Reluctant Fundamentalist Reflection

9/11 changes everything for Changez, the ambitious protagonist of Mohsin Hamid’s Reluctant Fundamentalist. Soon after the towers fall, Changez’ world begins to deteriorate. His relationship with Erica, a beautiful and rich American, unravels and his focus moves away from the “fundamentals” and toward the new and terrifying global landscape. As shown throughout the text, Changez’s impressive suit and well-paying job are unable shield him from anti-Muslim bigotry. In the wake of 9/11, it seems that Changez is always being harassed. When working in New Jersey, his possessions are stolen and his car is ravaged. Changez’s skin and religion have become a liability in this new world order.

When speaking about these changes, Changez uses the language of a conquered person. His tone becomes accusatory as he relays this experience to his American guest: “Your country’s flag invaded New York after the attacks. It was everywhere”(Hamid 38). From this one line, it becomes very clear that Changez has mentally separated New York from America. For Changez, New York is its own nation—socially and politically distinct from the rest of the country. Thus, the proliferation of the American flag across the New York landscape feels like an invasion. “They [The flags] all seemed to proclaim: We are America, Not New York,”says Changez (Hamid 38). The place where Changez had felt at home suddenly became American; thus, inhospitable to the multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism he associated with New York.

Changez’s relationship with Erica  parallels his relationship with the United States. At first infatuated, Changez comes to recognize the dark underbelly beneath the shiny exterior. In the text, Erica’s dangerous nostalgia is compared to America’s post 9/11 nostalgia.

“There was something undeniably retro about the flags and uniforms, about generals addressing cameras in war rooms              and newspaper headlines featuring such words as duty and honor. I had always though of America as a nation that                    looked forward; for the first time, I was struck by its determination to look back” (Mohsin 53).

The reader witnesses the gradual degeneration of Changez’s American dream. For Changez, America was supposed to be about the future. That is what his boss Jim always pointed toward.Yet, Changez views Americans pining for times that shouldn’t necessarily be exalted. He questions whether America should try to replicate the unquestioned dominance and safety that marked its past. As he soon realizes, the past being romanticized does not include or care for a Muslim immigrant originally hailing from Pakistan.

As Changez becomes increasingly disillusioned with the United States, his attention becomes squarely focused on his homeland. During his last assignment in Chile, he barely expends any effort, leaving his superior to do all of the work alone. A conversation with Chilean Native Juan-Bautista acts as the final nail in the coffin. This conversation leads Changez to realize that his talents and energies should be used to benefit his true homeland instead of America, which has become foreign and strange to him. The crumbling of Changez’s American dream paves the way for a new dream and life in Pakistan.

By Kailyn Amory

LA FRONTERA

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LA FRONTERA: Artists Along the US Mexican Border  http://borderartists.com/

“A Vale of Terror, Transcended: Artists Explore Immigration, Border Issues, and the Drug War”  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/05/arts/design/artists-explore-immigration-border-issues-and-the-drug-war.html#

These images, compiled by the photographer Stefan Falke, document various artists with their works along the U.S. Mexican border. Falke pieced together these artworks in a project attempting to present the border as “not a space of absence but of life.” Growing up in a divided Germany before moving to his current residence in New York, Falke is familiar with the role borders may play in a community, wary of “the mainstream portrayal of the border area as a dangerous place without much to offer.” In this project, La Frontera, Falke photographs 180 artists in Mexican cities and some U.S. cities along the border. The photos convey the rich cultural environments that exist in these places despite the extreme violence escalating in recent years. The art captured in these photos often examines the dangerous climate in these border communities along with the vibrant traditions that continue to persist amidst the insecurity. Artists deal with themes of immigration, injustice, violence, and everyday life in their communities, demonstrating the many different faces of life on the border. The border itself often becomes a feature in these works, symbolizing the concrete boundary between two nations, as well as the arbitrariness of the divide in this transnational region. As one transborder citizen contends, she does not belong to either country more than the other, for “the border is like a parentheses that is neither Mexico nor the United States.”

-Audrey

The God of Small Things and Transnationalism

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The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy is a novel that tells the story of a family spanning generations and continents. This text approaches many issues that are relevant to transnational literature, including the mediascape, indigenization, and various forms of empire.

