From Refugees To Politics, Mohsin Hamid Writes The Change He Wants To See

Mar 8, 2017

Author Mohsin Hamid's new novel, Exit West, is about knowing when it's time to flee your country, and what happens when you migrate to a nation that's hostile to immigrants. It's a topic the author himself is personally familiar with.

Hamid was born in Lahore, Pakistan, but spent part of his childhood in California. As a young adult, he lived in New York and London before returning to Lahore with his wife to raise their children. He tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that moving from country to country initially made him feel like "kind of freak," but as he got older, his outlook changed.

"I became more and more comfortable just being myself, a kind of mongrelized, hybridized, weird sort of character," Hamid says. "What I started to realize was everybody feels a bit foreign ... even people who have lived in the same place."

Exit West is about a young couple who have to decide whether to leave their home in an unnamed city that is slowly being overtaken by militants. Hamid says it's just a coincidence that the book was published shortly after President Trump announced his revised travel ban. He says that while his novel doesn't explicitly address the ban, the themes it raises — about who belongs and who doesn't — are directly related to the ban.

"Above all, [the travel ban is] about who has the right to move and who doesn't have the right to move," he says. "I think that when we take the long view, the notion that some people are deemed less worthy of being able to move — to not have the right to cross borders — over time that's going to seem as outmoded and as unfair, really, as racial discrimination or other kinds of discrimination."


Interview Highlights

On how Trump's policies are being received outside the U.S. and the fear that they may fuel radicalization

Outside of America there are many people, myself included, who champion values that in some senses could be thought of as traditionally American: The idea that everybody is equal; the idea that the rights of women and men should be the same; that there should be no discrimination [based] on religious or sexual orientation; that democracy and rule of law and due process are the ways in which society should govern themselves; and minorities should be cared for.

These, in a way, are values that America has championed internationally. Not exclusively, of course — America has a mixed history. But I think for many people around the world, the sense is they've lost an ally, that this very powerful force that used to speak for these things is now silent. That's different [from] radicalization, but certainly it's about undermining fellow travelers.

At the same time, I think radicalization works in a slightly different way. When people — particularly young people and especially young men — can't imagine themselves as heroes in narratives that they construct for themselves, they look to be heroes in some other way. So young men in America of, let's say, Muslim background: Only a tiny, tiny minority — so small as to be almost zero — are likely to ever commit terrorist acts, but what goes through the mind of somebody like that? ... In a sense, by closing off the idea that young Muslims, and particularly young Muslim men, can be American heroes, it increases the chance that they'll try to be some other kind of hero. And that, I think, is entirely counterproductive.

On whether he feels limited in what he can and can't write living in Pakistan, which has Blasphemy Laws that call for the death penalty for anyone convicted of insulting the Prophet Muhammad

It's not that living in Pakistan I feel an enormous constraint on how I can write and what I can say; rather, I recognize that one has to navigate these things. ... Am I aware of things that one could say that would be risky or that could be dangerous? Certainly I'm aware of those things. And then being aware you make certain choices. Sometimes you'll say something; sometimes you'll find a different way of saying something. And many things might be risky to say, but you have no desire to say them because they don't reflect what you believe.

But all of it connects to say that language is a living thing, stories are a living thing — they shape our societies. People will be passionate about what you write, and that is not so much a discouragement, but a reminder that what we're doing isn't pointless, that all of us who are writers are doing something that actually matters.

On the anxiety that can come from following the constant stream of news and social media

This is something that living in Pakistan perhaps has taught me. We live in a world where there is a constant feed from social media, the news, etc., of things that can scare us, and we become so anxious because human beings are designed to be sensitized to dangerous stuff. ... Contemporary culture in Pakistan, just like in America, is continuously hitting us with scary stuff, and so we are utterly anxious.

