<%-- Page Title--%> Perceptions <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 140 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

January 30, 2004

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Reading "Brick Lane"

Tazin Abdullah

Last week in SWM, I read, not for the first time, titles such as 'brave' and 'talented' conferred upon Monica Ali, the now famous author of Brick Lane. Having read as much of the book as I had the patience to, I question whether her work is, in substance, daring or the product of actual talent.

I first came across Brick Lane when one of my Politics professors from university, now a close friend of mine, bought me the book as a present. He had seen it in a bookstore in Sydney. Remembering the times that he had cracked jokes in the middle of his lectures about the one 'dodgy' Bangladeshi in the class (namely, myself), he had picked up a copy for me.

After the customary "You shouldn't have", I took the book home to read it. Later, I rang my Professor to tell him that he probably shouldn't have.

Brick Lane appeared to be merely one more in a string of fictional stories and books I had read the year earlier. It was the same old story about an immigrant woman. It was the same protagonist who had, in my earlier readings, come from Algeria, Egypt, Pakistan, Vietnam, China or some other non-Western country. Only this time, she was a Bangladeshi.

Of course, back home in their traditional world, all these women lived quiet, submissive lives and did as they were told to. Being dutiful daughters or wives, they moved to a foreign land (invariably in the West) where they continued to follow orders. In each of these stories, the women lived in the prison of tradition, symbolised by their homes or marriages, while looking longingly onto the freedom of the outside world. These women's stories culminated with their finding an escape from the drudgery of their dispassionate lives and ultimately freedom in some form.

Yes, 'freedom', 'escape', etc. What is curious in each of these stories, are these recurrent themes, which Brick Lane also inherits. 'Freedom' is eventually attained through rebellion in, specifically, a Western country as juxtaposed against the conservatism epitomised by the traditions of the non-Western country and culture that these women are originally from. After all, where would these women have learnt the concept of freedom had they not come to the West?

What Ali's book does is hit the right spot in the market. It makes the association that the popular audience in the West wants to see. It describes the accomplishment of freedom in the backdrop of what is regarded as a modern, Western society and at the same time, establishes the act of rebellion as one of detachment from tradition, commonly associated with non-Western cultures.

While acknowledging the elements of reality in her story (and that freedom, liberation, passion, etc. are timeless desires that are always good to cash in on), I could not help but wonder if she could not have come up with a more original way of telling it.

Brick Lane is not a literary achieve

ment, its style and language are not endearing. Curious to find if others agreed with this, I enquired with people who had read the book. Some said they had stopped reading halfway through, as it was not particularly interesting. Most agreed with me that the concept and storyline were unoriginal. So, what was all the fuss about?

Coincidentally, I had started on Brick Lane at the same time I was devoting a portion of my Honours thesis to the 'Rushdie Affair'. During my research, I found that a large number of his critics and in one case, one of his old friends, had little to say for Rushdie's ability to write. In fact, they decried his literary abilities and some went as far as to say that his concepts were poor.

They, like me, had posed the question as to how, in the midst of accomplished and talented writers, someone like Rushdie had found the space he had. I remembered the first time I had read Satanic Verses--a time when I thought the West was the harbinger of freedom.

Even with my severely misconstrued bias (the kind that Rushdie's reputation capitalises on), I had been unable to engage myself with the product of Rushdie's talent. His work bored me and I could not help but scorn at his attempts to write enticing prose.

Of course, most of Rushdie's prominence is owed to the fatwa issued on him and the only parallel I wish to draw between him and Ali is their ability to capitalise on the dominant ideologies of the part of the world they inhabit. Both of them, Ali far less than Rushdie, satisfies the Western need for self-gratification.

It would be unjust to claim that self-congratulation is specifically a Western need or attributable to all Westerners. All societies, Western or not, appear to look for justification and appeasement, but it is the dominant Western one that prevails to the advantage of books like Brick Lane.

My argument is that Monica Ali does not owe the extent of her fame to any literary genius or for writing something extraordinary. Neither is she original or brave--but someone whose book strikes the popular and dominant ideological chords.

Brick Lane is not just a story. It is a story loaded with undertones that lead to popular ideological and cultural conclusions. It is not just a story of a rebellion that is well written (personally, I do not think it is), it is the story of the kind of rebellion set in the kind of circumstances that the international, and specifically, the dominant Western readership, likes to hear about.

Having read calls for her to be applauded for bringing international recognition to Bangladeshis, I ask myself if that is justified. She may be a Bangladeshi with an international reputation. Being a Bangladeshi myself, is that enough for me to celebrate her? No, because I question how much of her fame is owed to her talents as a writer.





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