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This September, the Chicago Pubic Library selected Moshsin Hamid's novel, Exit West, as its "One Book, One Chicago" selection for 2020, describing is as "..an astonishingly visionary love story that imagines the forces that drive ordinary people from their homes into the uncertain embrace of new lands."
And for another year, the Library invited us here at CHIRP to create]https://open.spotify.com/playlist/3oA1fNLQs5VjtxQlAefgiB?si=bk2fXwoxQ_K30JTONEGSbw">create[/url] a playlist to accompany the reading.
CHIRP Radio volunteer and DJ Moizza Khan reflects on the novel and presents a playlist]https://open.spotify.com/playlist/3oA1fNLQs5VjtxQlAefgiB?si=bk2fXwoxQ_K30JTONEGSbw">playlist[/url] of music that captures the themes and spirit of this work.
“We are all migrants through time.”
In 1968, my dad came to Chicago as an international student from India, working multiple jobs and living with multiple roommates as he studied engineering at the UIC Circle campus. Shortly after his arrival, he got word that his father back in Hyderabad had passed away. He never got to say goodbye and, over time and migration, he would lose nearly all direct family ties to India.
Life in the Midwest has never been particularly welcoming to foreigners, and though my childhood was in many ways typical, I never fit in or felt the same nostalgia for the suburbs as the kids I grew up with.
My goal was to spend at least half of my 20s outside the U.S. and the only thing that kept me from achieving this was my father’s health problems after he became a widower. My greatest fear was that, like him, I would get word of his passing from thousands of miles away and never get to say goodbye.
So eight years ago, I came back to look after him - come what may - taking comfort and support from the Indian Muslim community that has flourished in Chicago since my dad arrived 50 years ago.
I’m afraid things have never been tougher for people like us in this country - with talk of travel bans, internment, and citizenship being stripped away. When people joke about moving to Canada, I wonder if they realize how real it is for some of us – especially since the climate toward Muslims in India has deteriorated to the point that returning, even for retirement, is no longer feasible.
Chicago, Illinois, USA is the only home my generation knows, but what do you do when home doesn’t feel like home anymore?
In a lifetime of travel, I have concluded that Chicago is still the best city in America – the best illustration of what makes this country great as well the deep-seated problems that we must overcome. I desperately want things to get better and, for now, I’m committed to doing my part to make things better.
As Exit West shows us, it is impossible to travel truly unencumbered. No matter how far you go or for how long, you cannot outrun time. You cannot outrun yourself. No matter where you travel, you’re always looking for home.
Although Hamid does not specify the setting of Exit West, the early scenes of Saeed’s parental courtship suggest Pakistan, where the author’s family is from. Inspired by the beauty of Lahore’s Laxmi Chowk at night, Chandni Raaten (“Moonlit Nights”) is an iconic film song by Pakistan’s Queen of Melody, Noor Jehan, that tells a story of lost love.
Early in the novel, Nadia sneaks Saeed into her apartment and puts on a record by a deceased soul singer. Sharon Jones passed away in 2016 from cancer, but not before putting out nine excellent records with the Dap-Kings, including the title track from their 2007 album, which tells us how long it takes “to know a man's heart, And a little more before he knows his own.”
“Duur” (Far Away) by the enduring Pakistani pop band Strings is about emotional distance. This is a theme of the novel played out between many of the characters, including Nadia and Saeed as well as Nadia’s relationship with her family.
The central storyline of the book is intercut with amusing vignettes from other parts of the world, including Vienna and Mykonos. In 1948, zither player Anton Karas was tasked with composing a curiously lighthearted soundtrack to The Third Man, the brilliant adaptation of Graham Greene’s dark thriller about war profiteers, refugees, and smugglers in postwar Vienna.
Another of the book’s detours is to Cuba, a country isolated from its neighbors and its diaspora by political fear. The Buena Vista Social Club’s “Candela” describes fire consuming everything, including the singer, with its unpredictable, combustible spread.
No popular hip hop act has celebrated the triumphs and struggles of foreign-born and second generation people in the West as inimitably as Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean, and Pras Michel. “Fu-Gee-La” is their anthem, free-associating languages and cultures over an acoustic melody on this Refugee Camp Global Mix.
The novel’s detours to Japan are especially intriguing with their suggestion that glamourous locales can also be dangerous to newcomers. This megahit dance single from J-pop legend Utada Hikaru (as she is known there) emphasizes the frenzied forward motion, as well as the fear, of young people escaping into the night.
Asian Underground is a mostly electronic genre produced by second generation musicians of the South Asian diaspora. On “Milan” percussionist and composer Karsh Kale is joined by frequent collaborators Bill Laswell and Zakir Hussain for peripatetic instrumental that reflects the instability of our protagonists existence once they take their exit.
The title of this bossa nova standard translates to “enough longing” which expresses the singers’ frustration with his inability to move on. All he wants is for his lover to “end this "living-without-me" business and return to his loving arms, a sentiment that our protagonists grapple with as they grow apart.
In London, our protagonists live among African refugees, who bring a different cultural dynamic than they have ever experienced before. Nigerian singer Temi Dollface is no-nonsense on “Pata Pata,” a vibrant send-off to a lover who has worn out his welcome.
Featuring one of the most inspired Bollywood samples ever and delightfully shambolic verses from UK grime MC Dizzee Rascal, “Lucky Star” is the chaotic, cacophonous companion to the Fugees’ laid-back celebrations of the immigrant hustle.
In 2016, militant South Asian rapper/singer M.I.A. released an album inspired by the plight of global refugees with an aim to humanize and individualize their stories with tracks like “Ali r u ok?”. The track references the site of an infamous refugee camp called “The Jungle” which produced a benefit album called The Calais Sessions (available on Bandcamp) composed entirely by refugee musicians.
Not much is currently known about the emerging vocalist Khadijatou Odenge except she’s signed to the London record label Beat Farm Recorders. On this soulful spoken word track, she gets introspective about a relationship and whether it should continue, as our protagonists do in the novel.
As the novel progresses, Saeed turns back to his faith as he searches for meaning in his new environment. Legendary Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s 1990 album Mustt Mustt ("Lost in His Work" is a loose translation) was a breakthrough introducing traditional Sufi Islamic devotional music to Western audiences.
Joined by the vocalist Cat Power, Beck starts off his 2008 album Modern Guilt with “Orphans”, an appropriately jaunty song about disillusionment and getting on with the journey. As our protagonists learn to navigate the world apart, they adapt to their Northern Californian surroundings with very different results.
By the end of the novel, it’s clear that our protagonists are never going to make it out to Chile as they had once dreamed – at least not together. The leftwing, polyglot artist Manu Chao drives this point home with “Je ne t’aime plus” ("I Don’t Love You Anymore"), a coda to the novel’s theme of connections dissolving over time and space.
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