President Trump deployed troops to the border to stop a caravan of migrants from entering the country. While we don’t know if this was a ploy to energize his base for the midterms or a serious response to a growing problem at the border, it hardly matters. Regardless of any person’s political position on immigration, these migrants deserve our empathy. Facing persecution and death in their home countries, they travelled great distances. They are not here because they wished to come; they are here because they could not stay.
These migrants, and the ideals they have come to symbolize, provoke presidents and polarize populations. In light of this swirling controversy, we tend to look not toward literature, often relegated to the realm of abstract musings on deep human questions with no real import, but to newscasters and politicians, seen as stating hard facts and contriving pragmatic and real-time policy interventions.
This is a mistake. Unequivocally.
The case I will make for this position is one that I must unravel through a discussion of some of the most nascent questions in contemporary literature, one that I will ultimately support largely through a commendation of Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West.”
If you read no further, please at least take my recommendation and spend a few hours in contemplation of this quietly devastating, unflinching account of the modern refugee and the world’s response to her.
To begin my case, I cite Zadie Smith’s thesis in her essay, “Two Paths for the Novel.” Smith, whose first books seem to exemplify the style she attacks, compares two famous novels, “Netherland” and “Remainder.” Her first point is that today’s authors primarily write in a style called “lyrical realism.” Smith writes that lyrical realism “seems perfectly done — in a sense that’s the problem.” It is the “bedtime story that comforts us most.”
It is precisely this style that, by its nature, discounts literature as a source for real-time thinking on contemporary issues. Literature is the afterthought, the reflection, the contemplation. It doesn’t have a seat at the political table; it wipes the table down after everything’s happened. Our authors approach past trauma, keyword past, and transform it into beauty and meaning using language. They do not help us address trauma as it is happening.
Of course, the relationship between literature and politics is an ongoing debate. In thinking about literature’s role, I agree with Smith’s first point. The main problem with lyrical realism is its effeteness. It is beautiful and tragic in a way that says nothing original about real-life beautiful and tragic things. Language becomes a false panacea: this sense that “as long as we can make it beautiful in the end it must have been worth it” is a dangerous one.
But Smith’s second point is the suggestion that “Remainder,” dubbed a “neuronovel” by Stanford Professor Mark McGurl, represents a new direction for the novel and perhaps for literature as a whole. “Remainder” plays off our assumptions about trauma in a sardonic, self-aware, frightening way. It shows us exactly how modern literature uses experiential capital — those things that happen to us to which we say “I’ll definitely include that in my memoir” — as a currency for evaluating fiction. Those who have experienced the most trauma have the best and most compelling mandate to write.
The language of “Remainder” is more penetrating, more tongue-in-cheek, less froofy. It does not lay claim to beautiful sunsets or insightful metaphors. Rather, it shows us our mistake in relegating literature to these tropes.
However, the necessary binary Smith constructs between lyrical realism and McGurl’s neuronovel collapses in the face of “Exit West.”
“Exit West” is eminently readable. It is no “Middlemarch” or “Das Kapital” or “Ulysses.” I might mistake it for light vacation reading if we lived in a world without actual caravans or potential border walls. It is both a novel in the lyrical realist tradition and a charged political statement.
Out of it we get such haunting lines as “We are all migrants through time” and “For one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.”
At the same time, we also get a vision for a borderless future, a world where migrants jump through black doors straight out of war-torn desperation into fertility and abundance (San Francisco, London). At first, natives treat the arrival of these migrants with suspicion and violence, but eventually this subsides. What’s left is a world where belonging is not so much a question of nationalism but of personhood. The collapse of borders is neither the end of Western opulence, nor the end of humanity as we know it. Rather, it signifies a new epoch, one previously unimagined.
And here, I argue, is where our contemporary literature, our contemporary authors, can have demonstrable impact. No, “Exit West” is not a 100-page policy proposal or a searing election platform. Instead, it forces its readers to confront the humanity of migrants directly, to feel and taste their plight (accomplished through lyrical realism!), and also to negate those naysayers and nativists hellbent on “making America great again.”
As if “America” can’t be made great anew.
Contact Emily Elott at elotte ‘at’ stanford.edu.