The Reluctant Other

The third book in my series Between Two Worlds (tentatively titled Welcome, Reluctant Stranger) focuses on a young woman who, as a child, had to flee a small country in the Pacific. She brings her history to a new place (California) where she must now fit in.

I will answer a question that hasn’t yet been asked, but which might occur to anyone who knows a bit of my history. Is this novel autobiographical?

The brief answer is “No,” based on the usual notion that fiction that’s autobiographical has actual events from the author’s life. But the novel does borrow from experiences of people I know.

When I write fiction, I also frequently read books (if I hadn’t yet done so, in the past) that might have themes or plotlines similar to those in my current work. I guess I want to see how other writers approach the same themes or plotlines.

For this third book in my series, I picked a couple written by authors whose POVs are quite different from that of a Westerner—the Other, as it were. The first is The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, a Princeton and Harvard-educated Pakistani now living in London, who has won awards for his writing.

Without having read the book, most of us would assume the fundamentalist in the title refers to someone who’s a religious fanatic, most likely of Muslim persuasion. Actually, it does not. The reluctant fundamentalist is, in fact, a young Pakistani whippersnapper from Princeton who starts out gung-ho about the core beliefs of the corporation he’s working for—the fundamentals, as the corporation labels it.

Maybe it is disingenuous of the writer to use such a loaded title. But, maybe, he means to question our beliefs. I think it is a clever tactic that compels you to confront your prejudice or, at least your stereotypes. It is as if the author is saying: Hah! Caught you. You thought my story is about a religious fundamentalist. Is it because of what the word means to you or because of who I am?

Mr. Hamid’s fundamentalist becomes the corporation’s star analyst. He is not, as yet, reluctant. At least, until 9/11 happens. This event as well as subsequent threat of war between Pakistan and India opens his eyes about the foreign country—the empire, as he calls it at some point—he tried to fit in. His “otherness” and his treatment as the suspect Other haunts him. He also sees how much the empire could manipulate what happens to his native land. He concludes: (p.168)

(null)

He does an about-face and returns to Pakistan. There he teaches at a university and incites students to demonstrate for Pakistan’s disengagement from the US. It is his mission in a decaying part of the world to stop the empire from manipulating the fate of powerless countries. He is labeled anti-American.

The novel is short and covers one afternoon when the main protagonist tells his story to an American, a CIA agent. This fact is not clearly stated, but the narrator/protagonist offers strong evidence that he is.

A well-written engaging story, it flows naturally, and ends with a scene in which, after relating his story, the protagonist sees the American reaching for something inside his jacket—most likely a gun. The ending invites you to imagine what might happen next. What you might imagine probably depends on your personal beliefs and biases.

Institut du Monde Arab
Institut du Monde Arab

The novel includes a side story about the protagonist’s slow-building love affair with a bright but disturbed young woman from a rich Upper Fifth Avenue family. I can’t quite understand how it relates to the main storyline. Maybe, the author is suggesting that love conquers differences, although their “love” which is, in fact, only on his side, is not tested by 9/11. She disappears, presumably dying by suicide. I think this side story could have been easily eliminated without diminishing the impact of what the author wishes to say. It might offer a little titillating element, but that’s all it does for me.

Large chunks of this post first appeared in my other blog, Journey on a Limb. The original post focused more on clashing beliefs and was triggered by my sadness over what happened at Charlie Hebdo, where journalists-artists were gunned down.

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