I have to admit at the outset that I only picked up Nell Freudenberger’s book, The Newlyweds
, because the protagonist was from my country of birth. With all the concerns about cultural appropriation raging in recent times, I was curious about how a white American writer had dealt with the Bangladeshi protagonist, who, according to the blurb, meets an American engineer through an online dating service and marries him to migrate abroad.
Before I start unpacking my opinions on this novel, I should also make it clear that I count Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day
as one of the finest books I have read. A British-Japanese, who came to England at the age of five from Japan, writing one of the most authentic ventriloquist novels, in the voice of that quintessentially British institution: the English Butler. So, my position on the on-going debate about who "owns" a culture, and who might or might not be "allowed" to write about it, should be apparent.
Yet, it’s not that easy when it’s your Sacred Cow that’s being milked, so to speak. My approach is to use what someone called the "Appreciator versus Appropriator" binary. Thus, if an empathetic outsider chooses to represent my culture, I have no objections, as long as it’s done artistically and accurately. Herein lies my basic problem with Freudenberger’s book.
Every page of The Newlywed
s, however heartfelt in its writing, has some major or minor discrepancies regarding Bangladeshi culture, which are unlikely to occur at the hands of a native writer! Naturalist fiction such as Freudenberger’s novel relies on verisimilitude, which is undermined by factual errors. *(A partial list is appended at the end of this essay) When parts of the depicted world and its inhabitants do not feel real or true, how can you take a fiction seriously, focus on its redeeming artistic or philosophical sides?
None of the past reviewers of the book, I notice, were from Bangladeshi. Not surprisingly, most of them concentrate on the artistic issues, accepting at face value any reference to Bangladesh’s culture as the exotic spice that adds piquancy. “A marvelous book,” extols Kiran Desai on the cover. Desai is an Indian author and does not notice the factual flaws; she only deals with the aesthetics of the narrative. She found the bouquet pretty; for me, however ardently the florist wants me to accept the bunch as real, I know that many of the flowers are fake.
My copy of the book is underlined on every page with a question mark or comment in the margins ... This novel is an unintentional comedy of errors; and only insiders like us Bangladeshi readers would know the truth ... An established writer, with the power of the publishing world behind her gets away with telling a flawed story of my culture, and wins plaudits for her performance.
I have not read Freudenberger’s previous novel, The Dissident
, which shot her to acclaim as a New Yorker “20 Under 40” writer, and Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. I did, however, read her impressive fictional debut, a collection of short stories, Lucky Girls
, which deserved the literary accolades it won. But after reading her present novel, I would safely hazard that Freudenberger’s literary strength lies in the field of short fiction and not in novel writing; certainly, not a novel about a world she only knows sketchily.
Freudenberger has lived in India but not in Bangladesh. She probably thought that the fictional leap from Delhi to Dhaka, could not be such an insurmountable distance, aided by a quick visit for some historical research and socio-cultural observations. Unfortunately, it was a bridge too far. Pasting bits of cultural details to a story idea with the narrative glue of neutral philosophical observations can make for an interesting short story, but in a sustained narrative the false notes show through.
With a superficial knowledge of Bengali culture, Freudenberger presumed to tell the story of her Bangladeshi protagonist, Amina, based on a real life encounter with a Muslim Bengali woman, whose unconventional story inspired the novel. But Amina is a half-baked, unconvincing creature, not reflecting any real, modern day woman living in the Dhaka of 2005. And in just the first few chapters of the book, where we get to know Amina as she tries to create her American life in the suburbia of Rochester, we trip over many annoying inconsistencies about her past life.
But even as my quarrel with the writer was that she was not getting the details right, I could sense the sincerity in her portrayal of Amina, and her sympathetic and respectful treatment of cultural and religious diversity and the vulnerabilities of the migrant’s life. What softened my heart, however, was the realization that she was aware of being on shaky grounds on matters related to Bangladesh, and in subversive ways, she created grounds for her lapses to be exonerated.
For example, the character of Kim, Amina’s husband George’s bohemian Yoga-instructor cousin, seems expressly created to represent Freudenberger. Early in their friendship, Amina is made to think this on behalf of all potentially critical native readers like me: ‘There were a lot of things about village life she thought might surprise her new friend, but she didn’t want to undermine Kim’s admiration for her culture, which she thought was genuine if not especially well informed.”
