Narrating London:

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Narrating London:

Belonging in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and Zadie Smith’s NW

Anne Hoen 10803270

Supervised by Dr. Daan Wesselman

M.A. Thesis Literary Studies (Research) Graduate School of Humanities

Universiteit van Amsterdam

18 June 2021


Plagiarism Acknowledgment

I hereby acknowledge that I have read the UvA regulations on plagiarism and take full responsibility for the contents of this document. I declare that this thesis is my own work and that no other sources than those referred to in the text have been used in writing it.



This thesis analyzes Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (2003) and Zadie Smith’s NW (2012) in relation to the spatial and social processes through which marginalized groups are excluded from participation and representation in the spaces of London and the British national community, and the conditions by which they can claim a space for themselves in the city. Discussing aspects of spatial segregation, bodily performativity and mobility in relation to discourses of (national) belonging, I will argue that both Brick Lane and NW propose a contemporary urban text of London that challenges its representation as a white, masculine space. By reflecting on and revising the tradition of the flâneur, both novels set dominant narratives of the city in opposition to marginalized histories, prioritizing the voices of female and racialized subjects in the narration of multicultural London.


Table of Contents

Introduction 5

Chapter 1: Space and Identity: Experiences of (Un)Belonging 10 Chapter 2: Bodies and Barriers: Performing Belonging 30 Chapter 3: Maps and Mobility: Geographies of Belonging 51

Conclusion 69

Bibliography 74



In “Analytic Borderlands: Race, Gender and Representation in the New City”, Saskia Sassen describes the global city in the following manner:

The global city […] is the new territory where the contemporary version of the colonial wars of independence are being fought. But today’s battles lack clear boundaries and fields: there are many sites, many fronts, many politics. They are battles being fought in neighborhoods, schools, court rooms, public squares. They are fought around curriculums, rights, identity. Their sites of resistance are streets, parks, culture, the body. (Sassen 197).

Both Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (2003) and Zadie Smith’s NW (2012) are concerned with the attempt to navigate this “new territory”. Reflecting on anxieties surrounding multiculturalism, a destabilizing national identity and discourses of belonging, both novels discuss the ways in which Britain’s colonial past still shapes power relations on local and national levels.

Through a discussion of these different aspects, I will analyze the spatial and social processes through which marginalized groups are excluded from participation and

representation in London and the British national community, and the conditions by which they can claim a space for themselves in the city. Discussing how both Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and Zadie Smith’s NW narrate the city of London, I will analyze how issues of spatial

segregation, bodily performativity and mobility comment on and challenge the exclusionary practices that marginalized subjects are exposed to. Through this, I will argue that both Brick Lane and NW propose a contemporary urban text of London that reflects on and challenges its

representation as a white, masculine space. While simultaneously pointing to the barriers and limitations that the subjects continue to be confronted with, both novels prioritize the

experiences of marginalized communities and thereby provide a reading of London that does


justice to the variety of voices that together constitute its spaces.

Although both writers have been studied with regard to questions of space, identity and belonging, Ali’s Brick Lane is most often paired with Smith’s White Teeth in their representation of first generation immigrants, as is evident in studies by Peter Preston (2007) and Irene Pérez Fernández (2009) among others. White Teeth in particular has been discussed with regard to its positive outlook on the future in relation to multicultural communities, and for its celebration of London as an international space. However, more than a decade later, debates on immigration and multiculturalism have turned grim in light of terrorist attacks in European cities and feelings of anxiety across the West, making discourses of belonging even more relevant.

Both Brick Lane and NW address these tensions as they engage with postcolonial and diasporic life and explore notions of selfhood and belonging through the representation of gender, race, ethnicity and class. With regard to Brick Lane, although the novel has been criticized for its portrayal of the Bangladeshi community as backwards and uneducated, I aim to discuss it in a larger context of national belonging and its relation to ideas of Britishness by exploring gender and cultural implications. Studies of the novel often present the narrative as either one of female liberation, portraying “belated sexual and political awakenings of a Bangladeshi immigrant female protagonist” (Feng 15), or as one of “self-erasure” (Rose).

