M. K. Chakrabarti
Lane: A Novel
Scribner, $25 (cloth)
On Saturday, April 24, 1999, at 5:57 p.m., a nail bomb hidden
in the trunk of a car exploded outside the Café Naz in Brick
Lane, the historic street in Londons East End, home to the
largest community of Bangladeshi Muslims outside of South Asia.
The bomb destroyed one end of the street. Shards of glass, shrapnel,
and nails rained down on people as they ran from the explosion.
The Café Naz and the Sweet and Spicy restaurant next to it
were set on fire and burned to the ground. A column of thick,
acrid black smoke rose into the sky and was visible from several
London is a city long habituated to
terrorism. But this bombing felt different: more vicious, hateful,
crude, and murderous. Unlike IRA bombings, no warning was called
in to the Metropolitan Police before the explosion. The bomb was
a homemade fabrication, based on black powder harvested from fireworks
or shotgun cartridges, detonated by a simple clock, wired to batteries,
packed with 10 pounds of metal shards and four-inch nails. Its timing
was nefarious: the Bengali New Year falls in mid-April, bringing
people out into the street to visit friends and neighbors, to go
to mosque to pray.
The Brick Lane bombing was the second
of three explosions that rocked London in April 1999. Week after
week, the carnage became sickeningly predictable. Saturday, April
17, the first bomb exploded on Electric Avenue in Brixton, south
Londons predominantly black borough. Forty-five people were
injured. Saturday, April 24, the Brick Lane blast in Londons
Bangladeshi community. Seven people were injured. Friday, April
30, a third bomb exploded inside the Admiral Duncan Pub in Soho,
a central London district favored by the citys gay and lesbian
community. Three were killed, and 65 injured.
All three bombings were undoubtedly
hate crimes. Britain has never been entirely at ease with its own
multiculturalism. Unlike the United States, it does not claim to
be a melting pot: there is much too much colonial complication for
that. But Britain has tried to move forward, and that spring you
could feel the country cringe at the thought of history twisting
back on itself, returning the United Kingdom to a period of violent
race wars. The viability of British multiculturalism was on everyones
minds. Even that bastion of traditional British conservatism, the
Royal House of Windsor, spoke out against the divisive intent of
the bombings. Prime Minister Tony Blair, loathe to admit that a
new Britain under New Labour was anything but an oasis of centrist
multiculturalism, tried to rally the nation on May 2. Blair proclaimed
that British patriotism no longer excluded people of color (implying,
of course, that at one time it did), and that the true outcasts
were hate groups like Combat 18 and the British National Party.1
Blair said: We will defeat them and then we can build the
tolerant, multiracial Britain the vast majority of us want to see.2
At the end of April I went to Brick
Lane to examine the bomb damage and its effect on the lives of the
Bangladeshis who lived there. The people were scared and angry.
The car that housed the bomb had been reduced to a twisted heap
of steel. Workers were beginning to hammer boards over the burned-out
cavities where the Café Naz and the Sweet and Spicy once stood.
Standing before the devastation, you could not help feeling that
the mask of British multiculturalism, that façade of Cool
Britannia, had exploded in everyones faces.
It is this Brick Lane that provides
the title and setting of Monica Alis debut novel, recently
published to enormous attention. Following close on the heels of
Zadie Smiths phenomenally successful first novel, also set
in the rich, as yet unearthed world of Londons immigrant communities,
Brick Lane was featured on the front page of the New York
Times Book Review, dubbed a brilliant book about things
that matter by Ian Jack, editor of the preeminent British
literary journal Granta, and shortlisted for the Booker Prize
(Ali was the favorite going into the final days, but lost to D.B.C.
Pierre). It is surprising then, that the novel fails to mention
a single word about the Brick Lane bombing. This omission speaks
volumes not only about Alis book, but also about the industry
that has published and promoted it.
* * *
In January 2003, Granta placed
Monica Ali on its list of 20 Best of Young British Novelists. (At
the time, she had yet to put a word into print.) The same list also
named such young lions as Zadie Smith and Hari Kunzru, who form
a bridge generation of modern, supposedly multicultural writers.
The Best of Young British Novelists
list is the 1983 brainchild of Desmond Clarke, who at the time was
head of the British Book Marketing Council. It is, admittedly, a
naming and faming exercise designed to sell books. Theres
an element of contrivance about it, conceded Bill Buford,
founding editor, who left in April 1995 to become the New
Yorkers fiction editor. It has earmarked some of
Britains most well-known authors (Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis,
Ian McEwan), but also some of Britains most quickly forgotten
(Ursula Bentley, Christopher Priest, Adam Lively). So appointment
to the Granta list is not an entirely reliable measure of
an authors future contribution to English letters. But it
does guarantee the instant sheen of celebrity and a wealth of media
attention for the anointed writers. Brick Lane was published
in Britain in June, and with its author already listed among the
Best, it spent most of this summer at or near the top of UK bestseller
Brick Lane is the first book
that takes us inside the world of Londons Bangladeshi immigrants.
And for the first half of the novel, it does feel as if a veil is
being pulled aside and a long-ignored demographic, part of that
great hidden multitude in multicultural Britain, is given its first
honest voice. It is the story of Nazneen, a meek young woman born
in a rural Bangladeshi village. We follow Nazneen from her birth
in 1967 to near-present 2002 and find that her life is freighted
by the burdens fate places upon her, burdens she is not prone to
question. What could not be changed must be borne, Ali
writes. And since nothing could be changed, everything had
to be borne. This principle ruled her life.
While still a teenager, Nazneen is
shipped off to England for an arranged marriage to a fat, bombastic,
much older man whom she has never met. Nazneen moves to London to
live with her husband, Chanu Ahmed, in his publicly subsidized council
flat in Tower Hamlets, the East End borough where Brick Lane is
located. Ali has a powerful, clear eye for detail and she introduces
intimacies of immigrant life that few outside the community have
Her descriptions work on two levels.
First, she presents us with life in the small, wretched council-flat
complex, conjuring a painfully accurate feel for the idleness, melancholy,
and poverty that pervades government housing in London:
It was hot and the sun fell flat on the metal window
frames and glared off the glass. A red-and-gold sari hung out
of a top-floor flat in Rosemead block. A babys bib and miniature
dungarees lower down. The sign screwed to the brickwork was in
stiff English capitals and the curlicues beneath were Bengali.
No Dumping. No Parking. No Ball Games. Two old men in white panjabi
pajamas and skullcaps walked along the path, slowly, as if they
didnt want to go where they were going. A thin brown dog
<-2.000000>sniffed along to the middle of the grass and defecated.
The breeze on Nazneens face was thick with the smell from
over flowing communal bins. -2.000000>
Second, Alis hand guides us inside
Nazneens private, domestic life, and hundreds of pagesalmost
the entire bookare passed inside this closed world:
<13.000000>She should be getting on with the evening
meal. The lamb curry was prepared. She had made it last night
with tomatoes and new potatoes. There was chicken saved in the
freezer from the last time Dr. Azad had been invited but had canceled
at the last minute. There was still the dal to make, and the vegetable
dishes, the spices to grind, the rice to wash, and the sauce to
prepare for the fish that Chanu would bring this evening. She
would rinse the glasses and rub them with newspaper to make them
shine. The tablecloth had some spots to be scrubbed out. What
if it went wrong? The rice might stick. She might oversalt the
dal. Chanu might forget the fish. 13.000000>
While Alis focus is domestic,
she does keep one eye on foreign shores. Periodically we get letters
from Nazneens sister, Hasina, still living in Bangladesh,
struggling with the hardships brought on by her willful heart. These
letters provide a baseline to compare the sisters diverging
livesthe trials of headstrong Hasina versus the woes of fatalistic
Nazneen. (The letters are written in an awkward pidgin English,
a baffling stylistic decision. Clearly Hasina is writing in Bengali,
her mother tongue. Why shouldnt her letters be grammatically
But these letters aside, Brick Lane
is a cloistered domestic drama, unperturbed by the outside world.
