Beyond Belonging: The Versatility of Queerness in Exit West
by June Shou Li
While most scholars and cultural critics acknowledge that migrants are typically unable to access homogeneous inclusion in its most complete form, Mohsin Hamid looks toward an alternative reality. In a world that is becoming increasingly globalized, the complex process of finding community and settlement is a common one, but continues to look different for each individual. In his novel Exit West, Hamid explores the complexities of belonging, an experience that is often considered inaccessible to queer immigrants and other societally displaced individuals. The novel details the journey of refugees Nadia and Saeed, who venture to escape from the civil unrest occurring within their home country. Their story provides structure to the overall novel and exists alongside scattered mini-narratives, where two major queer relationships emerge over the course of the larger plot line. By featuring Nadia’s eventual settlement into an unburdened queer relationship and a vignette of a gay couple that is unapologetic in its queerness, Hamid reaffirms the validity of the queer migrant experience and simultaneously pays homage to queerness as a catalyst to encourage belonging. With the immigrant perspective in Exit West, Hamid uses the novel’s references to queerness as a means to develop the novel’s antithetical approach to estrangement and connect the experiences of the queer migrant in Exit West with the universal process of finding belonging.
The approach that Hamid takes towards queerness in Nadia is especially interesting as towards the end of the novel, Nadia’s queerness exists in conjunction with newness and self development, as if it were an element of her identity to explore and adapt to instead of something she was born with. When Nadia enters a relationship with the cook at the food cooperative where she lives after her separation from Saeed, Hamid describes the development of their relationship as an experience that is so new, it is almost experimental. The entire course of their relationship is a process of transformation and rebirth, a change foreshadowed by the epiphany Nadia has right before she ends her relationship with Saeed. She wishes that “she could be the old Nadia” (Hamid 108) and Hamid goes on to explain Nadia’s personality as if an older part of her had died and been replaced with someone new. This sense of newness and erasure of Nadia’s past is taken further when the motive of Nadia’s relationship with the cook seems to be a burial of Nadia’s previous worldview and an onslaught of new experiences. The cook has eyes that were “a blue Nadia had not previously thought of as human” (Hamid 117), and Hamid hits the point home harder when he refers to the way she “introduced Nadia to all sorts of…new cuisines that were being born…and Nadia had never before delighted in tasting before she met the cook…” (Hamid 117). Everything from the cook’s physicality, interests and expressions of intimacy are regarded by Nadia as entirely refreshing, placing Nadia as the recipient to the cook’s encouragement of open mindedness and the relationship as a broadening force. This concept of rebirth in an increasingly global world is echoed across scholarship, with Kenyan novelist and scholar Simon Gikandi acknowledging how the changes that are caused migration is not limited to the physical and instead that “globalization brings the universal and the local together in a moment of conceptual renewal and ‘‘momentum of newness’” (Gikandi 628). Hamid himself recognizes congruence between Nadia’s developing attitudes towards her new relationship and her experiences settling into America, especially coming from a country that held more conservative attitudes towards sexuality, a parallel that author and scholar Eithne Luibhéid touches on in her paper “Heteronormativity and Immigration Scholarship: A Call for Change”. Luibhéid references Global Asian Studies Scholar Mark Chiang when she writes, “Mark Chiang describes how for “minorities,” including immigrants, variations from hegemonic community sexual norms are often understood not as gendered but as cultural deviance, as signs of corruption by or assimilation into mainstream culture” (Luibhéid 230), linking one’s demonstration or acknowledgement of queerness directly with one’s immersion into Americanization. In Exit West, Nadia’s transition into and eventual identification with her sexuality is intrinsic to her transition into and eventual identification with a new nationality and geographic location. As no other details are given about her personal life in the novel after she meets the cook, there is a sense of permanence surrounding Nadia’s passage into her new life in America and readers leave Nadia with the image of her happiness in a relationship untarnished by her past. Hamid marks a distinct shift in Nadia’s personhood with her queer relationship, describing how it is with queerness that Nadia learns to embrace the new and find belonging. As Nadia’s relationship grows intimate, Hamid offers conclusiveness by insinuating success in Nadia’s settlement into a new home and a more familiar version of herself.