I think that it's very important to resist that anxiety, to think of ways of resisting the constant inflow of negative feelings — not to become depoliticized as a result, but to actually work actively to bring into being an optimistic future. For me, writing books and being someone who is politically active is part of that. I don't want to be anxious in my day-to-day life; I want to try to imagine a future I'd like to live in and then write books and do things that, in my own small way, make it more likely that that future will come to exist.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Mohsin Hamid has written a novel about immigration that was described in The New York Times as creating a fictional world that captures perils of the world we live in now, with wars, like the one in Syria, turning cities into war zones, with political crises, warp-speed technological changes and growing tensions between nativists and migrants. The novel is about a young couple in a city slowly being overtaken by militants and extremists. Beheadings are becoming common. The city is unnamed, but it resembles Lahore, Pakistan, where Hamid lives. The novel examines the difficulty of knowing when it's time to flee, how it feels to leave family behind and what it's like to arrive in another country that's hostile to immigrants.

Mohsin Hamid was born in Lahore, Pakistan, but spent part of his childhood in California, where his father was studying at Stanford. Hamid returned to the U.S. to study at Princeton and Harvard Law School. He lived in New York in his 20s and London in his 30s but moved back to Lahore with his wife to raise their children. His other novels include "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" and "How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia." His new novel is called "Exit West."

Mohsin Hamid, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You had no way of knowing that the publication of your novel about migration would coincide with President Trump's second version of an executive order blocking migrants from several Muslim-majority countries. Do you think your novel addresses that ban without mentioning it by name?

MOHSIN HAMID: In a sense, yes because the ban is about trying to determine, you know, who belongs and who doesn't belong in a place, above all. Of course, it also has the effect of restricting certain people's movements and in some cases, like refugees, with potentially deadly effect. But above all, it's about who has the right to move and who doesn't have the right to move. And I think that when we take the long view, the notion that some people are deemed, you know, less worthy of being able to move, to not have the right to cross borders - over time, that's going to seem to us as outmoded and as unfair, really, as racial discrimination or other kinds of discrimination. So, yes, the book does address the ban without specifically addressing that.

GROSS: I'm really interested in hearing what the discussion is like in Pakistan now, about Trump's anti-immigrant policies, the discussion both among your friends and family but also in the press.

HAMID: Well, my 7-year-old daughter was frightened that I was going to America. And she had come to New York with me and my wife and other child, our son, in August. We stayed for a month, and she loved it. And if you asked her in, perhaps, September, her favorite place in the world, she might have said New York. But when I was coming to America just now from Pakistan, she was saying, you know, Baba, don't go. And among the 7-year-olds in her class, there's a fear that there's this person out there - she knows his name is Trump - and she thinks that he hates Muslims, that he is not nice to women - that - in a sense, that he's a villain.

And I think that sentiment, at the level of a child, because she could probably name no other international political figure - that's becoming quite widespread, the notion that there's a person who's the head of the most powerful country in the world who dislikes so many people around the world. And naturally, that creates a sense of resentment and dismay.

GROSS: There's a fear among a lot of Americans that Trump's policies will radicalize people, you know, radicalize Muslims who might otherwise be very pro-America and supportive of American values. Do you see any evidence of that?

HAMID: Well, I think that there are perhaps two parts to it. Outside of America, there are many people, myself included, who champion values that, in some senses, could be thought of as traditionally American - the idea that everybody's equal, that the rights of women and men should be the same, that there should be no discrimination on religious or sexual orientation, that democracy and rule of law and due process are the ways in which society should govern themselves and minorities should be cared for.

These, in a way, are values that America has championed internationally - not exclusively, of course, America has a mixed history. But I think, for many people around the world, the sense is that they've lost an ally, that this very powerful force that used to speak for these things is now silent. And that's different from radicalization.

