Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “Bangladesh”

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #55: The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger

The Newlyweds is about an inter-racial, cross-cultural marriage between George, an American 30-something man who has held off on marriage in hopes of finding a different but non-complicated woman, and Amina, an educated 24-year-old Bangladeshi looking for a way out of her impoverished country for herself and her immediate family. They meet through an internet site and after months of email exchanges, George goes to Bangladesh to meet her family, reluctantly agree to convert to Islam, and bring home his bride-to-be. George is enamored of Amina, but Amina is busy setting her timetable for achieving U.S. citizenship, to be followed by getting pregnant and bringing her parents home to live with her, Bangladeshi-style.

We are given the makings of a fascinating exploration of relationships and culture clash which, alas, is never realized. Instead, we are given boring details of Amina’s search for a job which never develops into anything of real interest; her sexual disinterest in George; her community college class which never develops into anything of real interest, and details about other characters’ lives which appear both incidental and also not very interesting. Indeed, The Newlyweds, at least in the first part of the book, takes on the quality of a soap opera: she seeks the friendship of George’s non-conformist cousin Kim, only to discover that George and Kim had had an affair during George and Amina’s long-distance courtship that had led to a quickly-aborted pregnancy. Feeling betrayed, Amina returns to Bangladesh to bring her parents back to the U.S. While there,  she gets embroiled in a violent feud among her father’s relatives and flirts with the idea of a quick love affair with her cousin.

Amina never attempts to fall in love with George, nor does she plan to leave him, as he is her golden ticket to an American life for herself and her parents. And so what sympathy I had for her character at the beginning of the book quickly dims, and by the end, it is George I find myself sympathizing with. Freudenberger’s attempted depiction of Bangladesh is interesting in part, but is quickly colored over by the petty feuding, criminality and violence she presents as somehow typically Bangladeshi in the latter part of her book. By the time the story ended, I was thoroughly disinterested in Amina’s marriage. In fact, I found more honest emotion and real poignancy in a short story called “The Thing Around Your Neck” by Ngozi Adichie, about a Nigerian woman newly arrived in America, and her inability to mesh American and African cultural values during an attempted romance with an American man. If this theme interests you, try reading Ngozi Adichie’s short story collection and leave The Newlyweds alone.

ElCicco#CBR4Review#12: White Teeth by Zadie Smith

White Teeth was published in 2000 and won several prestigious writing awards for Zadie Smith. Smith, like the character Irie in this novel, was born in London in 1975 to an English father and Jamaican mother. White Teeth, her first novel, examines race and family relations in a witty and often hilarious way.

White Teeth opens in 1975 with Archie Jones’ failed attempt at suicide. Saved by a Muslim butcher put out because Archie has parked his car in front of his loading zone, Archie has a new lease on life. He promptly meets and marries a much younger Jamaican woman and renews a wartime friendship with Samad Iqbal, a Bangladeshi Muslim newly married to a younger woman and moved to London. The story goes back in time to the war and the circumstances surrounding Archie and Samad’s friendship, and into the family histories of both men, their wives and extended family. The story also follows the children of these men — Irie, daughter of Archie and Clara, and Samad’s twin sons Millat and Magid. As second generation, the children are stuck in a tug-of-war between traditional and modern culture. Samad especially wants his children to take pride in their family history, be devout Muslims and not become Anglicized. To this end he makes a horrific choice that divides his family, causes his bitter wife Alsana to become even more angry and vindictive and has an effect that is completely opposite of his intention.

White Teeth puts a spotlight on race relations, particularly the tensions that seem to be cyclical and involve majority white populations harassing minorities — within the military, in former British colonies, in the neighborhoods of North London. It also looks at the conflict immigrants face in new countries — whether to try to be fully assimilated and lose one’s identity or to fight to hang on to one’s past through the generations. While this is pretty heavy stuff, the novel itself is one of the funniest and most cleverly written and engaging stories I have read in a very long time. It’s full of unforgettable characters like Abdul Mickey, the proprietor of O’Connell’s billiard hall, which is neither Irish nor a billiard hall; Clara’s mother Hortense — a Jehovah’s witness who anticipates the end of the world and convert’s Clara’s first boyfriend; Alsana’s “niece of shame” Neena who is second generation and a lesbian; and the Chalfens — an obnoxious overbearing family of white middle class intellectuals who take on Irie, Millat and Magid as “special projects” in need of their care, attention and correction.

One of my favorite scenes comes near the end of the novel as Irie, her parents and the Iqbals ride the bus into London on New Year’s Eve. After listening to the adults bicker, 17-year-old Irie lets loose with this: “Just shut up. In case you didn’t notice… not everyone in the universe wants to listen to you lot. So shut it…. Try it. Silence. Ah.” Irie then imagines out loud what it must be like for families not like theirs: “What a peaceful existence. What a joy their lives must be. They open a door and all they’ve got behind it is a bathroom or a living room. Just neutral spaces. And not this endless maze of present rooms and past rooms and the things said in them years ago and everybody’s old historical shit all over the place. They’re not constantly making the same old mistakes.”

The scene that follows this involves every character from the book in one room for what is sure to be an explosive event, including the making of same old mistakes. Apparently, White Teeth was adapted for British TV a few years ago. I would like to see it for that final scene alone. Zadie Smith provides a clever, funny and appropriate ending for a brilliant, intelligent novel that addresses serious topics.

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