Although most of the novel is set in India, Western media pervades the narrative, allowing for an interesting exploration of the mediascape. For example, the family goes to see The Sound of Music. While Chacko sees this as an “extended exercise in Anglophilia”, Ammu believes that the film is a “world hit” that transcends national and cultural boundaries and identities. This clash in perspectives represents some of the divergent stances on increasingly globalized media, and raises the issue of whether media can truly be transnational. Later in the novel, the family gets a television. While seeing The Sound of Music involved a day trip to Cochin and staying overnight in a hotel, Western media is now available in their home at any time. As a result, the family, particularly Baby Kochamma, becomes more familiar with Western media, such as American talk shows. This is an interesting example of the intersection between the technoscape and the mediascape; as the technology of television becomes more widespread, the amount and type of media that is consumed changes. Another incident that allows for comment on the mediascape is Latha’s recitation of Walter Scott’s “Lochinvar”. Due to linguistic issues, her recitation sounds like she is imitating the sounds of the poem more than she understands its content. She is reciting the poem for Chako, who went to Oxford, and therefore had access to an education that would allow him to understand the poem. This suggests one way in which the mediascape and financescape interact; money can help “buy” a certain understanding of the cultural objects in the mediascape. This scene is reminiscent of the children singing American pop songs in We Need New Names, and perhaps points to uneven development. The presence of Western media allows the novel to explore ideas relating to the mediascape.

The God of Small Things also presents the process of indigenization, particularly in relation to Christianity and Marxism. When Christian missionaries arrive, many members of the scheduled caste (referred to in this book as “untouchable” or “dalit”, even though those terms are not used anymore) convert, as the Church offered them food and the possibility of transcending their social status. However, it later emerges that Christianity does not allow them to move beyond the construction of castes. This can be seen when they have separate services, priests and even bishops for scheduled castes. When the country becomes independent, they become “casteless” because they are Christian, which means that they have less access to government services that could allow them to become more financially secure. This indigenization can also be seen in Marxist groups in Ayemenem; the novel explicitly states that one of the main reasons why Marxism became popular in that area is because it did not attempt to undermine the idea of castes. Thus, both Christianity and Marxism became indigenized, and therefore more readily accepted.

The novel also presents different forms of empire, perhaps most effectively through the use of the metaphor of the “History House”. When Chako uses a house as a metaphor for history, the children assume that it is a physical house; the house that belonged to Kari Saipu, a British man in the colonial era who “turned native” who eventually committed suicide. In this way the house can be seen as a representation of British colonial influence. However, later, the house becomes a hotel, which presents a more modern form of imperialism based on cultural and economic control. The guests at the hotel are treated to truncated and diluted versions of local history, and kathakali performances that are shorted from six hours to twenty minutes. Thus, Indian culture and history has been commodified. Relating both of these forms of domination to the same house emphasizes the evolution of imperialism.

The God of Small Things uses the story of a family as a way of highlighting issues relating to “scapes”, indigenization, and imperialism.

-Tanya

Martha Nussbaum’s Capabilities Approach; or, Literature is a Humanism

Inspired by Maya’s post about Amartya Sen, I’d like to share a bit about Martha Nussbaum, a professor here at the UChicago Law School, and the “capabilities approach” to development which she has written extensively on and promoted alongside Sen. Specifically, I’d like to discuss her book Creating Capabilities, a foundational text on the capabilities approach and a persuasive argument for the refocusing of development (which is by definition a major aspect of transnational relations) on the scale of individual human lives, rather than quantifying progress based on financial markers.

Instead of focusing on economic measures of growth, the capabilities approach (also known as the “human development” approach) measures a nation’s progress on individual access to “substantial freedoms,” that is, the totality of opportunity for choice and action that an individual has within their context-specific political, social, and economic situation Nussbaum stresses the basic importance of freedom in education, ownership, and affiliation, which she regards as the three “fertile” capabilities from which others are able to spring (Nussbaum 98-100). The approach, as Maya stated in her previous post, is rooted heavily in philosophy, the associations of which Nussbaum explicates thoroughly in Creating Capabilities. In this book, Nussbaum reframes development metrics under the question, “What are people actually able to do and to be? What real opportunities are available to them?” (Nussbaum, x). She goes on to explain that this totality of opportunities is measured by markers such as bodily health and life expectancy, but is also represented in one’s ability to engage in independent practical reason – ability to imagine, think, “have attachments to things and people,” “engage in various forms of social interaction,” and, perhaps most summarily, ability to “form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s life” (Nussbaum, 33-4). It argues that development efforts should thus directly address this level of existence rather than focusing on increasing GDP, as “This crude measure gave high marks to countries that contained alarming inequalities, countries in which a large proportion of people were not enjoying the fruits of a nation’s overall economic improvement” (Nussbaum, ix).

