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Conversations: Mohsin Hamid’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”

Posted by litdaily on May 25, 2011

SD: In our current political climate, Mohsin Hamid’s novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, resonates with the trepidation, ambiguity, and tension that are characteristic of our post-9/11 world.  Hamid situates the protagonist of his first-person narrative, Changez, in a unique globalized and problematic space between America and Pakistan where the national and international boundaries become complicated by capitalism and terrorism. Changez disturbs these spaces by whispering to his readers in an intimate voice while physically sitting in a modern café in Pakistan and reminiscing about his life in the United States as a “janissary” of the American Empire. The rational delivery of his narrative, which at various times creates joy, suspense, thrill, shame, and terror, aims to disrupt not only space and time through a non-linear narrative, but also challenges readers to question the truth.  Certainly, he is an unreliable narrator but one that draws in his audience and dares them to believe an alternative truth through the very act of questioning itself.

Do you think that Changez’s voice disrupts boundaries in such a way so that American audiences might be able to question right from wrong, Pakistani from American, capitalism from terrorism?  Does the doubt that he creates through his act of story-telling powerful?

SM: Hamid makes the reader re-think the usage of the word “fundamentalist.” Changez is a “fundamentalist” because his profession is to evaluate the “fundamentals” of American corporations. He is not particularly interested in religion, and in that sense he is not a religious fundamentalist. His allegiance, therefore, is not to Islam but to a Pakistan that he thinks has been used by America as a pawn in promoting American interests at the expense of Pakistanis’. Changez says the following to the American across the table: “A common strand appeared to unite these conflicts and that was the advancement of a small coterie’s concept of American interests in the guise of the fight against terrorism, which was defined to refer only to the organized and politically motivated killing of civilians by killers not wearing the uniforms of soldiers” (Hamid 178). These lines suggest that according to Hamid, the “war against terror” is not so much a problem of religion but a political problem.

This play on the word “fundamentalist” is not a gimmick. Rather it points to that significant argument you make about the book’s connection between capitalism and terrorism. Changez belongs to a class of Pakistanis whose heyday was in the days of British colonialism. His grandfather and father both had been educated in England. But the promise of modernity that British colonialism was supposed to herald had fallen apart, and now “the money simply was not there” and Changez’s family is in a state of decline (Hamid 10). Changez is not poor but he dreams of reclaiming the promise of upward mobility that his family had once been assured of by getting a degree from Princeton and taking up a job at a New York financial valuation firm. “I felt I was entering in New York the very same social class that my family was falling out of in Lahore,” Changez says (Hamid 85). But when Changez’s American dream falls into ruins after 9/11 and he realizes his own complicity with the American empire as a part of its financial machinery, he goes from being one kind of “fundamentalist” to the other. In American perception, he is a fundamentalist solely because he is anti-American and not due to any religious fervor or belief in violence.

You taught this book as a part of an Asian American Studies class. What was that experience like? Considering the tensions between the terms “South Asian” and “Asian American,” how does Hamid’s novel prompt a re-thinking of the relationship between these terms?

SD: My students really enjoyed this text and felt that they could relate to Changez.  Because the narrative reads like a thriller and keeps its audience enthralled by constantly playing with the dubious figure of the terrorist, they felt that the author illustrated the reality of American empire.   For a significant portion of their own personal lives, “terrorism” and “terrorist” has been a central, pervading concern, a backdrop against which they have lived in.  The other texts we read in class, such as John Okada’s No-No Boy, Kim Ronyoung’s Clay Walls, and Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men illustrated tensions regarding assimilation and alienation prior to 1965.   Most of the students felt that “assimilation” has ceased to be an issue for Asian Americans and regardless of whether this can be debated, it makes one wonder what direction Asian American literature and politics is headed.

This leads me to your second question regarding “South Asian” and “Asian American.”  American academe still has a hard time incorporating Asian American into American literature.  This issue is reproduced with the inclusion of  “South Asian” into “Asian American.” Some might argue that the Asian American canon doesn’t easily include “South Asian” because there was very little South Asian migration and literary production into the United States prior to 1965.  The dramatic growth in the South Asian scholarship and migration, however, complicates the issue of inclusion/exclusion and one way that academy has incorporated “South Asian” into its curriculum is through other titles, such as “Postcolonial.”

How would you classify Hamid’s text? Would you call it “American” literature, “South Asian” literature, “Asian American” literature, or “Postcolonial” Literature?  Do we define “American” by the race of the author? Shouldn’t Hamid’s novel be considered American literature since it is set in U.S. and uses the American imaginary?

