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In Session: Empathy, Narrative and Cultural Politics
3: ‘We are all migrants through time’: The Ethics of Empathy in Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West
Monday, March 22, 2021
12:30pm – 2:00pm EDT
Peter G. Morey
University of Birmingham, United Kingdom
The refugee – that representative figure of modern geopolitics – has in recent years been thrust once again into our consciousness as upheavals caused by war, extremism, and neo-imperial interventions have displaced people. Mohsin Hamid’s 2017 novel Exit West tells the story of a young couple forced to migrate from their unnamed, war-torn home country, to what they hope will be a safe haven in the West. Hamid deliberately eschews the clichés often invoked in narratives of refugee experience, replacing the familiar arduous journey with sets of magic doors which materialise in trouble spots around the world, allowing safe passage from one place to another. However, these doors cannot exclude the realities of statelessness, suspicion and violence faced by the displaced: experiences we as readers share with the protagonists.
Exit West, then, would appear to be engaged in the ethical enterprise of inviting readerly empathy for those precarious subjects denied the benefits of citizenship and residency rights, thereby ensuring a more planetary perspective on their suffering. Yet, in keeping with certain critiques of the ‘colonising’ impulse behind first world literary empathic identification, I argue that, as it progresses, Hamid’s text increasingly resorts to questionable rhetorical moves in order to ensure an appropriate emotional response from readers. Following Hannah Arendt and Edward Said, I suggest that the novel’s frequent comparisons of refugee experience with more general motifs of change and loss risks hiding the specifically political experience of displacement behind a literary humanism that tends to universalise it.