The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed

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I haven’t updated in ages! I guess it seems quite daunting to me to write a more detailed critical review than a goodreads one & I want to do it well. I thought I should do one for this Sara Ahmed book before the craze of essay submissions begin.

This was truly a relish to read. A brilliant theoretical book & I think she is truly on another level as a theorist. This book is probably also beyond me lol, but I will try to relay what I understood from it.

In theorising a cultural politics of emotion, Sara Ahmed analyses the relationship between emotions (whether ‘hate’ or ‘love’ quite loosely understood as positive or negative affect), language (speech acts), and bodies (the recipients of speech-acts, emotions, and ‘impressions’).

I found it interesting how she theorises hate and love as basically impressions that are placed onto bodies repeatedly. To be turned against (perhaps due to your skin colour) out of fear by someone, to move towards your mother who is ‘safer’, to receive a racial slur — these are all acts of ‘impressions’ that communicate either hate or love. In this way, every act carries emotion, and every gesture carries affect. Through this marketplace of impressions there is eventually an understood agreement over which bodies are more agreeable & which are not. It communicates which bodies can be given more space and which bodies are given the injunction to shrink. So obviously, for example, a person of racial privilege feels more comfortable in their society because their impressions have been positive, whereas a racial minority might shrink themselves because they receive ‘impressions’ that communicate that they are disagreeable. In a way, this is how social norms are created & sustained.

Let me share a quote with you where she explains it quite well (& I’m afraid this is one of the easiest passages that I can find to explain it):

To be touched in a certain way, or to be moved in a certain way by an encounter with another, may involve a reading not only of the encounter, but of the other that is encountered as having certain characteristics. If we feel another hurts us, then that feeling may convert quickly into a reading of the other, such that it becomes hurtful, or is read as the impression of the negative. In other words, the ‘it hurts’ becomes, ‘you hurt me’, which might become, ‘you are hurtful’, or even ‘you are bad’. These affective responses are readings that not only create the borders between selves and others, but also ‘give’ others meaning and value in the very act of apparent separation, a giving that temporarily fixes an other, through the movement engendered by the affective response itself. Such responses are clearly mediated: materialisation takes place through the ‘mediation’ of affect, which may function in this way as readings of the bodies of others.

She thus provides us with a semiotic analysis on the politics of emotion, exemplified through current case studies. She does this mostly by studying the articulation and expression of emotions of love and hate in contemporary issues such as the response of Americans to September 11 attacks, the issue of Australians being asked to be ashamed of their history of violence towards Aboriginals, and how hate organisations such as white supremacist groups justify themselves through a rhetoric of ‘love’. This is the part that I found most interesting. How does the language of love itself become a tool to perpetuate something that is actually quite hateful? And how does a manipulation of emotion & its language make one invested in social norms? White supremacists do not define themselves as hate groups, but groups that are premised on the ‘love’ of the white race and the Aryan nation.

Rhetorics of love or hate, the way they are impressed upon bodies — these are all things that can and have been manipulated for sinister reasons. And this is not just on the individual scale of course, but also in terms of collective bodies/communities.

“I have offered a strong critique of how acting in the name of love can work to enforce a particular ideal onto others by requiring that they live up to an ideal to enter the community. The idea of a world where we all love each other, a world of lovers, is a humanist fantasy that informs much of the multicultural discourses of love, which I have formulated as the hope: If only we got closer we would be as one. The multicultural fantasy works as a form of conditional love, in which the conditions of love work to associate ‘others’ with the failure to return the national ideal.”

One of my favourite chapters was “The Affective Politics of Fear” where she explains the politics of fear especially when selectively applied to certain bodies (brown, Muslim, South Asian, etc). In order to feel fear against such bodies, those bodies must have first already been coded as ‘violent’ or ‘hateful’; as a body that one would feel fearful of. There is a discussion then of ‘stickiness’ how certain bodies accumulate signs, how certain negative values ‘stick’ to such bodies, a semiotic reading of racial prejudice.

‘Stickiness’ something that is linked to feelings of disgust (think of the theory of the ‘abject’ from this point on if you are familiar with it, it seems relevant). So when a body is more ‘sticky’ it can accumulate more affect and it is hard for certain affective values to ‘unstick’ themselves, or for other affective values in turn to ‘stick’ on to them. So for example, a person of color is more ‘sticky’ to affects of disgust, and that makes it hard for more positive affective feelings such as being coded as a ‘neutral’ or ‘safe’ person, to stick on to them. After 9-11, brown bodies were ‘sticky’ in the fact that they kept being read as potential terrorists.

