21st century writing | 21st century approaches

‘Planetarity’ and Pakistani Post-9/11 Fiction

Daniel O'Gorman


In Death of a Discipline (2003), Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak argues that a merging of Comparative Literature with Area Studies can help provide the critical tools necessary for the emergence of new and progressive approaches to the idea of the ‘global’, a concept that she considers to be too closely tied to neoliberal discourse. She proposes that a less politically loaded – and therefore more desirable – way of ‘figuring’ the world might take the form of what she calls ‘planetarity’; that is, a sense of the planet that draws on both literary and geographical studies to ‘overwrite the globe’ in such a way that protects the radical alterity of indigenous voices and ways of life (Spivak 2003: 72).

Spivak’s call for a merging of literature with geography builds on work already published by postmodern geographers such as Derek Gregory, and is part of a wider attempt to move postcolonial discourse beyond what she sees as the now dated ‘splicing’ of such fields with a politically-loaded – and somewhat hazily defined – notion of ‘multiculturalism’ (4). She writes: ‘A combination of Ethnic Studies and Area Studies bypasses the literary and linguistic. What I am proposing is not a politicization of the discipline. We are in politics. I am proposing an attempt to depoliticize in order to move away from a politics of hostility, fear, and half solutions’ (4). Until this occurs, she contends, the very concept of ‘reading’ texts at university will remain inextricably bound with the antiquated notion of literature as ‘explaining’ or ‘cultural instruction’, with any comprehension of the ‘globe’ being possible only in the language of the local. The complex ambiguity of the ‘figure’ – that is, the ‘figurative’ or ‘poetic’ aspect of literary representation – is forcibly homogenised, and thus literally ‘dis-figured’ by a culturally-specific ‘reading’ (a problem that she suggests is a by-product of globalisation) (72).


Should we read Pakistani literature through the framework of ethnic and area studies? Spivak's concept of "planetarity" calls for a blurring of disciplinary boundaries between literature and geography [Image by Asim Bharwani under a CC BY-NC-ND license]


Spivak is right to challenge the neoliberal inflection in the idea of the ‘global’, as well as to call for an interdisciplinary blurring of the borderlines between literature and geography. However, I argue that the dichotomy she sets up between ‘explaining’ and ‘figuring’ is problematic (or at least slightly more problematic than she allows), as it relies upon precisely the kind of arbitrary boundary between the two categories that she has spent her career striving to undercut. In her 1987 volume, In Other Worlds, for instance, she channels Derrida by highlighting ‘the itinerary[, in all texts,] of a constantly thwarted desire to make the text explain’ (Spivak 2006: 143). Likewise, in her essay, ‘Translating into English’, she describes the tension between ‘explaining’ and ‘figuring’ as a ‘double-bind’, in which ‘[w]e transfer content because we must, knowing it cannot be done’ (Spivak 2005: 100).  

While it is worth noting that Spivak accepts that ‘[planetarity] is not really amenable to a neat contrast with the globe’ (Spivak 2003: 72), I would argue that as an approach to literature, the concept still remains far too clear-cut. In the remainder of my article, I make this case through an analysis of a genre of contemporary ‘global’ fiction that occupies a particularly ambivalent position on the continuum between ‘explaining’ and ’figuring’: post-9/11 novels by authors from Pakistan.


Granta 112: Pakistan: reading post-9/11 Pakistani fiction helps us problematise the marketing genre of contemporary "global" literature [Image used under fair dealings provisions]


The market for Anglophone Pakistani fiction has been growing for over a decade, and was recognised in a special issue of Granta in Autumn 2010. Targeted at an English-speaking readership, engaging with representations of Pakistan in the ‘Western’ media, and almost without exception written in an accessible, ‘middle-brow’ register, this fiction is simultaneously a product of and a reaction against capitalist, Anglo-centric globalisation. Much of it evidences a toning down, at least in a literal sense, of what Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin describe in The Empire Writes Back (1989) as ‘english’ with a lower case ‘e’: that is, the attempt by postcolonial writers to ‘appropriate the dominant language, transform it, and use it to reveal a cultural reality to a world audience’ (Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin 189).