Ali is echoing Jane Austen here, with a modern-day drawing-room
tale that unfolds at its own mysterious pace. Nazneen gives birth
to a first child and loses him to illness. She has two more children
later. They grow up and, much to their fathers dismay, grow
into their tight Western jeans and rough English slang. Nazneen
fights against the stifling boredom of council-flat existence and
finally takes up garment work at home, becoming a one-woman branch
of the local sweatshop.
It is at this point that Brick Lanes
insularity gets the novel in trouble. The truth is, Londons
East End Bangladeshis do not live in a hermetically sealed community.
No immigrants in London do. The world is too globalized, too interconnected,
too interdependent to allow for that. The rest of British society
constantly impresses itself upon the immigrant experience, and Ali
knows it, though she avoids its implications. Nazneen takes up sweatshop
work, but the world of that work is entirely missing. Where are
the other women working? Who are they working for? How much are
they paid? Are they angry that their survival depends on such exploitation?
Determined to hem Brick Lane within Nazneens limited
experience and reach, Ali remains stubbornly reticent on the matter.
And yet, how can she do otherwise? There
is a bigger, often hostile world out there, precisely the world
that gave rise, during the time that Nazneen lives there, to the
Brick Lane bombing. That act of terrorism threatened to blow apart
the lives of real Bangladeshis. Had Ali included it in the story,
the Brick Lane bombing would have similarly blown apart the placid
domestic drama she tries so meticulously to construct.
* * *
darker side of modern multiculturalism makes for difficult reading
and difficult writing. But Monica Ali is intelligent enough to know
that for Brick Lane to maintain any sort of legitimacy, she
cannot entirely ignore it. Chanu, Nazneens hapless husband,
serves as the point of connection. By far the most sympathetic character
in the book, he places Alis Bangladeshi narrative into the
context of a wider, more complex worldof poverty, racism,
Chanu is the only one of Alis
characters who ever leaves the council estate, and he is also the
only soul aware enough to know that the system, as he
calls it, begets the fundamental immigrant tragedy their
lives represent. Chanu, however, is a caricature. He is prone to
the didactic outbursts of a boring blowhard. His anger is meant
to be laughed at:
<21.000000>Chanu puffed his cheeks and spat out
the air in a fuff. . . . Nazneen, who feared her
husband would begin one of his long quotations, stacked a final
plate and went to the kitchen. He liked to quote in English and
then give her a translation, phrase by phrase. And when it was
translated it usually meant no more to her than it did in English,
so that she did not know what to reply or even if a reply was
She washed the dishes and rinsed them, and Chanu came and leaned
against the ill-fitting cupboards and talked some more. You
see, he said, a frequent opener although often she did
not see, it is the white underclass, like Wilkie, who
are most afraid of people like me. To him, and people like him,
we are the only thing standing in the way of them sliding totally
to the bottom of the pile. As long as we are below them, then
they are above something. If they see us rise then they are
resentful because we have left our proper place. . . .
He drummed his fingers against the Formica. . . .
<17.000000>Nazneen began to put things away. She needed
to get to the cupboard that Chanu blocked with his body. He
didnt move, although she waited in front of him. Eventually
she left the pans on the stove, to be put away in the morning.
The first half of Brick Lane
shows great promisethat via Chanu we will get a glimpse of
how and why the system subjugates these people, that
we will get a direct look beyond Tony Blairs multiracial
Britain we all want to see to the real, often messy multicultural
world that we can no longer afford to deny.
But in the second half, Brick Lane
retreats from courageous revelation to exhausted, implausible
dramatic devices. Just as Ali is on the cusp of throwing real light
on the lives of Bangladeshi Muslims in London, just when you feel
that she is going to reveal the explosiveness of 21st-century British
multiculturalism, just when you think that she is about to break
new ground, Ali shifts to an entirely familiar terrain: Nazneen
has an affair with a young middleman who delivers garments to her
from the sweatshop. He is also the leader of a local gang of Islamic
fundamentalists. Poor, ignorant Chanu decides to pack up the family
and send everyone home to Bangladesh. If this narrative of adultery,
the antics of a group of local Muslim radicals, and the pull of
home sounds a lot like a story written by one of Alis Granta-listed
colleagues, you would not be mistaken.
