Transience, Temporariness, and Teenagers: The unlikely inspiration behind Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West

By Enya-Marie Clay, MLitt Student

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West follows the relationship of Nadia and Saeed who endure a difficult journey in search of safety and belonging after their escape from a war-torn country through a magical door. The doors that emerge in the novel – instantly transporting passers-through to a random location in the world – serve as an optimistic vision of a borderless future raising questions about identity, transience, and belonging.

As part of Newcastle University’s participation in the Booker Prize Foundation’s One Book Project, free copies of Exit West were offered to students across the University campus. This culminated in the One Book Event on Monday 29th October during which author Mohsin Hamid was in conversation with Newcastle University’s Dr Neelam Srivastava about his latest novel.[1] This free, public event provided an accessible way for students and members of the public to engage with the book, explore its themes, and connect with its author. The event was a huge success with engaging conversation, a full audience, and plenty of opportunity to ask questions followed by a book signing by Hamid.

The evening opened with Hamid reading a passage from his book – one of the many micro-stories featuring in the novel. In Hamid’s selection, we see an extract from the micro-story of an old woman who, surrounded by youth, modernity, and change, muses that we are all “migrants through time.”[2] Transience and temporariness are central themes in Exit West and this is comparable to the arc of maturation often found in adolescent fiction. It reminds us that transience is a universal experience transcending race, culture, and time, yet it is one we tend not to acknowledge out of a desire for the illusion of permanence and belonging. Hamid compares this to anxieties about mortality, of ourselves and of our loved ones. These themes of temporariness and mortality are common throughout teenage fiction novels and one of my key research interests is exploring how they are navigated in teenage Holocaust fiction.

An intriguing aspect of Holocaust fiction’s popularity among teenage readers is their curiosity regarding issues of trauma, death, and identity – elements that feature prominently in Holocaust fiction by its very nature. Hamid’s poignant discourse in both Exit West and his other writings on the falsehood of permanence also relate to Holocaust literature and education. A key message of Holocaust commemoration is, ‘never again’, yet how often do we see this message weakened by stories of conflict, prejudice, and genocide in headline news? And how do we then communicate to young readers that Holocaust fiction is about the past when the issues it explores are still very much prevalent in our society? My MLitt research underlines the view that we shouldn’t – these themes deserve our attention and the creation of accessible Holocaust fiction for young readers is a viable way to bridge gaps in education and to explore many of the issues Hamid’s Exit West discusses.

In an interview with the Guardian in August, Hamid said that children’s stories are the best examples of how a story can speak to humanity as a whole.[3] I asked him, considering that statement, whether he would write a children’s story himself in the future. He said he would like to but hadn’t gotten around to it yet, then explained that his first novel was a cynical response to ideas of purity and that, while his following two novels featured destabilised narratives, Exit West’s narrative style was inspired by children’s books.

…[Saeed] he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our own being-ness, and all our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in each other, and out of this Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world (p. 202).

On reading Exit West, with its raw exploration of difficult questions surrounding identity, transience and belonging against the backdrop of negotiating culture clashes and escaping conflict, you may be surprised to find out its style was inspired by children’s fiction. Yet it is the double-partisan way in which children’s literature involves and challenges the reader, by its ability to be both straightforward and complex in adapting to the needs and maturity of its audience, that inspired Hamid’s writing style in Exit West. Hamid said this in response to the question I put to him at the One Book Event, stating that, in the face of the popularity of fake news, there is value in putting the reader on the side of the character to explore an issue. He compared it to the effect of Charlotte’s Web in the reader’s involvement in urging Wilbur not to die – he wanted Exit West to give readers the same involvement with its characters.

Exit West gives raw emotionality and human experience to the stories we are all familiar with seeing on the news. Its manner of taking the reader out of their comfort zone without having the effect of preaching privilege encourages reflection as it explores issues that affect us all without condemnation or outright judgement of any particular group. As issues of identity and belonging become more contentious and politicised, Hamid’s voice is an important one. One day, his voice will be a valuable contribution to succeeding generations should he write a book for younger audiences. Until then, it’s up to us adults to learn, co-operate, and act to improve the world for those that will follow.

