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Posts Tagged ‘Lisa Lowe’

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: 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).

Posted in Books, Conversations, Literary Criticism, State of Academia | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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