Our Migrant World

Within the rhetorical toolbox of contemporary political discourse, the language used to characterize international migration, refugee crises, and border crossings might fairly be called impoverished ...

Within the rhetorical toolbox of contemporary political discourse, the language used to characterize international migration, refugee crises, and border crossings might fairly be called impoverished. “Waves” of refugees are “flooding” the West, which is “overwhelmed” by the “swamp” of new arrivals; or, to swap a logic of inundation for one of infestation, migrants “swarm” their destinations in poisonous hordes. Two recent novels work to thicken such representations, in part simply through the particularizing potential of fiction: while Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West traces its two protagonists, a couple, from the tumultuous present of global refugee crisis into a hypothetical future, Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko glances backwards, following several generations of a family from post-World War I Korea to contemporary Japan. But each of these novels also constructs alternative metaphors of time and space, structuring their narratives around devices that ask us to imagine border crossings differently than as natural disasters or apocalyptic plagues.

In Pachinko, the game of the title is such a device: pachinko is a kind of pinball slot machine popular in Japan, where it has long been an exception to the country’s strict regulations on gambling, and is played in parlors often run by owners of Korean heritage. The book most obviously conceives of pachinko as a metaphor for the random workings of fate, which at every turn threaten to interrupt the plans and aspirations of an upwardly mobile immigrant family. In a tiny Korean village in the early 1930s, a teenager named Sunju is seduced by a wealthy, middle-aged fish broker named Koh Hansu. Hansu’s Western suit and white leather shoes make him stand out in the village; these clothes also come to emblematize Hansu’s position as a self-made capitalist par excellence, unconcerned with either Korean self-determination or Japanese power, and instead successfully manipulating imperialist policies in order to amass wealth and security for himself. After discovering she is pregnant, and that Hansu has a family of his own in Japan, Sunju escapes ruin by marrying a Protestant minister, Baek Isak, whose idealism prompts his offer to bring Sunju back to Osaka to live with his brother and wife. Together the family weathers economic depression, World War II, the ententes and détentes of the Cold War, and the division of the family’s homeland into North and South.

Like Pachinko, Exit West’s metaphors ask us to reimagine global movement.

Sunju’s children and grandchildren speak Korean, Japanese, and eventually English as well; they become gifted students and successful businessmen. But they also continue to remain marginalized with Japanese society, which historically enacted severe barriers against Korean families’ ability to acquire citizenship that often left them in limbo, unable either to travel back to Korea without a passport or to enjoy the benefits of citizenship in their adopted country. Yumi, the wife of Sunju’s son Mozasu, thinks of being Korean as “just another horrible encumbrance, much like being poor or having a shameful family you could not cast off,” and Japan as “like a beloved stepmother who refused to love you.”

Some of its characters feel the weight of this paradox more heavily than others. When Hansu and Sunju’s son Noa, who longs to integrate, learns who his father is—and that Hansu’s tainted money has funded his education—he breaks off contact with his family, establishing life for himself far away, in a town where no one knows his family and where he can thus pass as Japanese. (“Most Japanese claimed they could distinguish between a Japanese and Korean,” the novel tells us, “but every Korean knew that was rubbish. You could ape anyone.”) To a great extent Noa imbibes the stereotypes of Koreans—depicted here as pervasive among the Japanese—as unclean, soiled both physically by poverty and morally from their involvement in seedy financial dealings, gambling, and the black market. Both he and Mozasu separately become affiliated with pachinko parlors, some of the only business opportunities available to Koreans in a society of systematic exclusion.

Throughout Pachinko, the official status of Koreans in limbo coexists with movement and migration at different scales and times. Along with Sunju’s move from her village to Osaka, characters also journey between city and province; from Osaka to the provinces during the war and back again; they fan out across Japan; certain minor characters do manage to return to a divided Korea. By the end, Solomon, Sunju’s great-grandson, has become a novice investment banker newly graduated from Columbia and making a fortune in Tokyo. Like the wildly careening balls of pachinko, the trajectories of the many characters packed into this novel, accumulating over time, can seem random and haphazard, though mesmerizing.