SM: I think the events of 9/11 particularly situate South Asians in the specific historical trajectory of racial formation that has defined Asian presence in America: the external “enemy” as the insider “alien”. Lisa Lowe writes that America’s relations with Asia and Asian immigrants have followed a distinctive logic whereby “American orientalism displaced U.S. expansionist interests in Asia onto racialized figurations of Asian workers within the national space” (5). This recurring pattern of history for groups as diverse as the Japanese, Filipinos, Koreans and Vietnamese and, after 9/11, the South Asians, makes the case for these groups to be studied under the category “Asian American.” South Asian immigration might have diverged from the pattern followed by other Asian American groups prior to 9/11, but the post-9/11 connection between U.S. war and intervention in Af-Pak region and racialization of South Asian American men as terrorists, a connection that is at the core of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, strengthens the argument to study Hamid’s novel as tracing the broader pattern of Asian American history and its challenges to the inclusionary narrative of America.

Works Cited:

Lowe, Lisa. Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996.

Hamid, Mohsin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Orlando: Harcourt, 2007.

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Conversations: Karen Tei Yamashita’s “Tropic of Orange”

Posted by litdaily on March 9, 2011

SM: I first read Yamashita’s book Tropic of Orange during my first semester as a graduate student. Every time I have read it again, I have experienced new pleasures in its complexity. Yamashita’s deeply entangled web of the narratives of seven characters spanning seven days belies the order and coherence of the grid of “Hypercontexts,” with which the book opens up. The book presents complex, overlapping and ever-changing mapping grids as the dominant metaphor for the American multicultural city in the moment of globalization. Manzanar has the following vision of the city: “There are maps and there are maps and there are maps. The uncanny thing was that he could see all of them at once, filter some, pick them out like transparent windows and place them even delicately and consecutively in a complex grid of pattern, spatial discernment, body politic” (Yamashita 57). If the global city’s realities are magical, how do we read this novel: as a realist or a magical realist representation?

SD: There are many scholars who argue against a dichotomous and antithetical relationship between the real and magical.  For example, Kum Kum Sangari in “The Politics of the Possible,” makes the connection between the real, the marvelous, and the truth. She says: “If the real is historically structured to make invisible the foreign locus of power, if the real may thus be other than what is generally visible, if official versions are just as visible and visibly ‘real’ as unofficial versions, and if even the potentially real is a compound of the desired and the undesirable, than marvelous realism tackles the problem of truth at a level that reinvents a more acute and comprehensive mode of referentiality” (163).  This statement can easily be applied to Tropic of Orange where the distinction between real and marvelous or magical cannot be made with regards to the experience of internment, mobility, labor, and imperialism.  Manzanar, for all purposes, simultaneously exists within and outside of the grid due to the historical and official invisibility of internment.  The lack of linearity that his figure invokes alludes to a different kind of historical consciousness.

SM: It is interesting that the elements that make readers think of the novel as a magical realist one are manifested in its spatial representations: from the above example of Manzanar’s ability to visualize multiple maps at the same time, to Rafaela’s experience of the “elasticity of the land and of time” as she sees Gabriel’s property walls as “not straight,” and Arcangel’s pushing the Tropic of Cancer “ever northward” by means of “hooks and cables” in his skin (Yamashita 150, 152, 212). Parallel to your point that Yamashita does not portray the marvelous and the “real” as opposed categories, I would also suggest that in her representation of L.A. as the global city, she refuses “utopia” and “dystopia” as binary opposites. The freeway crisis in the novel illustrates this point. The space of the freeway is crucial to the geography of a city that wants to be a serious participant in globalization (Yamashita 82). When the freeway is brought to a standstill by an accident that brings together disparate plot elements, it is understood as chaos and disorder of dystopia by the car owners who are forced to abandon their cars and incur economic loss. But what is seen as crisis by the state and the wealthy is seen as utopia by the homeless, for whom the crisis presents an opportunity to claim for themselves the urban space that is responsible for their displacement and homelessness.

Yamashita’s compelling characters come from various racial backgrounds. But I wonder if it is taught as much in other ethnic studies courses as it is in Asian American Studies courses. Is there something in the text, besides the author’s racial heritage, that marks the text as Asian American? Also, Yamashita represents a moment when multiculturalism was still cool? Do you think we are beyond that moment in our culture and literature?