However, rather than reading the novel as either a narrative of liberation or complete self- erasure, I aim to discuss it as situated in between those two readings. While Nazneen’s development over the course of the novel is accompanied by a growing sense of agency, it is important to consider the context in which this progression takes place. Through this, I will suggest that belonging can only be partially achieved as a result of the processes of inequality that continue to affect minority communities.

In contrast to Monica Ali, for whom female experience is a central theme in her work,


Zadie Smith has been criticized for having “difficulty creating female characters (both black and white) that are more than one-dimensional character types. Smith’s female characters lack development because they are overshadowed by white male protagonists […] whose stories drive the narratives” (Walters 125). With NW, Smith responds to this critique as the novel not only brings the narratives of two women to the center, but it also prioritizes questions of race through the stories of black characters, thereby destabilizing and rewriting the narrative of London as a white masculine space. In this way, by bringing Brick Lane and NW together, I will analyze how both novels imagine the global city of London by prioritizing the voices of marginalized subjects.

In my discussion of both novels, I will be drawing on concepts from social geography and include theory on space, performativity and mobility in relation to discourses of

belonging. While belonging is often explained as having two dimensions, “a personal, intimate feeling of being ‘at home’” and a “political, a discursive resource that constructs, claims or justifies (or resists) inclusion or exclusion in relation to the wider community”

(Thorpe 138), it is this latter aspect that will be the main focus of this thesis. In contemporary Britain, discussions of belonging are part of a broader debate about a national and socio- cultural identity in relation to an ideal of a relatively homogeneous national identity, reinforcing conceptualizations of nationalism that, following Benedict Anderson, consider nations as “imagined communities” in which people connect through shared experiences and modes of identification. However, although Anderson’s idea of belonging to the nation points to a ‘natural’ connection, it is simultaneously the result of “the irremediable particularity of its concrete manifestations” (Anderson 5), suggesting that it is only established through time. As Ann McClintock similarly points out, rather than a mere textual or mental phenomenon, nations “are elaborate social practices enacted through time, laboriously fabricated through the media and the printing press, in schools, churches, and the myriad forms of popular


culture, in trade unions and funerals, protest marches and uprisings” (McClintock 104). In their representation as unified spaces with a shared history, culture and language, nations both include and exclude experiences, identities and bodies, underlining their socially constituted nature in their attempt to preserve a homogeneous identity.

The construction of the nation around a unified identity became a topic of anxiety in Britain particularly from 2001 onward, as a result of both national and international events that destabilized trust in social cohesion and national security. In particular, the terror attacks of 9/11, the riots in the north of England in 2001 and the London bombings in 2005 all contributed to these anxieties. In relation to the increasing number of migrants coming to Britain, conceptions of tradition and culture became less stable, disrupting “the overarching themes of modernity: the nation, and its literature, […] the sense of centre; the sense of psychic and cultural homogeneity” (Chambers 23-24). Although in the aftermath of these events, Britain continues to present itself as a tolerant nation in which immigrants and other newcomers are welcome, the reality suggests that this is not always the case and that notions of ‘culture’ and ‘nation’ continue to be considered in “their most monolithic, essentialist and reductionist dimensions” (Pichler 45), making that discourses of belonging are as much about exclusion as they are about inclusion.

These aspects are central to the narratives of Brick Lane and NW, and will be the focus in the thesis. Outlining how spatial segregation and identities are shaped by larger discourses of inclusion and exclusion, I will analyze the city of London as reflecting on “political and economic demands that establish hierarchies and define who belongs and who can be excluded from certain city spaces on the basis of rights and privileges, duties and responsibilities” (López-Varela Azcárate xxiii). By particularly discussing how the

construction of Britishness continues to be centered around racial and cultural hierarchies, the spaces of London and the wider nation are represented as white and masculine spaces.


