A Refugee Fable

Exit West     Mohsin Hamid     (2017)


Author Mohsin Hamid is known for his experimental prose: Moth Smoke (2000), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), and How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013). His latest novel, Exit West, can appear to be a more conventional novel—that is, until you hit the magical doors. These doors whisk Hamid’s characters to another country, with some similarities to the door through which CS Lewis takes his characters to Narnia. But Hamid’s characters definitely do not end up in Narnia. They’re refugees, fleeing their native country, where “militants” cause increasing upheaval and danger.

Nadia and Saeed are middle-class, college-educated professionals, working for an insurance company and an advertising agency, respectively, and living in an unnamed large city in an unnamed country that seems to be in the Middle East. The story opens as these two are just getting to know each other romantically. In the background, terrorism gradually encroaches on their lives and the lives of their families. Buildings are bombed and militants haul away people considered to be dissidents. Nadia and Saeed try to maintain a semblance of routine at first. They continue to go to work, attend their evening class, meet for coffee. Eventually, as electricity and water are cut off and their places of employment are shuttered, they hunker down with hoarded supplies. They truly do not want to leave their country, the place of their birth, but if they want to stay alive, it becomes clear that they must flee.

Nadia and Saeed seek basic survival in three successive refugee encampments, in Greece, England, and then the United States. Even though these nations are named, Hamid transforms them into dystopias. The narrator of Exit West tells us that “the apocalypse appeared to have arrived and yet it was not apocalyptic, which is to say that while the changes were jarring they were not the end.” (245)

The frequent dislocation of their lives as refugees takes a toll on Nadia and Saeed’s relationship. “Every time a couple moves they begin, if their attention is still drawn to one another, to see each other differently, for personalities are not a single immutable color, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us.” (212)

Saeed, in particular, misses his home: “He was drawn to people from their country, both in the labor camp and online. It seemed to Nadia that the farther they moved from the city of their birth, through space and through time, the more he sought to strengthen his connection to it, tying ropes to the air of an era that for her was unambiguously gone.”  (213)

Mohsin Hamid was writing Exit West as the global refugee crisis was escalating, but he could not have foreseen world events of the year 2017, such as the travel bans instituted in the United States or the uptick in terrorist attacks in his native Pakistan. His prescient novel personalizes the plight of refugees—ordinary people who through no fault of their own are caught up in war and terrorism, who flee with great reluctance, leaving behind virtually all their possessions, clinging to the few family members who have not perished.

Near the end of Exit West, we hear from an “old woman” who has lived her entire life in Palo Alto, California:  “. . . it seemed to her that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time.” (237)

There’s a very good reason why Exit West was on so many lists of the best books of the year 2017.

A Southeast Asian Story

Miss Burma     Charmaine Craig     (2017)


The dust jacket for Miss Burma tells us that novelist Charmaine Craig is a “descendant of significant figures in Burma’s modern history.” And Craig’s dedication for the book is to the memory of her mother, Louisa, and of her grandparents Ben and Khin. These three are major characters in Miss Burma, so right from the start, I was wondering how much of the story is factual—how much Louisa, as a participant in historic events, told Charmaine directly. Obviously, the novelist had to invent many lines of dialogue in order to create 355 pages.

Charmaine Craig’s grandmother Khin was from the minority ethnic group in Burma called the Karen (kah-REN). Her grandfather Ben (or Benny) was born into a Jewish family in Burma but raised partly in India when he was orphaned. When Benny marries Khin, he decides to identify with the Karen people. The novel follows Khin and Benny’s family through a tumultuous period in Burma’s history, as the country becomes a battleground between the British and the Japanese in World War II and then as civil war among ethnic factions causes further devastation in the following decades. Benny becomes a leading member of the Karen resistance to the majority Burmese. A key event in the narrative is the beauty contest in 1956 in which Khin and Benny’s mixed-race daughter Louisa is crowned Miss Burma. We get Benny’s thoughts at this event: “From the looks of it, these people were prepared to adore whichever girl, of whichever origins, became their queen. Perhaps beauty alone had the power to transfigure people so. And yet, Benny reminded himself with a shudder, there was something insidious about beautifying the country’s image by means of a girl, whatever her background, for somewhere in the darkness beyond the delta, innocent people continued to be shot and killed.” (226)

Louisa herself is sometimes ambivalent about the struggle of the Karen people. We learn that she had “this feeling that it was wrong for anyone to claim exclusive rights to a corner of the earth—wrong for no other reason than that everyone was passing. . . . She was suddenly sure that Burma’s most beautiful feature was its multiplicity of peoples.” (318)

A little Burmese history is helpful if you decide to read this novel. Burma won its independence from Great Britain in 1948. After years of civil war, the current military regime took power and changed the name of the country to Myanmar, though it’s still known as Burma in some political circles. Probably the best known figure in Myanmar is Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now State Counsellor. Her father, Aung San, is portrayed as a character in Miss Burma. Like many other nations, Burma has long been struggling with how to bring diverse ethnic and tribal peoples together. How do you decide on proper representation? Do you set up a separate territory for every minority group? What if territory is disputed? How do you address differences of language and religion? How do you end state-sanctioned genocide and community-based thuggery?

