“We are all migrants through time.”

A whale watching boat in Sri Lanka. Per capita deckspace here is certainly a First World problem.

I just finished Exit West by Mohsin Hamid.  Like all of his books, it creates an absolutely beautiful world in which you lose yourself as someone else, and he gives you license to imagine what the experience of a specific other person and a general “other people” might be.  Every sentence is true; some are so true that they take your breath away and you have to reread them again, and again, and then you read a few more pages still thinking about how he plays with commas and periods and shows you both what the character is thinking and doing because that’s exactly what the character HAS to do, it’s what he or she absolutely WOULD do, and you realize that even if it’s ostensibly “fiction” that documentaries wouldn’t strike so close to the heart of the immigrant or refugee experience as any paragraph in any chapter of this particular book.

In other words, it’s well worth the read.

And, as perhaps only literature would be able to do, he describes perfectly the oddity of the nativist sentiment in the United States, and everywhere, really, in what at first glance appears to be a castaway few paragraphs but which, I think, gets to the heart of the message he is communicating to the reader:

IN MARIN THERE WERE almost no natives, these people having died out or been exterminated long ago, and one would see them only occasionally, at impromptu trading posts—or perhaps more often, but wrapped in clothes and guises and behaviors indistinguishable from anyone else. At the trading posts they would sell beautiful silver jewelry and soft leather garments and colorful textiles, and the elders among them seemed not infrequently to be possessed of a limitless patience that was matched by a limitless sorrow. Tales were told at these places that people from all over now gathered to hear, for the tales of these natives felt appropriate to this time of migration, and gave listeners much-needed sustenance.

And yet it was not quite true to say there were almost no natives, nativeness being a relative matter, and many others considered themselves native to this country, by which they meant that they or their parents or their grandparents or the grandparents of their grandparents had been born on the strip of land that stretched from the mid-northern-Pacific to the mid-northern-Atlantic, that their existence here did not owe anything to a physical migration that had occurred in their lifetimes. It seemed to Saeed that the people who advocated this position most strongly, who claimed the rights of nativeness most forcefully, tended to be drawn from the ranks of those with light skin who looked most like the natives of Britain—and as had been the case with many of the natives of Britain, many of these people too seemed stunned by what was happening to their homeland, what had already happened in so brief a period, and some seemed angry as well.

A third layer of nativeness was composed of those who others thought directly descended, even in the tiniest fraction of their genes, from the human beings who had been brought from Africa to this continent centuries ago as slaves. While this layer of nativeness was not vast in proportion to the rest, it had vast importance, for society had been shaped in reaction to it, and unspeakable violence had occurred in relation to it, and yet it endured, fertile, a stratum of soil that perhaps made possible all future transplanted soils, and to which Saeed in particular was attracted, since at a place of worship where he had gone one Friday the communal prayer was led by a man who came from this tradition and spoke of this tradition, and Saeed had found, in the weeks he and Nadia had been in Marin, this man’s words to be full of soul-soothing wisdom.

Anything by Hamid is worth reading, but even after The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, he somehow keeps getting better and better.



(PS: I’m not an Amazon seller; buying through those links gets me nothing.)

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