At the same time, I think radicalization works in a slightly different way. When people, particularly young people and especially young men, can't imagine themselves as heroes in narratives that they construct for themselves, they look to be heroes in some other way. So young men in America of, let's say, Muslim background, only a tiny, tiny minority - so small as to be almost zero - are likely to ever commit terrorist acts. But what goes to the mind of somebody like that? You know, very often, if you look at the kinds of communications that they're getting in an ISIS recruiting video, the videos that, you know, that one hears of as radicalizing them, these are like action movies. And so in the sense, it's that by closing off the idea that young Muslims and particularly young Muslim men can be American heroes, it increases the chance that they'll try to be some other kind of hero. And that, I think, is entirely counterproductive.

GROSS: Let's talk about your novel "Exit West," which is about a young man and a young woman who kind of fall in love in Pakistan and eventually decide - well, I shouldn't say Pakistan. It's an unnamed country...

HAMID: Yes...

GROSS: ...That I assume is modeled on Pakistan (laughter) because that's where you live. But anyways, they kind of fall in love or they think they've fallen in love. And slowly, things in their country start to get to the point where it's becoming increasingly dangerous to live there. And the question is always in the background, how do you know when it's time to leave? And in the novel, things start changing slowly. It's tolerable at first. And then a turning point is the first time that a person you know is killed.

And you write, (reading) in time of violence, there is always that first acquaintance or intimate of ours who, when they are touched, makes what had seemed like a bad dream suddenly evisceratingly (ph) real.

And for these two people, one of the things that makes the danger real is that they know a middle-aged local man who ran a small side business who was beheaded with a serrated knife to enhance his pain. Then his body was strung up by one ankle from an electricity pole. So was there a first person for you, who you knew, who was touched by the violence of the Taliban in Pakistan?

HAMID: Well, not necessarily by the Taliban, but certainly by extremists. The first person that I knew personally that I can think of in this moment - I had lunch with the governor of our province. And he was the husband of my mother-in-law's best friend. And he had been campaigning to remove or change the country's blasphemy law, which he argued was being used to victimize religious minorities, particularly Christians. And this was an unpopular position among, you know, certain strands of the religious right in Pakistan. And his own bodyguard assassinated him.

And, you know, I remember meeting his family and coming for the funeral. And this is a person who was alive and speaking, you know, the day before. And then a day later, he was gone. It was incredible shock. It's always a shock when somebody dies. But in this case, really, it marked a change. It felt real.

And also - it might be worth pointing out that, you know, so often people say, well, you know, why don't Muslims, you know, speak out? And why don't they - and I think people who say that have no idea what's going on in countries like Pakistan where there are thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people, millions speaking out. And in the case of my family friend, people who, you know, risk their lives to stand up for the rights of Christian minorities in Pakistan. And in fact, I've been to the funeral of somebody who did that. So it was enormously jarring and shocking. And also a reminder that many good people around the world are willing to risk everything to live inside a decent society.

GROSS: What do you think your profile on Pakistan is?

HAMID: It's hard to say. I mean, I - my books are read by young people in Pakistan. And in particular, on university campuses when I go, many young people have read them. I'm perhaps most likely to be recognized, if I go anywhere in the world, it's in Lahore or Karachi or places in Pakistan. There's an interesting phenomenon in the first, you know, 50 years of Pakistan's history. Perhaps a million students graduated from university in that entire time.

Now there's about a million students enrolled in university in Pakistan. In other words, instead of a few thousand or tens of thousands a year, there's hundreds of thousands who graduate every year. And many of these young people read novels because in the novels, not just my novels but the novels of many other Pakistani writers, they encounter ideas, notions, ways of thinking about the world, thinking about their society that are different. And fiction functions in a countercultural way as it does in America and certainly as it did in the, you know, '60s.

And so I would say I feel engaged with young people in Pakistan. But that said, it's still a small minority that reads novels, literary fiction. But it isn't necessarily a small minority of the wealthy elite in the city of Lahore. It can often be and I often do meet at literary festivals students who've ridden a bus 12 hours from a very small town just to hear some of their favorite writers come and speak.