As Charmaine Craig lays out the case for better treatment of the minority groups in Burma, she can get somewhat preachy, and the segments in which she graphically describes brutal guerilla warfare are grim. I preferred the chapters in which she explores the personal relationships of the characters and their ethnic identities, against a backdrop of national chaos, in the lush landscape of Burma. Miss Burma is for readers who like delving into history that’s less well known in the US, especially those who are intrigued by southeast Asia.

Koreans in Japan

Pachinko     Min Jin Lee     (2017)

“Pachinko” is a popular Japanese slot-machine game. You may wonder, until well past the halfway point of this novel’s 485 pages, what pachinko has to do with a saga about four generations of a Korean family in the twentieth century. Have patience.

First you have to be well steeped in the story of Sunja, a poor teenager who is seduced by Hansu, an older Korean gangster, in her village in what is now South Korea. By chance, Isak, a Korean Christian minister, passes through the village. He rescues Sunja from the ignominy of an unwed pregnancy by marrying her and taking her to Japan, where he will work as a missionary. The year is 1933.

Historical events of the turbulent twentieth century constantly buffet Sunja, Isak, and their extended family and friends in Japan, where the bulk of the story plays out. Japan’s expansionist wars of the 1930s and 1940s fuel nativist sentiments in the Japanese  populace. Korean immigrants, who are “zainichi” (foreign residents), are relegated to the most menial jobs and are paid less than Japanese for the same work. Korean children born in Japan do not become citizens—they’re essentially countryless. As one character pronounces: “’This country [Japan] isn’t going to change. Koreans like me can’t leave. Where we gonna go? But the Koreans back home aren’t changing, either. In Seoul, people like me get called Japanese bastards, and in Japan, I’m just another dirty Korean no matter how much money I make or how nice I am.’“ (383)

Once Korea is partitioned into North and South in 1948, the situation gets even murkier: “After the [Korean] peninsula was divided, the Koreans in Japan ended up choosing sides, often more than once, affecting their residency status. It was still hard for a Korean to become a Japanese citizen, and there were many who considered such a thing shameful—for a Korean to try to become a citizen of its former oppressor.” (441)

A few ethnic Koreans living in Japan figure out that they can become entrepreneurs in the pachinko business, and a well-run pachinko parlor can turn a nice profit. Proceeds from pachinko parlors, plus help from that gangster Hansu, pave the bumpy road out of poverty for some characters in the novel. Other characters hide their Korean ethnicity, dressing like the Japanese, learning to speak Japanese without an accent, taking a Japanese spouse. This subterfuge is possible because the physical characteristics of Japanese people and Korean people are often very similar.

The straightforward, direct sentence style in Pachinko suits the themes of the novel, and the Korean and Japanese words in the text give the flavor of the setting without weighing down the narrative. I caught the simple ones, like “kimchi” (the Korean dish of fermented cabbage and radish) and “hanko” (a hand stamp of one’s name, used throughout East Asia). The meanings of other words were obvious from their context, but I had to look up a few as I read.

It would have been easy for novelist Lee to paint the Japanese as always the bad guys and the Koreans as always the good guys, but she does not adopt this dichotomy. Although she lays out the Japanese discrimination against Koreans clearly, her long list of characters includes both Koreans and Japanese who are deceitful and honest, talented and mediocre, wise and foolish, lazy and hardworking, compassionate and heartless, selfish and generous, prejudiced and open-minded. She pulls into her story subplots that touch on issues such as the status of minority Christians in Japan and the evolving attitude toward the place of women in the family and in the workplace over the course of the twentieth century. 

Above all, though, this is a universal story about the immigrant experience—about taking a job that’s far beneath your skill level because you don’t know the language, about being segregated into a slum area, about being subject to complicated rules that you don’t understand, about living constantly with fear. Immigrants enter a game of chance, stacked against them, much like pachinko players.

In her Acknowledgements, Lee tells us that it took her nearly thirty years to write this impressive novel. It was well worth the time.