As a Bangladeshi reader, I started reading Nell Freudenberger’s most recent novel with some reservation. In the recent years, there have been quite a few novels in English featuring Bangladeshi immigrants in the US or England. While it is refreshing and inspiring to see Bangladesh in the literary limelight, it is sometimes disconcerting, since our small country is often depicted as a place where women are harassed, or people persecuted by religious groups -- in short, a place that one must escape in search of a better life in the West.
At the outset of The Newlyweds, Amina Mazid Stillman seems to fit this stereotype, marrying an American man she meets on AsianEuro.com, in order to escape from a life of poverty in Bangladesh, gain citizenship in the US, and take her parents there as well.
And yet, I was also curious about an author who has made a name for herself by writing about foreign cultures and places. Her claim in a New Yorker interview that the story was inspired by a Bangladeshi woman she met on a plane also sparked interest. And surely, as I delved deeper into the novel set in Dhaka and Rochester, I started to recognise Amina in many ways as an authentic immigrant.
The cultural gaffes she makes -- misinterpreting the apparent friendliness of the Americans as signs of compassion rather than mere politeness, or the extreme sense of privacy she encounters, and her anxiety about social acceptance in a foreign country -- are all signs of being the cultural other. There were times when I found myself smiling ruefully at such observations as, “Americans always went to the bathroom, never the loo,” or “our pork is very clean. As clean as chicken -- next time, you’ll tell Eileen she doesn’t have to bother.”
Her struggles to fit in and her efforts to find a friend in a community she does not understand ring only too true. I was surprised that Freudenberger is able to capture that sense of alienation with empathy and understanding. The character of Kimberly, who went off to marry an affluent Indian, also throws light on an emerging culture of interracial marriage in today’s world, and making Amina’s marriage appear not so unlikely.
Amina’s experiences in the US are plausible and realistic in ways that many South Asian immigrants will be able to identify with. Nevertheless, many of her actions in her personal life often make little sense. Her reactions to George and Kim’s lies failed to arouse my sympathy since she herself is not completely honest. She refers to Nasir as a family friend, while it is obvious that he is far more than that when he allows Amina’s parents to stay with him indefinitely.
Amina is considered “practical” by her husband, but during her wedding ceremony she wishes for krishnachura in her wedding bouquet and is surprised and disappointed to find lilacs instead. And yet, the sentimental streak in her does not make her more real. Then there are the moments when Amina’s religious identity comes in. I was particularly disturbed by the cover of the Vintage paperback edition -- a half-hidden profile view of a woman in a golden bridal veil, suggesting that the story is about a Muslim woman breaking out of her purdah and getting liberated in the West.
The identity of a Bangladeshi woman is much more complex than that, because she is both Muslim and Bengali. While I am aware that the author does not always have control over the cover of her novel, I also feel that the representation of another culture is a sensitive issue and should be considered carefully. There are times when it seems that the author is unsure how she wanted her heroine to be. It is difficult to be empathetic toward her, especially in cases when she takes it upon herself to find Nasir’s “girl with the yellow barrette” and condemns Kim for venturing to help George find a suitable bride. Although the story is told from Amina’s perspective, the character is not as fully rounded as one might wish.
Freudenberger’s portrayal of Bangladesh, particularly through Amina’s emotional responses toward her country, is also somewhat problematic. When Amina returns to Bangladesh for the first time, the distance she feels from her country seems somewhat unrealistic, especially given the longing she has felt all this while. It usually takes much longer for an expatriate to feel so detached from one’s country.
Only after one has become tolerably comfortable in her situation in a foreign country does she respond to the mother country the way Amina does. Most immigrants returning home for the first time feel deliriously happy regardless of the heat, the smell, and the garbage that Amina almost complains about. If she was one with little feelings for the country she left behind, her reaction could be understandable.
But she seems to have common sense and compassion and a strong urge to return home; hence her actual response seems out of place. The situation of her family, especially her father’s relationship with his cousins, comes out as unrealistic. Family feuds are common enough anywhere, but Salim and his brothers seem bent upon persecuting their cousin and his family. How likely is it that they would keep on trying to kill or burn them for a stretch of 15 years or more?
A final problematic aspect of the book is the lack of fluidity in narration. It’s true that there is little poetry in modern life, and hence, also little space for poetic prose and heightened drama. But I could not help feeling that in her eagerness to tell the story, the novel becomes driven by its plot at the expense of its characters being fully realised.
Even when the characters struggle to make sense of the world around them, or to understand the most important people in their lives, they don’t reveal their true selves. For that reason, Amina’s realisation of her husband’s infidelity and Kim’s betrayal seem unreal and distant, and Amina’s responses somewhat forced. When I closed the book, I felt that The Newlyweds promised a lot but could not meet the expectations it raised in the beginning.