Brick Lane & Brick Lane
Monica Ali's Brick Lane is a fine novel. I wrote in a review when it was first published that the novel that will last, although for the wrong reasons, writes Natasha Walter.india Updated: Aug 05, 2006 03:47 IST
Monica Ali’s Brick Lane is a fine novel. As I wrote in a review when it was first published, it is a novel that will last — although now it seems that it may last for the wrong reasons. After Bengalis in Tower Hamlets succeeded in moving the filming of the book away from their backyard because they object to the picture it paints of their neighbourhood, Brick Lane joined a depressing roll call of books famous as much for the negative as the positive reaction they elicit.
Yet the book never claimed to be a think-tank report on a community. Its plot is so neatly patterned that even the laziest reader will see that it is not aiming for pure realism. I admired it partly because of the way its characters, who at first seem so isolated, gradually grow towards one another. Far from patronising or damning her characters, Ali gives them the greatest gift a novelist can give: imaginative life.
Some readers may think less of a novel because it has a more tenuous relationship to reality than they would like. Those readers like novels to bring them ‘news’; the imaginative, playful aspect of the novel that has sustained it from its beginnings in folk tales is a mystery to them. This is a matter of taste, and it may be your taste to wish Ali had used more research and less imagination in creating her Bengali family.
But there can be no justification for trying to suppress fiction because it has not measured up against some irrelevant yardstick. What Germaine Greer meant when she said that, because of the novel’s supposed inaccuracies, “the community has the moral right to keep the film-makers out” is a mystery. Some people may have the power to do so, but nobody has the moral right to stamp on the cinematic recreation of this humane tale.
We had almost got used to regular threats against blasphemous art — from James Kirkup’s poem about Christ in the Seventies to The Satanic Verses in the Eighties and in recent years, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti and Jerry Springer the Opera — by Christian, Muslim and Sikh fundamentalists. But this ugly trend has widened with the latest controversy, which takes the objection from religious grounds to grounds of cultural accuracy, or a nebulous ‘respect’.
The bad thing about this controversy is not only that one side is barking up the wrong tree, but also that the media have followed the barking of certain voices to the exclusion of other voices in this community. I'm not saying that the troublemakers are purely created by the media. Obviously, and regrettably, Abdus Salique, who threatened to burn the book at a protest, is real enough, as are others who want to suppress the film. But these are not the only voices worth listening to as representatives of the community. Journalists and commentators have to think again about why we choose whom we do to represent a community.
Pola Uddin, the only Bengali woman in the House of Lords, was indignant when I asked her why we weren’t hearing more women’s voices in this debate: “Our voices aren’t sought! The media are not interested in us.” Uddin has told agitators in the community to stop wasting their time getting so worked up about a piece of fiction. “I attended one public meeting a few years ago when the book first came out and told everyone present to be more productive with their anger,” she said. “This book should be treated like the fiction it is. Let’s put our energy into challenging real injustices. It is unacceptable that we should be asking for a book to be banned."
Rabina Khan is another woman whose family are from Bangladesh and who has lived for a long time in Tower Hamlets. There she is involved in community projects, and she has also written a novel, originally self-published, which has now found an independent publisher. She is no fan of Ali’s work. “I was disappointed with it. It didn’t seem to relate to anything I’ve experienced. It’s very old-fashioned.” She sympathises with the protesters, but not to the exclusion of freedom of expression. “People have the right to protest and criticise. But she has the right to write her own experience.”
Khadija Rahman, a teacher at Waltham Forest College, attends a book group of Bengali women at an arts centre off Brick Lane. When Ali’s book was discussed there, she found that women’s reactions were mixed. “Some liked it and some didn’t, but we all saw it as fiction. I was surprised when this controversy erupted. I thought people would be pleased for her, that her book did so well.” Khadija also doesn’t feel the protests have represented the whole community. “The men in the community are more uneasy than the women. Brick Lane is famous for its restaurants, which are mainly run by men, and they don’t like the fact that Monica Ali, who doesn’t live there and doesn’t care about their opinions, has had such success.”
The opinions of people like Rabina Khan, Khadija Rahman and Pola Uddin are not inflammatory enough to make news. Yet the danger is that if the media identify the community only with its most reactionary spokespeople, people outside the community who sympathise with its other grievances — lack of political representation, say, or poor housing, or unemployment — may feel they have to line up beside the reactionaries in the cause of social justice.
But let’s not forget that Ali, like Salman Rushdie and Bhatti, is just as much a part of immigrant communities as the would-be book burners, and that if we listen out we can catch a great range of voices from every community.
From the Bengali community, those include women who can see the irreducible value of freedom of expression alongside their commitment to social justice.
As Uddin told me: “The fact is that this community has limited political representation and very little is being done to eradicate unemployment and poverty in the community. There are hundreds of women working on these issues throughout the country but no one is interested in that kind of daily grind.” People on the left should not feel that in order to support marginalised communities in their fight for more social justice we have to align ourselves with their most reactionary elements.
That’s why we need not get caught up in the rhetoric of a clash of civilisations to go on supporting core values of tolerance and freedom of expression. These values are supported by people within every community, as well as by people who understandably feel they have no community that can speak for them, and so would rather speak for themselves.
The writer is a British feminist columnist