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Brick Lane

by Monica Ali

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Brick Lane by Monica Ali
On Manhattan's Lower East Side, successive generations of immigrants have left their mark on the neighborhood's aging buildings. As you walk along the sidewalk, it is not uncommon to see a mortuary or church with the faded stain of a Jewish star hidden beneath the calligraphy of Chinese letters. Hundreds of years of human history have accumulated into a ghostly geology of paint.

Brick Lane is to London much as the Lower East Side is to New York City. The Irish lived in its decrepit structures, followed by Eastern European Jews escaping pogroms. Bengali immigrants drove the neighborhood's most recent demographic flux, and it is the goal of Brick Lane, a novel by Monica Ali, to document their new lives, particularly those of women.

Following Nanzeen, the story's heroine, we are smuggled inside the home to peer into the living room or beneath the undulating sheets of the conjugal bed. This is not a world we could otherwise explore firsthand, even if we personally knew a competent guide like Nanzeen. She promotes her reader to the kind of tourist all travelers aspire to be, privileged to witness human authenticity seldom accessible to outsiders. However, if this were the limit of Brick Lane it would not necessarily capture or deserve our attention. From the beginning it is easy to loose yourself in Nanzeen's world because Ali's strength as a writer is the vitality of her portrayal: the smells of cardamom and coriander perfume the pages of this novel and the rhythmic clack of sewing machines churning out cheap jeans can be heard until the back cover is shut.
The immigrant experience is so foreign to everything I know that it would require of me a feat of transubstantiation to truly understand it. I've moved from city to city, even spent extended periods of time on foreign soil with unintelligible tongues shrieking at me like roaming cicadas. But my trips have been mere rambles compared to the voyages of refugee grandparents, or with the case at hand, the young Nanzeen suddenly swarmed by the industrial sounds and swift gestures of a wholly foreign city. My country has been exported all over the world: its language is spoken widely, its currency is horded by dictators and shepherds alike, and its food is plotted carefully onto intersections in every vulnerable city. What this means is that I've never truly put myself at risk; I've never confronted a culture that doesn't care who I am or where I come from. The world, whether it likes it or not, is forced to accommodate the things that define my life.

But Nanzeen and her compatriots are stranded in London without the benefits of belonging to a superpower big beyond its britches. They are more vulnerable, more likely to be reborn by their immigration, or, else, to fail.
For Nanzeen, understanding her experience in London as a rebirth is not the tired metaphor it's use is for us. Her mother relished telling Nanzeen the story of "How You Were Left To Your Fate": the lore of Nanzeen's first days on earth when death loitered over the starving baby who refused to eat or drink. Her mother dismissed medical assistance, insisting, instead, that God alone should decide the future health of her child. Nanzeen did finally eat, but more importantly, the ordeal informed everything that she came to know. She took from her interview with death the lesson that "What could not be changed, must be borne. And since nothing could be changed, everything had to be borne."

We aren't given the choice of whether we are born or not, and Nanzeen associates her own powerlessness with the way that--after the howling and screaming--we must acquiesce to the fact of our existence. We certainly can't go back into the womb, but more importantly, it wasn't in our power to stall our delivery in the first place. For Nanzeen, one is a baby, or an immigrant, or a wife; what we do as each of these is extraneous to the fact that suddenly we have become them. Fate is key, setting the terms for how we live. Ironically, Nanzeen is reborn in London, but her rebirth occurs against her own insistence on the supremacy of fate. At thirty-four, she is suddenly "startled by her own agency like an infant who waves a clenched fist and strikes itself upon the eye." Birth never looses its existential importance, just its orienting lesson.
And after more than a decade in London, it has acquired one additional meaning. Nanzeen has witnessed the maturing of new generation fervently devoted to Islam. These young men and women (but mostly young men) are disillusioned by the immigrant experiences of their parents, who struggled in a country that was at times hostile to their presence and at best sadly inept to help with their transition to English life. In the community centers of Brick Lane, Islam was reborn into a potent political force.

Ali's book was resoundingly praised. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and Ali was named as one of the best young British writers. I suspect that everyone's enthusiasm for the novel is, in part, that Ali is like a magician revealing all her secrets. Every Western country is facing off with its Muslim populations, and no one has offered a definitive way of protecting civil rights while preserving security. This book, however, provides its readers a look at a community that, frankly, frightens them; it is, in short, an education. And we have a better chance of surviving our most current mess of civilization if there is less smoke and fewer mirrors.
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