By McKenna Dugan
Picture a world where an ordinary door can change where it leads. Nobody is sure how, but the door’s darkness can surround anyone who walks through it and transport them to another place. Your apartment door could take you to California in seconds or across the sea to a mansion in London. You can travel freely across the globe to places you've only seen in pictures, escaping your mundane life for something new and exciting. Others can escape as well. Escape a "country teetering on the brink of civil war."
This is the premise of Mohsin Hamid's novel and this year's common read, Exit West. It follows a couple during their passages through these magical doors, as they try to escape the war in their unnamed home city. This novel is truly a college read, as Hamid doesn't sugar coat anything or paint the characters as heroes of amazing strength. They are regular college students: they dabble in drugs, struggle with abstinence, and are still trying to find themselves despite having to leave the only home they've ever known. They are human. Perfectly imperfect humans.
It is the perfect book for college students to read and discuss since it covers many current and controversial topics but in ways different from what we’re used to. In truth, I always shied away from material like this; I was afraid that the news or talk shows would be biased and I would have poorly informed opinions. Knowing that I was reading fiction created a safe place for me to ask myself the serious questions I had been avoiding. For instance, didn’t all our ancestors take their land from someone who was inhabiting it? If so, what rights, if any, does that give them to refuse people seeking refuge in their country for themselves and their loved ones?
Aside from the heavy questions this novel poses and its bluntly real style of writing, it also gives us a look into many countries and ways of life. Not only do we travel with the main characters across the world, but Hamid also inserts snippets of people’s lives that Nadia and Saeed never come in contact with. It explores what it's like being a woman in a country in the Middle East, as well as views immigrants through the eyes of a man who believes they are trespassing on "his" land. These glimpses remind us that while we follow the struggles and triumphs of a few characters, every person on this earth is writing their own narrative.
Regardless of the fact that this novel is practically written for the world's political climate at this very instant, there are some great perks to joining in on this year's common read. Penn State Altoona offers continual opportunities to get involved in programs centered around this story. There has been a screening of documentary about political unrest that have led some to become refugees, followed by a discussion by people those familiar with that area of the world. For those who enjoyed Hamid's upfront, unique writing style, there will be two creative writing workshops. There will even be an opportunity for us to debate the status of refugees in America. But most importantly, food. I'm not just talking about the pizza that will accompany most of the discussions; I'm talking real Pakistani Cuisine. That's right, your days of Ramen Noodles are over my friend.
I lied slightly about the food being the best part. Penn State is providing all of us with the opportunity to meet the author of Exit West. The author of one of New York Times 2017, 10 Best Books will be in the Adler Complex, Tuesday, Sept 25th at 7:30 p.m. taking questions. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and to not take advantage of it would be a mistake.
My first reaction to being given a book at NSO was "Great, I'm definitely going to read this, cause I'm a complete nerd. Thanks, Penn State." But after being forced to read it, I realized that my assumptions that it was going to be some stuffy, boring, overly informative waste of space was dead wrong. I wouldn't be surprised if Hamid's magnetic style and ideas draw me back in for a second read.
So again, I encourage you to read this novel, get involved and meet other students across campus with this year's common read, Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid.