- STAFF PICKS
- GIFTS + GIFT CARDS
- SELL BOOKS
- FIND A STORE
Where I'm Coming Fromby Monica Ali
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.
This essay originally appeared in The Guardian on June 17, 2003. All rights reserved. No part of this essay may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.