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Guardian Article - MONICA ALI

Where I'm coming from

As a child she hid from the Pakistani army, then fled to Britain with her
English mother. But is Monica Ali's colourful life story the basis for her
acclaimed first novel? Well, sort of...

Tuesday June 17, 2003
The Guardian

If, on one of those murderous nights, the knock came at our door, we knew what to do. I was three years old. My brother was five. Next door to our apartment building in Tejgoan was an orphanage, and in the grounds was an orchard. It was the big mango tree that would save us. We slept with our parents on the balcony, fully dressed, my father with a roll of banknotes in his sock. The week before, my father had been summoned, along with 15 of his colleagues, to a meeting at the Dhaka university campus. "Don't go," said my mother. Eleven men went to the meeting. None came back.

The streets belonged to the tanks: the Shermans, Pattons and Chafees of the Pakistan Army. Only the dead, piled in roadside ditches, could share the streets with impunity. If the knock came, my father would climb over the balcony rail on to that big mango tree. My mother would hand him his son and daughter, and we would go then in silence among the orphans.

When people talk to me now about my novel, the first question they ask is: "What inspired you to write this?" I cite a number of factors. My experience, for instance, of conflict between first- and second-generation immigrants. The stories that my father used to tell about village life. A book of case studies about Bangladeshi women garment workers in Dhaka and the East End of London, disparate lives drawn together by the common goal of self-empowerment. The question has turned into something of a greeting. And I respond in that semi-automatic way that we all tend to adopt with greetings. Very well, thanks. Not so bad. How are you? I tell the truth, but a truth so attenuated by the circumstances of the exchange that it casts as much light as a candle in a gale.

There is no "balcony scene" in Brick Lane. No account of the genocidal midwifery that delivered the Bangladeshi nation. My book does not trace my family history. It is not concerned with all that. And yet there is something there: difficult to define, but demanding - in my eyes, at least - recognition.

There is a character in my novel called Hasina. She lives in Dhaka, while my protagonist and her family live in London's Tower Hamlets. The reader is introduced to her through a series of letters. Her life is a pedestrian (that is to say, unexceptional) tale of outrageous misfortune. How did I construct Hasina? From books, articles, academic researches? From that fastidious disclaimer, Imagination? The first-timer's bosom buddy, Experience? I can point to this and that. But the only thing that interests me in this analysis is the impulse to create her - and that brings me back to the Dhaka balcony: my inherited memory, my internalised folklore that tells me that life hangs by a thread.

The process of becoming a published author for the first time holds only a few mysteries. These are the chief ones. Why is selling the Catalan language rights the most exciting thing that ever happened to you in your life? And, why do you not keep a photocopy of the changes you marked all the way through the copy-edited manuscript so that when it goes missing for days in the post there is no need to start foaming at the mouth? The writing process is not like this. It nurses its mysteries like grievances against casual inquiry. When I am asked, "What inspired you to write this?", my response deals in black and white, not the half-tones which shade any passable writing.

Flights out of Dhaka were suspended for some time. My mother took us, my brother and I, to the airport every day for two weeks, not knowing when they would resume, not knowing - we were not on her British passport - if we would be allowed out of the country. On some days she thought it would be better to face the Pak tanks than the wrath of the crowd that mobbed the booking halls; a neater end to fall beneath the caterpillar tracks. But half way across the world there was a place she could call home and it gave her the strength, time after time, to push her way through.

The rules of civil war meant, of course, that my father - a government employee - could not come with us. He would try to find a way to join us and, in the meantime, concentrate on staying alive. My parents wrote to each other. They had agreed code words (they knew the letters would be read by the censor) for sensitive issues: passport, money, high commission. Then my father received a letter which puzzled him greatly. "I want to come back now," wrote my mother. "I want to come back to Dhaka with the children." He had no way of deciphering this. He wrote back: "Are you mad? Have you forgotten the small matter of the war?"

Home, you see, was not as she dreamed it. In London there was no one to meet us. My mother carried us across London on the buses and then got on a train to Manchester. She had no money left. My grandfather, who met us at the station, paid the guard. My grandmother was waiting at home. She was very concerned, she said, about how my mother intended to pay back the fare.

My father escaped from East Pakistan, over the border to India. From there he finally got permission to join his wife in the UK. It was a temporary situation. When things got sorted out, we would go back. His children settled into school, we stopped speaking to him in Bengali and then we stopped even understanding. The new status quo was accepted. There was no plan, after that, to "go home". Sounding philosophical, my father would say: "I just got stuck here, that's all." And home, because it could never be reached, became mythical: Tagore's golden Bengal, a teasing counterpoint to our drab northern milltown lives.

