Mohsin Hamid: Migration of the Future

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” These words from “The New Colossus” and emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty exemplify the early spirit of immigration to the United States of America, and migration has been part of the culture and evolution of the United States since before we were an established country. However, contemporary migration has become such a concern in the US that it has caused current politicians to revert back to negative ideas and assumptions regarding the immigrants that enter the country every year. Our nation is plagued by pessimistic politics that rule the current decisions regarding migration across the globe. Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid has reacted to this with a unique view on migration that he has explored and discussed through his novels The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Exit West. Through these novels and the movie adaptation of the former, Hamid takes a look at the stark reality of modern, post September 11, 2001 immigration, and ultimately expresses the ideas of open borders and fluid migration for a more hopeful future of humanity.

Mohsin Hamid is an author who uses his novels and published essays to encourage change in the world. He has lived in the United States, London, and Pakistan. His unusual upbringing has left him with an unsettled feeling everywhere, but he has also developed the ability to create a home anywhere (English). He has a tendency to use parts of his own life story for his characters and he uses those characters to explore different avenues and paths than the ones he’s taken himself. Hamid has said that both his early novel Moth Smoke, and the more recent The Reluctant Fundamentalist, were “attempts to look at my world and deal with my world” (Sharma Interview). In his latest book, Exit West, he addresses the idea of migration as being a basic human condition. This book represents the change he would like to see in our future, and a world where it doesn’t matter where we were born because we can live anywhere. The world has been made smaller through technology, and his belief is that the doors he uses in the novel help represent the collapse of distance (English). He lists his influences as Albert Camus, Toni Morrison, and James Baldwin, though also mentions that he is influenced by everything he reads. “Fiction can have a lot of truth even though it’s false, because it can come from a place that’s true” (Sharma Interview). Hamid uses his novels to provide fiction with truths, and those truths cause us to question ourselves and our beliefs. A unique aspect of his writing is his reliance on a strict or particular structure. Hamid will create a structure for himself if it doesn’t already exist and finds it difficult to create without an established structure, and as he puts it, “builds novels like a building” (Sharma interview). Hamid sees the power in structure and feels that he is most creative when he has walls and limitations stopping him. “It’s twelve chapters and every single one of them will be exactly ten pages on my word processor. They will each begin and end with this and these motifs will repeat“ (Sharma Interview). His use of structure is designed to assist the reader through complicated and intricate stories. In his first two novels he sets up a structure that makes the reader an active participant in the story. At the end of the novels the reader is asked to judge his characters, which brings them into the moral action of the book. Hamid believes that an author can develop a union between himself and the reader, and through the act of reading, he aspires to make those connections (Sharma Interview). In commenting on The Reluctant Fundamentalist, he stated, “I wanted the novel to be a kind of mirror, to let readers see how they are reading, and therefore, how they are living and how they are deciding their politics” (Koppisch 122). The main character of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Changez, undergoes profound changes in his life, and shifts in awareness regarding immigration and politics before and after September 11, 2001.

