Y our story in this week’s issue, “Of Windows and Doors,” takes place in a country descending into civil war. As is often the case in your fiction, both the city in which the story is set and the country are never named. How did you map out the city? Do you think that readers will put a name to this place?
I used Lahore, the city where I live, as a starting point for the city. And yes, readers are free to put names to this nameless place, if they wish. I often leave gaps in my writing, spaces for readers to fill in, areas left open to be co-imagined. I used namelessness here in part because I couldn’t bear to do to Lahore and Pakistan what happens to the city and country in this story, and in part because this could be a story of many other cities, and in part because we live in a world of extreme censorship and so namelessness is a way of drawing attention to the existence of what cannot be said, is not being said.
The story is taken from your forthcoming novel, “Exit West,” which is published next March. In the novel, as in the story, the two main characters, Nadia and Saeed, have only recently begun dating. How does the onset of violence alter the trajectory of a relationship such as theirs?
I think dramatic events can sometimes enhance the drama of our own romances, make the ordinary seem extraordinary, at least for a while. Like falling for someone on the last day of a holiday, as they are about to leave for the airport. In the case of Nadia and Saeed, the violence around them accelerates and intensifies their relationship. They meet, they’re intrigued by each other, they come closer, and then suddenly they are bound together, very early in their relationship, in a time of great turmoil. They begin to act almost like they are married, because all around them the world has become so devastating. What happens when the violence ceases, though, is another matter.
Nadia and Saeed, like many of their fellow-citizens, are looking for a way out. They start hearing rumors about doors that act as portals to other countries. When did you first start thinking about these doors?
Not long after I moved back to Lahore from London, about seven years ago. So many people were looking to get out of the country I had returned to: friends, acquaintances, my cable repairman, my barber. Conversations about leaving were happening around me all the time. But getting a work visa, for most people, was almost impossible. I felt this powerful, cooped-up force. And I saw people staring at screens all the time: at their televisions, in the cinemas, and-above all-on their phones. These screens were like portals, and people were venturing through them constantly. So I thought, what if people could physically move that easily? What if these rectangles were actually physical portals, doors? What would happen?
Doors, portals, wormholes, and so on, have often appeared in works of fantasy or science fiction. But you’ve created a realistic world, making the appearance of the doors all the more surprising. What did that fantastical, or speculative, element offer you as a writer?
I don’t entirely believe in the reality of realism. Lived human experience is too weird. Neuroscientists tell us that our brains are constantly constructing a representation of the world that is useful but is also inaccurate, invented. Mystics tell us much the same. I’ve always had an element of the unreal in my books. A little bit of the unreal can heighten our sense of reality by allowing us to experience something that knows it is a fiction but feels at the same time true. In the past, the strand of unreality I’ve explored has mostly been a formal strand, one rooted in the form a novel takes, the way it sets up the story it is telling. This time, the strand of unreality is in the plot, in the physics of the world, with the existence of these doors. The doors felt quite real to me when I was writing them. I could imagine them existing. And they allowed me to compress the next century or two of human migration on our planet into the space of a single year, and to explore what might happen after.
To survive, Nadia and Saeed have to flee, but Saeed fears losing his circle of family and friends-his home, while Nadia is concerned that they “might be at the mercy of strangers, subsisting on handouts, caged in pens like vermin.” For both of them the departure could represent a loss of individuality. Wherever they end up, they will most likely be seen chiefly as refugees or migrants, part of the “unprecedented flow” hitting rich countries. What was it like to imagine them in that moment, just before they left?
We are all migrants, all of us. We move through space and time. So I have experienced a situation not completely unlike Nadia and Saeed’s, more than once, several times. Not the desperation and the danger that they experience. But the apprehension of leaving a place I have called home. There is something violent in moving far away, just as being born is violent. You leave something behind, and the you that has moved is not the same you as before. Certainly you will be seen differently in the place you are going to. I have left Lahore for California, California for Lahore, Lahore for New York, New York for London, London for Lahore. It has been heart-wrenching each time. Sometimes I felt apprehension before the move. Sometimes I felt it after. As I get older, I have felt the deepest sense of sadness and betrayal-betraying-on those occasions when I have considered moving away from the place where my parents are. We know we are all here, alive, only for a short while. Something is lost when that time is spent away from people you love. Something can be gained, too, maybe something more valuable, but what is lost has value as well.
In the story, Nadia and Saeed pass through a door in their city and find themselves on the Greek island of Mykonos, along with many other migrants looking for another door out. In the novel, they eventually pass through a doorway to London. Why did you want to make these destinations specific places?
I wanted the world of the novel to be the world we all live in. But I wanted the starting point, the point from which Nadia and Saeed’s exodus occurs, to be blurry, vague. A starting point that might belong to anyone, or at least to many people facing the prospect of violent unrest around them. So, with the exception of the city where the story begins, everywhere else in the novel is in focus, clear, named. Real, so to speak.
Anxieties over migration are palpable in Europe and in the United States (as they are in many other parts of the world), and the conditions that have led to the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean show no signs of abating. What’s it like to write fiction about a subject that might prove to be one of the most significant political forces in the coming years? What can fiction do that nonfiction can’t?
Part of the great political crisis we face in the world today is a failure to imagine plausible desirable futures. We are surrounded by nostalgic visions, violently nostalgic visions. Fiction can imagine differently. Wrenching climate change will happen. Mass migration will happen, on a vast scale. But maybe our children and grandchildren can still inhabit a world where they have a chance at hope and optimism. Fiction can explore this possibility, it can make us feel something other than the sense of either doom or denial that is so prevalent in our nonfiction discourse. It can make human beings less unmoored by the endless nature of change. Maybe that is partly why our ancestors invented fiction in the first place. We certainly need it now. Because if we can’t imagine desirable futures for ourselves that stand a chance of actually coming to pass, our collective depression could well condemn humanity to a period of terrible savagery.