Biography 26.4 (2003) 771-774
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In the twenty-first century, the transnational experience is being explored in a variety of ways in countries such as Britain and America. Transnational migration has been usefully summarized by Peggy Levitt as concerned with [End Page 771] "how ordinary people are incorporated into the countries that receive them while remaining active in the places they come from" (4). In Britain, novels by Zadie Smith and Monica Ali have examined the way generations of migrants adapt and respond to urban life. Empirical study of migrant groups (notably from the South Asian diaspora) is now an expanding field for research, with a rich crop of doctoral dissertations (usefully reviewed at the beginning of this new study from Katy Gardner). Theoretical perspectives on transnationalism are also now available—Papastergiadis's The Turbulence of Migration being one such example. Katy Gardner's book falls into the second of the above categories, and builds upon her earlier studies of Bangladesh, including the highly praised Songs at the River's Edge: Stories from a Bangladeshi Village. In the study under review the stories or "narratives" are those of Bangladeshi women and men living in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. This is home to the largest population of Bangladeshis (mostly from the district of Sylhet) in Britain (around one in two of the total population of 260,000 live in inner London).
Gardner's research joins the small group of studies focusing on older people, as opposed to the larger body of work examining the experience of younger Bangladeshis. Her concern is with the journey which individuals make in moving across space and time—the former represented by the physical shifting of bodies from one location to another, the latter by the passing of individuals through the life course. The methodology she adopts is to examine narratives or stories about particular events or experiences that have affected the lives of migrants—narratives defined as "conscious and structured accounts of events across time." Her informants attended a day center in Tower Hamlets, and were drawn from twenty-three households, all of whom had a member who visited the day center. Eleven men and sixteen women provided interviews in which they narrated their experience of migration and talked about their life in Britain.
The study is especially valuable in providing an assessment of the interaction between gender and age in the life course of the migrants. An important finding from the research is the way in which many of the women had been brought to Britain to care for their husbands, who had begun to experience chronic illness in late middle age (for supporting evidence, see Phillipson et al.). As a result, for the women at least, experiences and memories of Britain tended to be structured around narratives of illness. Gardner is especially good at using the narrative technique to examine how the problems facing her sample of women were often expressed in bodily terms relating to high blood pressure and physical pain. Another central theme of the stories was that while in many ways the women viewed themselves as powerful and [End Page 772] assertive, they also experienced feelings of disempowerment faced with overweening medical bureaucracies and personnel. Gardner brings out some important issues in her research about the need to improve practice in the care of the sick and dying in hospital, especially in relation to the "construction" of a good death.
The men's narratives provide a contrasting picture to those of the women, with different points of emphasis depending on the point of the life course being described:
While in their narratives of past selves the elders stressed work and money, for it was these factors that brought a younger man success and honour, today, as old men, religious achievements and devotion to Allah are more important. . . . For some men, this period of...