As the novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist opens, the reader is immediately introduced to Changez as he attempts to get your attention and draw you into a cafe for tea. In the context of the novel, he is really inviting in an unnamed American, but because of the conversational style of the novel it feels like he is talking directly to you, the reader. Changez begins to offer his assistance to and his recognition of the American, and shows a type of hospitality that puts him in a vulnerable position (Balfour 217). Early in the events of the story, the reader learns that Changez went to college in the United States and then worked for a spell at a large corporate firm in New York. After establishing his time in America he proceeds to tell his story to the American, although at this point, the reader doesn’t really understand why Changez feels the need to explain his story to the American. For Changez, attending college at Princeton was a dream come true, and he eagerly welcomed the chance to learn from outstanding professors and be surrounded by students of superior intellect. At this point in the novel, the reader sees Changez through the guise of an enthusiastic child, because although he is college aged, he is very naive to the goings on in the US. As an immigrant, Changez failed to realize that his admission to Princeton was a US initiative to get the best and the brightest from around the world (Ghosal 89). America had a much more healthy and open attitude towards the migration of people from other parts of the world, but that didn’t mean they considered them equals. He quickly began to see that merely studying at Princeton was not enough to raise his social standing. This issue with status was noticeably apparent during a trip he took to Greece with several of his Princeton alums after graduation, and eye-opening for him in ways he didn’t like to see. His own motivations placed a huge value on his American education because he was trying to raise his status in his own country, for family had been wealthy in the past, but their wealth was all but gone in the present. He watches as many of his friends spend money on useless things while he has flashbacks back to the part-time work he did to help him get through college. Changez did not truly feel good enough to fit in until he met a woman, Erica, and got the job at the firm Underwood Samson. He met Erica and became smitten with her while they were traveling in Greece. After they returned home, the two began spending time together, and because of the wealth and status of her family, he felt like he was on his way to finer things. Underwood Samson was a prestigious firm that Changez had long desired to work for. If he was able to secure employment in this firm, after a few years, he would have almost guaranteed admission to Harvard Business School. He had prepared so well, that after a fifty minute interview he walked away with the job he’d long dreamed of. Changez chases the American Dream, and up to this point feels it is possible to achieve everything. As he begins his career in New York, Changez is acutely aware of how New York has its own identity. He immediately feels connected to New York, and this begins to change him in a way that views himself as more American than Pakistani. Unfortunately for Changez, his entire world came crashing down after September 11, 2001.

Most Americans are intimately aware of the events of September 11, 2001 even if it occurred before they were born. The preponderance of books, articles, videos, and surviving footage of the attacks is ever present, allowing constant insight into this tragedy. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a novel that is born out of this tragedy, but from the perspective of the “other side.” Since 9/11, much literature has changed, and a new genre has emerged known as “9/11 Literature.” This type of literature includes criticism of the mass media and the consumerist society of America, and many of these novels also deal with global conflict and personal accounts of alienation, doubt, estrangement from family, and society (Žindžiuvienė 150). Changez was separated from his family by thousands of miles, and all the while the growing concern he had for their safety continued to mount. The characters in the 9/11 novels typically suffer loss, and Changez is no exception, as he suffers great loss when his relationship with Erica begins to fall apart. He has no idea how to deal with her extreme depression and her eventual commitment to a mental hospital. Changez is confronted with the differences between America and Pakistan as he navigates New York after the attacks (Žindžiuvienė 151), and experiences a severe shift in attitude toward him after 9/11. Hamid has created a character that tells us the Muslim point of view of 9/11 and its aftermath. The unnamed American doesn’t respond or offer an opinion because the point of the story is to hear the other side (Žindžiuvienė 152). Hamid’s character is determined to show the unnamed American that the attitudes of American society towards Muslims are unfair and unjust. Changez was angry because of the myths and superiority that America displayed to the world after 9/11. “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” (Hamid, The Reluctant, 168). These events lead the character to completely reevaluate his life in America and how he felt about the American phobia towards Muslims (Žindžiuvienė 153). Changez became even more disillusioned after he saw the footage of the planes hitting the twin towers and its subsequent fallout.