SD: Your insightful inquiries regarding multiculturalism and its tangibility in the present moment has prompted me to reconsider the years since Yamashita published her novel.  In the context of the Pacific coast, multiculturalism may still resonate because the population stems from a history of internal colonization, regional imperialism, and border crossings.  The sheer visibility of these histories in that region may positively impact the literary and cultural production that invokes images of Latino immigration into the United States. Recently, Alex Rivera produced a film titled, Sleep Dealer (2008), which deals with virtual labor and a global digital network that cuts across borders.  We will continue to see these kinds of representations about the influx of different kinds of subjects in the United States; however, I don’t think that these representations will necessarily lead people to think about their linkages with multiculturalism.

Also, precisely because of varying histories, certain cultures are granted more space in the American imaginary.  While Yamashita focuses heavily on trafficking between Mexico and California, I don’t think she is widely read in Latin American courses. This is certainly a problem of stereotyping where the author’s ethnicity hinders the reception of the novel.

Although I hope that we are not “beyond” multiculturalism in the United Sates, cultural and ethnic differences seem to either be contained within rigid structures or negated completely.  Isn’t this exactly what Yamashita counters with the powerful image of an orange that links different geographical spaces and people across non-linear time?

Works Cited:

Yamashita, Karen Tei. Tropic of Orange. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1997.

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Conversations: John Okada’s “No-No Boy”

Posted by litdaily on December 21, 2010

No-No Boy and the Debates around Asian American Literature

SM: I was intrigued by your central question in the blog-post “Asian American Literature”: What are the terms of inclusion for Asian American literature to be a part of the category of American literature? Since you have identified assimilation as a literary theme critical to this inclusion, and this past semester we both taught John Okada’s novel No-No Boy which explores the question of assimilation, I wanted to discuss how Okada’s novel can help us the define the contours of the relation between Asian American and American literatures. The novel is built around the historical events of Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 that resulted in the evacuation of Japanese Americans on the West Coast and their subsequent confinement in internment camps.

I was pleasantly surprised that most of my students this semester had at least heard about Japanese American internment, whereas in the past any mention of internment was just met with blank stares. So how do we begin discussing inclusion of Asian American literature within American literature when significant events of Asian American history have been erased from the national memory?

SD: This question of assimilation and the inclusion of Asian American literature within the American canon is a tricky one.  Okada’s No-No Boy didn’t register with my students in any significant way – they thought the protagonist was incessantly “whiny” and “selfish” and they couldn’t see his personal struggles as social ones.  The issues of belonging, citizenship, and racialized identity – all tropes of assimilation – seemed outdated to their very experience of being American. Aside from these basic tropes, many felt that Japanese internment was a political anomaly of the past…until I reminded them of post 9/11 detention centers and the Patriot Act.

In terms of national memory, No-No Boy offers the perfect text that forces readers to critically investigate the relationship between nation and the act of remembering.  Okada’s “whiny” protagonist is one that internalizes a fraught complex of emotions that deals with remembering the United States’ imposition of rules for its citizens, non-citizens, and Others.

SM: The students find Ichiro a “whiny” protagonist because their other readings in American literature lead them to expect the central character to surmount obstacles after an epiphany and expect the protagonist’s conflict to be resolved in some way. But Okada’s novel never allows Ichiro much movement or a complete resolution. In her book Immigrant Acts, Lisa Lowe refers to No-No Boy as “antidevelopmental in the sense that its condensed, almost static portrait that takes place within the small period of several weeks…” (50). The novel is “antidevelopmental” because it challenges the dominant story that after progressing through various stages of cultural accommodation and adaptation, racial minorities can finally be assimilated into America. The dominant narrative states that all racial minorities and immigrants can become “American,” if they try hard enough or if they “give up their culture.” No-No Boy, on the other hand, suggests that such assimilation is impossible as it portrays that a similar fate awaits both Japanese American no-no boys and the veterans who fought in the American army. For example, Ichiro’s friend Kenji, who fought in the American army, explains the violence of Japanese American war veterans toward no-no boys, such as Ichiro, as follows:

The way I see it, they pick on you because they’re vulnerable. They think just because they went and packed a rifle they’re different but they aren’t and they know it. They are still Japs….The guys who make it tough on you probably do so out of a misbegotten idea that maybe you’re to blame because the good that they thought they were doing by getting killed and shot up doesn’t amount to a pot of beans (Okada 163).