[1]Award-Winning Author To Speak At Newcastle University“. 2018. Newcastle University Press Office.

[2] Hamid, Mohsin. 2017. Exit West. Penguin Books. p. 209.

[3] Preston, Alex. August 2018. “Mohsin Hamid: ‘It’s important not to live one’s life gazing towards the future’ [Interview]”The Guardian, 2018.

Where could children’s literature research take you?

Alumna Lien Devos talks about her career in international children’s literature publishing

In the year leading up to my time in Newcastle as an MLitt student at the Children’s Literature Unit, people would inevitably say, upon hearing I was going to study children’s literature: ‘Oh I see, to learn how to write children’s books!’ I’d have to explain that studying children’s literature is in fact much the same as studying German literature and so that no, they weren’t talking to the next Roald Dahl. They’d be slightly disappointed by my answer and then would, full of hope for my future again, burst out, ‘Oh but I see, because that degree will much improve your prospects on the job market!’ Well, yeah but no. There’s not exactly that many jobs needing that qualification, but I’ve had the immense luck to find a job that suits my education perfectly.

I’m writing this blog post while seated in an enormous Boeing jet, waiting to take off in Brussels, Belgium (my home country), for Dubai, United Arab Emirates. You’ve just caught me in one of the busiest months in my ‘career’ so far, with the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Lakes International Comic Art Festival and the Sharjah Book Fair within three weeks of each other.

The Flanders Literature team at work at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2018

So what do I do and how did I get there? I work for an organisation called Flanders Literature, an autonomous government organisation that gets its funds from the Flemish Ministry of Culture. (In tiny Belgium you have Wallonia in the south, where people speak French, and Flanders in the north, where people speak Dutch. Then there’s the city of Brussels, which is an entity in itself and is officially bilingual. Lots of things, like education, culture, youth, health and so on, are the responsibilities of these regions and not of the federal government.)

Flanders Literature has a total of eighteen employees at the moment. In Flanders itself we issue grants to writers, illustrators, graphic novelists, playwrights and translators, so that they can ‘buy time’ to work on their books. The amount of these grants depends on the literary and artistic quality of their work, which is judged by advisory committees that are made up of experts in that particular genre (e.g. a writer, a bookseller, an academic).

About half of us are part of ‘the foreign department’, including myself. It’s our job to spread the word of the best literature from Flanders to foreign publishers, in the hopes of convincing them to translate and publish books by Flemish authors. You could say we do the work of an agent, but without the financial gain of sealing a deal (as we don’t own or sell any translation rights) and without the limitation of just a handful of authors. If it’s great and written or illustrated by someone from Flanders, we’ll promote it. And on top of that, we offer grants to help make the costly process of translating a book a little easier. There are a few other countries who have a similar system, like the Netherlands, Norway, Finland and Poland. You’ll notice these are mostly small languages who have to fight for their place in the international book world with different weapons than the English-speaking world.

So as Grants Manager for children’s literature and graphic novels I’m responsible for maintaining a network of foreign publishers, keeping them up to date on the books that might be of interest to them and helping them in every possible way to make it easier for them to translate and publish one of ‘our’ books. It means I get to read many books (and remembering the ending!) and have to bring across my enthusiasm for them to other people, i.e. foreign publishers.

An important part of my job is meeting as many foreign publishers as possible at a few book fairs we attend. Frankfurt (October), Bologna (March or April) and London (March or April) are very important each year. On top of that, there’s Angoulême for graphic novels and this year the Sharjah Book Fair. A first for me, and the second time for our managing director, who noticed there was a big demand for children’s books in the Arab world last year. I’m very excited to discover this whole new world!

And how did I get here? Well, pure luck. And a great boss. I’d been struggling to find a proper job for about eight months when there was a vacancy at Flanders Literature for a part-time temporary administrative job. Writing meeting reports, processing applications, that sort of thing.