GROSS: We were talking a couple of minutes ago about people you know who have been assassinated or killed or wounded by militants in Pakistan. In your novel "Exit West," there's a reference to how as things get more overtaken by the militants, that funerals have become smaller and more rushed affairs because of the fighting. Has that begun to happen in Pakistan?

HAMID: No, and, I mean, well, it depends is, I guess, the short answer. I think what's very important is, you know, novels function and the power of novels function because of their stories. And so the themes that we're discussing here of course are layered into the book. But they are encountered in the specific context of these two people. And I think it's important to highlight that because Saeed and Nadia are two main characters living in the city, which is a lot like Lahore initially, the city where I live in Pakistan.

And it begins to become much more fraught. Saeed and Nadia are navigating their worlds. And they're two different people. Nadia has left her family, lives on her own, is not particularly religious. Saeed is very close to his family, lives with his parents, has a strong spiritual side. And as the city begins to change around them, many of the things that they take for granted in their day-to-day life, like being able to surf the Internet on their phones, being able to score weed or order hallucinogenic mushrooms via a courier service, listen to music, go out and hang out in restaurants, these things begin to fall away.

And funerals, which is what you just mentioned, those do begin to change - that for them, as people are more and more frightened of public space and more and more retreating into their private worlds, even the act of saying goodbye that a funeral represents becomes very different. And people are frightened to come and frightened to come to funerals, that even expressing one's respects to those who have passed isn't enough to get people into the public space. And in Lahore where I live, there are perhaps some of the beginning elements of this. But it hasn't walked so far down the path, the city hasn't.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Mohsin Hamid. His new novel is called "Exit West." It's about migration. We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WEE TRIO'S "LOLA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is novelist Mohsin Hamid. His new novel is called "Exit West," and it's about a young couple from an unnamed city that seems very much like Lahore, Pakistan, where Mohsin Hamid lives. And they decide that things have gotten so bad, the militants have made so many moves restricting freedom, that they need to migrate. So it's about their decision, their experiences in the city, their decision to leave and the countries they go to.

And I should mention Mohsin Hamid grew up in both Pakistan and the U.S. He spent his 20s in the U.S. and his 30s in London and since then has lived in Pakistan. One of the decisions that this couple has to make is not only when to leave but should they leave even though Saeed's father isn't going to go with them. And I think that's something that must be very difficult for all people who become immigrants. Are you saying goodbye to your family who's staying behind? Are you saying goodbye to them forever?

And one of the reasons why the father decides to stay behind in this unnamed city and not emigrate is that his wife, the main character's mother, was shot in the head and killed by a stray bullet. And so I'd like you to read a short excerpt from your novel about the father's decision to stay behind and his encouragement of his son to leave.

HAMID: (Reading) Saeed asked why his father was doing this. What could possibly make him want to stay? And Saeed's father said, your mother is here. Saeed said, Mother is gone. His father said, not for me. And this was true in a way. Saeed's mother was not gone for him. Saeed's mother was not gone for Saeed's father - not entirely. And it would have been difficult for Saeed's father to leave the place where he had spent a life with her, difficult not to be able to visit her grave each day. And he would not wish to do this. He preferred to abide, in a sense, in the past, for the past offered more to him.

But Saeed's father was thinking also of the future, even though he did not say this to Saeed, for he feared that if he had said this to his son, that his son might not go. And he knew, above all else, that his son must go. And what he did not say was that he had come to that point in a parent's life when, if a flood arrives, one knows one must let go of one's child, contrary to all the instincts one had when one was younger, because holding on can no longer offer the child protection. It can only pull the child down and threaten them with drowning, for the child is now stronger than the parent. And the circumstances are such that the utmost of strength is required.

GROSS: What made you think about this, about how sometimes things get to a point where in order for the child to survive, they have to separate from their parent, that the child - the parent can no longer protect the child, that the parent is actually holding the child back and might lead to the child drowning, or, in this case, lead to the child being stuck in a city that is doomed?