Here’s a good quote:

“It is important to recognise that the figure of the international terrorist has been mobilised in close proximity to the figure of the asylum seeker. This is certainly clear in the British amendment to the Terrorism Act, which juxtaposes the question of asylum with the question of terrorism. The amendment merely suggests that the appellant is not entitled to protection when suspected of being an international terrorist. The implicit assumption that governs the juxtaposition in the first place is that of any body in the nation (subjects, citizens, migrants, even tourists) the asylum seeker is most likely to be in the international terrorist.”

The chapters “Queer Feelings” and the hopeful “Feminist Attachments” were some other favourites of mine which really explicated the operations of power that through repetition of acts give the impression of what is considered ‘natural’ and therefore ‘unnatural’, and how one thus respond as a person who has been considered ‘abject’ / non-heteronormative. I feel like she has provided the most insightful discussion on the debate of marriage & whether it is good politics to want to be a part of that ‘system’ /heteronormative order. I do know that the radical view (which I had tended to) was that marriage is not necessarily an institution that is worth wanting inclusion in for the reason that it is an oppressive institution, that it is a tool of the state in terms of distributing resources to pairings they find more ‘legitimate’, and the fact that this expensive union is not one of the primary concerns of so many working-class LGBTQ individuals. But for Sara Ahmed, this is something that you can change with more inclusion of queer marriages. It is not necessarily something set in stone (which is true), and change is possible.

I found so much of her writing to be illuminating and full of the ‘wonder’ that she describes in the 2nd last chapter; a wonder of realising that this is how the world works, and then asking, why does it work like that? I also really enjoyed her kind of feminist praxis and found it incredibly hopeful and erudite.


Perempuan: Muslim Women in Singapore Speak Out


[a shorter, edited version of this review was published in Association of Muslim Professional’s Karyawan, vol 12, issue 2]

Late last year, the anthology Perempuan: Muslim Women Speak Out, was published. The publication is the first of its kind in Singapore and garnered some measure of attention for its showcase of diverse voices in the Malay and/or Muslim community. In this anthology, Muslim women speak out about their experiences and struggles to negotiate their with the cultural and religious expectations of the community. The book is an effort by the Gender Equality IS Our Culture (GEC) programme that seeks to advocate for more gender-equitable interpretations of culture and Islam for women in Singapore.

Perempuan: Muslim Women Speak Out may be a self-explanatory title, but it is also a bold proclamation. Muslim women in Singapore may speak, but do they speak out? The latter connotes a certain disobedience, a certain insistence on being heard by the audience addressed. When we speak out, instead of simply speaking, perhaps it is because simply speaking will not ensure that you are heard, and are muslim women heard in the first place? The act of speaking, then, is not a benign one. Especially not when you’re a Malay and/or Muslim woman.

Associate Professor Maznah Mohamad explains this best in the Foreword when she says:

“Being Muslim and female in Singapore has its unique existential quality. The writers imply that they are trapped within two, or even three worlds. The modern Singapore promises individual liberty, yet as daughters, sisters and mothers within the Muslim home, women are not expected to express their true desires and will. But the disquiet is not just about the home forcing a Muslim-female identity upon one’s subjecthood but also about a radicalised society profiling the self through the blinkers of the Malay-Muslim stereotype.”


The stories in the anthology are for the most part personal, revolving around the themes of body image, sexuality, and the experience of resisting against stereotypes. Due to the nature of these themes, there is an unmistakable and pervading sense of ache and loss at the lives, opportunities, and dreams the women have felt they had to sacrifice, or the extent to which they had to minimise and shrink their own wants due to gendered expectations.

In “Crossing The Ocean, Crossing The Boundaries”, Azura mentions how she was accomplished enough to have received a scholarship to study in Canada. Instead of an appreciation for her accomplishment, she was met with questioning aunts who had asked her mother:

“Shouldn’t the boys be the one to go? She’s still too young and there is not much point in her going abroad”.

This dismissal of a girl’s achievement due to her divergence from traditional gender norms is again seen in “Why?” by Nazihah Ramli, now pursuing a diploma in Islamic studies, who had dreamt of being in an engineering course but was told that engineering is not for girls. Disappointed by her parents refusal, she had asked:

“How does an education path have a gender?”