Not my dream job, but with the foot in the door idea in mind I applied and got the job. And then someone got ill, and they asked me to start working full time. Temporarily. And then the Minister of Culture decided to get us extra money, and my boss promised me ‘a proper job for my qualifications’. And then the Ministry had to cut back on costs, so he had to take back that promise, but I could stay on. Temporarily at least. Until they ran out of money and they couldn’t keep me on. But perhaps – my boss asked me almost shyly – I could do the secretary’s work for a while until things changed? Temporarily, of course.

And things finally did change. Thanks to my boss and a wonderful team of co-workers I got the chance to grow, and after four years ended up where I am now. In a Boeing on its way to Dubai. Sometimes luck is on your side.

(Oh, and don’t forget to check out if you’d like to know more about our books and our organisation.)

Seven Stories Northern Bridge Consortium Collaborative Doctoral Award

Fully-funded PhD opportunities

Wanted! Outstanding candidates interested in fully-funded doctoral projects in collaboration with Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books, based in Newcastle upon Tyne. Seven Stories is a groundbreaking museum, archive and visitors’ centre with a mission to preserve and celebrate Britain’s rich heritage of children’s literature. As the National Centre for Children’s Books, Seven Stories hold manuscripts, artwork and archival material relating to British children’s books from c.1930 to the present day, representing over 250 leading authors and illustrators ranging from Enid Blyton to Michael Morpurgo, and correspondence and other material from editors and publishers. See here  for an overview of current holdings. Seven Stories shares this collection with the public through events in their visitor centre, and exhibitions which tour nationally. Through their award-winning creative learning and engagement programme they work closely with schools and community groups.

To take advantage of this opportunity you will:

  • be a resident of UK or EU
  • be seeking to begin a PhD in October 2019
  • have an outstanding academic record, including a first degree in a relevant subject and (in most cases) a master’s degree either in hand or shortly to be completed OR relevant and equivalent working experience
  • have an interest in working on a doctoral project in collaboration with Seven Stories, in one or the areas listed below.

Applications for a Collaborative Doctoral Award are invited in the following research areas:

Children’s and youth literature projects will make substantial use of one or more archival collections at Seven Stories. Critical and creative projects will be considered. While the Seven Stories collection represents material from the 1930s onwards, proposals on the history of children’s literature, as well as work focused on the 20th and 21st centuries, are welcomed. Themes of interest to Seven Stories in this application round are:

  • Makers of children’s literature: children’s book history; editing; publishing; education; bookselling
  • The art of children’s books: children’s book illustrations; picturebooks; comics; development of printing technologies; art history; visual experience; materiality
  • Childhood and place: national identity; global childhoods; cosmopolitanism; heritage and historical fiction

The child and the book: children; childhood heritage; literary heritage; the book as object; memory; childhood reading; reading contexts Museum and gallery studies projects will focus on Seven Stories’ role as a museum, focussing on our visitor centre and touring exhibition programme. Themes of interest to Seven Stories in this application round are:

  • Children and museums: children; young people; early years; museums; galleries; heritage; archives; digital technologies

Creative practice projects are invited in any artistic medium or discipline, that respond to our collections, spaces, work and audiences, and could adopt the form of residencies within our venues. Themes of particular interest to Seven Stories are:

  • The evolution of children’s books: children’s books; production; experience; distribution; experimental practice; participation; collaboration
  • The future of storytelling: storytelling; technology; artificial intelligence; machine learning; immersive technologies; interactivity; virtual reality; augmented reality; mixed reality In each of these research areas, we particularly welcome projects which explore themes around inclusion, diversity and representation: race and heritage; disability; gender and gender identity; sexual orientation; age; socio-economic status; religion; culture; children’s rights and human rights.

How to register an interest in a Collaborative Doctoral Award with Seven Stories:

Potential applicants are asked to select the research area they would like to pursue, and contact Dr Annie Tindley ( to discuss ideas. They will then submit a project summary which will undergo an initial assessment in November 2018. Projects selected at that point will be supported into the main competition. For more information about Seven Stories please explore the website.