HAMID: Living in a place like Pakistan, very often you meet people who are migrating abroad. And sometimes you'll ask their parents, you know - you didn't try to stop them? Like, why didn't you say, don't go - I'll miss you? Stay with me. And, you know, people say, well, it's best for them. They have to go. And parents, you know, take on that sadness because they know it's better for their children if they leave.

And so for me, it was borne partly out of my own sense of sorrow. If I had to leave Pakistan again - and my parents are getting older now - what it would feel like to leave them behind. And also thinking about my own children - how would I feel if they were older and they decided no, they couldn't live where I was and moved abroad?

And so for Saeed and Nadia, the - particularly for Saeed - the amount, the power of what is driving him to leave, imagine how strong it has to be for someone to let go of their parent. And imagine how frightened a parent has to be for what awaits their child to say, you know, it's OK. We won't be part of each other's day-to-day lives, but you must leave.

GROSS: In your novel, when your main characters migrate, they basically slip through portals, through doors, and are immediately in another country. So it's a kind of, like, magical touch (laughter) to your novel. But it's also - it seems like a very convenient device for a novelist because you don't have to get them, like, visas and put them on, like, a boat or a plane and have them pass through customs, you know. Like, you you don't have to deal with any of that in the narrative, and you can keep it really lean. And like...

HAMID: Absolutely.

GROSS: ...They're suddenly in another country. Was that one of your reasons for doing it that way?

HAMID: Yeah. I mean, partly, I feel the doors kind of already exist. They are a representation of a technological reality we already live inside. We can open up our computers and Skype with someone, and we see them. It's like looking through a window. And we can surf the internet through our phones, and it's like our consciousness is far away. Or we can step through a airplane door and be in another continent a few hours away. So technology feels, to me, like the doors sort of already exist, at least emotionally.

But in the novel, it was important to me to focus on, what makes someone want to leave, which is all of their life before migration, and what happens to them in the new place, which is the life after migration? - which is something that every human being participates in. The part of the story that often gets emphasized - how did you cross the Atlantic or how did you cross the Pacific or how did you cross the Mediterranean in a little boat, which capsized and people died? That is a very dramatic and horrific, in some cases, part of the story.

But it's a tiny moment usually in the time and in the emotional journey. I wanted to focus on the more human and lasting stories of Saeed and Nadia. What happens before you move, and what happens after? And so the doors allowed me to focus on parts of the migration narrative that often get de-emphasized. The other thing, of course, is the doors allow the world to change very quickly. So the next century or two of migration that are likely to happen on planet Earth, in the novel, occurs in just a year or two.

GROSS: My guest is Mohsin Hamid. His new novel is called "Exit West." We'll talk more after a break. And Kevin Whitehead will pay tribute to the Dutch composer and pianist Misha Mengelberg, who died last Friday. There's one recording in particular that you really have to hear. I'm pretty sure you've never heard anything quite like it. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTONIO SANCHEZ' "NAR-THIS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Mohsin Hamid, author of the new novel "Exit West," about a young couple whose city is slowly overtaken by extremists. The novel is about how you know when it's time to flee and what it's like to become an immigrant in a country that's hostile to immigrants.

The fictional city this couple is from resembles Lahore, Pakistan, where Mohsin Hamid was born and lives today. He spent part of his childhood in the U.S. and returned to study at Princeton and Harvard Law School. He spent his 20s in New York, his 30s in London and returned to Pakistan with his wife to raise their children. His other novels include "Moth Smoke" and "The Reluctant Fundamentalist."

A question that's raised in the novel, about your main characters, which I'd be interested in hearing your reflections about, is in a new country, do you share this bond with migrants from other countries or only with migrants from your country? You know, like...

HAMID: Yes.

GROSS: It's an example of, like, when I'm in another city far away and I find myself sitting next to somebody from my neighborhood in Philadelphia, it's like - wow, we have so much in common. We're from the same neighborhood or from the same city, whereas if I run into them in the neighborhood, they're just a stranger to me. It doesn't mean a thing.