* * *
Zadie Smiths 2000 debut novel
White Teeth was published to a tsunami of critical acclaim.
The gifted young writer and her personal story had all the ornamentation
of a literary fairy tale: a mixed-race, twentysomething Oxford student
was snatched up by an agent on the basis of 80 handwritten pages;
a publishing bidding war resulted in a six-figure advance; the novel
became an international bestseller with one million copies sold
thus far. Such romping popularity even pushed White Teeth onto
television screens: the book was adapted for a four-part miniseries
aired in the United States by public television on Masterpiece
important, White Teeth made Zadie Smith, her agent, and her
publisher a great deal of money.
White Teeth was not the first
contemporary multicultural British novel, but it was the first spectacularly
public one. Through the sheer exuberance of her writing Zadie Smith
put the lives of a group of working-class North Londonerswhite,
Jamaican, Bangladeshionto bookshelves across Britain and the
When Brick Lane was released
in Britain in June, many critics dismissed their colleagues for
suggesting that there were any similarities between it and White
Teeth. But their objections were largely stylistic: White
Teeth is a humorous satire, Brick Lane a drama; White
Teeth is voiced by an omnipresent narrator, Brick Lanes
narration is more reserved; White Teeth spans three generations,
Brick Lane spans two; White Teeth has a coterie of
many-colored characters, Brick Lane is primarily brown; White
Teeth takes place in North London, Brick Lane in East
London, etc. Points taken. But if we want to understand why Monica
Ali landed on the Granta list, why the publishing industry
is propping her up as one of the most important multicultural
writers of her generation, and why the pressures of this marketplace
multiculturalism have reduced what could have been an important,
even great novel into simply a good one, it is a useful exercise
to pinpoint exactly how the two books are similar, and how the commercial
success of the Zadie Phenomenon has wormed its way into Alis
First, the marriage: In White Teeth
the much younger Alsana leaves Bangladesh for the first time to
marry the older, blustering Samad Miah Iqbal, already living in
London. In Brick Lane, the much younger Nazneen leaves Bangladesh
for the first time to marry the older, blustering Chanu.
Second, the sweatshop labor: In White
Teeth Alsana punches the needle of her sewing machine through
leather, making bondage costumes for an S&M peddler. In Brick
Lane, Nazneen uses her sewing machine to make jeans, jackets,
and skirts, hundreds a day. Both do it because the family desperately
needs the income.
Third, the affair: In White Teeth
Samad Iqbal, struggling with the strictures of Islam and the crushing
reality of his limitations as an immigrant, has an affair with a
schoolteacher. In Brick Lane, Nazneen, struggling with the
strictures of Islam and the crushing reality of her limitations
as a housewife and immigrant, has an affair with a young Islamic
radical. Both affairs lead to family crises later.
Fourth, Muslim extremism: White
Teeth brings us the Nation of Islamlike K.E.V.I.N. (Keepers
of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation). Brick Lane brings
us the Bengal Tigers, a council-based Islamic group organized by
the hotheaded Karim, Nazneens lover. Both groups succumb to
infighting and violence that detracts from their cause.
Fifth, the desire to return to Bangladesh:
Short of money to ship his whole family back, White Teeths
Samad Miah Iqbal sends one of his sons to Dhaka. Nazneen wants
to stay in London with her daughters, so Brick Lanes Chanu
returns to Bangladesh alone. In both books the depressing truth
of immigrant life in Britain, the disappointment of being denied
the dream sold to the darker citizens of the Commonwealth, fuel
the Bangladeshi urge to repatriate.
Sixth, Samad and Chanu themselves: Both
men are clowns, sad jesters of the defeated, deflated immigrant.