The lack of familiarity, comfort, and security in Nadia’s experience with her developing queerness is contrasted by a vignette Hamid places in the middle of the novel detailing the blossoming of a relationship between two older men, one Brazilian and the other, a Dutch painter. When the two men forge their initial connection with each other, neither man speaks to each other due to differing languages, instead communicating through a series of universal gestures. The two men move as if choreographed: smoking, tipping their hats and raising their classes, all while “neither man smiled” (Hamid 96). When each man invites the other to their homes and into their lives, their conversations are filled with “many long gaps, but these gaps were eminently comfortable, almost unnoticed by the two men” (Hamid 96). To describe the way they speak, Hamid never uses destructive words like “broken” as in “broken English”. Instead, even though the two men share very little in terms of background, their bond with each other continues to grow in a way that is natural and fluid. As the two men continue their relationship across each other’s home countries, both men venture entirely out of their homes but neither man is ever truly foreign. In this vignette where the most significant change that either man experiences are their feelings towards each other, if the men are to be considered migrants, it cannot be said that their migration is solely geographical. In fact, the bitterness that comes with either queerness and migration is never mentioned; Hamid treats their relationship as a still or a work of art, where the prime subject of the vignette is simply a growing love. The final scene that the two men share in the novel is within a photograph of their first kiss (Hamid 96). As is the case with every other part of their relationship, it is picturesque. The progression between the two men is so effortless that the queerness they share fades into the background and almost irrelevant. Within their romance, identity-based conflicts due to a difference in country or nationality never arise, queerness sails across boundaries and simply exists within the two without having to adjust any other part of their lives. Unlike Nadia’s queerness, the queerness between the two men is nothing new. The two relationships, placed side by side, acknowledge the massive diversity of the queer migrant experience and dreams of a world where queerness can effectively lead to romantic happiness.
With unassuming ease, Hamid crafts the queer migrant fiction long idealized by queer theory scholars, recognizing that authentic queerness and migration have a longstanding history of junction points and interdependence. Queerness itself implies its own migration away from heteronormativity, and considering the function of physical migration to promote and destigmatize queerness, the two are inextricably linked. Yet, it remains crucial that the relationship between the two men in Amsterdam and Nadia’s relationship with the American chef remain separate and distinct in the ways they are perceived. Their queerness must remain exactly that — queer, uninhibited and a concept on the move; and the ingenious of Hamid’s depiction of the two relationships lies in the normalcy and irrelevance within each relationship with the other. In a response to Anderson and Knee’s article titled “Queer Isolation or Queering Isolation”, queer theory scholar Robyn Burns cites queerness as “a hybridization of many facets”, writing that “we are queer in that we are ‘Always subjects in process. Always becoming something.’” (Burns 2021). Indeed, the ever-changing and intrinsic fluidity of the queer movement has thrived and continues to thrive upon patterns of migration. Martin Manalansan was the first to introduce the concept that the very idea of queerness in the West was instigated by non-Western cultures, many having pre-established sexual identity practices that were independent from Western conceptions of selfhood (Mole, 2018). This idea was then further perpetuated by Comparative Politics scholars Phillip Ayoub and Lauren Bouman, who argue for the link between queer activism in the present day with the increase in migrant mobilisation (Ayoub and Bouman, 2019). Regardless of varying perspective, scholars across the board are quick to notice the similarities in both migrant and queer institutions of thought, each sharing the same affinity for liberlizing ideology and standing for the eradication of borders as solid lines. Founded on similar processes of self-discovery, acceptance and compassion, it seems only logical that the two communities are inseparable, their convergence emerging as a pinnacle in intersectional conversations. Bearing these contexts in mind, Hamid’s novel becomes all the more crucial to the events of the modern day, creating a hologram of the future for scholars to work upon and readers to look towards.