This reframing of development metrics to focus on human capacity rather than economic growth views poverty as capability-deprivation rather than purely income-deprivation. That is, lack of financial capital translates into a loss of capabilities that would allow for personal growth, and this capability loss directly impacts human experience (both individual and collective), which, if stifled, precludes sustainable advancement in any other sphere.

I read Creating Capabilities this past summer, while working for an NGO in northwestern India, and have found myself thinking of the text again at multiple points throughout this course. The approach is foundationally linked with philosophy, self-determination, individual consciousness and reasoning – in contrast with World Bank statistics (though it takes data from these, surely), the capabilities approach provides a more humanistic basis upon which to pose questions about development, and thus, transnational movement and communication.

Advocates of the capabilities approach point to the holistic nature of such a method, as quantitative measures such as per capita GDP cannot capture the complex shape and texture of “human life and human striving,” although in the end, human lives are what matter (Nussbaum, x). To me, using literature as a lens through which to examine the process of transnationalism in all its diverse incarnations (one factor of which the reality of uneven global development) is a vital component of studying the shape and texture of individual human lives.

Although the literary texts we’ve read in class aren’t making policy suggestions (at least, not overtly), they each bring a distinct voice to the table addressing individual experiences of globalization that can serve as a basis for analyzing future goals and projects. Literature is a humanism that makes tangible the abstract statistics of mortality, literacy, immigration, emigration, and hunger through which we order the world. Through the movements and experiences of the characters we read, we gain a cross-section of what it means to be human and exist in an increasingly connected sphere.

Literature, therefore, is a manifestation of the kernels of possibility that exist within Nussbaum’s fertile capabilities – with the freedom to learn, command agency, and seek connections to further individual growth, we are able to explore the meaning of “human striving,” and from this, draw conclusions about the greater world.

Nussbaum, Martha C. Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.

– Isabella Mckinley-Corbo

“Leave out the World”: Poetic (and Everyday) Attempts to Forget Global History

Convention is somewhat of a fundamental aspect of poetry, the same way that historical context can be fundamental to how nations construct themselves (in the mirror and on an international scale), and react to domestic and global events.

For poet Mark Strand, writing poetry seems to be a practice in forgetfulness, in divesting poems of convention – not in a way that makes his works hyper-experimental and incoherent – but exceptionally concentrated, essentially wittled down to their bare bones such that all that exists is what is written on the printed pages they take up, and the voice of the person speaking. Critic Linda Gregerson hits poignantly upon the solipsistic eye that rules much of Strand’s work, as he attempts to write each poem as universe unto itself:

“When Mark Strand reinvented the poem, he began by leaving out the world. The self he invented to star in the poems went on with the work of divestment: it jettisoned place, it jettisoned fellows, it jettisoned all distinguishing physical marks, save beauty alone.”

Strand’s poem “Always” seems to comment on what it’s like to write poetry in a vacuum, and even write life in a vacuum, “forgetting” the world and its history, its geographic implications and people, all as a means of making each poem a gestation period for a new world.

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Always, Mark Strand

for Charles Simic

Always so late in the day
In their rumpled clothes, sitting
Around a table lit by a single bulb,
The great forgetters were hard at work.
They tilted their heads to one side, closing their eyes.
Then a house disappeared, and a man in his yard
With all his flowers in a row.
The great forgetters wrinkled their brows.
Then Florida went and San Francisco
Where tugs and barges leave
Small gleaming scars across the Bay.
One of the great forgetters struck a match.
Gone were the harps of beaded lights
That vault the rivers of New York.
Another filled his glass
And that was it for crowds at evening
Under sulfur-yellow streetlamps coming on.
And afterward Bulgaria was gone, and then Japan.
“Where will it stop?” one of them said.
“Such difficult work, pursuing the fate
Of everything known,” said another.
“Down to the last stone,” said a third,
“And only the cold zero of perfection
Left for the imagination.” And gone
Were North and South America,
And gone as well the moon.
Another yawned, another gazed at the window:
No grass, no trees…
The blaze of promise everywhere.