Kenji’s words assert that fighting in the American army does not do much to change the status of Japanese Americans as racialized outsiders, who are always considered inassimilable and “forever foreigners.” For Lowe, the value of No-No Boy and Asian American literature lies in its power to critique the dominant story of assimilation, which is fed to us by all media and literature till we believe it as a self-evident truth of being American, and to offer an alternative account of American history (26). Does inclusion of Asian American literature in American literature or literary canon diffuse the power of this critique?

Your point of connection between Japanese internment and post-9/11 America is significant. Do you think No-No Boy is relevant in today’s world?

SD: Your analysis of No-No Boy and its critique of the dominant narrative is extremely accurate and pertinent to Asian American literature’s inclusion in the American literary canon. The textual tension that exists between Asian/American and American literature seems to be played out institutionally as well. Just as Lisa Lowe posits the contradiction of Asians as aliens who are linguistically and culturally outsiders that occupy a marginal place within the labor markets of the U.S., the American literary canon will always see Asian American literature ambivalently – as outside and inside American literary production.

For this reason, we should ask ourselves: has the status of Asian American literature changed since the publication and reception of No-No Boy? In my opinion, it has changed but shifted so that the overt racism that makes assimilation impossible for Ichiro has become insidious.  Similarly, the production and inclusion of such texts have also become insidious, from malignant racism to benign classifications that continually set Asian American literature apart. As far as I am concerned, there’s still a monstrous gap between “American” and “Other” (Immigrant, Third World, Postcolonial, Diasporic, Asian, Minority).

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Stanley Fish and the Humanities

Posted by litdaily on October 23, 2010

[This is an updated version of the blog post “It’s so Fishy…” now featured as a dialogue between the two bloggers at Litdaily. This will be a part of our new series “Conversations” that will showcase dialogues on books and topics that demand our sustained attention.]

SD: Last week, Stanley Fish wrote about the removal of French, Italian, classics, Russian and theater programs from SUNY Albany.  The elimination of these programs marks a defined moment of crisis in the humanities for Fish…more>>

I have been musing over this article, and not because Fish’s claims about politicizing the value of the humanities to administrators is new or even radical, but because his article carries an odd tone and combination of optimism, hope, melancholia, and nostalgia. Fish’s simple solution seems like a cop out. Of course, if the administrators value the humanities, then these programs may have a chance of survival. But the question is: how do we get the administration to value the humanities??

I think it’s a lost cause, and not one that only American universities face.  It’s a global phenomenon based on the fact that worldviews have shifted.  It didn’t happen overnight or in the course of a presidential term or even over a decade. It’s been coming – this slow and gradual erosion of knowledge that centers on humanism.

SM: I agree that we live in times of momentous shift in the economic and cultural value of a humanities-based education. But in spite of The New York Times’ relentless conversation on doomsday scenarios for humanities and contrary to my own pessimistic nature, I feel there is still hope and time for us to make a strong argument for the humanities.

The problem lies in the scope of the argument. Stanley Fish’s cynical essay has already given up on some of the most powerful arguments about the humanities. Fish is doing a great disservice to the humanities by suggesting that nobody buys the argument that humanities produce “well-rounded workers” for corporations. Of course, he forgets that humanities do not produce just some abstract “well-rounded workers” but people with tangible skills of reading, writing, and critical thinking that equips future workers to articulate strong arguments, solve problems in humane and creative ways, and function effectively in global and diverse environments.

And although Fish gives up on the argument about the value of humanities, he nevertheless wants “senior academic administrators” to keep making those same arguments: “But it is the job of presidents and chancellors to proclaim the value of liberal arts education loudly and often and at least try to make the powers that be understand what is being lost…”. It is in this regard that Fish’s argument is most narrow. He wants the elitist minority of “presidents and chancellors,” whose interests do not often align with those of students’ or of the public’s, to be the leaders in this advocacy.

In contrast to Fish, I think we need to widen the scope and broaden the participation in this argument for humanities. Academic administrators and humanities teachers are not the only stakeholders in this debate. The students would be getting an incomplete education if language, arts, and literature programs were cut. The medicine programs have already incorporated some humanities content in the form of ethics and cultural sensitivity trainings, and would not be happy if those resources were now taken away. The corporations would be enraged if their newly-hired employees could not write even one coherent paragraph. So we need to see their outrage about the cuts in humanities.

Do you think we will see this outrage?

