Saturday, 29 November 2014

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger

published 2012









[Amina has come to the USA from Bangladesh to marry George. She is trying to get a job in a yoga studio on the reception desk]

She had come for her interview on the first of August, and Kim had called her the night before to help her prepare. She had reassured her that the guru was a kind and open-minded person, but had suggested that Amina might want to wear her own clothes to the interview… Kim thought the guru would like Amina better if she dressed the way she had in Desh.

“I don’t want you to pretend to be someone you’re not,” Kim said. “It’s just that you don’t have a ton of experience, and I was thinking that the way you look might help..”

“Would I have to wear shalwar kameez every day?” Amina had asked. “I mean, if I get the job?” She thought her mother might be able to find a way to send more, but that it wouild be hard to explain why she needed them

“Oh no,” Kim had said. “The last girl always wore jeans. It would just be for the interview.”





observations: Later on, when she is returning to Bangladesh for a visit, Amina will change into the same shalwar kameez an hour before her flight lands:

But perhaps there was something wrong with the way it hung on her body now, because all of a sudden she noticed that the men calling out to her had switched to English.
--- a standard metaphor for being caught between two cultures.

This is a very strange book. It tells Amina’s story as she meets George online, eventually goes to the USA to marry and live with him, then comes back on a trip to see her parents. Almost everything is seen directly through her eyes, and it is totally convincing as such. However, this is not (as far as it is possible to tell) remotely autobiographical – Freudenberger seems to say in the acknowledgements that she met someone on a plane who had a similar story, and took it from there. It seems odd to lift someone else’s story so whole-heartedly (with the permission of the original apparently.) She’s an extremely good writer, and is obviously both fascinated by, and very good at thinking about, the immigrant experience. The other book I have read by her, The Dissident, was about a Chinese artist coming to live with an American family in California, and again she seemed to do a very convincing job.

The book reminded me of other books: Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera (with more pictures of Salwar Khameez); Anne Tyler’s Digging to America; and – many parallels in plot – Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn.

It was difficult to know what was going to be important in the book: it seemed to go off on odd trails at times (for example, when she applies for a job at Boston Kitchen, when they go to buy a bed). But then you did feel that these were someone’s convincing random thoughts, it made her seem real. I thought when her parents applied for a visa, and had to answer questions about their daughter’s marriage, that the fact that she had lied to them about it would be key. But it wasn’t – and that didn’t seem to make sense either. Amina was a very real character, but a very annoying one too. I felt rather sorry for George. But Freudenberger’s style is very hypnotic – I find it hard to describe the way the story pulls you in, and how you can see what other characters are thinking. Her descriptions of social events are marvellous.

The picture is from Zamina Fashions.

6 comments:

  1. Moira - I always find it fascinating to read about what happens two cultures meet (or clash, depending on how it goes). And this does sound like an interesting look at that process. It's also interesting to take a look at one's own culture through the eyes of another. I understand exactly what you mean though about a strange sort of story where you're not really sure which threads to follow closely. Hmmmm.....interesting!

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    1. Culture clash and immigration are two of the themes that fascinate me most in books, so this one could have been made for me in that respect...

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  2. Moira, this immigrant experience is the stuff Bollywood films thrive on and their target audience is the Indian diaspora spread all over the world, particularly in America, Canada, and England. There is a men's equivalent of the salwar kameez or churidaar kurta known as churidaar-pyjama or churidaar-kurta or the cottonish kurta-pyjama, the last often worn as nightwear.

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    1. Thanks Prashant - I come across the terms churidar and kurta (in this book & elsewhere) and am never completely sure, so good to have them explained. And fascinating about Bollywood too - I wasn't aware that so much of the audience was abroad. So you have taught me two different things: thank you.

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