a new relationship with the world because of the loss of familiar habitats” (Rushdie 125). This idea of a new relationship with the world is even more significant when an event destabilizes the migrant’s already unstable perception. The issue, therefore, is not only perception but also location: if lived space has become doubly unfamiliar, where can the migrant exist?

47By using the second person, The Reluctant Fundamentalist opens up space for a dialogue on the discomfort of unfamiliarity, and directly asks the reader to address their own relation to otherness. The more philosophical turn taken by Exit West has similar effects, notably in the form of ontological questions and aphorisms about place and homelessness.

48Mohsin Hamid’s novels of migration thus propose the narrative as a meeting point, where a common ground for existence can be found and gaps can be bridged between those who directly experience migration and those who imagine it. Because it initially presents itself as a riddle, the event prompts an urge for storytelling; through that storytelling, it emphasizes the universality of human experience and the need for empathy. Wherever we stand, and whether or not we are on the move, the event always leads to a negotiation with what occurs beyond the boundaries of the familiar.

49Besides being a call for empathy, Mohsin Hamid’s universalist poetics might also be read as a desire to abolish the determination of place by an event. No matter what “takes place,” the history of a place can never be reduced to a single narrative. Place can always be re-interpreted, and the migrant’s gaze is a vantage point from which to conjure up these interpretations.

50The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Exit West fully embrace the paradox at the heart of Sigmund Freud’s Unheimlichkeit, or the idea that the unfamiliar stems from what was once familiar. These narratives show that our familiarity with place, and the association of place with identity, always already depend upon the passing of time and the events that we face. It is with this observation in mind that we might grasp the aphoristic sentence at the heart of Exit West: “We are all migrants through time” (Exit West 209). The event taking place is a pivotal step of the journey.

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1 “[…] whatever has an uncanny effect in real life has the same in literature.” (Freud 157). Freud refers to Hofmann and Heine in the second part of his text, and to Schnitzler in the third part.

2 “La rumeur […] est anucléique. Elle se diffuse horizontalement, se propage en nappes décentralisées.”

3 Italics in the original text.

4 See Mohsin Hamid’s essay on his choice of 9/11 for The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Hamid 2015).

5 In a passage from Exit West, the narrator sets the scene in an era that questions the nation: “[w]ithout borders nations were becoming somewhat illusory, and people were questioning the role they had to play” (Exit West 155). Mohsin Hamid has often condemned the excesses of national pride and nationalism. In a speech he gave at PEN International “Free the Word!” at Winternachten 2018, he declared: “When we celebrate writers for their bravery, it is also worth asking if there are writers whose bravery consists, in part, of standing up not to others but to us. Standing up not to the monsters without, about whom we speak so often, but to the monsters within, which we prefer not to notice. Writers who undermine our cherished nations, militaries, borders, races, clans, beliefs” (Hamid 2018 n.p.).

6 The novel’s instances of home-making and defence of precarious lodgings echo what the migrant workers experience in Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways (2015).

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Maëlle Jeanniard du Dot, « Taking Place and Finding One’s Place: Unhomely Events in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) and Exit West (2017) »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 27 | 2019, mis en ligne le 25 décembre 2019, consulté le 23 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Maëlle Jeanniard du Dot

Université Grenoble-Alpes (ILCEA4)
Maëlle Jeanniard du Dot est actuellement PRAG à l’Université Rennes 2 et enseigne en licence LLCER anglais et en anglais lansad. Sa thèse s’intitule Lieu et événement dans les romans et nouvelles de Mohsin Hamid et Hari Kunzru / Place and event in the novels and short stories of Mohsin Hamid and Hari Kunzru. Elle est inscrite à l’Université Grenoble Alpes et co-dirigée par les professeurs Marie Mianowski (ILCEA4, Grenoble Alpes) et Saugata Bhaduri de la Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi).

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