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Posts Tagged ‘Asian American Literature’

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 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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Writing and the American Dream

Posted by litdaily on September 27, 2010

Vietnamese American author Andrew Lam writes about the anguish his family experienced when he told them about his decision to become a writer:

And for Vietnamese in America, education is everything. So, for someone lucky enough to escape the horrors of post-war Vietnam and be handed through the hard work of his parents the opportunity to become a doctor, to say “no, thank you” was akin to Confucian sin. By refusing to fulfill my expected role within the family, I was being dishonorable. “Selfish,” more than a few relatives called me.

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Lam’s essay illustrates the extent to which writing and arts are considered antithetical to the American Dream. Writing is not considered hard work or labor, which is the core of the meaning of American Dream, especially for immigrants. Lam’s choice to be a writer also brings to the fore tensions between individual aims and community expectations, as the community labels his decision “selfish.” It is ironical, then, that being a professional—such as a doctor, lawyer, or engineer—which involves amassing personal wealth and fortune is considered “honorable”; while writing a book or creating a work of art, which does not bring equal financial returns but instead brings visibility to the history and story of the entire community, is “selfish.”

Hmong American author Kao Kalia Yang’s memoir The Latehomecomer, on the other hand, represents her family, especially her father, as encouraging her ambition to be a writer to tell the story of Hmong persecution. Her father says:

It is very important that you tell this part of our story: the Hmong came to America without a homeland. Even in the very beginning, we knew that we were looking for a home. Other people in moments of sadness and despair can look to a place in the world: where they might belong. We are not like that. I knew our chance was here. Our chance to share in a new place and a new home. This is so important to our story. You must think about it, and tell it the way it is (Yang 273).

Part of the difference between Lam’s and Yang’s stories can be attributed to gender considerations, especially because Yang’s book dwells at length on the cultural value assigned to sons. The contrast between the two above passages demonstrates that while Asian American daughters might be encouraged to become writers; for Asian American sons, the decision to follow a career in writing invokes feelings of betrayal.

Yang’s memoir is remarkable because it cements the idea of attainment of the American Dream through writing. Throughout the book, Yang family has to continually defer their attainment of the American Dream because of their poverty. For a family that faced the consequences of America’s recruitment of Hmong in the “Secret War” against communists in Vietnam and Laos, the achievement of American Dream is finding refuge, a home, and family, even if they be in writing the words in a book: “We, seekers of refuge, will find it: if not in the world, then in each other. If not in life, then surely in books…. Together, we are typing on the keyboards of time” (Yang 274).

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