A relentless, and to some extent, justified amount of criticism has piled up on Nadiya Hussain’s plate after her recent statements about Bangladeshi cuisine.
In an interview with The Guardian, the winner of last year’s “Great British Bake Off” talked about her experiences of growing up in London, and her childhood that had “no concept of dessert or cheese in Bangladeshi cuisine” before being introduced to European cuisine.
In an isolated sense, the entire article does not amount to anything more than one of the many recycled sneak peeks into the life of a British celebrity.
But unfortunately, the article does not exist in a vacuum. The potential amount of misrepresentation regarding Bangladesh that Nadiya’s words generate is what makes the article the target of resentment and debates.
Misrepresentation is not a new experience for this part of the world. The endless pool of orientalist and “third-world citizens need saving” rhetoric have been powerful tools used by the media for decades.
Yet, one would have to live in a very special kind of Western supremacy vacuum to justify claiming that “the concept of desserts doesn’t exist in Bangladeshi cuisine.”
How is it that with one sentence in a popular media outlet, the very existence of a historically and culturally rich, complex, and diverse cuisine is written off as simple, bland, and lacking in desserts?
This is, quite simply put, ignorance. And ignorance has no justification. Her statements are, at best, gross generalisation.
In the more complex scheme of things, it becomes an issue about the power of narratives. Nadiya’s narrative should not equate to the millions of other Bangladeshi narratives, at home or abroad. And yet, in one way or the other, it does.
Her voice has more power, more reach than the collective Bangladeshi voices that will speak in a very different wavelength about Bangladesh. In an ideal world, Nadiya’s narrative would not have drowned out the other million narratives.
We, as Bangladeshis, wish she understood the power of her narratives enough to understand that a little research was due before she turned her personal experiences into generalised statements in a globally circulated newspaper
Her contribution to the process of othering an entire country (and its cuisine) would not have been so important or impactful. But in the world we have made, Nadiya’s words are more important than most.
Her narratives will be enough to throw hundreds of aspiring and successful culinary experts under one, narrow body of description of what Bangladeshi food should look like.
It’s important to understand that it wasn’t Bangladeshi cuisine that Nadiya calls simple, rather it is the cuisine, specific to her location: From childhood impressions of Bangladesh, from inside her childhood home in Luton.
Why should this be representative of the other millions of Bangladesh and Bangladeshi diaspora childhoods? The questions and anger surrounding this issue need not be directed at Nadiya’s personal experiences, but at the casual acceptance of her narrative being an automatic representation of Bangladeshi experiences across the globe.
We, as Bangladeshis, wish she understood the power of her narratives enough to understand that a little research was due before she turned her personal experiences into generalised statements in a globally circulated newspaper.
What is underneath the surface of Nadiya’s narratives in the media is a much more uncomfortable issue. Nadiya, with her headscarf and her Bangladeshi roots, has been repeatedly reinforced by the media as a beacon for multiculturalism, a highlight of Bangladeshi culinary talents, when it’s very clear that Nadiya does not represent Bangladeshis, diaspora, Muslims, or even women.
She is an individual who represents no one but herself. Nadiya is as British as her cakes. The ability to represent does not necessarily translate into a will to represent. She is expected to be a role model for a country (and its national identity) with which she has, at best, had fleeting interactions that have, over the years, been reduced to a handful of childhood memories.
Frankly, it is unfair to expect Nadiya to take upon the responsibility of representing Bangladeshi cuisine when her own experiences with it are limited to a distorted diaspora picture.
Nadiya’s story is not my story. Nadiya’s story is a lesson in the dangers of championing a single (albeit, misinformed) story as the holy lens for viewing Bangladesh and Bangladeshi cuisine.
It is a reminder of how the collective power of the words of a selective few and the media actively generate stereotypes that shape our world. Keep your cakes Nadiya, and I will keep my box of assorted mishtis.