But Pachinko also qualifies such a portrait of chance and fate in the way it depicts a human life as pressed upon by historical circumstance. “Every morning,” one character relates, “Mozasu and his men tinkered with the machines to fix the outcomes—there could only be a few winners and lot of losers.” Fate is partly impersonal in the novel, but it is also subject to meddling by very human actors—and subject to being “fixed” by the kind of systematic inequalities portrayed throughout it. The various women through which the narrative is focalized are particularly emblematic of this insistence, their strength of character challenged by the added burdens of responsibility (emotional, financial, and otherwise) that they suffer as daughters, wives, and mothers.

Noa, one of Sonju’s sons, develops a lifelong interest in Dickens, Eliot, and Tolstoy during his time at university, and indeed the novel seems to see itself as an heir to the 19th-century realist tradition. Its multigenerational saga, its sweeping cast of characters, and even the touches of melodrama that close a number of its chapters make Pachinko reminiscent of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, for example, which is similarly invested in the intermingling of historical circumstance, individual will, and familial trajectories. “History has failed us, but no matter,” the novel begins, though it subsequently plunges in to a more limited third-person view without ever reclaiming such omniscience. Deeply researched, Pachinko is clearly written for an audience unfamiliar with the politics of Korea–Japan migration and Japanese imperialism, its use of free-indirect discourse at times over-encumbered by the task constantly given its characters to explain and to clarify within their very thoughts.

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Immigrants and Illness

By Kairos G. Llobrera

Among Hamid’s previous novels, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013) can similarly be understood to have taken on an “explainer” function for Western audiences, even as they poke fun at, and/or trenchantly critique, Western assumptions about places in which the United States, for instance, has meddled. Exit West takes another strategy, trimming out historical detail and realist specificity: where Lee lingers over Japan’s 1910 annexation of Korea, for instance, or the “trains from Shimonoseki and boats from Jeju [that] brought more hungry Koreans to Osaka,” the original setting of Exit West remains unnamed.1 We do know that it is a city verging on political breakdown, but also a city “swollen by refugees” itself (already resisting, as did Pachinko, a notion of international migration as unidirectional and irreversible). Amid a rise in political violence and a slow breakdown of services and infrastructure, a love story begins between Saeed and Nadia, both corporate employees who meet at an evening class on “corporate identity and product branding,” and who go to a Chinese restaurant for their first date (neoliberalism and Chinese restaurants assumed to be so ubiquitous as to keep the location unspecific). Saeed is more quiet and rather devout; Nadia, meanwhile, upset her parents by moving out on her own, and wears a long, flowing black robe so that, she says, “men don’t fuck with me.”

Certain details, phenomenological rather than historical, vivify this setting amid its descent into war. Hamid describes for instance, how “one’s relationship to windows now changed in the city,” now that they came to be “the border through which death was possibly most likely to come.” Eventually Nadia and Saeed do manage to escape—first to Mykonos, where they share space with wealthy beach-bound tourists, then to London, where nativist operations to “reclaim Britain for Britain” are brewing, and finally to a Marin County of the near future, whose former residents have now mostly abandoned the area to other migrants like them.

Rather than trace the arduous physical struggles, the visas and paperwork, the waiting required for the couple to make its way across land and sea, Hamid introduces his own narrative device: doors that have opened up all around the world, magically transporting those who can find and identify them from one place to another. “A normal door, they said, could become a special door,” we learn, in the straightforward but almost singsong style that sometimes gives the novel the feel of a fairy tale. Phrases are often introduced with “It was said” or “it was rumored,” which distances the present of the action from the vantage point of the narration, but also lends the book a quality of speculation far distant from the realist mode of Pachinko.