On September 11, 2001, Changez was in Manila on assignment when the tragedy struck the US. His initial reaction to the events was one of pleasure until he heard all his colleagues talk of their loved ones back home. From the first moment that he arrived back in the US he noticed a change in his reception. He was detained and questioned at the airport about his trip while all his colleagues were able to go home to their families. Hamid chose to include this unusual reaction of Changez’s because he knew that the reader is more likely to judge a character like Changez (Sharma Interview). This is the point in the novel where the reader begins to see Changez’s “American Dream” fall apart completely. He begins to question his distance from his family, the validity of his job, and see the hopelessness within his relationship with Erica. One of the reasons that Changez begins to fall apart is because his identity has been created for him through the gaze of others (Lau and Mendes 83). Changez’s character represents the perspective of the “other” which can create a conflict within the reader. This perspective shows America through the eyes of someone who believes that he was wronged. By this point of the novel, Changez “narrates how Muslims in America are stereotyped in every respect” (Ghosal 96). He makes a trip home to Pakistan to see his family, and upon arriving, he realizes how much he has truly changed, and he begins to see his native home in a different light. He realizes that he has changed, and so have his perceptions. He has adopted an “American Gaze,” and he’s not proud of it. “I had changed; I was looking about me with the eyes of a foreigner, and not just any foreigner, but that particular type of entitled and unsympathetic American” (Darda 114). During his trip to Pakistan, Changez makes the decision to wear a beard, knowing that this will cause more suspicion and speculation to follow him. He struggles to reclaim his identity, and this act demonstrates how he feels in terms of status in America (Awan 14). Even after returning to the US, Changez keeps his beard because it is a symbol of “identity, a reminder, and a form of protest” against the nation that he had called home for the last few years. Hamid himself views the beard as “a mirror to the viewer” because different people react to it in different ways (From Refugees). This is also the time in the novel where his life in the US ceases to have meaning or value. Changez finally gives up all connection to America after his relationship with Erica is over. She was the last thing really keeping him connected to the US, and he eventually quits his job and returns to Pakistan. Towards the end of the novel, Changez begins to tell the American of his job as a professor and how he has led student protests against America from his home country. He went from loving the United States to feeling like “they needed to be stopped for the good of humanity itself” (Darda 119). These views go along with the idea that the US was unable to consider “the shared pain that united us with those that attacked us” (Darda 119). Changez tells the unnamed American, and by proxy the reader who has become the character in the story, that America can’t only focus on themselves when considering their actions in the war on terror. The reader is left to judge both Changez and the American because there is an implied threat of violence in the book that isn’t resolved within the story. The choices made in the novel help to express and define Hamid’s views on people and countries.

Hamid uses various elements to explore his ideas about transnational civic engagement. The structure of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is designed as a dramatic monologue where the main character is telling his story to an unnamed person that doesn’t actively participate in the dialogue of the text. This structure draws the reader into the novel and makes him or her a character in the action. Through his confessional discourse, Changez explains the transformation of a Muslim immigrant in the US after 9/11 (Žindžiuvienė 152). The story is one of first-person narration where the main character is relaying his experiences in America before and after 9/11 (Baseer 1). Although the character is telling the events of his past experiences, the story still follows a linear narration. There is some ambiguity on the part of the reader (and hence, the “American”), whether or not Changez is a reliable narrator. On one hand, he is “the eyewitness of the havoc and sufferings in New York after 9/11” (Baseer 9), but on the other, he is a Muslim whose sympathies change towards the United States from unabashedly positive to cynically negative.