Fat and demanding, intelligent yet incompetent, they bellow about
past greatness in their homelands (Samad: My great-grandfather
Mangal Pande was the great hero of the Indian Mutiny! Chanu:
I have a degree from Dhaka University in English Literature.
Can Wilkie quote from Chaucer or Dickens or Hardy?) but are
powerless to create a successful life in Britain. Samad waits on
white people in an Indian restaurant. Chanu drives white people
around London in a cab. Both rage at their rebellious, Anglicized
children. Both lean on the teachings of a fundamentalist Islam as
their lives slide further into failure. Both are comically wise
to the immigrant dilemma made manifest in their lives. Here is Alis
<11.000000>Im talking about the clash between
Western values and our own. Im talking about the struggle
to assimilate and the need to preserve ones identity and
heritage. Im talking about children who dont know
what their identity is. Im talking about the feelings of
alienation engendered by a society where racism is prevalent.
Im talking about the terrific struggle to preserve ones
sanity while striving to achieve the best for ones family.
Both men are the same parody of a multicultural
tragedy. They are the only characters who come into substantial
contact with the rest of London, who leave the council estate only
to have the limp shapes of their broken ambitions thrown in their
faces day after day by the system.
By casting Chanu in the absurdity of
a Samad-like mold, and by choosing to devote the second half of
her book to Nazneens infidelity, Ali makes a deliberate decision
to impose domestic blinkers on Brick Lane. She does not reveal
to us the cause of Chanus private demise. She does not delve
into his life away from home. She withholds from us all of London
outside the council estate, the London that Chanu must survive in
every day. She gives us nothing of the world that has made Chanus
best hopes impossible to realize, so we are left to believe that
his failure is of his own making. Ali keeps her narrative penned
inside Nazneens domestic doldrums and dilemmas. The complexities
of modern multiculturalismits real complexities, as life and
not simply as theorydo not rise beyond Chanus exasperated
lip service and his homebound rants. The time line of Brick Lane
puts Nazneen and Chanu in the East End at the time of the Brick
Lane bombing. They would have witnessed the horror of that April
day. Yet Ali makes no mention of the disaster.
It is hard not to conclude that Monica
Ali shied away from the tough truth because opening the narrative
to the troubled reality of British multiculturalism would have violated
the basic dictate of the Zadie Phenomenon as seen by the publishing
industry: the financial pull of the potential bestseller demands
that a writer beset her characters with such familiar, mainstream
problems as adultery rather than engage with the unfamiliar,
distasteful, dark side of multiculturalismthe real multiracial,
multiethnic, multicultural society that the majority of us do
not want to see. This is where the cheat of the successful commercial
multicultural novel is laid bare: for all its multicultural
packaging, Brick Lane is a strictly monocultural, see-they-are-just-like-us
Was this a conscious decision on Alis
part? Was she pressured by agents and publishers, in their gentle
way, to avoid the pressing issues raised so dramatically by the
Brick Lane bombing? The answers to these questions are uncertain.
What does seem clear is that this adherence to the Zadie Phenomenon
ultimately causes Brick Lane to fall flat.
But the publishing industry has decided
to throw its weight behind Brick Lane. Unlike other
less publicized authors, Monica Ali received a six-figure advance,
was named to the Granta list, was described two days later
in the Observer as one of the most significant British
novelists of her generation, received a glut of media attention
for her book, nearly won the Booker, and is now the standard-bearer
of British multicultural fiction.
This same publishing industry has turned
a cold shoulder to other, less marketable writers. Very little has
been told about Suhayl Saadis challenging short story collection,
The Burning Mirror. Seventeen major publishing companies
rejected The White Family, a frank, disturbing portrait of
British racists by white author Maggie Gee, before it was taken
up by Saqi Books, a small, specialist UK publisher. (Gee was named
to the 1983 Granta list and The White Family was later
shortlisted for the Orange Prize. However, Gees Granta
accolade wasnt enough to prevent 17 rejections by the industry,
and the Orange Prize nomination would have never happened if Saqi
hadnt put the book on the shelves.) Above all, neither of
these books achieved a fraction of Brick Lanes sales.