Moreover, rather than arguing that belonging is either achieved or not, my reading of both novels suggests that belonging, in its socially constructed nature, is only partially obtainable for those outside of the dominant culture. As their subjects are unable to fully escape the frameworks of social inequality, both novels underline the reality in which different forms of oppression continue to be at play in London and Britain at large.

Building on these theoretical considerations, my first chapter will analyze the exclusionary practices that marginalized people are subjected to on a spatial level. By focusing on spatial segregation as a form of identity control, I will outline the ways in which the characters in Brick Lane and NW are physically and culturally excluded from the wider spaces of the nation, and how ideas of Britishness are defined against their marginalized position. My second chapter will build on this by outlining the conditions by which subjects can move beyond the spaces of exclusion they are subjected to. Connecting the representation of bodies to Judith Butler’s theory of performativity, I will argue that belonging is not a natural experience but is rather achieved through the repetition of bodily performance in relation to ideals of whiteness and masculinity. Focusing on both dress and behavior, I will not only discuss the conditions for subjects to move beyond the territorial lines of exclusion, but also point to the complexity and instability of performativity in claiming a sense of belonging. My third and final chapter will illustrate how both of these elements – the

subjection of both identity and bodies to social control – are reflected in the characters’ access to mobility. Subjected to objectification in the open spaces of the city as a visible Other, both novels depict marginalized subjects as exploring and negotiating the possibilities through which they can change their relation to the city. As they invade and revise the tradition of the flâneur, both novels propose a contemporary reading of London that disrupts its

representation as a white, masculine space and that prioritizes different figures and voices.


Chapter 1:

Space and Identity: Experiences of (Un)Belonging

In this chapter, I will discuss the representation of London in relation to the spatial segregation of marginalized communities. Both Brick Lane and NW start from the

identification with a specific neighborhood to reflect on larger issues of spatial inequality and exclusion. By tracing their concern with the interplay of space and identity, I will argue that spatial control as represented in both novels also functions as a form of identity control, and restricts marginalized subjects in reaching a sense of belonging in the spaces of London and Britain at large. Particularly as a result of a British national ideal of cultural and linguistic cohesion, the subjects in both novels are physically and culturally excluded from the nation, inhabiting a space against which a British identity is defined.

I will start from the representation of the council estate in both novels, discussing this form of housing as a space of exclusion that is distinct from the wider spaces of the city and the nation. Facilitating different forms of segregation, the council estate is a central element in the novels’ concern with discourses of belonging. As it reinforces the position of marginalized subjects as outsiders, the council estate limits them in their attempt to come to terms with the complexity of their identity, which is underlined by their experience of entrapment and claustrophobia in enclosed spaces. While in some cases, as I will discuss in my analysis of Brick Lane, spatial segregation is also used by the ethnic community to strengthen a

weakened identity as they struggle to navigate a new environment, this does not confirm a narrative of failed integration, but rather underlines the necessity of taking the complexity surrounding discourses of belonging into account.

Spatial Divisions

It is not merely physical and geographical borders that restrict people, but, as Elizabeth


Jackson points out, also “other, invisible boundaries [that] affect human behaviour and keep individuals in place, such as the boundaries enclosing ghettoes and ethnically segregated areas” (Jackson 57). Although invisible, the territorial lines of ethnically segregated areas in Britain draw attention to various issues surrounding belonging, ownership of space and social trust between communities. As a result of the racial riots that took center stage in Britain in 2001, debates surrounding the relation between ethnic segregation and social integration emerged, with a particular focus on anxieties about Britain “sleepwalking into segregation”

(Casciani). However, through a discussion of the social and cultural factors at work in Brick Lane and NW, I will discuss how rather than representing a nation that “sleepwalks” into

spatial divisions, which suggests an unconscious phenomenon, both novels address the processes that actively prevent marginalized communities from entering the wider spaces of the nation.