HAMID: You know, sometimes we are looking for somebody we can connect with on the basis of a shared past or a tradition or experience. And so finding that you're sitting next to someone very much like you in terms of where they come from is enormously reassuring.

I think sometimes feeling that you've been marginalized opens you up to the realization that, in their own lives, almost everyone experiences marginalization, a kind of foreigner sense. And that has - in my fiction in particular, in particular my later fiction - made me investigate and explore the idea that we're all united in this, that every human being migrates through time, that the place we grew up in in our childhood is gone when we're in our 50s and 60s and 70s. You can live in the same city your entire life and still be completely a foreigner when you step out, in your old age, onto the street.

And that is the basis, I think, for asserting a kind of shared human experience. So whereas if you'd asked me this 25 years ago - would I say international people are my clan? - I probably would have said yes. But now, I quite enjoy meeting people who haven't moved, don't feel at all international and recognizing an enormous shared experience that they also have with me.

GROSS: I'd like to talk with you a little bit about prayer. And in your novel, the male protagonist, Saeed, after emigrating from the country that he's from, which seems very much like Pakistan, he goes to several countries. And at this point in the novel, he's in Marin in California, and he finds himself praying more. And this is a period in his life, you know, he's cut off from his parents because his mother was killed by a stray bullet. His father didn't want to emigrate because he wanted to be able to visit the grave and to live in the past, where he felt more comfortable. So please read this paragraph where Saeed is praying and thinking about his parents.

HAMID: (Reading) Now, though, in Marin, Saeed prayed even more, several times a day. And he prayed fundamentally as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way. When he prayed, he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us - every man and woman and boy and girl. And we, too, will all be lost by those who come after us and love us.

And this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our beingness and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another. And out of this, Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity's potential for building a better world. And so he prayed as a lament, as a consolation and as a hope.

GROSS: Can I ask how prayer, in your life, has changed over the years?

HAMID: You know, I - my own take on this is I actually feel that personal matters, like religion and spirituality, are things that I really discuss only with intimates. I think it's, in a way, like sexuality, something where it touches upon something very private. But I can say that around me, as I see people praying and I think about the power of it - and I belong to a family where some people pray and are very religious and some are not religious at all - what I've come to recognize is that, for many people, there is an almost power to be found in prayer.

And that doesn't mean, necessarily, that we should all be religious or that a particular religious tradition is the right tradition but that, for some people, it does do something that helps them navigate the experience of loss, the experience of getting older, the experience of facing their own mortality. And in Saeed's character, I wanted to articulate that and to articulate some of the beauty that I saw in prayer and people around me who turned to that.

GROSS: You wrote about that when you traveled to India, which is - has a very large Muslim population but it has a larger Hindu population. Do I have that right, that the Hindu population is larger?

HAMID: Yes.

GROSS: Yeah. So when you go there, say, to speak or to do a reading, you have to check in at each police station - in the police station of each city before you make an appearance. Is that because you're Muslim?

HAMID: Well, that's because I'm Pakistani. So...

GROSS: Because you're Pakistani. Right. OK.

HAMID: Even if you travel on a British passport, let's say, or, you know, if you're connected to Pakistan in a way, given the history of animosity between India and Pakistan - and it's reciprocal. I mean, Indians undergo similar things in Pakistan. It's not that only India does it to Pakistanis.

And it sometimes would be very strange. So I might arrive in a hotel room for a book launch, and the hotel manager will come up and say, oh, I've read one your books, and I really liked it. I'm so glad you're here. And then two hours later, I'm off in a police station, you know, waiting. And then I'm on TV. It's a very sort of strange thing.

But it's happened to me in America as well. You know, there are sometimes when I seem to be, you know, always selected for random security searches at airports or stopped, you know, flying in and taken to secondary inspection and questioned for hours. And then on that same trip, I might be having a conversation with you or giving a reading in New York or even, you know, giving a talk, you know, at some U.S. government, you know, school of foreign service or something like that.