Although Hamid himself has not explicitly stated this interpretation, The Reluctant Fundamentalist has been read as an allegory for US-Pakistani relations, where the character of Changez is thought to represent Pakistan, Erica is thought to represent America the nation, and the company Underwood Sampson as the global corporate power of the US (Mahmutovic 4-5). One setting of the novel occurs in the district of Old Anarkali, where a marketplace adds to the allegorical representations of nation, state affairs, and traditions. The relations between the two countries are put into perspective when considering that there is no alcohol present in the market but there are familiar carbonated beverages. These soft drinks stand for the capitalist economy, while the unnamed American is thought to represent the US’s foreign policy. Changez’ suggestion to the American as to where to find the perfect cup of tea is a symbol of a business transaction. These two businessmen are not economically equal though, so the hyperbole shows that they are being theatrical (Mahmutovic 6). These elements force the reader to look at what is “a viable civic imaginary and civic engagement” for people living in America but who are not American citizens, but still work for the “global economic benefit of America” (Mahmutovic 9). These ideas of civic engagement for non-citizens go back to the ideas of migration and the mobility that people should or shouldn’t have within society. Hamid’s novel forces us to see how technology and connectedness has made the distance between countries and cultures collapse.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist ends with a lot of ambiguity, but when director Mira Nair went about creating her vision for a film adaptation, much of the ambiguity was resolved. It is rare for an author to be involved in writing a screenplay for the adaptation of his novel, but Mohsin Hamid did just that when Mira Nair brought The Reluctant Fundamentalist to the big screen. Nair stated in a red carpet interview that the reason she wanted Hamid to work on the screenplay was because he had intimate knowledge of both worlds being portrayed, and therefore she trusted him (TV). Hamid himself has said in interviews that converting The Reluctant Fundamentalist into a movie was a nightmare, although he did feel the finished product was a beautiful work of art that included people from all over the world (English). Although the movie is notably different from the book, one key idea that readily occurs in both is the idea of fundamentals. Underwood Samson, the prestigious firm that Changez works for, had based all their practices on the fundamentals of business and finance. Similarly, when Changez was asked to join the terrorist group in Pakistan, the radical leaders tried to justify their practices as representing the fundamentals of the Muslim religion. In the book, the plot does not make clear whether or not Changez actually gets involved in terrorist activity, but in the movie Nair does show the viewer her interpretation of how close Changez actually came to agreeing to join the group. The idea that they based their group on Muslim fundamentals is actually what made him walk away because of his previous negative experiences with Underwood Samson. Nair wanted her audience to be able to recognize themselves in the journey of either Bobby (the American) or Changez. She considered her film to be a dialogue with America (TV). Although the film is an adaptation of the novel, in Hamid’s own words, the “film is inspired by the novel, but isn’t the novel on screen” (Lau and Mendes 88). The novel alludes to much discrimination that Changez has to undergo at the hands of Americans after 9/11, but Nair is much more explicit with her examples. The book talks of Changez being detained when he returned from Manila, but in the movie he wasn’t just detained, he was taken in a room and strip searched. Another example of the discrimination is when Changez is arrested in the movie right outside of his office for being coincidentally in the wrong place at the wrong time. The book doesn’t specifically mention these detailed events, but they exhibit the humiliation he felt in a country he called home that had turned against him. There has been criticism that Nair changed the meaning of the film because she made so many changes to the story. One factor that has been criticized is the less significant role that Changez has in the adaptation. Bratz address the idea that Bobby is the one leading the dialogue in the movie, and sort of forces Changez to answer questions, eventually even at gunpoint (Bratz, “Lovers, 162). The book shows a character that idolizes Erica and continues to spend time with her even as she keeps him as more of a friend. The movie changes that relationship into one where he and Erica were intimate on a regular basis and only showed the holes in her psyche through her occasional breakdowns. Erica went from being a very emotionally damaged and suicidal to a woman that is manipulative and ends up showing Changez the ugly side of America (Bratz, “Lovers, 165). The novel shows the reader the issues facing immigrants trying to build a life in the US, but the movie is much more centered on being a thriller with lots of suspense set in the country of Changez’s origin but without his apparent struggles.

In his most recent novel, Exit West, published in 2017, Hamid writes about migration in terms of fluid movements between countries. The novel is a love story set in an unnamed city on the verge of civil war. Hamid describes the novel’s setting as a kind of nightmare that descends into civil war. The two main characters, Saeed and Nadia, represent very different aspects of youth, and they meet and fall in love within this war torn place. It is a story of first love, and although the love is transient, Hamid wants to show how love can still be wonderful and optimistic even if it doesn’t last. A most unusual aspect of the novel is the use of “magical” doors to move people from place to place. Hamid admits in multiple interviews that the doors are an allusion to C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe series, which was a fact that Hamid’s wife made him aware of this when she read his first draft (Morgan-Bentley). The doors already exist to Hamid because they represent the technological reality we already live in. Because in many migration stories the focus is on the journey of the characters rather than what happens when they get there, Hamid wanted to focus his own narration on the reasons that make people leave their countries of origin to begin with, and what happens to them after they arrive at the new place. He uses the doors as a means to focus on the “de-emphasized” parts of migration (From Refugees). The migration journey that is taken tends to mark the immigrant as different, when in fact they all have a common element. They were all living in a place where something made them want to leave. The final stage involves them arriving in a new place, and that is the part of the journey that no one talks about (English). The novel was inspired by the growing trends in the world, and Hamid began to see growing anti-migrant rhetoric and the politics based in nostalgia so he wished to present a new path where people didn’t retreat into tribal politics. He envisions a world where, in a few centuries, “the idea that people have to live in the place they were born [is seen as] as archaic” (Morgan-Bentley). The novel shows the struggles and hardships that Saeed and Nadia go through to find a new place, while also showing their evolution as people: the idea that people can work together to create homes for each other and that each person’s work contributes to this goal. The people in Exit West were sometimes living in shacks of sorts but they seem to find a relative happiness in their lives despite the difficult conditions they live in. The natives of the different cities begin to see the changes in their surroundings, and they realize that there is a migration that occurs in everyone’s life. “We are all migrants through time” (Hamid, Exit, 209). The novel is a true testament to Hamid’s visions of the future of the world. He sees a vision where people embrace their differences and live peaceably. People are no longer just associated with one identity and Hamid believes that, “if we can encourage that kind of hybridization, mongrelization, and look at it as a good thing, I think we’re relatively safe” (Pakistani). There is clear evolution of Hamid’s humanity as it has been expressed in his novels.

