Literature and Cross-Cultural Encounters Essay

Pages: 8 (2972 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 8  ·  File: .docx  ·  Topic: Literature

Mohsin Hamid's 2007 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist depicts a protagonist, Changez, who is essentially a cultural hybrid. Changez's name, as Hamid tells us, is the Urdu equivalent of Genghis -- reminding the reader perhaps that "Khan" remains a relatively common Pakistani surname even in the twenty-first century -- and thus ironically calls to the reader's mind the notion of hostile and warlike foreign invaders, terror and violence. Yet the story is narrated by Changez himself, who is represented as unfailingly polite and charming, as he tells his life story to an unnamed American (revealed in the final pages as potentially an assassin). Yet the major literary device of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is irony, and it can be demonstrated that Hamid's larger point is perhaps that Islamic fundamentalism is itself a response to the ironies, confusions, false impressions, and tendentious definitions that are produced in the power struggle inherent in a cross-cultural encounter.Buy full Download Microsoft Word File paper
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Essay on Literature and Cross-Cultural Encounters Assignment

We should begin with Changez's observations regarding the most salient cliche that Americans or other westerners would have in approaching Pakistanis in 2007, which is terrorism. The Reluctant Fundamentalist was written after the terrorist attacks in New York and elsewhere on September 11, 2001, but it is written before the revelation that Osama Bin Laden, architect of those attacks, was hiding in Pakistan with the collusion of the Pakistani military. Changez is fairly open about how he wishes his interlocutor (and by extension the reader) to approach this issue: "It seems an obvious thing to say, but you should not imagine that we Pakistanis are all potential terrorists, just as we should not imagine that you Americans are all undercover assassins" (Hamid 183). The rhetoric here should be analyzed closely: Changez begins apologetically, noting that "it seems an obvious thing to say," where the word "seems" backs away from a flat-out assertion that his generalization "is" obvious, and where the claim that the statement is "obvious" is meant to be an excuse for the potential offense lurking in the statement itself. What is concealed in this backhanded way of making the assertion is that, of course, many Americans do believe all Pakistanis to be "potential terrorists" and that many Pakistanis do perceive Americans as "assassins" -- but the frequency with which these bigoted beliefs are embraced on both sides of the cultural divide means that, of course, it is not precisely "obvious" to make this assertion. What Hamid seems to be suggesting is that it is only "obvious" for Changez to make his true statement because this same true statement must be made so often by open-minded persons on both sides of the conflict.

The question of terrorism is most memorably depicted, however, in the fifth chapter of Hamid's novel, when Changez narrates his reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11. Here, Changez confesses that -- while on business in the Philippines -- he saw the attacks on television and states "I stared as one -- and then the other -- of the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased" (Hamid 72). But this shocking statement is immediately followed by a reaction to the unnamed American that Changez is addressing, and Hamid implicitly asks the reader to measure his or her own reaction to the statement against the reaction Changez describes in the unnamed American: "Your disgust is evident; indeed, your large hand has, perhaps without your noticing, clenched into a fist. But please believe me when I tell you that I am no sociopath; I am not indifferent to the suffering of others." (Hamid 72). There is an element of comedy, almost, in Changez's immediate self-defense -- because the whole story is narrated in his voice, it should be apparent to the reader by page 72 that the elaborate rhetoric of politeness (addressing the unnamed American as "sir," constant displays of emotional solicitude such as this one) employed by the narrator should have shown, rather than told, that Changez is certainly not an amoral sociopath. Instead what the book attempts to describe is Changez's desire for a valid way to critique the America he first embraced and then rejected.

We may, perhaps, find the ultimate key to interpreting Hamid's representation of cultural hybridity in The Reluctant Fundamentalist within the protagonist's own name. It is true, as I noted at the outset, that "Changez" is the Urdu version of "Genghis" and thus is meant to indicate a sort of nightmare vision of the Asian in the mind of the European -- indeed the invasions of Genghis Khan are alluded to in the outset of the book, when Changez describes his home city of Lahore as "layered like a sedimentary plain with the accreted history of invaders from the Aryans to the Mongols to the British" (Hamid 7). This rather cleverly reminds us that, when assessing the brutality of invasions, Genghis Khan might actually be slightly less horrifying than the British East India Company in the minds of an American twenty-first century reader (since Americans have their own experience of being postcolonial British subjects). But more importantly, the reader is forced to look at the very name of "Changez" and to see a lurking English word beneath: it looks like an Internet mis-spelling of "changes." History is of course made up of changes to the status quo, and in some sense Changez himself stands in for the strange course of history -- there is no authentic culture, American or Pakistani, that has not been "layered like a sedimentary plain with [an] accreted history of invaders." As a result, the "fundamentalism" that Changez reluctantly embraces is perhaps intended to provide an "un-changing" intellectual framework in response to such volatile historical processes. This is the ultimate irony of Hamid's novel -- by the end, when Changez has sought to revert to a Pakistani identity, the western reader is capable of identifying with him all the more, because such ideologically-pure identities have been revealed to be a construct all along.

Literature and Cross-Cultural Encounters: An Annotated Bibliography

Achebe, Chinua. "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness." Massachussetts Review 18: 1977. Reprinted in Heart of Darkness, ed. Robert Kimbrough. New York: W.W. Norton, 1988. Web. Accessed at:

The recently deceased Nigerian novelist and professor Chinua Achebe, best known for his classic novel Things Fall Apart (about life in West Africa before the arrival of colonialism), wrote this penetrating analysis of Conrad's frequently-assigned canonical novella. Achebe outlines the way in which Conrad's racism is expressed in obvious ways -- noting that "Conrad had a problem with n*ggers. His inordinate love of that word itself should be of interest to psychoanalysts" -- but also more importantly in a conceptual way. Achebe argues that the portrayal of Africa in Heart of Darkness is not based on observation, but based on an underlying structural trick whereby Africa is defined as "the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization" (Achebe 254). What is most important about Achebe's analysis of Heart of Darkness is that the book has usually been taken to be progressive: Achebe concedes that "Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth" (Achebe 261). This is an important essay for understanding the way in which even a supposedly "enlightened" writer like Conrad can ultimately be shown to harbor tacit and unexplored racist assumptions.

Arens, W.T. The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. Print.

This short and fascinating book, written by an American academic anthropologist, approaches the question of cross-cultural encounters through one significant motif, the idea of cannibalism. Arens's chief argument is that, in all western accounts of "primitive" or "savage" societies that practice cannibalism, there is never any verifiable evidence that the practice occurred. For Arens, the idea of cannibalism is an effective way of defining "otherness." He argues that "all cultures, subcultures, religions, sects, secret societies and every other possible human association have been labeled" cannibals by another group (Arens 139). As a result, Arens argues that accounts of cannibal behavior serve primarily to strengthen a "we-they" distinction between the west and foreign cultures, or indeed in any case of cross-cultural encounter (Arens 184).

Hamid, Mohsin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. New York: Harvest Books, 2008. Print.

Hamid's novel presents the story of a westernized Pakistani named Changez, a graduate of Princeton University in America who then takes a job with a "globalized" American firm that evaluates international commercial enterprises, who ultimately returns to Pakistan and embraces, reluctantly, a life of traditional fundamentalist Islam. Changez's story hinges upon his unhappy love affair with an American woman named Erica. Using the narrative device of the first person, in which Changez tells his own story to an unnamed American interlocutor. Hamid's take on the issue of cross-cultural encounters is complex and multilayered. The reader experiences both Changez's earlier workplace life for the American… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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