Exit West intersperses the narrative of Saeed and Nadia with vignettes of others who emerge from these doors: a man into the closet of a woman’s bedroom in Australia, a family into the Jumeirah Beach Residence in Dubai, and so on. Along with the increasingly hostile climate that the protagonists face in London, where “between Westminster and Hammersmith legal residents were a minority, and native-born ones vanishingly few,” the book also touches on a man in Tokyo fingering a knife as he stares contemptuously at a group of Filipina girls, and on an anti-refugee riot being prepared in Vienna. It’s not just the nameless origin city, the novel implies, but our very world itself that finds itself at risk of collapse by international movement—thanks to the suspicion and unrest of those who feel invaded.

Unlike in his earlier work, however, Hamid seems less interested in parsing out the precise valences of international and intercultural misreadings of a post-9/11 world, an interest that has led Rebecca Walkowitz to dub his work as an example of what she calls the “born translated” contemporary novel.2 In Exit West, the more abstract, speculative mode seems more invested in possible futures, in the ways in which apocalyptic collapse might prefigure a new kind of everyday life or simply coexist with it in the now. “The end of the world can be cozy at times,” we read as the novel describes Saeed and Nadia at the beginning; later, in describing Marin:

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, and people found things to do and ways to be and people to be with, and plausible desirable futures began to emerge, unimaginable previously, but not unimaginable now.

In some ways, Hamid’s device of the magical doors functions similarly to Lee’s game of pachinko, in that both help to schematize complex movements, to structure such border crossings as they structure the narratives themselves.

In Hamid’s case, though, the doors also emblematize one of the more curious aspects of the contemporary globe, not flattened so much as discontinuous: a world in which instantaneity in some aspects coexists with sluggish viscosity—if not active barriers to access—in others. Nadia in particular is obsessed with her cell phone, and when she and Saeed reach Mykonos one of the first things they do is sit in silence, one next to another, checking on their acquaintances and on the news of the world; even earlier, the novel describes how their phones’ “antennas sniffed out an invisible world, as if by magic, a world that was all around them, and also nowhere, transporting them to places distant and near, and to places that had never been and would never be.” So much of the pathos of modern inequality, of the refugee crisis in particular, lies in the ways in which such transport remains metaphorical: images, voice, and text travel instantaneously around the world, while the movement of people remains arduous, slow, violent, and perilous.

The doors of Exit West, “as if by magic,” flatten out this distinction; they may appear anywhere, at any time. This, indeed, is the way those in “target” rather than “origin” countries may well experience the arrival of refugees, even if the source of the migration is long in coming. But the novel also seems to want to emphasize the contingency of such trajectories, contingent on political and historical factors beyond the individual, but also always subject to change: anyone, at any time, might become a migrant or refugee.

By the end of Exit West, though, when Saeed and Nadia, their initial passion long eroded, mutually agree to part, the book seems to want to make the global reshuffling of populations analogous to the natural ebb and flow of human relationships. To be a migrant is no longer a contingent status but a metaphysical condition: “We are all migrants through time,” we are told. This move underlines the ways in which each historical era is unexceptional in seeing itself as exceptional—migration is obviously inseparable from the very history of our species—but it also stretches to metaphorize a set of very real, very material conditions of our precise historical moment, a moment to which Hamid is evidently reacting. In an apparent concern to avoid being reactive, the novel threatens to overcompensate by allegorizing its way into platitudes. Still, like Pachinko, Exit West’s metaphors ask us to reimagine global movement of individuals as well as of “swarms,” and in doing they suggest a place for imaginative work itself within crisis. icon

  1. While Hamid’s recent novels avoided specific localization as well, Exit West is even more abstract than the setting of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a more evident stand-in for Lahore, as well as the construct of “rising Asia” in 2013’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.
  2. Rebecca L. Walkowitz, Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature (Columbia University Press, 2015).
Featured image: Pachinko (2009). Photograph by Fiona and Graeme / Flickr