For queries about eligibility, suitability and for general enquiries please contact

Current Northern Bridge Collaborative PhD Student Helen King says of the application process:

I found Seven Stories and my supervisors really supportive throughout the Northern Bridge process. It’s a lengthy process and I felt daunted by it at the start, but they were enthusiastic about my ideas whilst also challenging me to keep improving my proposal. I was made really welcome when I came for a visit so I got a real sense that I’d enjoy studying here. It’s important to remember that your potential supervisors have a wealth of expertise both on their subject and the application process. It’s also worth remembering that if they have accepted your expression of interest it means that they think your research is exciting and worth doing, and they will be rooting for you to get a place.

Roald Dahl and the Big Friendly Neuroscientist – a Public Engagement Odyssey

7 November 2018, 18:00-19:00, David Shaw Lecture Theatre, The Medical School, Framlington Place, NE2 4HH

Tom Solomon is Professor of Neurology at the University of Liverpool. In 1990, as a junior doctor in Oxford, he looked after world-famous author Roald Dahl. The two developed an unlikely friendship, and every third night, when Solomon was on call, they would chat into the wee small hours about Dahl’s fascinating medical encounters. These included inventing a medical device to treat water on the brain, campaigning for vaccination, and devising a rehabilitation regime which led to the formation of The Stroke Association.

Twenty-five years later these tales became the basis of Solomon’s highly acclaimed popular science book Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Medicine, which received extensive coverage on national television and radio. Following promotional events at Cheltenham Literature Festival, and science festivals, Solomon developed Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Medicine into a sell-out smash hit family show at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and London’s West End.

Nowadays, academics are encouraged to engage patients and the public in their research. In this lecture Professor Solomon will talk about Roald Dahl and his marvellous medical encounters, and show how he used this opportunity to engage patients and the public in his work. For more information on Tom please see his website.

This event is free but please book your place here. Teachers and school groups are welcome, this talk will be most suitable for sixth form age students and beyond.

Venue: The David Shaw Lecture Theatre is located inside the Newcastle University Medical School on Framlington Place, NE2 4HH, building 60 on campus maps. It is accessible by lift and is fitted with an induction loop. There is no parking on site but there are car parks nearby. We recommend using public transport where possible. It is approximately 15 mins walk from Haymarket metro / bus station.

28 Tales for 28 Days: The Mother’s Tale

CLUGG is sharing space and broadcasting writers’ stories of those who experience indefinite immigration detention in the UK and those who work with them.

Today’s tale centres on the experience of family separation, as told to Marina Warner and read by Sinéad Cusack:

Read more about Refugee Tales and the #28for28 campaign here.

28 Tales for 28 Days: The Unaccompanied Minor’s Tale

CLUGG is sharing space and broadcasting writers’ stories of those who experience indefinite immigration detention in the UK and those who work with them.

Today’s tale centres on the reality for unaccompanied minors who seek sanctuary in the UK and find age 18 they are detained indefinitely, as told to and read by Inua Ellams:

Read more about Refugee Tales and the #28for28 campaign here.

28 Tales for 28 Days: The Dependant’s Tale

CLUGG is sharing space and broadcasting writers’ stories of those who experience indefinite immigration detention in the UK and those who work with them.

Today’s tale is from the perspective of a child, showing the impact of government policy on the life of her family, as told to Marina Lewycka and read by Julie Hesmondhalgh:

Read more about Refugee Tales and the #28for28 campaign here.

28 Tales for 28 Days

CLUGG is sharing space

We are sharing our blog and broadcasting writers’ stories of those who experience indefinite immigration detention in the UK and those who work with them. Many organisations, including the Royal Society of Literature and Literature Cambridge, are doing the same. Over 28 days, you will find tales here, showing the fundamental power of literature to bring about change.

