- Migration and the Politics of Narrative Form:Realism and the Postcolonial Subject in Brick Lane
Monica Ali's 2003 novel of Bangladeshi immigrants in London, Brick Lane, has been a huge success on both sides of the Atlantic. Because it is a realist narrative with a postcolonial story, it offers an excellent opportunity to examine the relationship between the formal strategies of mimetic fiction and the historical contexts of multiculturalism and immigration.1 In the chapter "Multicultural Personae" in The Cambridge Introduction to Modern British Fiction, 1950-2000, Dominic Head has investigated "the hybridized cultural forms that might be produced in an evolving, and so genuinely, multicultural Britain" (156). The novels he looks at have much in common in terms of subject [End Page 695] matter with Brick Lane; it is thus interesting that he addresses the question of the troubled relationship of postcolonialism and realism in a subsection titled "Ethnic Identity and Literary Form." He argues:
[A] productive cultural hybridity is commonly (and erroneously) perceived to go hand-in-glove with overtly experimental forms. In such a view, you either have a startlingly innovative style and rapturous presentation of multicultural energies, or you have neither. Rushdie's exuberant magic realism is thus sometimes seen to exemplify the kind of formal reinvigoration of the novel in Britain that the postcolonial era makes possible....However, such an easy equation between experiment and cultural hybridity can imply a simple opposition between experiment and tradition that is inappropriate, with traditional realism coming to embody a reactionary conservatism.(172)
Head's point is that many novels that can be described as traditional—that is, characterized by linear narratives (often focused on individual growth), the cultivation of linguistic transparency, and an invitation to the reader to "identify" with the characters—have examined the experience of multicultural Britain in an innovative fashion. Thus, he feels, it is wrong-headed to assume that realism can be equated with a broad cultural conservatism. Head's argument, however, is essentially content-led: for him, the radical nature of postcolonial subject matter is transmitted to the reader irrespective of the formal strategies employed by the writer. While I agree that there is no necessary connection between cultural hybridity and experimental form, I shall argue here that cultural hybridity has a formal as well as a thematic register; to depict Britain's new hybrid society through realism is not the same as to depict it through other representational modes. In the case of Brick Lane, the exchange between form and content seems to work in two directions. On one hand, realism ceases to be traditional, because it is called upon to depict this new social juncture; the form's limits become visible, as do the presumptions by which it works. On the other, and perhaps more importantly, what I will term the "doubleness" of hybrid cultural and psychological structures is flattened when it is represented in a form that stresses linear development toward self-awareness. This is particularly played out in the realm of translation, both in its literal sense (the way English is used to render Bengali) and as metaphor (the question of whether [End Page 696] an identity forged in one culture can become knowable and exert its agency in another). This second sense leads to the interesting way in which the novel's narrative voice is unable fully to map the consciousness of the central character, Nazneen. It is at this point that some of the political effects of using realism as a form in a postcolonial context emerge. Realism may not be synonymous with cultural conservatism, but it does seem to bar a more radical conception of subjectivity—a conception that is crucial for postcolonial critiques of epistemology.
To understand entirely Head's argument, and indeed what he leaves out, we need briefly to sketch a critical genealogy. Head's understanding of the novel form stems in part from the project begun by Andrzej Ga¸siorek in Post-War British Fiction: Realism and After (1995) to refine the definition of realism in the wake of the attack mounted on it by British poststructuralism as embodied in Colin MacCabe's James Joyce and the Revolution...