Some stories reveal the difficulties women face in pursuing their artistic interests and talents in the face of gendered expectations. In “Call Me Ham”, we begin with a lilting description of the writer’s mother as she dances on stage. This moment is, however, quickly cut short, before we learn that her mother sacrificed her talent after marriage out of “respect” for her husband. With her mother’s history lingering in the background, Ham recounts her own struggles in repressing her love for theatre as she held herself back from taking on roles and acting on stage due to the negative perceptions held in her family:

“..performing was dangerous, especially for girls. We are the weaker sex . . . How blasphemous it was for us to parade our bodies with no regard to the shame we could bring to our families!”

Ham’s struggle is mirrored in “The Stage” where the writer S.A.Y, a dancer, faces judgement about her passion in the form of religious moralising and body policing. Her boyfriend even asks her not to mention her passion to his mother. Her fear of being seen by her boyfriend and mother during a performance paralyses her so completely that she fails to go on stage.

In these stories, we see how the writers’ accomplishments and passions, whether in the academic or artistic field, are compromised and disregarded because they do not fulfil traditional and cultural notions of ideal femininity. One wonders how many brilliant potential engineers the community loses when it discourages girls from entering the field, or how accomplished artistic practitioners like Ham and S.A.Y could be if they could practice their art without having to deal with the shame and guilt.


Body image also figures strongly in the anthology with stories dealing with fat-shaming, such as “You Have to Lose Weight” by Huda K. where she writes:

“When you grow up heavy, you get very familiar with one phrase. “You have to lose weight.”

It comes from your teachers in primary school who compare you to your active classmates. It comes from aunts who suggest you control the portions of your food so you will lose some weight.

Then you start yourself.”

In “Eaten Up”, Atifa Othman charts through the years through short vignettes, the various ways her struggle with body image issues leaks into moments in her life, whether it is during a scuba diving session, or brief moments when family members drop casual, hurtful remarks about her weight.

The body is also policed in terms of the demand that is placed on Muslim women to be modest. Whether it is the tussle between mother and daughter over whether her clothes are modest enough (Zarifah Anuar’s “Armpits, Breasts, and Vulva), or realising that hair and how its worn can be infused with political and religious meaning due to its inseparable nature with discussions on the veil, modesty and femininity (Fadiah Johari’s “A Hairy Situation”). Three writers even take on the topic of sunat perempuan, and ask if it is a necessary procedure if it is not in the Qur’an, and whether we should accept the popularly believed (but scientifically disproven) justifications of it reducing libido and improving cleanliness.

There is a kind of quiet violence then that we see in the extent that the female body is managed and controlled, not just by institutions and patriarchs, but sometimes even from other women. Muslim women are at times taken to represent the whole community when all they should be representing is themselves. This of course happens outside the community too. In “A Muslim Woman’s Guide To The Workplace” for example, Raudah recounts hilarious snippets of conversations with her non-Muslim colleagues who seem to enjoy dishing out stereotypes. Of course, these are moments of microagression, and Raudah calls on Muslim women to carve their own space in an environment where others often speak for you, or have decided what your identity seems to automatically mean.


The book also has a few entries by contributors who are LGBT. Homosexuality is of course a contentious topic in the community, with the dominant consensus being that it is unacceptable in the faith. These personal stories reveal the consequences of this prevalent belief when it is sharpened into normalised prejudice and even hate speech.

In “Allah Take The Wheel”, Joyene Nazatul, who introduces herself as a lesbian who dresses in a masculine way and often passes as a man, recounts a harrowing experience in a cab where the driver questions her in a hostile way about the way she dresses, with the obvious implication that her dressing in an unfeminine way was unnatural and wrong. She also recounts a driving teacher who had said that he would have put her through “corrective” rape if he was younger to ensure she would like men, before going on to talk about Islam and its teachings. These experiences made her fear for her life, and ask herself:

“How many other people suffer aggressions like this, everyday, and ever say anything about it?”

Violence is a common occurrence in the stories submitted by gay contributors, with Orchid Blue writing that she fears being open about her bisexuality due to expected violent backlash. Zuleiha in “Cover Up” is threatened by a classmate who says:

“You like girls and that’s disgusting. Change or I’ll tell everyone what you really are.”