A glossy women's magazine that interviewed me recently ran its piece under the headline: "I turned my life into a book." This was interesting. I did not grow up like Nazneen (my protagonist) in a small Bangladeshi village, have an arranged marriage, and move to Tower Hamlets unable to speak a word
of English. But since reading that headline I have been trying it on for size. How much of what I have written as fiction is drawn from experience? "Going Home Syndrome", as one of the characters in the book terms it, might be a fertile area to examine. Many of the characters in Brick Lane nurture
their dreams of home, even (or perhaps especially) the young radical who was born in this country and has never even visited Bangladesh. I cannot draw any clear parallels with my family history. But I can feel the reverberations. It is not so much a question of what inspired me. The issue is one of resonance.

For VS Naipaul, "finding the centre" has been an important part of his journey as a writer. Taking my first steps as a writer, I could argue, has involved the inverse process: seeking out the periphery. I find it difficult to fill these words with any meaning. The Muslim world (of which I have written a small section about) is at the centre of our gaze as never before; "subcontinent" literature (Narayan, Rushdie, now Seth, Mistry and so on) has always been more than a speck on my reading horizon, and many authors are firmly within the literary establishment; and in any case, what do we have, at the notional centre, to set against the periphery - VS Naipaul, writing about Wiltshire?

Periphery is, nevertheless, a word which is useful to me. Beyond the "inspiration" question, I could set lines of inquiry about my book into two broad camps. Tell us about "them", is one. The tyranny of representation - the phrase is not mine but belongs, I think, to CLR James - means that when
I speak, my brown skin is the dominant signifier. The other reaction is rather different. What gives you the right to write about "us", when you're clearly one of "them"? In an audience recently at the Bengali World Literature Centre in the East End, a woman invited me to take a test. "How can you know what it is like to be a Bengali mother," she protested, "when you don't even speak our language? Come on, speak to us in Bangla." I've never subscribed to the "cricket test" and I declined the questioner's test also. (My Bengali is limited now to some tourist-phrase-type inquiries, a few nursery rhymes or song fragments and a quite extensive culinary vocabulary.)

Of course, any literary endeavour must be judged on the work alone. It stands or falls on its own merits regardless of the colour, gender and so on of the author. A male author does not need "permission" to write about a female character, a white author does not transgress in taking a black protagonist. But the "two camp" split in my case brings me back to the idea of the periphery. How can I write about a community to which I do not truly belong? Perhaps, the answer is I can write about it because I do not truly belong. Growing up with an English mother and a Bengali father means never being an insider. Standing neither behind a closed door, nor in the thick of things, but rather in the shadow of the doorway, is a good place from which to observe. Good training, I feel, for life as a writer.

· Brick Lane by Monica Ali is published by Doubleday (£12.99).


Guardian Article - NEIL BISWAS

'Conflict between cultures can be positive'

It's exciting to be young, British and Asian - and it's time we saw that on screen, says Neil Biswas, writer of Second Generation

Monday September 8, 2003
The Guardian

It is 1977. I am six years old. I sit with my parents as they watch Mind Your Language on ITV. It is a comedy about a class of immigrants from different countries learning to speak English. My mum and dad watch this every week, laughing along with the jokes, especially the ones made at the Indian student's expense.

If you ask any of my Asian friends they will tell you the same story - their parents also found Mind Your Language hilarious. It's a guilty secret we second-generation Asians share, in a time where political correctness has now been crossed with post 9/11 suspicion, in a country where the home secretary last year made a rallying call for immigrant families to use English as the first language in their homes.

When I think back and wonder why my parents enjoyed it so much, I can only come up with one answer. They recognised themselves in Mind Your Language. It didn't matter that they were figures of fun. I almost think there was a kind of catharsis in being able to laugh at someone making the same mistakes with the English language or culture that you had made the previous week or day. For them, it was a representation of their own situation. For me, it's my earliest memory of seeing Asian people on TV.

Two years ago I started writing a two-part serial called Second Generation for Channel Four. I set it in east London around the Bengali community where I grew up. Inevitably, it has flashes of autobiography, but perhaps more importantly, it has stories - stories that I have seen, stories that I have heard, stories that I know and stories that I have made up knowing they could happen. All of these stories start with the journey that brought our parents to this country. In my mind these families were pioneers, coming to an unknown and often hostile land with suitcases full of hopes and dreams and very little else.

With Second Generation I wanted to write something truthful - not something representative. My reason for making this distinction is that as second-generation Asians we have gone past representation. Asians have changed British culture in the 35-40 years we have been here. Our parents brought not only a culture but a system of values - hard work, respect for elders, strength of the family unit, irrevocable belief in education, acute business acumen - that enabled them to flourish in a foreign environment and eventually change that environment from within.