The UK is the only country in Europe that detains people indefinitely for administrative purposes and without judicial oversight under immigration rules. Rooted in the work of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, and supported by the University of Kent, Refugee Tales shares the tales of those who have been indefinitely detained in immigration detention. To highlight the call for a 28 day time limit for immigration detention, Refugee Tales is releasing 28 tales online – one each day over 28 days on the website Writers and actors lend their words and voices to asylum seekers, refugees and people in indefinite detention. CLUGG supports the Refugee Tales call for an end to indefinite detention. Over the next month we will be sharing 3 of the 28 tales that centre around the child’s experience. In the meantime, watch the Refugee Tales statement:


About Refugee Tales

Through Refugee Tales, writers collaborate with asylum seekers, refugees and people in indefinite detention who share their stories. Taking Chaucer’s great poem of journeying – Canterbury Tales – as a model, writers tell a series of tales as they walk in solidarity with detainees. As they walk, they create a space in which the language of welcome is the prevailing discourse.

Being Human Festival: From Source to Sea

17 – 18 November 2018, Seven Stories

As part of Being Human Festival: From Source to Sea, Seven Stories, in association with Newcastle University, is hosting several free events. Read on for details and come along!

Once upon a Tyne

17 November, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm; 13:30 – 14:30 pm

Discover the original scribbles and doodles behind children’s books in this hands on session with the Seven Stories Collection. This insightful session will be led by the Seven Stories Collections Team and the Children’s Literature Unit at Newcastle University.

Inspired by the Tyne and the rivers, seas and oceans that feature within the Seven Stories Collection, explore manuscripts from authors including David Almond and Robert Westall, and artwork from illustrators including Polly Dunbar.

Session lasts 60 mins and is suitable for everyone interested in children’s literature. Tickets are free and can be found here. No visitor admission is required.

Undiscovered Land: Write like David Almond

17 November, 2:30 – 4:30 pm

‘Writing will be like a journey, every word a footstep that takes me further into undiscovered land.’ David Almond, My Name is Mina.

Join Ann Coburn, children’s author and Lecturer in Creative Writing at Newcastle University for a free creative writing workshop.

Through a series of creative exercises you will start your own story inspired the work of celebrated North-East writer David Almond. Learn how to convey a sense of place in your writing and incorporate elements of memory, history, magic and transformation.

Session lasts 2 hours and is suitable for adults. Tickets are free and can be found here. No visitor admission is required.

Tales of the Tyne

18 November, 2:30 – 3:30 pm

‘They thought we had disappeared, and they were wrong. They thought we were dead, and they were wrong. We stumbled together out of the ancient darkness into the shining valley.’ – David Almond, Kit’s Wilderness.

As the mines closed and the shipyards fell silent, the North East saw the end of a long and vibrant tradition. Where next for the communities who had grown up with the old industries woven into the fabric of their lives? David Almond’s wild and beautiful stories explore the end of the old North East, and the possibilities for new beginnings.

Join Dr Lucy Pearson from Newcastle University’s Children’s Literature Unit for a talk on how David imagines these endings and beginnings, followed by a tour of our Where Your Wings Were exhibition focussed on David’s work.

Session lasts 60 mins and is suitable for young adults and adults. Tickets are free and can be found here. No visitor admission is required.


Find out more about the Festival over on the Vital North blog.


Insights Lecture: Staring into Space with Lauren Child

October 23 2018, 5:30 pm

Curtis Auditorium, Herschel Building, Newcastle University, Newcastle Upon Tyne, NE1 7RU

It is now widely recognised that creativity is as important as literacy or numeracy, and that allowing ourselves the time, space and freedom to be creative is essential for good mental health… sometimes we need to stare into space, Lauren Child argues.

Join the UK Waterstones Children’s Laureate to explore how staring into space promotes creative thinking, letting us problem solve, understand who we are, and how we relate to others and the world we live in.

This event is part of the Insights Public Lectures series at Newcastle University, in partnership with BookTrust and Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books.

The event will be taking place at Curtis Auditorium, Herschel Building, Newcastle University, Newcastle Upon Tyne, NE1 7RU. Admission is free and on a first-come, first-served basis. No booking required.