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In my imagination, Strand and contemporaries like Charles Simic (to whom the work is addressed) are the “great forgetters”, all part of the school of “leaving out the world”, “jettisoning place” and context from their poems, all communing for one big world obliterating, late afternoon pajama party. But I can’t really decide how self-critical Strand is being, and how much he is relying on the irony in the imagery engendered to suggest two different readings. On one hand, there are these seemingly all powerful wise men; on the other, they are just “great” homebodies, “pursuing” the world’s history from a seated position, with their little wrinkled brows and rumpled clothes, deeming their pursuits “such difficult (although incredibly sedentary) work”.

Uncertainty about the level of cheekiness extends itself to an overall paradox of what it means to try “leave out the world” in writing. To what extent are readers expected to imagine that places are really disappearing from the earth in this poem versus disappearing from the mind of the characters, at the wrinkle of a brow or the simple “filling of a glass”? And how is it ever possible to forget the world, if you have to remember it to rid yourself of it; if you have to recall “San Francisco”, “New York”, “Florida”, “Japan” and “Bulgaria” in order to remove them in your consciousness.

In light of that duality, maybe solipsistic poets aren’t the “great forgetters”. We (a perhaps naive usage of a kind of royal/ global “we”) are.

“Always” may be commenting on global responses to global atrocities, wars, violence, and environmental catastrophes; responses fueled not by remembrance, but determined forgetfulness of historical scars. Strand’s poetry toes a fine line between suggesting that to forget is the more difficult and perhaps nobler pursuit that praising a Zagajewskian “mutilated world“, and suggesting that forgetting is futile, just a warping of the consciousness that inflict no healing.

Amartya Sen: A Good Egg

Amartya Sen is an Indian philosopher and economist whose work on development has been extremely influential.

Development is an extremely transnational concept, especially as it is increasingly carried out by bodies like the United Nations and the World Bank– coalitions of countries and interests. When I think about development, I think about a preoccupation with “improvement.” However, it is very hard to define improvement as it relates to cultures and people– and it is even harder to create improvement.

Sen’s view on development is that it relates to freedom. I believe that increased individual freedoms almost always constitute an “improvement.” Sen argues in his book Development as Freedom that freedom of individual agency– the freedom of people to pursue paths and have the opportunities for capacity-building and investment that they need to improve their quality of living– is key to development. And he says that removing “unfreedoms,” as he calls them, in the political, economic, and social spheres, are the best way to go about this.

Sen currently teaches (or, more likely, as he is over 80, sits in his office) at Harvard. He studied philosophy at Trinity College and is incredibly knowledgeable about all kinds of political things. I highly recommend Development as Freedom (or even just sections of it) to anyone interested in development and philosophy.

–Maya

Eleanor Roosevelt’s Title

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As I was looking for someone to talk about as an important American figure in the world whom I did not think of or know firsthand, I ran into the picture of Eleanor Roosevelt with the caption “First Lady of the World”. It reminded me of our conversation on Thursday about The Sheltering Sky and how one has to be an imperial and privileged subject to be able to qualify oneself or others as a “citizen of the world”. President Truman coined the expression used to describe Eleanor Roosevelt because of her humanitarian achievements and her work in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Not that I want to discredit any of the work completed and First Lady Roosevelt’s extensive dedication towards human rights of men and women across the world. She was the first presidential wife to be so vocal and outspoken about racial issues, and sometimes would even disagree with President Roosevelt’s policies. Yet, in the light of our talk on Thursday, it seems very much that the “First Lady of the World” is a title that can only be given to a person of privilege, just like the main character in Bowles’s novel can be considered as a citizen of the world, as a “traveler”. In fact, First Lady Roosevelt’s title is not self-attributed, and I think it itself speaks to the perception of white America towards leaders who challenge systematic institutions and work for minorities (women, war refugees, African and Asian Americans, …) as worldly and informed. Yet, such decision for awareness and solidarity remains a place of privilege in America, and being able to shed someone’s cultural, social and ethnic identity because of their opinions, knowledge and/or travels is particular to that place. Thus, as honorable as Eleanor Roosevelt’s use of her opportunity to be an activist and diplomat is, one should be conscious that transnational and global titles such as “traveler” and “citizen of the world” are loaded with advantages of influence, authority, and ability to disregard identity.

-Andreanne