Even the means by which Monica Alis
British publisher, Doubleday, marketed Brick Lane sought
to obscure the multiculturalism of her own life. Doubleday granted
first interview rights in a national newspaper to the Guardian,
but when the paper decided to assign its respected literary critic,
the South Asian Maya Jaggi, to the story, Doubleday requested a
different journalist, preferably a nonSouth Asian one, because
Monica Ali preferred to be seen as a writer first and a coloured
person second. The Jaggi byline, it seems, might have ghettoized
the review. Jaggi protested and Doubleday promptly issued an apology
for the misunderstanding, but the point had already
been made. Another writer did the interview for the Guardian.
This, then, is the publishing industry
that brings us todays supposedly multicultural authors. And
it is this industrys efforts and enthusiasm that shape the
overall commercial presence and success of todays multicultural
* * *
In defense of Alis
domesticity, Michael Gorra writes in the New York Times Book
Review that Ali surely expects her readers to fill in
the particulars of the city that surrounds her characters, and yet
she also makes us recognize that they dont need it.
I disagree. Readers have a right to expect more unflinching multicultural
writing, and this requires not only bringing to life the conflicted
immigrant, but the conflicted, fractured country that surrounds
him. But even in ostensibly multicultural fiction, immigrants
continue to be lopped off and swept under the workings of the new
world where they make their homes.
Monica Ali puts Nazneen and her family
in front of the television to witness the destruction of September
11th. But only Chanu understands the consequences of what is taking
place on the screen, and he quickly exits the narrative soon after.
We never know what Nazneens reaction might be, or what effect
that event had on her life as an immigrant and Muslim. Instead,
Ali makes her point about immigrant disenfranchisement, about extremism
and racism, through a brown-on-brown riot at the end of the book.
Alis radical Muslim Bengal Tigers, founded to counter the
Lion Hearts (a feckless, faceless group of white supremacists),
are reduced to raging against themselves (Mussulman against
Mussulman), turning over cars and setting fire to the very
restaurants they work in on Brick Lane. As for the world that gave
rise to such violence, of the deep well of anger boiling just outside
her window in London: Monica Ali demurs.
A friend who works for the BBC World
Service once remarked to me on the blighted Bangladeshis who live
out there in Tower Hamlets. Having lived in London for
decades, he admits knowing almost nothing about the lives of modern
Muslim immigrants. To him, but not him alone by any means, they
are a dark, enigmatic underclass standing in doorways, drifting
in and out of mosques. One wonders how they look upon us. Monica
Ali and the new celebrated generation of ethnic writers
should be writing this story.
The real Brick Lane is the ideal place
to tell such a story. Just yards from Brick Lane lies Spitalfields
Market. Archaeologists have been excavating 2,000-year-old Roman
ruins here as local activists try to save the site from redevelopment
into upscale restaurant space. A few feet farther still and you
stand among the soaring chrome-and-glass buildings of Europes
financial capital. The high-flying financiers who work there frequent
Brick Lane restaurants, and for the immigrants in the borough they
are more than pale-faced ghosts in pinstripes and polished shoes.
They are rich, they are white, and they are buying the historic
homes in and around Brick Lane.
Imagine if Monica Ali gave us this
story. Instead of giving us only a peek into the immigrant world,
imagine if she described what immigrants see when they look out.
Imagine if she showed us what Chanu sees on nights when he drives
his cab:5 decrepit
public infrastructure, an entrenched class system, arcane property
laws, legal double standards, exclusive educational systems, white
flight, political doublespeak, fear, and racist loathing.