SD: I absolutely agree that we need to see the outrage over the decline of the humanities.  And this outrage should not just stem from high-level administrators at elite universities but also from the broader non-academic world.  Although Fish takes pains to articulate that no one except a few hundred academics even understand the work that stems from humanities departments such as English, it is important to still value it as a discipline of study that can and should be translated into other fields. Just because I don’t necessarily understand all medical or legal terminology doesn’t mean that I don’t think there is use-value associated with those fields.

The non-academic world should fight for the humanities.  This fight, contrary to Fish’s offense-based strategy, needs to come from all social structures, from family units to transnational corporations.  Families should want to produce children who value history, literature, and the arts because these fields provide us with a critical lens that is crucial to our growth as individuals and societies.  Transnational corporations, at the other extreme, should also fight for the humanities because the discipline provides companies with workers who understand the social, political, cultural, and economic shifts in the way that our borders expand and constrict through human interaction and transaction. In other words, the humanities ultimately serve the business of global capitalism in a way that science and math simply can’t.

Fish’s solution doesn’t even really address the real problem, which is one of reorganization and restructuring society and politics to incorporate the humanities in an effective and efficient way that meets the demands of global capitalism and unprecedented innovation in technology and science. Simply putting select administrators on the spot won’t cut it.  Instead, it minimizes the issue as one that only affects a small group of individuals who supposedly occupy an obsolete space, a corner of the Ivory Tower.

Isn’t this an issue for everyone and not those who are stuck within the confines of academia?

SM: You rightly point out that the academic humanities’ investment in the use of arcane theoretical jargon does not lead to the conclusion that they are not valuable or useful for the society at large. Fish draws a rather stark and rigid, also in my view – artificial, opposition between humanities as an academic enterprise and humanities as a part of public culture. In his follow-up essay to “Crisis of the Humanities,” he writes: “The mistake is to think that the line of justification should go from the pleasure many derive from plays, poems, novels, films, etc., to a persuasive account of how academic work enhances or even produces that pleasure. It may or may not, but if it does, that’s an accidental benefit.”

But, as you say, Fish is here only deflecting the argument. He forgets that the crisis in humanities within the university is not being defined against its value or non-value to the humanities in public culture but against other “financially lucrative,” and therefore in- demand, disciplines like engineering, medicine, and business. And the argument to be made, then, is that the academic pursuit of humanities is crucial to these other disciplines.

The corporate need for a strong humanities component in the university is evident in this op-ed piece published in The New York Times on Bloomsday this summer, which tells the story of W.D. Gillen , the president of  Bell Telephone of Pennsylvania in 1954, who sent his technical and engineering employees to an intensive training in humanities, where else but in the university, to equip them for company positions that “would need broader views than their backgrounds had so far given them.” As the op-ed author Wes Davis writes of the value and need for humanities in academia: “We need fewer drifting straws on the stream of American business, and more discontented thinkers who listen thoughtfully to both sides of our national debates. Reading Ulysses this Bloomsday may be more than just a literary observance. Think of it as an act of fiscal responsibility.”

The above example demonstrates that if we want to resolve the crisis of the humanities, we need to stop making it a zero-sum system with the other disciplines. The growth in sciences and business studies does not have to automatically mean a crisis of the humanities. Contrary to Fish’s arguments that the academic study of humanities has real benefits only for the humanities departments, we need to argue that the academic pursuit of humanities makes study of medicine and engineering more effective, and vice versa. A splendid example of the need for intertwined academic study of humanities and sciences was published in The New York Times on the same day as Fish’s essay: a profile of South Asian American physician and writer Dr. Abraham Verghese. Dr. Verghese’s profile reveals the false opposition between humanities and sciences that current arguments about crisis of humanities set up:

Art and medicine may seem disparate worlds, but Dr. Verghese insists that for him they are one. Doctors and writers are both collectors of stories, and he says his two careers have the same joy and the same prerequisite: “infinite curiosity about other people.” He cannot help secretly diagnosing ailments in strangers, or wondering about the lives his patients lead outside the hospital.

“People are endlessly mysterious,” he said in an interview in his office at the medical school, where volumes of poetry share the bookshelves with medical texts, family photos and a collection of reflex hammers.

His sources of inspiration include W. Somerset Maugham and Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine. In addition to his medical degree, he has one from the writing workshop at the University of Iowa.

Of course, humanities and sciences are not the same; they are different but not necessarily opposed. Dr. Verghese is a powerful reminder that there is always an art and a history of sciences and business.

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