In both Brick Lane and NW, an important marker of spatial divisions is visible in the council estate, which gives rise to forms of ethnic, racial and class segregation. Although in the early years after the second World War, the council estate was represented as “a semi- public space of social interaction” that was meant to “extend into a site of belonging and identification” (Pastore and Ponzo 22), it has become an important marker of difference, a space against which discourses of national belonging take shape. As Lucinda Newns points out, “the mapping of power differentials is […] embodied in the British council estate, which sets up islands of racialized marginality within otherwise wealthy British city centers like London” (Newns 12). The conceptualization of council estates as “islands” underlines the position of its residents as segregated, living separately from the ‘mainland’, a space that is different and distinct from the larger spaces of the city and the nation. As the residents of council estates are “Britain’s most underprivileged and highly stigmatized communities which are segregated along class, ethnic and religious lines” (Cuevas), the estate is represented in


opposition to the ‘dominant’ culture and terrain of the nation, suggesting a clear relation between spatial divisions and the construction of Britishness. In this context, therefore, space is, as Doreen Massey argues, “socially constituted”, created out of “incredible complexities”

and power relations “at every scale” (Massey 254). Rather than a neutral phenomenon, space reflects on larger power divisions and social structures that govern the lives of individuals in terms of racial, cultural and class relations.

The differentiation of the council estate from the wider city and nation is achieved both by its association with “the rise of an underclass, increasing violent crime and ethnic segregation” (Cuevas 383), and its design, often with high towers, brutalist architecture and markers of “enclosure, repetition and hierarchy” (Hillier 63) that sets it apart from the rest of the urban landscape. As a result, even “when they are situated in inner-city areas”, council estates “are often negatively characterized by their marginal status” (Cuming 29). As an iconic legacy of Britain’s social housing experiment of the twentieth-century, “few British people [are] unable to recognize what is or is not a council estate” (Ravetz 177). However, although this suggests that council estates share an easily identifiable feature that makes them recognizable in the British urban landscape, the construction of the estate as a space of

difference occurs in different contexts and in different ways. Therefore, by analyzing the representation of the council estate in Brick Lane and NW, I will consider more closely the different ways in which it is produced as a space of exclusion that separates its residents from the larger spaces of the nation.

Starting from a discussion of how both novels implement the council estate in relation to these factors, I will then move to the larger implications of such spatial divisions in the characters’ process of self-identification. As I will discuss through Brick Lane and NW, the process of othering is not limited to the level of space, but also affects the perception of its residents, who have come to be associated with a narrative of failure and anti-social behavior.


Following a period of policies that were meant to reduce “anti-social behavior” in council estates, prime minister Tony Blair spoke of a desire to “bring back a proper sense of respect”, making that “housing was now increasingly seen as a site for the socialization of citizens into key British values” (Manjikian 81). Not merely “a place to live”, a house was “also a place to learn citizenship and how to be British” (81). However, in both novels the construction of the estate as a marginal space underlines that learning “how to be British” is obstructed by the limited interaction with the wider British society, and suggests that it is a process of exclusion rather than inclusion. Caught within the borders of inequality, marked by the experience of domestic spaces as claustrophobic and entrapping, these subjects are limited in their self- development. As they struggle to come to terms with the complexity of their identity, they express the need to escape spatial restrictions, even though outside factors continue to restrict and obstruct them.

Brick Lane’s Dogwood

Although the neighborhood of London’s Tower Hamlets is presented as a space in which

‘home’ is recreated by the largely Bangladeshi community, associated with “Islamic schools, halal grocers, shops selling everything from ‘halal toothpaste’ to ‘Islamic toys’” (Santesso 57), Brick Lane addresses the social context that restricts the community in their engagement with British society. Following the journey of Nazneen, an eighteen year old Bangladeshi woman whose arranged marriage to the forty year old Chanu brings her to Tower Hamlets in the 1980s, Brick Lane outlines the female migrant experience. Throughout the novel, the spatial segregation of the community, which is particularly centered around the council estate Dogwood, creates a double form of invisibility for its female members, restricting them to the space of the home as a result of both traditional gender norms and discriminatory practices by white Britons. Both through its association with a community of outdated beliefs and its


design, the estate is produced as a space of difference against which British values are constructed and restricts the community in permanently trespassing its territory.