And it's very strange because you experience both the idea that people want to hear what you have to say and you're being welcomed as an artist and, at the same time, you belong to a suspect class where there's a suspicion that really, deep down, you're a terrorist. And these two things seem - how can they possibly co-exist? And they don't. It's just that we're incoherent. And in India in particular, that incoherence comes across very strongly if you're a Pakistani writer.

GROSS: Do you carry a copy of one of your books around so you can say - hey, this is me?

HAMID: I do, although I have to say I usually don't carry a copy of "The Reluctant Fundamentalist."

GROSS: (Laughter) Right. "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" is one of your novels that was also made into a film. That would give, maybe, the wrong cue to whoever was looking at it (laughter).

HAMID: Yes. I mean, it's quite funny because, you know, sometimes they'll stop you at the airport and say - oh, what do you do? I'm a writer. Really? What have you written? Oh, I've written multiple books. What is your most recent one? Um, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," you know. And that used to be...

GROSS: It's a memoir (laughter).

HAMID: That used troubling. But I'll tell you this, you know. I really do believe that people surprise you. And one of the powerful things about novels is that they're about characters, and those characters live their lives. But so are the people you meet at airports. You know, I've met immigration officers. And I've said, you know, I wrote this novel "The Reluctant Fundamentalist." And somebody looks at me and they're thinking, it's not going to go well. But they'll say, you know, my kid wants to do an MFA, and I don't know if it's a good idea. It's a lot of money. What do you think? And you wind up having a 15-minute conversation about the writing life and the values and pros and cons of MFA programs.

So I'm often surprised that, you know, you encounter all types of humanity. And very often, there are some very decent people who don't stereotype even when you might, in your own mind, have stereotyped them to think that they will.

GROSS: My guest is Mohsin Hamid. His new novel about immigrants is called "Exit West." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEFF BABKO'S "NOSTALGIA IS FOR SUCKAS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Mohsin Hamid. His new novel, "Exit West," is about a couple who flee their country after it's taken over by extremists. They become immigrants in countries hostile to immigrants. Hamid was born and lives in Lahore, Pakistan, but has also lived in the U.S. and London. On the dust jacket of your new book, there's a photo, an author photo, and you have a pretty short beard.

And if you don't mind my asking, is the beard because you're better off with one if you live in Pakistan or because you like the style of it?

HAMID: No, I don't think it makes any difference if you have a beard in a city like Lahore. I mean, for some people, it's a signifier of different kinds of religious things. For me, it's never been that. You know, I'm pretty close to bald and so...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HAMID: ...I think the beard helps offset - it's the only hairstyle I can really pull off. But I'm often clean-shaven. I think, you know, for me, it's not that signifier. What's interesting to me though is although the beard isn't a signifier of that to me, other people very often think that it is. And so people in America might react differently. The, you know, border agents might react differently. The guys at airport security might react differently.

And people in Pakistan sometimes react differently. So a beard is something that is almost like a mirror to the viewer. When someone sees you wearing a beard, they're seeing something in their own imagination because it's still me whether I'm bearded or not.

GROSS: So the beard could be a positive in Pakistan and a negative in the U.S., particularly at an airport?

HAMID: Yeah, or the other way around. So for example, in some contexts in Pakistan maybe a beard is negative. It depends. And in some contexts in America maybe a beard is positive. I think there's certainly lots of hipster communities where having a beard makes me look a little bit less like a, you know, middle-aged fuddy-duddy. And there's some places in Pakistan where having a beard, you know, certain corporate contexts, certain social contexts, where it's not an advantage to have a beard.

GROSS: Something that you have to navigate so that people don't assume you're a terrorist (laughter) and so that people don't assume you're a middle-aged fuddy-duddy (laughter).

