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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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Asian Americans: “Missing in History”

Posted by litdaily on January 20, 2011

A new website Fuck Yeah Asian/Pacific Islander History takes to heart Helen Zia’s suggestion that Asian Americans have been rendered MIH or “Missing in History,” and seeks to secure their rightful place in American history through photographs. The website’s juxtaposition of pictures is compelling because it conveys the range and depth of Asian American contributions, from excellence in sports to struggles in labor movements. For example, the following photographs of California Sikh Community parade in Stockton, California on May 11, 1945, and that of Asian Pacific Sisters from 1994 highlight a sense of pride and community.

The photographs are an appropriate collage of Asian/Pacfic Islander (API) diversity, documenting various ethnic groups—Chinese, Filipino, South Asian, Hmong, Cambodian, Vietnamese—in a way that makes us think about why such distinct histories are also the basis of a connected racial experience as Asian Americans. I always feel the need to emphasize to students that we should not view Asian American history (or the history of minority racial groups) as just an add-on, and therefore external to “American history.” Instead, we should examine how analysis of Asian American experience fundamentally transforms our understanding of American history. In other words, Asian American history is not additive but transformative.

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Asian American Literature

Posted by litdaily on November 8, 2010

One student in my Asian American studies class made an interesting comment regarding the “nature” of Asian American literature – the essence, he asserted, of this body of work is simply assimilation.  Coughing uncomfortably, he continued to explain that Asian American literature seems to only be constituted by themes of assimilation and integration into the American national and/or literary framework.  His discomfort in isolating the theme of assimilation stemmed from the previous year, when a professor chided him for narrowly defining the parameters of Asian American literature.

It’s difficult to exactly articulate the difference between Asian American literature and American literature in general.  Do the thematic differences keep Asian American literature from being included in American literature? If we elide the thematic differences, will Asian American literature suffer from elements of historical amnesia?

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Education and Blame

Posted by litdaily on October 12, 2010

As readers may have noticed from previous posts, the state of academia is a topic that keeps coming up.  One of the reasons that it does is because we’re graduate students who participate wholly in that institution even as we are marginalized in it due to race, gender, and blah blah blah.

Regardless, one of the issues that I’ve noticed is that sites like Minding the Campus and Chronicle of Higher Education keep writing articles on education reform.  These articles are loosely based on the responsibility of the system to educate our children, the fears revolving around tenure, the lack of merit involving teachings without tenure, and the value of the arts.  If you scroll down this page, you’ll see that I’ve posted many of these on this blog.

But what concerns me here – as a teacher, a graduate student, a mother, and a citizen – is that there is a distinct and disturbing silence regarding the responsibility of the student to learn.  While all of those other elements matter, how do we “fix” the system if there are students who don’t respect education or educators, fail to show up to class and turn in assignments, are disruptive, and have an unearned sense of entitlement?  How will tenuring and not tenuring professors affect these students who seem to be the norm rather than the exception?

This is what I think: we don’t want to face the truth.  And the truth is that the future subjects of this country could care less about the arts or tenured faculty as long as they get their easy As, breeze through college either intoxicated or high, and get an entry level job at a company upon graduation.  I know that I am generalizing here, but semester after semester, I get a stream of students who just don’t really give a shit.  And then I read these journals who want to sugar-coat the truth by placing the blame on the system and educators.

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Is it Gay Bashing, the Lure of Technology, or Both?

Posted by litdaily on October 5, 2010

In English class yesterday, the Clementi tragedy came up.  When a student asked a question about dangers of technology with regards to society, I couldn’t help but inform them of Tyler Clementi, an 18 year old student who jumped off the George Washington Bridge.

One article regarding this tragedy caught my eye.  The article, originally posted in New American Media and then reprinted in Hyphen, actually claims that Dharun Ravi exposed Clementi’s personal live due to the lure of technology…more>>

My students were not only shocked to hear about this particular case, but also disturbed that online networks such as Facebook and Twitter are blamed for Ravi’s lack of humanity regarding his roommate, whose homosexual relations he attempted to videotape and broadcast to a virtual world of thousands.

Several students rightly noted that technology is easy to scapegoat. What about individual responsibility, decency, and morality? Have ethics shifted or transformed with the advancement of technologies that erase boundaries, not just between private and public, but right and wrong?

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Scientific Fact vs. Science Fiction

Posted by litdaily on September 23, 2010

In my composition class yesterday, my students discussed the power of narratives.  The context of the class is “posthumanism” and biotechnology, and our primary text is Francis Fukuyama’s Our Posthuman Future.  Since the debates regarding biotechnology center on ethics and morality, stories that examine biotechnology become essential for understanding the possible cultural and political effects of science.

It was interesting to see how many of my students believe that narratives are an essential part of understanding biotechnology and science. While half of them did find it valuable, the other half wanted just “facts” about science.  I thought more of my male students would be interested in science, however, that was not the case.  I was glad to discover that my gender assumptions were wrong.

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