My copy of the book is underlined on every page with a question mark or comment in the margins. Often I was frowning, but in the end, I burst out laughing. This novel is an unintentional comedy of errors; and only insiders like us Bangladeshi readers would know the truth. And that is the unfunny part involving cultural appropriation. An established writer, with the power of the publishing world behind her gets away with telling a flawed story of my culture, and wins plaudits for her performance.
The redeeming feature, however, is that the errors were mostly innocent, and even when she does not get the facts right, there are truths aplenty. My favourites:"You thought you were the permanent part of your own experience, the net that held it all together, until you discovered that there were many selves, dissolving into one another...." And elsewhere: “Was there a person who existed between languages?”
Still, I itch to edit and correct the silly mistakes. But the important question I ask myself is that even with the errors, is the story something that makes the world a better place? I think it does.
If an outsider reaches out to understand a nation unrelated to her own world, it brings us all closer. Freudenberger wrote with genuine compassion and a desire to embrace an unknown part of the world through her imagination.
In the novel we encounter the notion of adoptions, in many senses. Kim is an adopted child, and she, in turn, adopts an Eastern ethos that is opposite to her western upbringing. Much of her yogic life style is a mixed-up pseudo-philosophy. But it is her version of Indian spirituality. She claims ownership by dint of her genuine ardency and humanity.
The book ends with a winning essay written for a Starbucks writing competition. The essay, I feel, is a metaphor for the novel. Unbeknownst to Amina, Kim writes Amina’s story, using her words, images and dreams. She knows she does not own this borrowed story, but she shapes it lovingly, then gives it away as a gift.
I think it is unfair of me to call Freudenberger’s creation a ‘pseudo’ novel. It may not be my Bangladeshi novel. But this is her version of a borrowed Bangladeshi story. Written from her heart, which is why I put it in the title.
The last sentence of the Starbucks essay is also the last line of the novel, the bobbing message-in-a-bottle from the writer: “It is only by sharing our stories that we truly become one community.”
*Some anomalies in The Newlyweds:
1. As a Bangladeshi, who was a teenager in 1971, I find it hard to swallow distorted facts relating to the Liberation War.
In the novel, Amina’s father was a Freedom Fighter and he recalls how a fellow guerilla, towards the end of the war “got through the awful street battles here in Dhaka.” We know that there were guerilla operations, but no pitched battles on the streets of Dhaka, especially at the end when the city, the last bastion of the Pakistani forces, fell when surrounded by the joint forces of Mukti-joddhas and Indian forces supported by aerial attacks by the Indian Air force (with dog fights that we all watched from rooftops).
The mistake is not grave. But it is the responsibility of a writer to verify all historical facts. When the writer is a foreigner this becomes even more important.
2. Amina is thinking about her maternal uncles: “The elder, Khokon, had been Mukti Bahini like her father….”A native writer would say that “he had been IN the Mukti Bahini or had joined it.” Or, that “He had been a mukti joddha.”
1. Amina has studied at the reputed Maple Leaf International School in Dhaka (which follows the Cambridge IGCSE curriculum); she has tutored O-level students, and even applied to American universities, yet we are to believe that she is not sure what "dumbstruck," "hamster," or "thank my lucky stars" means!
2. She presents her parents with a TV when she is seventeen, so she must have watched American TV shows, like my generation had. Since the late sixties whenTelevision started in Dhaka, shows such as Star Trek, Dr Kildare, The Lucy Show and Dallas were broadcast. Yet America is a totally unfamiliar territory to Amina.
3. Unbelievably, even India is unfamiliar to her (despite ZEE TV and other Indian channels offering Bollywood films!): “Her own idea of India encompassed the Taj Mahal, the great Saint’s tomb at Ajmer…the rest of the country was simply coloured shapes on a map, and she had only the vaguest notion of yoga as a Hindu religious ritual.”