However, while the genre’s prominence is largely due to an increase in Western demand for a particular kind of didactic or ‘explanatory’ international writing, much of this writing also clearly attempts to show why such ‘explanation’ can often be problematic. It aims to raise consciousness whilst simultaneously ‘disrupt[ing] confidence in consciousness-raising’ (which is how Spivak defines the ‘figure’ in her lecture, ‘Terror: A Speech After 9/11’, published in boundary 2 in 2004). As a result, much of this fiction is able to challenge international perceptions of Pakistan at the same time as it heavily critiques the nation’s ongoing problems with fundamentalism and free expression.

Focusing on three recent novels that have explicitly engaged with the themes of 9/11 and the war on terror (The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid [2007], The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam [2008], and Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie [2009]), I suggest that this ambivalence about the ‘global’ is particularly evident in the way that the texts prompt their readers to think about the hermeneutic or imaginative ‘itinerary’ that they are partaking in as they read. On the one hand, the novels help to engender an appreciation for what Aslam, in The Wasted Vigil, describes as ‘the delightful essential idea that tales can travel, or that two sets of people oceans apart can dream up similar sacred myths’ (Aslam 231); on the other, they consistently remind their readers of what Hamid’s narrator is getting at when he says: ‘what is natural in one place can seem unnatural in another, and some concepts travel rather poorly, if at all’ (Hamid 143).[1]


Screenwriter Ami Boghani, Doha Film Institute CEO Abdulaziz Bin Khalid Al-Khater, Director Mira Nair and novelist Mohsin Hamid at the premiere of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, 4th Doha Tribeca Film Festival 2012 [Image by Omar Chatriwala under a CC BY-NC-ND license]


All three texts ‘thwart’ their readers’ desire to glimpse an ‘authentic’ Pakistan right from the start, simply because none of them are really ‘about’ Pakistan at all, or at least not directly. Rather, they all attempt to decentre preconceptions about the nation, or, as Peter Morey, borrowing from both Richard Gray and Deleuze and Guattari, puts it in the recent Pakistan-themed issue of the Journal of Postcolonial Writing­, to ‘deterritorialize’ it by calling both its metaphorical and literal borders into question (Morey 138). The Wasted Vigil, for example, takes place mostly in present-day, war on terror-era Afghanistan, but its narrative jumps back and forth in time in a way that emphasises the historical context of the current conflict, partly by highlighting its connections to the renewal of ‘Great Game’-style colonial politics in the region during the Cold War, and partly by drawing attention to the fluctuations over time in so-called ‘Af-Pak’ border relations.[2] At one point during a section set in the 1980s, one character says to another: ‘Look at the shapes of the two countries on a map and you’ll see that Afghanistan rests like a huge burden on poor Pakistan’s back. A bundle of misery’ (Aslam 196).

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (which Hamid has co-adapted into a soon-to-be-released major film) likewise jumps back and forth in time, but this time between a past in the United States, where most of the story’s action takes place, and a present in Pakistan. The narrator, Changez, recalls his experiences as a young immigrant attempting to be welcomed in the US through ‘a process of osmosis’ (Hamid 160), but ultimately feeling so ‘othered’ by a post-9/11 suspicion of Muslims that he decides to move back to Lahore. His relationship with the US is captured microcosmically in the form of a romantic relationship that he has with a young woman called Erica (an admittedly rather unsubtly-named cipher for post-9/11 Am-erica), who is driven to psychosis by a sudden personal trauma. Reflecting on this relationship after it has fallen apart, he says:

it is not always possible to restore one’s boundaries after they have been blurred and made permeable by a relationship: try as we might, we cannot reconstitute ourselves as the autonomous beings we previously imagined ourselves to be. Something of us is now outside, and something of the outside is now within us. (Hamid 197)

The novel warns that both Pakistan and the United States are inextricably tied up with the multitudinous histories of the world, and must resist the ‘fundamentalist’ urge to pretend this is not the case.