In the United States, President Trump has imposed bans on many Muslim-majority countries over the course of his presidency. In an interview with Hamid, Terry Gross asked him about Trump’s recent ban and how his book Exit West addresses similar issues. Hamid discussed that the ban determines who belongs and who doesn’t. His concern for the ban had to do with how it would be potentially dangerous for refugees (From Refugees). In yet another interview, Scott Simon asked Hamid about the changes in the world after 9/11. “I mean, I think that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 did change the world, but it caused the world to split and move along fissures that were already there” (Pakistani). Both of these interviews involve life after 9/11. The current state of migration in the US is tenuous at best, because with the President trying to build a wall and putting travel bans on many countries, we have become a much more closed off country. Hamid mentioned in an interview that his young daughter no longer wanted him to travel to the US because she is afraid of Trump, because “the notion that there’s a person who’s the head of the most powerful country in the world who dislikes so many people around the world” is pretty scary to a 7 year-old (From Refugees). Since 9/11, the security coming in and out of this country has increased. Hamid discussed in more than one interview about being detained in airports because he was from Pakistan. Post 9/11 attitudes have made it possible that at some point, the US could decide that he might no longer be allowed enter the very country that he used to live in (Sharma Interview). Hamid has said, ”I think sometimes feeling that you’ve been marginalized opens you up to the realization that, in their own lives, almost everyone experiences marginalization, a kind of foreigner sense” (From Refugees). One situation that Hamid discussed about being a Pakistani author had to do with the reception he receives from various groups. He expressed that on one hand people have read your work and are excited to have you visiting or doing a reading, but on the exact same trip you might be detained at the airport or questioned by security. He said, “You’re being welcomed as an artist and, at the same time, you belong to a suspect class where there’s a suspicion that really, deep down, you’re a terrorist” (From Refugee). These views of migration represent the “other” side of the issue. The US is no longer the center of the world to most countries, and even countries like Pakistan are looking build relationships other countries like China. Although the world’s migration has changed, the stories of the world in fiction have not, which allows us to see other perspectives.

Hamid believes that the world is on the cusp of a big change that will be a new and better world. Exit West can offer insight into a world that offers an exciting alternative to the pessimistic politics plaguing the world in the present. “I think that it’s very important to resist that anxiety, to think of ways of resisting the constant inflow of negative feelings, not to become depoliticized as a result, but to actually work actively to bring into being an optimistic future” (Pakistani). Hamid wants to imagine a world where anyone can live anywhere: a migration apocalypse for the good (Morgan-Bentley). Post 9/11 America is dramatically different than the country that existed before the tragedy, but books like The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Exit West can help people get a better understanding of the challenges facing the future generations and the challenges that will be involved with migration and whether or not people will have their movements restricted to their country of birth. According to Hamid, “Writing a novel is like digging a well,” where you put in the time and see what comes out (Morgan-Bentley). Futuregenerations will have to approach migration with the same time and compassion that Hamid approaches his novels.

 

Word Count: 4654

 

Works Consulted

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Mahmutovic, Adnan. “Global Citizenship in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” Transnational Literature, vol. 8, no. 2, May 2016, pp. 1–15. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2017100704&site=eds-live&scope=site.

 

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“The Reluctant Fundamentalist: Mohsin Hamid in Conversation with Akhil Sharma.” PEN America, 2 May 2010, pen.org/event/the-reluctant-fundamentalist-mohsin-hamid-in-conversation-with-akhil-sharma/.

 

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