We need such daring, disturbing writing
now. But instead of Hanif Kureishi (Granta rightly put him
on its second 1993 list), todays literary establishment has
chosen to elevate such preferred ethnic writers as Monica
Ali,6 Hari Kunzru and
Zadie Smith because they stop short and deliver the type of multicultural
society we want to see. They are the type of multicultural
society we want to seemixed race, highly educated, not too
dark or alienand so they are put forth as the authentic voices
of a new generation. But as broadcaster and critic Sarah Dunant
noted on the BBC Radio 4 program Start of the Week, Literary
establishments look for authentic voices outside themselves, but
because they only live inside themselves they dont quite recognise
the authentic other. They can only stereotype what they think it
is. The Brick Lane bomber was arrested on May 1, 1999, just
days after the last explosion in Soho. He was David Copeland, a
23-year old hatemonger and, as early as 1997, a member of the East
London chapter of the British National Party. Copeland wanted to
make more than a political point. He wanted to kill. He had originally
placed the bomb outside the Jamme Masjid Mosque at 59 Brick Lane.
A conscientious passerby noticed the bag, picked it up and went
to alert the Metropolitan Police at their office down the road.
When he found no one there, he put the bag in the trunk of his car
and left to telephone authorities. The bomb exploded minutes later.
Chiseled in a sundial that hangs above
the entrance to the Jamme Masjid Mosque is the most eloquent description
of Brick Lane, its history, and the immigrant tragedy. Originally
constructed in 1743, the buildings first life was as a Huguenot
chapel used by Protestants escaping persecution in France. At the
end of the 19th century it was reconsecrated as the Spitalfields
Great Synagogue by the Machzikei Hadath for the East Ends
newly arrived Jews. They were fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe.
In 1976 it was made home of the Jamme Masjid Mosque used by Brick
Lanes burgeoning Bangladeshi community. For 260 years the
same sundial has loomed over the heads of worshippers entering the
building, in whatever its current incarnation. And in the sundial
an inscription: Umbra Sumus. We are shadows. <
M. K. Chakrabarti works for public
radios evening news program On Point.
The far-right British National Party (BNP) was founded in 1982 by
John Tyndall, former chairman of the National Front. It claims to
be the voice of the silent British majority and asserts
that in 60 years demographic flux in Britain will push native
Britons into the minority. The BNPs political platform calls
for an immediate end to all immigration to the UK, the deportation
of all criminal and illegal immigrants, and the establishment of
a voluntary resettlement program whereby legal immigrants and their
British-born children would be afforded the opportunity to return
to their land of ethnic origin. As of September 2003
the BNP had been elected to 18 local council seats across Britain,
including seven new seats in Burnley (a city that suffered three
days of race riots along with Oldham, Leeds, and Bradford in summer
2001) making it the official opposition to the Labour majority there.
2 The prime minister
happened to be at an international convention of Sikhs in Birmingham,
England, when he made this statement. See John Deans, Daily
Mail, 3 May 1999.
3 In his introduction
to the miniseries, a graciously amused Russell Baker assured Masterpiece
Theatre purists that though this was not the typical guttersnipe
and country manor material the show usually dramatizes, White
Teeth had been championed as thoroughly Dickensian by critics
around the world. He also thought it important to add that when
Zadie Smith finished writing the book she was 24, and, because
the book was a huge literary success, she had a lot of money.
4 Ali freely admits
that the inspiration for the book does not come from her own life.
Her mother is white, her father Bangladeshi. She was born in Dhaka,
grew up in northern England, went to Oxford, married an Englishman
and now lives in south London. Her authenticity and intimacy with
the East End Bangladeshi community is subject to question and
perhaps explains why one London-based South Asian reviewer (Aparisim
Ghosh) thought the book was dull as dhal.
5 As an example
of how beautifully and powerfully this can be done, I think of
Chekhovs short story, Misery.
6 Monica Ali has
indicated that if she wanted to, she could be a more daring writer.
In the 17 June 2003 edition of the Guardian she wrote:
For VS Naipaul, finding the centre has been
an important part of his journey as a writer. . . .
The Muslim world (of which I have written a small section about)
is at the centre of our gaze as never before . . . and
in any case, what do we have, at the notional centre, to set against
the peripheryVS Naipaul, writing about Wiltshire?
Originally published in the December
2003/January 2004 issue of Boston Review