4. A bundle of contradictions is Amina’s mother. Supposedly, she understands enough English to help Amina pass her O level English by underlining unfamiliar words for her to review; she is also shown to read the Lifestyle page on the Daily Star’s website, yet we must accept that she doesn’t speak any English! Thus, she later ‘surprises’ Amina by asking about her son-in-law’s work: ‘“Engineering job?” her mother said in English. She hadn’t known her mother knew those words.”
5. The mother’s ambitions for her daughter are strange and far-fetched for Bangladesh: She ‘had always hoped to make her a famous singer, and when they discovered that Amina hadn’t inherited her mother’s beautiful voice, they had tried ballet, the Bengali flute, and even “Ventriloquism: History and Techniques….”
6. Amina goes to the British Council in the mornings just to check emails from George “before her tutoring responsibilities began.” Note the logistical anomalies in these traffic-congested times in Dhaka: Amina lives in Tejgaon, closer to the suburbs, (where internet cafes abound), has to go to the suburban residential area of Gulshan nearby to tutor her pupil Sharmila (where she has free use of her student’s computer, having used it to navigate the dating website), yet she proceeds first to the British Council in town, which involves a commute of one or two hours, just to use the computer!
7. We have to believe that her father studied engineering in Rajshahi University but cannot speak any English. So much so, that Amina is anxious about letting her parents travel alone and not being able to “find the connecting flight to New York once they left the Bangla-speaking attendants from the first flight.” Yet he is the one who helps her with the technical parts of the ‘administrative processing’ form for visa given at the American embassy.
8. Freudenberger uses the term ‘Desh’ and ‘Deshi’ with a capital ‘D’ as if these were officially accepted abbreviations and synonyms for the name of our country and nationality! The name of the political entity of ‘Bangladesh’ cannot be shortened to Desh, just as Pakistan cannot become ‘Stan’. A Pakistani might refer to his land as ‘mulk’, ‘watan’, or ‘des’, as would a Bengali think of ‘back home’ as ‘desh’, as in ‘e bochor desh-e jabo’/’this year I’ll visit home’. But this term can be used even by an Indian Bengali to refer to West-Bengal or India as the home country in bengali. So ‘Bangladesh’ and ‘Desh’ cannot be used interchangeably. Yet this happens repeatedly in the novel:
Kim emails Amina: “I’m not allowed to go anywhere… that might be unsafe. They laughed when Ashok brought up the idea of a trip to Bangladesh. Of course I know Desh is perfectly safe….”
9. Amina glances at a bookshelf in an educated middle class home:
“She recognized Tagore, Mukhopadhyay and Nazrul Islam.”
Mukhopadhyay? Seriously? A Bengali would never utter this laughable line, given the fact that Mukhopadhyay among Hindu Bengalis is a common surname (like Smith in the Anglo-Saxon world), and that there are several famous Mukhopadhyays in Bengali literature. It’s obvious that Amina’s creator has no clue that unlike the American tradition, in Bengali culture and literature the first name of a writer has to be specified when the last name is common to many.
In real life people are free to use whatever name they fancy. But a storyteller, to maintain the illusion of reality must give characters culturally accepted names to impart a true flavour of a society. In this novel, most names are strange and un-Bengali, a fact which ruins the credibility of the story. Odd female names: Ghaniya; Micki, Mokta (Mukta?) Asah (Asha?) Botul (Bokul or Batul?). Male names: Fariq (Tariq?) Ghoton (Choton?) Shajar. Uncle Noresh, and great-uncle Sudir (Sudhir?)Haji.
1. “…she added too much paprika to the rice.”
2. “…the pulao was fragrant with anise…”
3. Amina at her father’s hospital bedside “… fed him three spoonfuls of the dal…”
4. Bemoaning a less than perfect wedding meal: “…the mutton had been overcooked…” Imagine a biryani in which the meat was not falling off the bone but under-done!
5. She is carrying back to Dhaka, among other things, “… six Dole pineapple juice boxes.”
And these are just a few of the many more instances of such inaccuracies.
Neeman Sobhan is a writer, poet and columnist. She lives in Italy and teaches at the University of Rome. Her published works include a collection of her columns, An Abiding City: Ruminations from Rome (UPL); an anthology of short stories, Piazza Bangladesh (Bengal Publications); a collection of poems, Calligraphy of Wet Leaves (Bengal Lights).