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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
'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?
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.
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.
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.