FICTION: FACING PREJUDICE – Journal

Love marriage
By Monica Ali
Virago, United Kingdom
ISBN: 978-0349015491
512pp.

There are two types of brown stories: those that are written for ourselves and those that are written for a Western sensibility.

The former, while more authentic, struggled to achieve widespread commercial success because, historically, publishers have favored certain narrative tones. Most books adhere to this, and that’s why South Asian stories in general are full of annoying stereotypes, especially when describing the experience of brown immigrants.

I generally take brown literature with some trepidation, because of the repeatedly seen tropes of the hard-working, emotionally unavailable father; the loving but provincial and clumsy mother; the slightly icy, morally upright daughter and, of course, the temperamental, radicalized brother with a larger-than-life identity crisis.

Love Marriage by British Bangladeshi author Monica Ali follows all of these tropes. Until it doesn’t.

Monica Ali’s Fifth Novel May Not Stay With Readers For Years, But It Will Surely Make Them Stop and Think

The story begins quite simply, with an average immigrant family trying to navigate life in England one bowl of curry at a time. Shokat is a doctor who comes from humble beginnings. He is proud of the middle class life he has achieved. He wears a suit and tie every day. His English is “too decent” – which makes him sound even more foreign – and he drives an ugly, utilitarian car, regardless of his upward financial mobility.

His wife, Anisah, is the loving, well-meaning matriarch no one takes too seriously. She has refrained from acclimatizing to her new surroundings and stubbornly clings to the culture of her ancestors. She looks at the food outside with a high degree of suspicion, wears garish and impractical clothes – much to the chagrin of her children – and lives an island life taking care of her family.

The protagonist is Yasmin, a doctor-in-training who seems to quietly and diligently follow in her father’s footsteps without a fuss. To introduce some chaos into this perfect and peaceful life, we have Yasmin’s brother, Arif, the so-called black sheep.

Arif resents his parents for not understanding his own struggles with “otherness” and the constant racist microaggressions he grew up with. He and his father are in a constant state of conflict, and Shokat’s life lessons are not received with the awesome reverence he demands.

Both children are weighed down by the overwhelming weight of parental expectations, compounded by the lack of communication and the constant need to maintain decorum at the expense of emotional well-being. Even conversations that desperately need to be held are quietly swept under the rug in the name of propriety: “When Yasmin started her first period, her mother had slipped her a pack of Kotex maxi pads and whispered instructions not to touch the Quran.”

So many of these moments are a commentary on the pyramid of priorities at the heart of the Desi diaspora, with mental health and wellbeing languishing at the very bottom.

Most brown people will be able to relate to having a hardworking father working hard for every opportunity, frugal to a fault, diminished in front of white people, and constantly regaling the children with stories of struggle and the need to keep their heads down. and to walk painfully. away from thankless work.

Having a paid job and being able to support one’s family are the only goals and these can only be achieved if one is a doctor, engineer or accountant – the only choices Shokat gives Yasmin and Arif.

Arif, however, is creative. He wants to spread his wings and find his own path in life, which his father perceives as irresponsible, immature and inept.

The pink border of the saree was lined with a layer of mud. Patches of sweat darkened the armpits of her choli. Trust Ma to dress inappropriately for every occasion or activity. – Book’s extract

Things take a dramatic turn when Yasmin and her white boyfriend, Joe, decide to get married. A fellow doctor, Joe comes from a sufficiently well-off and wealthy family that Yasmin’s parents were willing to marry.

Joe’s mother, Harriett, is a fierce feminist writer who gained notoriety through her opposition to widespread and popular false female emancipation and her work on white liberal guilt. Hilarity and awkward culture clashes abound as the two families reunite to try to get to know each other and discuss the upcoming nuptials.

The union of these two very distinct and disparate families highlights the stark contrast between refined, elegant and articulate Harriett and hesitant and garish Anisah. The latter’s inaccurate use of the English language spices up comedic moments throughout the book.

It’s interesting to see how Ali uses forms of language to move the narrative forward and give us insight into how systemic bias actually works. It reminded me of something I had read by famous Chinese-American Joy Luck Club author Amy Tan. In her short story “Mother Tongue”, Tan talks about the different “English” she grew up with.

Tan’s mother’s version of English was always seen as “broken” or “fractured” and this, in a way, was seen as a direct reflection of his intellect, which couldn’t be further from the truth. “Immigrant talk,” so to speak, has always been a source of great shame for children who view their parents through a Western lens and often resent them for not being able to speak “properly.”

Tan claims that the complicated relationship that immigrant children have with the English language is the reason why there is so little Asian representation in English literature. Ali uses both Shokat and Anisah’s way of speaking to expertly paint a vivid picture, which gives the reader a sense of character, class, and the role of language in modern Western society.

But then, just when you think this will be your typical brown immigrant family tale, Love Marriage detours off on some very unexpected tangents and saves the book from stereotypical mediocrity.

I was surprised by the dynamics and events that completely caught me off guard. Without giving away too much of the story, one of the highlights of the book was the equation between Harriet and Anisah.

Harriet – proud to be the right kind of liberal – is thrilled to have a culturally diverse ensemble to add to her guest list, but her treatment of Anisah, while well-meaning, oozes white savior overtones. She views Anisah as her intellectual inferior and someone she can care for and nurture, almost like a pet. Yasmin’s friend shrewdly observes that Harriett is “tampering with your mother.”

As the world becomes fully aware of the pitfalls of structural inequality and systemic racism, we see the need for relationships of all forms to be devoid of paternalistic elements. Ali dives into this dynamic with a deep understanding of the dangers of people of color exoticism.

Another interesting relationship is that between Harriet and her only son, Joe. Seemingly supportive and highly functional, it has cracks that surface as the story unfolds. Being the only child of a single mother comes with its own set of dysfunctions, especially if the child is placed in the role of an emotional cornerstone.

In a healthy parent-child relationship, love nurtures and liberates; when the parent makes the child a surrogate partner, love can feel imprisoning and suffocating. The resulting complexities are apparent in the glimpses we see of Joe’s therapy sessions, during which he struggles to make sense of some unresolved issues affecting his life and his relationship with Yasmin.

As the story progresses, we see carefully placed facades being thrown to the wayside, relationships unraveling, morality plummeting, and a nod given to all current issues of class, culture, politics, Islamophobia, symbolism and identity politics.

As for the characters, although they are complicated and layered, none will remain indelibly etched in my memory. However, I think it could have been deliberate. Their banality is what makes the book relatable and accessible, as there are no superheroes here; just a bunch of average people navigating their mundane lives.

Ali also touches on important topics of brown female sexuality, queer culture in the brown community, parental expectations, and the dangers of the false facade prevalent in the South Asian diaspora. Our need to maintain a shiny veneer is getting more and more treacherous, especially for brunette women who are incapable of making decisions for their own sake.

Released nearly 20 years after her debut novel Brick Lane – which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize – Ali’s fifth novel proves she’s hit the mark once again. Love Marriage may not stick with me for years, but it definitely made me stop, put the book down, look at the horizon, and think.

The reviewer is co-founder of My Bookshelf, an online library that delivers books to you and picks them up when you’re done reading. www.mybookshelf.com.pk, @mybookshelppk

Posted in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 21, 2022

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