Earlier, in a religious classroom setting, Zuleiha had sat silent as a the teacher asked students if they knew anyone who was homosexual — “No one raised their hand that day. Little did they realise that there was such a person sitting in the class”.

In another story, “Human” by Oman, the writer too is sitting in a religious class that is discussing homosexuality, and she too, like Zuleiha, keeps silent as everyone around her judges her existence:

“I keep quiet when they talk about such issues. I keep quiet when they tell me they think “gays are disgusting” and it’s “unnatural”. I keep quiet.

What is common for these LGBT writers is the desire not even to be accepted, but to simply be regarded as equally human, and to not be recipients of hate. There is also in them a marked comfort that is derived from the faith. Oman thinks of God as a compassionate, supreme being that is more accepting than followers. Zuleiha finds comfort in the act of wudhu, although it saddens her that each time makes her feel like the waters are washing away the guilt and sin she feels for simply being herself. In these stories, we see how LGBT women try their hardest, while quietly taking in verbal violence and hatred, to foster the love in religion for themselves that has not been extended to them from others. 


How do women who may not occupy identities that are conventionally accepted, share their stories, remove themselves from the pain of isolation, and be open with their needs and desires?

The importance of the book cannot be stated enough. For the women whose voices are so marginal that some of them have to use a pseudonym in their submissions, it is a brief relief from isolation and from having to silence one’s self from normative society. The demand of conformity, the punishment of any kind of divergence from the norm (what Muslims will derogatorily call “deviance”) is a kind of violence that is inherently unjust, but some find to be religiously sanctioned.

The power of Perempuan is that it is a book filled not with calls to theologise or to propose a new way of understanding Islam, it is merely a collection of personal stories and experiences. It is a revealing insight into what women go through when faced against the tide of expectation and demands to conformity. How we react would either punish their speaking, or validate their experiences. In any case, many of these voices would have known what it is like to be silenced or dismissed. What I know though, is that pretence that these voices do not exist will not solve any problems and silence will only perpetuate persecution. The book is a good first step in simply putting to light to corners of our community that have for so long been in the dark.

Human Acts, Han Kang


I read The Vegetarian by Han Kang some time ago and found her language arresting. Her sparse and exact prose is equally, if not more, clinching in Human Acts, and when this cutting prose is fitted together with the theme of the book, Human Acts becomes a brilliant triumph in not just language but in writing about something as tragic, and brutal, as a massacre. I say it is a triumph, because writing about the trauma of tragedy is often such a difficult, demanding task. It demands more than just your skill, but an acute sense of humanity and empathy to be able to discern how you’re going to write about, and to truly ask why you want to write about it at all. I am reading this book after reading a book where a tsunami is treated as a backdrop for the love stories of 2 couples and dead bodies of victims are mentioned in passing for the characters to puke after looking at them.

Human Acts recounts the massacre at Gwangju, where Han Kang lived when was younger for some time, in the 80s. At the time, the dictator Park Chung-hee (quick aside — his daughter is the one who was recently impeached in S.Korea) had just been assassinated, and instead of having a democratic replacement, he was replaced instead by Choon Doo-hwan, a major general in the army who had seized military power. He became another dictator who saw to the violent killing, torturing, and beating of students by government troops, which launched protest by civilians (who were also met with the brutal violence of the state).

Looking up the photos is really quite horrifying brutal & I can’t bring myself to reproduce photos of dead students, but some of them are up on google the moment you type in ‘Gwangju uprising’

Looking at them, I remember this line from the book:

You look round at the old man. You don’t ask him if this is his granddaughter. You wait, patiently, for him to speak when he’s ready. ‘There will be no forgiveness’. You look into his eyes, which are flinching from the sight laid out in front of them as though it is the most appalling thing in all this world. ‘There will be no forgiveness. Least of all for me.’

Throughout the book, and afterwards when I read up more about the uprising and looked at pictures, I truly understood why those who suffer unhinged brutality under the state can feel such a visceral desire for revenge, why they can never forgive the individuals that chose to carry out the brutality of the state. I can’t blame them.