 Uprooting regionally specific histories: novels such as Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Shamsie's Burnt Shadows offer a "planetarity" that is both explanatory and figurative [Image by Asim Bharwani under a CC BY-NC-ND license]


In a similar vein, Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows opens with a short prologue in which a man sits in a cell in Guantanamo Bay, wondering: ‘How did it come to this?’ (Shamsie 1). It then jumps back to the bombing of Nagasaki by US forces in 1945, and goes on to trace a connection between the two scenes, via a series of momentous events including the Partition of India, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the 9/11 attacks, and the beginning of the war on terror. It joins these historical dots not in the manner of a paranoid conspiracy theorist, but in such a way that – like in the other two novels – generates a strong sense of historicity; that is, what Hayden White describes as a heightened subjective ‘awareness of the historical process itself’ (White 97).

Instead of dialectically opposing the neoliberal ‘globe’, Shamsie helps to infuse its language with a sense, if not an understanding, of the other; a sentiment that is strongly reflected in a melancholy, epiphanic moment that its itinerant Japanese protagonist, Hiroko Tanaka, experiences when looking at the photo of a missing person in New York shortly after the 9/11 attacks:

Hiroko thought of the train station at Nagasaki …The walls plastered with signs asking for news of missing people. … In moments such as these it seemed entirely wrong to feel oneself living in a different history to the people of this city. (Shamsie 274)

It is in this emphasis not just on a reconfiguration of historical narratives, but on the process of translation between them, that Burnt Shadows moves beyond the kind of ‘explanation’/‘figuration’ dichotomy that underpins Spivak’s notion of ‘planetarity’.

At moments such as these, when the figurative quality of translation is brought to the fore and ‘thwarted’, all three novels overtly resist the sense of ‘post-Historical’, Fukuyamaite hegemony that Spivak describes as the ‘globe’. However, they aim to do this in a way that those who speak the ‘language’ of globalisation (whether literally or figuratively) can understand, even if this simply means understanding the very impossibility of understanding itself. The novels’ attempt to ‘uproot’ or translate themselves from the localised specificities of regional history lends them a sense of ‘planetarity’ that is both explanatory and figurative. They are not anti-globalist texts, but by consciously ‘thwarting’ their own explanatory trajectories, they might be described, more broadly, as anti-Historicist ones.


CITATION: Daniel O'Gorman, " 'Planetarity' and Pakistani Post-9/11 Fiction," Alluvium, Vol. 1, No. 7 (2012): n. pag. Web. 9 December 2012, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v1.7.02.


Daniel O'Gorman is completing a PhD in post-9/11 fiction and critical theory in the Department of English at Royal Holloway, University of London and has taught English Literature, Creative Writing, and Visual and Material Culture at Buckinghamshire New University.



[1] Other texts within this subgenre (and which, in various ways, evoke a similar feeling of ambivalence) include Home Boy by H.M. Naqvi (2009), The Geometry of God by Uzma Aslam Khan (2009), and, more obliquely, A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif (2008), as well as a number of stories in the Granta collection.

[2] For a comprehensive account of shifting relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, see Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos: Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Threat to Global Security (London: Penguin, 2009), especially Part Three: ‘The Failure of Nation Building’, pp. 171-261.


Works cited:

Aschroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-colonial Literatures, 2nd Edition (Oxford: Routledge, 2008).

Aslam, Nadeem. The Wasted Vigil (London: Faber, 2008).

Hamid, Mohsin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist (London: Penguin, 2008).

Morey, Peter. ‘“The rules of the game have been changed”: Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and post-9/11 fiction’, in Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 47:2 (2011), pp. 135-146 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17449855.2011.557184.

Rashid, Ahmed. Descent into Chaos: Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Threat to Global Security (London: Penguin, 2009).

Shamsie, Kamila. Burnt Shadows (London: Bloomsbury, 2009).

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Death of a Discipline (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. ‘Terror: A Speech After 9/11’, in boundary 2, 31:2 (2004), pp. 81-111, http://dx.doi.org/10.1215/01903659-31-2-81.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. ‘Translating into English’, in Sandra Bermann and Michael Wood (eds), Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation (Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005).

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. In Other Worlds (Oxford: Routledge, 2006).

White, Hayden. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975).


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