HAMID: You know, it's amazing the range of places that I can, you know, occupy from deeply dangerous to so undangerous as to be completely desexualized. You know, it's a wonderful canvas on which I can live out my different facial hair experiments.

GROSS: It is lucky you have a sense of humor about that.

HAMID: There's no other way around it. You know, I think life is too short to go around being continually, you know, angry about being seen in this way. But that said, the anger is useful too because when things about the world upset you, that is really a fertile feeling to channel into fiction and to put out into books.

GROSS: In the part of your novel where your main characters are still living in the unnamed country that's being overtaken by militants, they realize that the meaning of windows has changed, that a window, which used to be, like, a great view, something wonderful to have in your home, now a window is really dangerous because it's the place through which bullets can pass. Shattered glass itself can become, like, shards that are dangerous and wound you.

And you write, (reading) a window had become a border through which death was possibly most likely to come. What made you think about that, about how windows can become really dangerous in a dangerous area?

HAMID: Well, that had to do with a friend of mine who was living in Lahore, and there was a bomb blast not far from his house. And it blew the windows in. And, you know, his wife was asleep, and the glass flew over the bed, hit the wall and sort of fell down onto her. So she woke - you know, she woke to the blast and to this sort of glass falling on her. But had she been standing, she would likely have been very badly lacerated. And in that realization, you know, we think of a bomb blast as being something that kills people right nearby.

But the truth is a pressure wave does very strange things to glass. And my architect friends, many of my friends in Lahore actually are architects, you know, they would often say things like, well, if it was invented today, the glass window wouldn't be allowed in any structure. It's just not safe. So I guess you could say that one is brushed up against the reality of that in Pakistan. And there are many people in public places that install blast-resistant film on glass windows to make them safer.

GROSS: Do you worry about the glass in your children's bedrooms?

HAMID: Yeah, I mean, I, you know, do think about those things but try not to think about them too often. There's - every parent, wherever you live in the world, there are fears that we have for our children. What happens when we drop them off to school? What happens, you know, when they're making their way home? What happens when we're not with them? And this particular fear that you've mentioned is part of that. And in a way, every parent is sort of dependent on the benevolence of the society around them to take care of their children.

And we get these reminders that maybe it isn't as benevolent as we'd like. But we're sort of helpless in the face of that. And that's, for me, a call to engage and to be sort of politically active because society requires each of us to intervene. It won't just be the way we want it to be.

GROSS: So one more question - how do you deal with anxiety?

HAMID: I think that we live in a world - and this is something which living in Pakistan, perhaps, has taught me - and, you know, we live in a world where there is a constant feed from social media, the news, etc., of things that can scare us.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HAMID: And we become so anxious because human beings are meant - are designed to be sensitized to dangerous stuff. You know, you get a bad review as a writer, you remember it for 10 years. You get a hundred good reviews, you forget them all. You say hello to a hundred people in the city and it doesn't mean anything to you. One racist comment passes by, and it sticks with you a decade.

We keep the negative stuff because it's the negative stuff that's going to, you know, potentially kill us. That fin in the water - maybe it is a shark. That yellow thing behind the tree - maybe it is a lion. You need to be scared. But contemporary culture in Pakistan, just like in America, is continuously hitting us with scary stuff. And so we are utterly anxious. I think that it's very important to resist that anxiety, to think of ways of resisting the constant inflow of negative feelings, not to become depoliticized as a result but to actually work actively to bring into being an optimistic future.

And for me, writing books and being, you know, someone who's politically active is part of that. I don't want to be anxious on my day-to-day life. I want to try to imagine a future I'd like to live in and then write books and do things that, in my own small way, make it more likely that that future will come to exist.

GROSS: I wish you success with that. Thank you so much for talking with us.

HAMID: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Mohsin Hamid's new novel is called "Exit West." After we take a short break, Kevin Whitehead will have a remembrance of the Dutch composer and pianist Misha Mengelberg. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL WILBER AND KENNY DAVERN'S "ROSETTA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.