Guardian Article - MONICA ALI
Where I'm coming from
As a child she hid from the Pakistani army, then fled to Britain
English mother. But is Monica Ali's colourful life story the basis
acclaimed first novel? Well, sort of...
Tuesday June 17, 2003
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
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
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
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
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
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