Perhaps out of hope or sheer generosity, Hamid laces the underlying tone of Exit West with an absolutely optimistic flourish, allotting each character their own path of growth and nudging readers towards the assumption of happy endings. Throughout the novel, queerness is used as a movement towards the welcoming of change and a means to communicate Hamid’s nonchalant optimism. Scholars across the board tend to agree that the postcolonial world is a haven for erasure and appropriation, Simon Gikandi notably criticizing the correlation between modern immigration with “homogenization, standardization, cultural imperialism, westernization, Americanization” (Gikandi 629). However, in the sea of well-deserved cynicism, Hamid possesses buoyancy. In an article written for National Geographic, Hamid addresses the cruelty of globalization and writes, “If we are all migrants, then possibly there is a kinship between the suffering of the woman who has never lived in another town and yet has come to feel foreign on her own street and the suffering of the man who has left his town and will never see it again” (Hamid, 2019). The efforts of Hamid to communicate the kinship he refers to can be felt deeply in both queer relationships that he crafts throughout the novel. Both relationships begin with little dialogue, each person instead interacting with the other mostly through unspoken understanding albeit their vastly different backgrounds. Even regardless of sexuality, each relationship that Hamid curates in Exit West exudes interconnectedness, where the individual’s foreignness is often entirely forgotten and considered obsolete. As Hamid puts it himself, “Perhaps thinking of us all as migrants offers us a way out of this looming dystopia” (Hamid, 2019), and this attitude of universal migration is embodied in every character in the novel but especially emphasized through the novel’s instances of queerness. Nadia is not a migrant exclusively because of her physical journey internationally, she is also a migrant through herself as she matures, steadily uncovers parts of her identity and exposes herself to different cultures. The two elderly men are certainly physical migrants as they pass through door after door with ease, but each are also migrants through time, their youth and their previous life experience. With these two relationships, Hamid’s optimism is broad in nature as he normalizes the different forms that immigration can take on, simultaneously normalizing the possibilities of casual queer happiness.
It is incredibly important that while their experiences are far from each other and complicated at times, Hamid implies heavily that both Nadia and the two men end up happy. In a hostile world where being of migrant status or queer can often imply a painful experience, Hamid demands something different, something better. At the heart of the novel is the radically hopeful way that Hamid weaves people together, and Exit West is a stunning demonstration of Hamid’s efforts to rewrite the boundaries of possibility and reimagine assimilation and belonging beyond the current binaries.
Ayoub, Phillip M., and Lauren Bauman. “ Migration and Queer Mobilisations: How Migration Facilitates Cross-Border LGBTQ Activism.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, vol. 45, no. 15, 2019, pp. 2758–2778.
Burns, Robyn. “Queerness as/and Political Attunement.” Leisure Sciences, vol. 43, 16 Feb. 2021, pp. 125–130.
Gikandi, Simon. “Globalization and the Claims of Postcoloniality.” South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 100, no. 3, 2001, pp. 627–658.
Hamid, Mohsin. “In the 21st Century, We Are All Migrants.” National Geographic, Aug. 2019.
Hamid , Mohsin. Exit West. Penguin Random House LLC, 2017.
Luibhéid, Eithne. “Heteronormativity and Immigration Scholarship: A Call for Change.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 10, no. 2, 1 Apr. 2004, pp. 227–235.
Manalansan, Martin F. “Messy Mismeasures: Exploring the Wilderness of Queer Migrant Lives.” The South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 117, no. 3, Duke University Press, 2018, pp. 491–506.
Manalansan, Martin F. “Queer Intersections: Sexuality and Gender in Migration Studies.” International Migration Review, vol. 40, no. 1, 2006, pp. 224–249.
Mole, Richard. “‘Sexualities’ and Queer Migrant Research.” Sexualities, vol. 21, no. 8, 2018, pp. 1268–1270.
June Shou Li is a freshman at the University of Southern California studying English Literature and American Studies. Her scholarly work is primarily concerned with the decolonization of American literature and its pedagogical narratives, the universal Other, queerisms of color and Asian American epiphanies.