At the beginning of Sequoyah’s high school’s third year, the community had already participated in two new traditions: the first parent-inclusive summer reading assignment as well as a discussion panel that followed. This All-School Read Book Panel, composed of two students, two parents, and three teachers, was tasked with analysing and discussing the book Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Exit West is a critically acclaimed new novel on the timely topic of migration, looking at the refugee experience through the lenses of magical doors and an intimate character-driven plot.
The panel was moderated by Humanities Department Chair Ian Chang. In his opening statement to the school, Chang likened the experience of reading a new book to that of meeting a new person, and said the purpose of the panel was to “give a deeper introduction to that stranger.”
Each panel speaker presented their thoughts on the novel, and then let the audience ask questions of their own. These introductions touched on a variety of historical, social, political, and literary themes presented in Exit West.
One of the most noteworthy aspects of the panel and summer reading was the new addition of parent involvement. Sequoyah high school families were highly encouraged to read Exit West and attend the all-school discussion. “It’s incredibly important for parents to model the type of intellectual and artistic curiosity that comes with reading a book of fiction,” said Sean Hamidi, ninth grade Humanities teacher and panel member.
The two parents who spoke on the panel brought much to the conversation, “clarifying messages from the book” and bringing a “unique perspective to the table” according to tenth grader Julian Suh-Toma. “The insights parents had on the novel were invaluable.”
Abigail Deser, theatre director and acting coach, was the first of these parents to address the audience. Deser was “captivated” by the repeated imagery of the aforementioned magical doors which, in the book, act as a portal for migrants to travel across the globe instantaneously. As she read, Deser connected the experiences of the characters to that of her father who, “all before the age of twelve,” fled from the Nazis to Palestine, Paris, Portugal, and eventually America.
Deser described the doors as a game of roulette in which those migrating must trust the door they choose leads to hope. Like Saeed and Nadia, the novel’s primary and only named characters, Deser’s father “never knew what was next” as he was migrating. She went on to highlight a specific passage in Exit West which describes entering the doors like “a beginning and an end… both like dying and being born.” This comparison of migration to the renewal of birth spoke to Deser, who explained that her father had lived many lives as he travelled. She then highlighted another line from the novel, “…but that is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”
Other poignant interpretations of Exit West were presented to the Sequoyah community, including focuses on the theme of identity. Both Hamidi and Adilifu Nama, Associate Professor of African American Studies at Loyola Marymount University and Sequoyah parent, touched on this theme.
Hamidi described many of the events of the book as “liminal, occupying positions on both sides of a boundary.” This in-between state of things, like the illusory nature of a nation without borders, defies the human impulse to categorize, Hamidi argued. “One of the reasons I love this book,” said Hamidi, “is because it reveals how flimsy categories … like good and bad, like foreigner and citizen … are and how dangerous it can be to build borders around them.” These ideas were also eloquently addressed by ninth grader Adam Lurvey during the question and answer period.
Dr. Nama focused on categories in a similar way, but instead chose to speak about their importance rather than the division they cause. Exit West is about “humanizing the refugee” said Nama, using “magical realism and social realism” to speak about what it means to be a human moving from one place to another. “There’s nothing wrong with categories,” he claimed, “the problem is how categories elicit a certain type of behavior.”
Many other ideas were presented by the remaining panel members: tenth grade Humanities teacher Julian Petri, History teacher Lindsey Graham, twelfth grader Louise Siskel, and eleventh grader Nia Nama. Among these included an analysis of Exit West’s sentence structure, thoughts on the novel’s unique depiction of the migrant experience, the role of technology in the characters’ lives, and a brief history of recent Western reactions to immigration.
A video of the entire book panel discussion of Exit West by Mohsin Hamid.
Twelfth grader Gavin Sevareid felt that overall the panel was “definitely helpful” in that the content brought up ideas he had not thought of while reading. However, despite Deser and Nama’s participation, Sevareid did not see as many parents present at the discussion as he thought he would. Siskel agreed, stating that while her family had “a lot of fun with it [Exit West],” she “wished more parents would’ve read it or been able to attend the panel.” Math teacher Ronnie Bryan said parent involvement “wasn’t as high” as faculty had originally thought it would be.
While it is difficult to identify parent’s reasons for not attending, many believe students were affected by Sequoyah’s first all-school summer reading discourse. “I had a number of meaningful conversations after the panel,” said Hamidi, “which to me suggests that the panel did indeed affect students and that students continued to think about the book as a result of the conference.” This reaction was not only seen by faculty. Siskel stated that students talked about the book “before and after the panel.” Eleventh grader Eddie Yanez felt the panel, Hamidi’s points in particular, gave him a “new perspective on all the different interpretations that can be used to explain Exit West.” Yanez in fact claimed to enjoy the panel more than he did the book itself.
These positive reactions were accompanied by ideas to improve future All-School Read panels. Along with larger parent turnout, Sevareid and Suh-Toma wished the time allotted for student questions was longer. Tenth grader Leon Gold felt that at times the conversation was “redundant” and that the panel would run smoother if presentations were “slightly shortened.” Lurvey wanted to see a freshman and sophomore representative on the panel.
Faculty already have ideas for how the panel might change in the future. Bryan expressed possibly having “longer, small group discussions and audience participation” in the future. Hamidi stated that “perhaps the next discussion could be an hour and a half to allow for more audience questions, particularly those from students.”