The books starts out in a school, but it’s coffins that are being lined up. The bodies are described in this scene, as they are during the rest of the book, with a kind of clinical, detached, but traumatised gaze. The descriptions of the body and the way she writes about them is so important, in my view, to mention. Because the extent of human violence and cruelty can at times be seriously, truly and fully expressed with a honest description, and look, onto the way it is enacted on the human body. Because what is more horrifying to us than the violent defilement of the body? Especially those of children? Utter defilement of the dead is a primitive form of ultimate disrespect to your victims, and those who commit the atrocities of the state carry out this dehumanization:

We will make you realize how ridiculous it was, the lot of you waving the national flag and singing the national anthem. We will prove to you that you are nothing but filthy stinking bodies. That you are no better than the carcasses of starving animals.

Of course when it is done through a photograph, especially journalistically, there’s always that problem of the body being reduced to a product of a machine that is still spinning for profit, the body used as a shocking asset of value to gain clicks. But writing escapes this flaw. And the way Han Kang writes about this is, as I’ve said, truly stark, and brutally clear. There is no aestheticisation of brutality. Matter of factly she writes about the laceration across a face or shoulder, the young face the body belongs to —

… my gaze fell upon the mutilated face of a young woman, her features slashed through with a bayonet. Soundlessly, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke.

— the way a child’s dead body swelled so that she seemed like the size of an adult under the white sheet. In one chapter, we are taken through descriptions of how the body of a student is rotting in a pile of other dead bodies before it is eventually burned along with all of them. She didn’t need to tell us her own opinion of what these scenes are, she didn’t need to say “this is evil”. She simply presented us with the scenes. What else is there to say? What can be debated about such blatant violence?

This clear and brutal voice is also the voice the characters speak in when they recount their experience of that time. To me, I had the immediate feeling that the voices of the characters were the voices of disassociation after severe trauma. And one point a character asks “How do you speak of it?” before she recounts a brutal rape she went through that near knocked my breath out. I had not expected to read it, and she had recounted it as if one recounts the weather. It is a punch to the gut, but that is the way the characters speak about those moments of torture, or remembering deaths. That is of course, except for one chapter that focused on the mother of a son who was killed. Her chapter was full of passion and visceral pain.

‘Human Acts’ is not the original title in Korean, but I do find it to be a very powerful title because I really had to come to terms with the fact that humans actually committed such unspeakable acts of violence. And so did the people who went through the massacre. At certain points, the innocent civilians would say something, like telling the children to walk out and surrender, or the young factory girls would strip naked, because they were convinced soldiers would not possibly shoot at helpless children or virginal young women. But in each of these instances they were shot and/or brutally beaten, and in those moments the book really puts into light, the question of human cruelty, because here is the answer.

I can only imagine how much people who have suffered under the weight of such immense injustice and violence would think about the question of human cruelty. About how a human being who is capable of love can at the same time be also someone who withdraws that love so completely for others to the point that they can kill and torture. I can’t imagine, but Han Kang brings me as close as it can get to sympathising. In this following passage, which I found so powerful, she ponders the inevitable question:

Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species? Is the dignity that we cling to nothing but self-delusion, masking from ourselves the single truth: that each one of us is capable of being reduced to an insect, a ravening beast, a lump of meat? To be degraded, slaughtered – is this the essential of humankind, one which history has confirmed as inevitable?

I once met someone who was a paratrooper during the Busan uprising. He told me his story after hearing my own. He said that they’d been ordered to suppress the civilians with as much violence as possible, and those who committed especially brutal actions were awarded hundreds of thousands of won by their superiors. One of his company had said, ‘What’s the problem? They give you money and tell you to beat someone up, then why wouldn’t you?’

I heard a story about one of the Korean army platoons that fought in Vietnam. how they forced the women, children and elderly of one particular village into the main hall, and then burned it to the ground. some of those who came to slaughter us did so with the memory of those previous times, when committing such actions in wartime had won them a handsome reward. it happened in gwangju just as it did on Jeju island, in Kwangtung and Nanjing, in Bosnia and all across the american continent when it was still known as the new world, with such a uniform brutality it’s as though it is imprinted in our genetic code.

I gave this book 5/5 on goodreads. I can’t recommend it enough.

Occupy, Noam Chomsky


This penguin edition of Occupy is actually a reprint of a pamphlet of the same name, which makes me feel quite hopeful because a pamphlet seems like quite a fringe, guerilla publication & then it is picked up by a major publisher. But then again, of course, this is Noam Chomsky.

This is not a book per se. It’s not a collection of essays but rather some collected transcripts from interviews and notably a speech given about the Occupy Movement in Boston. Despite it being transcripts Chomsky is able to answer questions in the interviews in such a substantial way that it almost doesn’t matter. It only seems to be an issue when parts of his answers are repeated at certain points and you end up reading the same passages again later on.

