The Denver PostSeptember 21, 2003
By Dylan Foley
Monica Ali's debut novel, "Brick Lane," has taken the British literary scene by storm. A strong buzz developed over the Anglo-Bangladeshi writer's excerpt in the literary magazine Granta's "Best of Young British Novelists" issue last spring, and the novel was nominated in August for Britain's prestigious Man Booker Prize.
Recently published in the United States, "Brick Lane" covers the 15-year odyssey of Nazneen, a young Bangladeshi immigrant woman, plucked from a tiny village and set up in an arranged marriage to an older man in London. In the battered council flats of Brick Lane where she winds up living, Nazneen deals with the chaos of a language and a culture that she cannot comprehend.
Ali's writing is a beautiful, textured exploration of the immigrant experience in England, the crushed dreams and conflicts between immigrants and their first-generation children. For Nazneen, her world is a housing project where unemployed youths roam and drugs run rampant.
The novel moves from the harsh realities of gritty London to the memories of village life in Bangladesh. There is the immigrant nostalgia for a simple life in the home country, a life that no longer exists.
"This is the book I had to write because there is so much that resonates for me personally," said Ali from her London home. "Even though this is not an autobiographical novel, it struck so many chords in me."
The novel, she said, started with the image of two sisters, the obedient Nazneen and her impulsive sister Hasina, who runs away from the village to marry for love. "The sisters came to me as a pair," said the 35-year-old Ali. "Hasina is a woman that rushes headlong into her life, where Nazneen is very internally focused. I wanted to explore the contrast."
Though Nazneen can barely afford to put food on the table for her ne'er-do-well husband, Chanu, and her two daughters, she winds up in a better place than Hasina. The reader learns from heartbreaking letters that the beautiful Hasina escapes an abusive husband by fleeing to Dhaka, Bangladesh's teeming capital. She winds up in a sweatshop, then is forced into prostitution. "Nazneen faces hardships and trials, but she still has the luxury of agonizing," noted Ali.
In developing Chanu, Ali explores the hard experiences of the immigrant life in Britain. After 30 years in London, Chanu has little to show for it, except a useless stack of education certificates. "Chanu seems ambushed by life," Ali said. "He feels frustrated with the situation and looks for other people to blame. He's somebody who came into the country with high hopes and expectations, and they haven't been met. He needed to maintain some fictions to survive."
One of the most vivid characters that Ali creates is Mrs. Islam, the hypochondriac loan shark who threatens her clients with her dangerous sons, but still claims she is working to help the community. "Don't be so sad," says Mrs. Islam after a particularly menacing collection session. "When you leave for Bangladesh, I will make a big party for you. All my own expense. Just finish paying the debt, and then leave it all to me."
"I really didn't know where Mrs. Islam came from," Ali said with a chuckle, "but I enjoyed writing her. I was exploring the hypocrisy and the degree that people are able to kid themselves in what they are doing and how they are doing it, and the ability to doublethink."
Ali was born in Dhaka in 1967 to an English mother and Bangladeshi father. Her family fled the country in 1970 during Bangladesh's war of independence from Pakistan, during which as many as 1 million people died. Ali admitted that as a child in Britain, she worked hard at forgetting her knowledge of the Bengali language. "We didn't grow up in a traditional Bengali household," she said, "but it wasn't a traditional English household, either. We had dahl, rice and curry everyday."
Ali has not been back to Bangladesh since she left at age 3. To write about Nazneen's life in the immigrant council flats of Brick Lane, the heart of London's Bangladeshi community, Ali had to do research. "I started talking to people in the Bangladeshi community," she said. "I went to women's centers, I hung around the (council) estates to see what the kids were up to, the drugs and the like. I was shocked to find out that in the estates around the back of Brick Lane, there is a heroin user in every other flat."
In writing her novel, Ali found herself returning to her father's stories. "My father's storytelling was important in the writing of the book," she explained. "He was from a small village, and there was an oral history tradition of telling stories of village life."
In "Brick Lane," there are surreal scenes of a village exorcism where the exorcist gets a beating. Then there is the aunt who has a genie trapped in a bottle. "That was the story of my great-grandmother," said Ali, "who was a very formidable woman, who ruled not only her family but the whole village, just through the force of her character. She had a genie, who she kept in a lead-stoppered bottle. People would come with problems, she'd consult the genie and give her verdict."
Throughout the novel, Nazneen grapples with the concept of fate that she was raised with, that she should accept her life as it is. She has an affair with a younger man, strives for financial independence and confronts some of the problems in her marriage.
For Ali, the unlikely love story at the core of the book is between Nazneen and Chanu. "The real love story in the book is between the husband and the wife," said Ali. "The affair isn't the love story. For Nazneen and Chanu, their respect and understanding grows, despite their problems and differences. People can relate to a real relationship, and an arranged marriage is a relationship like any other.
(BRICK LANE By Monica Ali, Scribner, 384 pages, $25)