The central family in my drama, the Sharmas, own a factory that makes Indian food and condiments for supermarkets. Their extreme wealth is not only a sign of their assimilation in this country but also a metaphor for how much British culture has been broadened by Asians. Going to Sainsbury's and buying a chilled Chicken Korma is now normal, whereas 30 years ago, when Sharma starts his business, his only customers are immigrants like himself. David Blunkett's essay, in which he exhorts Asian parents to speak English to their children, is called Reclaiming Britishness. The irony is knee-deep, and I can't help but think of King Canute standing in the sea.

Blunkett goes on to assert that speaking English at home "helps overcome the schizophrenia which bedevils generational relationships". He just doesn't get it. I grew up, like nearly all of my second-generation friends, speaking Bengali at home and English at school - eating chips with our friends, eating curry with my parents. Our identities were from the start complex. The values that our parents held so dear were only half of the mix. For us, every day was a passage across continents.

In my two protagonists Sam and Heere, I wanted to capture this duality. Sam is a DJ and music producer; Heere is going out with an English guy. They are both caught between the world of their families and the world outside. This conflict between cultures is as much part of their identity as their bilingualness. What is difficult for (non-Asian) people to understand, is that this is not only a negative force, but also a positive one.

This conflict shapes us, makes us who we are - we can't just be British, we can't just be Asian. We have grown up as both. Our choices in life - love, marriage, career, location, religion - are continually influenced by at least two cultures. Many people feel second-generation Asians are more influenced by black culture than white, especially in music and style.

Some of the most tender moments between Sam and Heere happen when they speak to each other in Bengali. It is the language of their childhood - their mother's tongue. Sam tells her in Bengali that he knows her in a way that Heere's white boyfriend will never know her. This is dodgy territory, I know, and invites accusations of exclusivity, and even perhaps racism. But I also know that this is exactly the right territory for drama to explore. As second-generation Asians, we have to ask difficult questions about ourselves. We need to open ourselves to examination without the burden of racial stereotype or political correctness. Both of which have dogged screen portrayals of Asians since, let's say, 1977.

There is a very simple reason for this - 99% of programmes that have shown Asians on TV have been written, directed and produced by white people. After the frankly racist days of Mind Your Language and It Ain't Half Hot Mum, for a long time broadcasters felt that they were fulfilling their ethnic quota by including an Asian newsagent and calling him Mr Patel - sometimes chucking in a turban for "authenticity".

More recently, arranged marriage storylines have mutated into fundamentalist-families-pursuing/ murdering-fleeing-daughter storylines, as well as the inevitable Asian-terrorists-within-the-community storylines - as seen recently in Spooks. More often than not, a white (preferably middle-class) detective turns up, to save the day.

In the same way that politicians can't bludgeon people into being more "British" by making them speak English at home, broadcasters can't define "Asian-ness" by sticking to the same tabloid storylines that sensationalise Asian people. The truth is that there are many Asian communities, all of which have thousands of stories. None of them on their own can explain or encapsulate what it is to be Asian in Britain. There is no one answer. The definition, like us, is constantly evolving.

At the heart of all this misunderstanding is something more malignant - fear. What it means to be British has changed irrevocably because of the immigration waves of the 1960s, and it scares the crap out of politicians and broadcasters alike. No one seems to know how to deal with the plurality of cultures that continue to transform this country. Is Hindi a British language? I'll tell you for nothing that more people speak it here than Welsh.

And what about the next generation - do they even care about being British? Does it still have any meaning to them? Or is their battle for identity much more territorial? Last month I watched as six Pakistani kids, aged between 18 and 25, were sentenced for beating up a National Front supporter during the Bradford riots. The judge, Justice Gullick, made the point that we live in a democratic country and people were entitled to hold views of an extremist nature.

Would the riots have happened if the National Front hadn't been allowed to gather in Bradford? This rather obvious question doesn't seem to concern the government or the media. Neither does the fact that by the end of the year, the same judge will have sentenced nearly 500 Asian kids for the riots, giving each an average sentence of four years. That's a whole community's next generation of men. It seems the battle-lines have been drawn, and the rules are more Camp X-ray than New Labour.

One thing is becoming more and more apparent to me, even at the height of the current wave of Asian Bollywood cool: there are still too few Asian voices in the public domain. We need to "reclaim" our identity in this country, before others define it for us. It's time to speak for ourselves, in whatever language we choose to use. Mind your language, indeed.

·Second Generation, Channel 4, 14 & 15 September 2003