He praises the success of the the Occupy Wall Street movement in terms of its ability to organise the masses, organise themselves as a leaderless movement. The movement is an example of how mass-based organising and civil disobedience can be successful in enacting real change. The Occupy movement also caused major shifts in the public imagination and discourse around the topic of severe class inequality in the States, where most of the wealth in concentrated not just in the 1%, but the 0.1%. The richest of the rich, the 1% of the 1%.

“For the past generation, policies have been initiated that have led to an extremely sharp concentration of wealth in a tiny sector of the population. In fact, the wealth distribution is very heavily weighted by, literally, the top tenth of one percent of the population, a fraction so small that they’re not even picked up on the census. You have to do statistical analysis just to detect them. And they have benefited enormously. This is mostly from the financial sector—hedge fund managers, CEOs of financial corporations, and so on.”

He also outlines how and why the severe income inequality is sustained, showing how concentration of wealth is linked to a concentration of political power and how these two factors feed into corporate governance that prioritises the needs of the 1% through legislation, tax breaks for the rich, etc at the expense of majority of citizens.

“For the majority, real incomes have pretty much stagnated, sometimes declined. Benefits have also declined and work hours have gone up, and so on. It’s not Third World misery, but it’s not what it ought to be in a rich society, the richest in the world, in fact, with plenty of wealth around, which people can see, just not in their pockets.”

(Unrelated to the book, but I learned today that Goldman Sachs was bailed out by $80 billion worth of taxpayers money. That is downright vile [mix the words around and you get ‘evil’], that the government can oversee the bailing out of banks with the use of public monies, not prosecute guilty bankers, and then at the same time at this current moment refuse to provide affordable health care, housing and safe abortions for its people.)

Anyway a passage I found most telling in the book was the following:

“Over the following years, the concept of “person” was changed by the courts in two ways. One way was to broaden it to include corporations, legal fictions established and sustained by the state. In fact, these “persons” later became the management of corporations, according to the court decisions. So the management of corporations became “persons.” It was also narrowed to exclude undocumented immigrants. They had to be excluded from the category of “persons.” And that’s happening right now. So the legislations that you’re talking about, they go two ways. They broaden the category of persons to include corporate entities, which now have rights way beyond human beings, given by the trade agreements and others, and they exclude the people who flee from Central America where the U.S. devastated their homelands, and flee from Mexico because they can’t compete with the highly-subsidized U.S. agribusiness.”

This is significant because the concept of a ‘person’ is often a contested and loaded category. Just by being human, it is not enough to be considered a person, even. In the context of the US (and really, the history of every state), there has always been actual human beings who were dehumanised and not considered humans. Slaves were considered, in the US constitution as 3/5th humans, women were not considered fully human too. Now these things might have been changed on paper, but of course in reality, policy, and especially the enactment of violence by the state against the bodies of Blacks and the controlling of bodies with uteruses, these two groups of people are not treated or regarded as fully human.

The fact that corporations, entities that are actively responsible for the destruction of the environment, what little is left of social welfare and benefits of the state, the pilfering of public taxpayer monies — the fact that they are considered a ‘person’ is something that says everything about how and why severe income inequality can continue not just to persist, but severely worsen. In fact I would say that considering the trajectory, it is not surprising that you would get an exploitative businessman who profits from the current neoliberal, capitalist order as the current president of the states. While most people might have been shocked, I had thought that it was a matter of eventuality. He is truly representative of what the state is like, without any mask or political speak.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid.


The Reluctant Fundamentalist is written in that engaging monologue style that immediately reminded me of Albert Camus’s The Fall. Like in The Fall, Changez, the main protaganist in The Reluctant Fundamentalist strikes a conversation with a stranger in some kind of establishment. In this case, they are both in a restaurant and the stranger is an american man, presumably someone whose vocation deployed him to Pakistan (or at least that’s what it sounded like to me).

I picked up this book perhaps with my expectations already too high. I heard so much about it, most of it good. It had glowing reviews and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Proper scholarly work has been written on it. Admittedly I am late to the party, writing this review 10 years on. I learned that part of its popularity was due to a movie adaptation.

