Published July 12, 2020 by Rebecca Goldfine

Mishal Kazmi ’21: The Role of Technology in Asian Migrant Narratives

As populations around the world move in great migrations to avoid the devastating effects of climate change or conflict, more writers are paying attention to the crisis.
Mishal Kazmi
Mishal Kazmi ’21

Kazmi, an English major and history minor, has a Surdna Foundation Undergraduate Research Fellowship* from Bowdoin to investigate how contemporary fiction writers—particularly Asian and South Asian novelists—portray people who are seeking a new homeland. 

"Our general view of refugees or migrants is that they are a beaten-down people—poor people who are sad and don't have anything. It is really pitying," she said. "While that has its place in media, media also tends to exploit that, and literature tends to exploit that."

In reality, refugees and migrants are living full, complicated, difficult lives—but ones that have hope and joy as well as suffering and despair. "I was really looking for instances of happiness and life in these narratives, just like how you and I live," she said.

Kazmi is also interested in exploring another often overlooked aspect of migration—the use of technology by migrants, such as laptops and cell phones. "The relationship between technology and migrants is intricate, but there are often positives involved in this portrayal," she said. "For example, in some of the texts I looked at, technology allows them a preview into what a better life looks like and gives them some control over their destinies when the circumstances forcing them to leave their homes are often so uncontrollable." 

Two Beloved English classes

Novels across Nations, with Associate Professor of English Hilary Thompson: "We read a lot of global writers and diaspora writers...including Mohsin Hamid, who is a Pakistani writer. It was great to be at a place so far from home and reading someone who was from my country."

Contemporary Literature, with Assistant Professor of English Samia Shabnam Rahimtoola: "I've found oftentimes when you are reading texts that are old, you can struggle with how relevant they are to our time and place. I have been interested in analyzing the moment we live in, and been lucky enough to take classes that touch on that."

Her curiosity into what was an initially surprising combination for her—refugees with smartphones—was sparked after watching the Ai Weiwei's film Human Flow. In the documentary, refugees "are beaten down but have phones, and that was profoundly equalizing for me," Kazmi said. "Technology allows us to look at them, and for them to look at us." 

Some of the questions she's using to frame her research are: "How does technology change character behavior in the texts? What does it mean that a lot of Asian diaspora writers are at the forefront of this movement to include migration narratives in which technology plays a big role? How does the use of technology in these texts complicate our image of the migration crisis?"

She has selected several texts to analyze this summer, including Exit West, by Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid; Severance, by Chinese American writer Ling Ma; Gun Island, by Indian writer Amitav Ghosh; and Ghosh's nonfiction book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. She's also reading critical theory.

It was after reading Exit West in an English class last fall that Kazmi became intrigued by the role of technology in migration stories. In Exit West, magical doors open that allow people to instantly slip past international borders. "The doors are like technology," Kazmi observed.

Kazmi, who is from Pakistan, also wanted to spend a summer devoting herself to texts outside of the Western canon. "All throughout high school and through most of Bowdoin, I've always read Western literature, and that is great, powerful literature, but it was time to branch out," she said.

"I was interested in exploring writers who came from countries like mine who were writing about the world," she added.

She's grateful to have the summer to devote herself to reading carefully and writing a "precise, concise" paper at its conclusion. "I don’t think you can ever be a good enough writer, so I am looking forward to having two, three months to work on this project," versus the two to three weeks typically alloted to finishing a paper during an academic term.

"Other than that, close reading is also a good skill to have," she said. "I got this grant to do the things I love the most, which are reading and writing—it is great for me! It doesn’t feel like work."

**This summer more than 160 students are pursuing academic research and community-based fellowships. They receive funding from a variety of sources. In many cases the Center for Cocurricular Opportunities awards fellowships for independent faculty-mentored research projects. Individual departments and programs can also draw from their own funds to give awards to students. In addition, faculty members may use outside grant-funding to hire students on their research projects. Inevitably, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, research methods have to be modified in some cases this year. Nevertheless, many of these projects are likely to serve as a springboard for senior-year independent study or honors projects.