Insurgent Metaphors: Decentering 9/11 in Mohsin Hamid's the Reluctant Fundamentalist and Kamila Shamsie's Burnt Shadows

By Singh, Harleen | ARIEL, October 2012 | Go to article overview

Insurgent Metaphors: Decentering 9/11 in Mohsin Hamid's the Reluctant Fundamentalist and Kamila Shamsie's Burnt Shadows


Singh, Harleen, ARIEL


This article examines the novels The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) by Mohsin Hamid and Burnt Shadows (2009) by Kamila Shamsie as significant examples of Pakistani writing in English after 9/11. Popular American discourse has remained mostly concerned with the cultural peculiarities of non-western and Islamic cultures such as those of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, especially as they coalesce in the figure of the terrorist. Thus, in the reevaluation of feeling, memory, and history prompted by 9/11, the multiple and shifting notions of the "other" now converge to form a singular threat. This figure of decrepitude, prevalently represented as illiterate, fundamentalist, hateful, and violent, is rearticulated in Hamid's and Shamsie's novels to produce the disempowered refugee, the disenchanted immigrant, and the dissident citizen.

Keywords: Postcolonial Literatures, Commonwealth Literature, International English Literature, Studies of the Novel, 9/11, Pakistan

  "What's going on out in the world?"
  "The last fire has almost burnt out." Kim pointed in the direction
  of the looming emptiness outside before coming to sit down on the
  sofa.
  "That's not the world, it's just the neighborhood," Hiroko said
  sharply. (Burnt Shadows 250)

This conversation between the Japanese-Pakistani woman Hiroko Tanaka and her American friend Kim Burton, set in New York just a few days after September 11, 2001, exemplifies a state of postcolonial exasperation. Hiroko's antagonism is targeted at American isolationist policies that craft the "war on terror" within the jurisdiction of justice, retribution, and deterrence while ignoring the global reverberation of the violence unleashed in its name. As Richard Gray has argued, this inward-looking American response is endemic to many novels written in the United States after 9/11. As such, these novels remain mired in the personal, where "cataclysmic public events are measured purely and simply in terms of their impact on the emotional entanglements of their protagonists" (Gray 135). Preoccupied with the perceived psychological and political changes in the country after 9/11, these novels fail to acknowledge that American life has continued at an unabated pace--whereas life in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan has been radically destabilized. In their steadfast reflection upon the changing contours of the American self, these novels effectively sidestep any attempt to imagine those who fall outside that literary and political citizenship. (2) If, as Gray notes, "Sex, love, the public and the private, art and economics everything has changed ... from the material fabric of our lives to our terms of consciousness" (131), then this restructuring of sentiment must account for the lives of those for whom September 11, 2001 functions not as a universal signifier but as just one marker of the continuous violence with which they live. (131).

Many scholars have weighed in on the question of an appropriate novelistic response to 9/11. According to some, prose reinvigorated by the multiple underpinnings of the immigrant novel, bearing witness to the changing demographics of American society with its "strategy of de-territorialisation," is better suited than its American-born counterpart to navigate the aftermath of 9/11 (Gray 141). Michael Rothberg avers that this faith in the immigrant novel to "open up and hybridize American culture" needs to be supplemented by a "fiction of international relations and extraterritorial citizenship," which not only imagines the American citizen from varied points of origin but also questions the multiple modalities of cultural and national citizenship (154). Thus, both scholars place their faith in literary narratives that arrive at American life from a slant--immigrant, racial, and international. However, not everyone shares this resounding confidence in immigrant literature. For Ali Behdad, the relationship of the immigrant to the United States remains too fraught with marginalization to serve as the site of renewal, and he advocates an interrogation of historical narratives of the "alien" in the United States. …

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