Of the people who criticised it or gave it low ratings I noticed that they tend to be white folks who were aghast at the audacity of the protagonist to be so ungrateful to the wonderful benefits that the wonderful country, The US, had given to him. How could he! One comment mentioned that this is a privileged guy who went to an Ivy League, making it harder to citizens to enter the school. Some even went so far as to insinuate that he should be grateful he got the opportunity to be in the US instead of the obviously inferior and less developed Pakistan. Someone mentioned that they didn’t understand why the protagonist hated the US since the only incidents of racism he faced were negligible. Because criticism of the book is dominantly in this vein (basically ad hominem attacks against the protagonist which largely accuse him of ingratitude) to criticise this book might risk being seen as someone who endorses the messages these ‘critics’ or to invalidate the pain of the character or the issues the book tries to raise.

But my issue with this book is that its criticisms are too superficial, and does not engage with the issues raised with the critical depth necessary. Liberals would love it, I am sure, because the message you get is basically the rather trite one that tells you not to be prejudicial and to question the first impression that you have of someone. This bearded guy is not a terrorist just because he’s brown, muslim, and has facial hair. The American is not necessarily a bigot who hates Muslims and people of colour.

“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.”

Of course, judging from the nature of comments that criticise the book, I guess this kind of basic message is sadly still necessary, in which case I will have to concede that the book is important and it does the job. And of course I expect there’s always that contention that the writer doesn’t have to write the book with the kind of critical depth that some readers might want, I guess (I’m not convinced with this reasoning when it’s dealing with a political topic as heavy as this though..).

The book is undisputedly engaging, due in part to its stylistic choice. But it falls short on other fronts. The characters are flat, and almost verge on caricature. It is as if these characters have to be a certain way in order to induce the stereotypical/prejudicial reaction from the reader. The word ‘fundamentalist’ being used is at least a little smart though, if only because it does not end up being a story about a guy becoming a Muslim fundamentalist nor does a hint of something concerning ‘political Islam’ or extremism really come up in relation to Changez. The fact that I sort of expected at least a mention of that at least reveals my own instinctive expectations just because of this word. The word in itself provokes reaction. But other than that the characters and their reactions were almost cheesy.

Perhaps Changez himself understands it too simplistically. Perhaps he was protected for the most part of it because he was privileged enough to study in Princeton and did not live in the US for most of his life. But prejudicial attitudes against Muslims, specifically Muslims who are people of colour, did not start from 9-11 though it did worsened after that.

The book does make an effort to point out American exceptionalism through engaging with the theme of nostalgia. In the one quote that I like from the whole book, it manages the critical depth that is at least necessary:

“As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away.”

The fact is, however, that the reality of America’s (the state) treatment of those deemed Other and different and therefore suspicious is located not within the individual attitudes of prejudice. Neither is it located just within American exceptionalism which is presented in the book, like in the quote above, to be something that is perpetuated by an arrogant populace. The truth is that this arrogance has been manufactured and then perpetuated through sheer belief. American exceptionalism is only a vehicle/an instrument utilised by the state to continue its long drawn history of how it has always established itself in violent terms against Others, first through genocide of native Americans, then the slavery of black people, the violent annexation of a part of Mexico, placing Japanese people in internment camps, etc. The list goes on.

The issue that is being raised in this book is far more complex and nuanced than can be portrayed with the flat characters. I wish I could find better words to explain why I didn’t enjoy this book in the end & found it disappointing. But mainly it was due to the way it poorly handled the political discussion surrounding the book & how simplistically I felt it was done. It felt good to read if you wanted to virtue-signal & say hey, I read this, I agree that we shouldn’t be prejudicial. I felt that there were so many gaping voids, including the fact that Changez seems to be the only Muslim in the US we engage with in the book. All the others he engages with seem to be basically white America.

Of course maybe I am being demanding to expect the political sophistication 10 years ago when 9-11 was still fresh in the psyche & discussions were still fresh too about Muslims, islamophobia & American foreign policy. Perhaps I am even being too much to expect political sophistication in a literary work. But I don’t think it is unfair to demand that if a work wishes to invoke a political issue, then it has to be properly engaged with so that this issue, a material, violent reality that affects others, isn’t just treated like an empty fodder than ends up making a work of art more interesting. Of course I’m not saying that this is what he does. I am merely trying to explain why I had expected so much from this book. It did not deliver in my opinion, but I am willing to concede that most well-intentioned liberals would love it.