Eyeless in Guantanamo: Vanishing Horizons in Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows

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Author: Pascal Zinck
Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,493 words

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[(essay date 2010) In the following essay, Zinck asserts that Shamsie’s narrative of migration in Burnt Shadows reveals the fragmentation of the world after World War II and 9/11.]

Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows (2009) reflects the tensions and ambiguities of all diasporic fictional discourse as narratives of dislocation and relocation, erasure, deferment and nostalgia (Nelson 1992). The end of the Cold War has coincided with the rise of US hegemony—a combination of unilateralism and cultural imperialism (Tomlinson 1991). Influenced by Gramsci, theorists like Edward Said, Immanuel Wallerstein, Noam Chomsky, Michael Hardt and Toni Negri have launched a critique against globalisation and the Americanisation of culture.1 This process of homogenisation which arguably undermines local and minority cultures can produce acculturation (Robertson 1995), resistance—from theoretical (the “Writing Back” paradigm expounded by Spivak, Rushdie and Ashcroft amongst others) to outright military confrontation.2 Shamsie examines these tensions, along with the central questions of homeland and identity that have come into sharper focus in the context of 9/11 and the “War on Terror” rhetoric. Like Mohsin Hamid’s Reluctant Fundamentalist, Burnt Shadows offers an insight into Islamic terrorism, not perceived as merely a response to Islamophobia, but as a reaction to and a by-product of cultural globalisation. While Hamid uses fictional as well as holographic techniques to deconstruct and reconstruct the figure of the terrorist, Shamsie deterritorialises terror by decentering the 9/11 attacks and placing them in a broader historical perspective.

Framed by two major, albeit disproportionate, collisions—the WWII nuclear holocaust and 9/11, the novel chronicles the tribulations and traumas of two families, the Tanaka-Ashrafs and the Weiss-Burtons over three generations. It consists of a series of four interlinked sections spanning a period of sixty years, all of which are marked by rupture, mourning and the loss of home or the homeland. In the opening section entitled “The Yet Unknowing World: Nagasaki, 9 August 1945,” the main protagonist, Hiroko Tanaka, survives the inferno, unlike Konrad Weiss, her German fiancé trapped in “the Valley of Death,” the Conradian equivalent to “the heart of darkness” (BS [Burnt Shadows] 27, 76-77).3 Hiroko mourns Konrad by escaping to India to join his sister Elizabeth (née Ilse Weiss) and her husband James Burton. It is highly significant that all subsequent migrations should relate to this initial horizon shift. Hiroko, for one, has imprinted on her seared flesh the kimono cranes which symbolize both her hibakusha condition and flight.4 The second section entitled “Veiled Birds: Delhi, 1947” introduces the second family, the Burtons, as their marriage disintegrates in the twilight of the British Raj. They leave “Bungle-Oh,” their colonial enclave in Delhi, for the mist-shrouded Himalayan hill station of Mussoorie where they contemplate their separate postcolonial future. Their son, Henry Burton (later Harry) is despatched to a boarding school in England where he will grow into a Kipling-like figure mourning a lost Indian childhood. Conversely, Hiroko is drawn to Sajjad Ali Ashraf, an Indian Muslim and legal apprentice of James Burton.5 In a scene reminiscent of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100124971