The segregation of the Bangladeshi community emerged in a larger development in the racialization of London’s population that increased tensions surrounding multiculturalism.

As John Eade points out, “The arrival and settlement of those from British (ex)colonies during the 1950s and 1960s played a key part in the rapid racialization of London’s population. In the case of the Bangladeshis, […] with the arrival of wives and dependents during the 1980s and 1990s a settled Bangladeshi community emerged” (Eade 3). The growing Muslim community contributed to a shift in public discourses of integration and assimilation, with a particular concern about ethnic clustering as obstructing social cohesion. In his intersectional study of migrant Muslim women, Nilufar Ahmed remarks that ethnic clustering in areas like Tower Hamlets is “often presented as ‘self-segregation’ and viewed in terms of disadvantage and as a barrier to integration for migrants” (Ahmed 16). However, as Ahmed continues, ethnic clustering cannot simply be understood as a choice, because other factors influence the community’s ability to leave, such as “the lack of affordable homes” and “restricted choice over where to live” due to discrimination by landlords (17). In this way, the segregation of the community is affected by larger processes of social inequality and exclusion.

Throughout Brick Lane, the spatial segregation of the Bangladeshi community cannot be understood as mere self-segregation, nor as a mere inflicted form of segregation, but is rather presented as a multi-layered issue that reflects on the complexity of discourses of belonging in relation to national and cultural identities. Throughout the novel, it is suggested that the process of ethnic clustering is important for the Bangladeshi community through statements such as “most of our people […] stick together” (28). Described as a community of familiarity and closeness, with people such as Mrs Islam who “knew everything about

everybody” (28), the council estate represents what Frank Tonkiss refers to as “villages in the



If social relations in the city were characterized by anonymity and rationality, urban communities were throwbacks to other places and older kinds of sociality. They appeared like villages in the city, based on familiarity and shared cultural norms, and usually transported by rural incomers or foreign immigrants.

(Tonkiss 9)

This construction of communities as defined by the process of sticking together, built on familiarity and shared cultural values, is pointed to by Chanu who states that because “most of our people […] come from the same district”, they “know each other from the villages, and they come to Tower Hamlets and they think they are back in the village” (28), suggesting that the community has created a space that preserves cultural values in the host country.

An important example of the community to preserve such values and claim a sense of control can be found in the display of traditional gender roles. Stating that “staying on the estate did not count as going out” (46), Nazneen describes the estate as an extension of the personal home as a space of female confinement, underlining that the distance between the estate and the public spaces of the host country particularly affects its female residents. In the early days after her arrival, Nazneen experiences a strong sense of entrapment and

claustrophobia that comes to dominate much of her days in the estate, making her feel as though she “came to London to sit day after day in this large box with the furniture to dust, and the muffled sound of private lives sealed away, below and around her” (24). In their role of mother and housewife, most of the Bangladeshi women that Nazneen interacts with on a regular basis experience similar spatial restrictions, reinforced through social stigmatization and fear of gossip. When Nazneen asks Chanu to go out, he tells her: “Why should you go


out? If you go out, then people will say, ‘I saw her on the street’. And I will look like a fool”

(30). In this way, the Bangladeshi women are particularly affected by segregation from inside the community.

However, although these examples largely represent the separation of the community from the host culture as a conscious choice in favor of maintaining a cultural identity, the depiction of poor living conditions, with “overcrowding” being “one of the worst problems in our community” with “four or five Bangladeshi to one room” (49), makes that this image is easily overshadowed with the idea that community “is a code for ‘race’, a politer means of lumping people together on the basis of skin or culture” (Tonkiss 9). Observing “piles of people loaded one on top of the other, a vast dump of people rotting away under a mean strip of sky” (303), Nazneen reflects on the representation of the estate not as a space that is claimed by the Bangladeshi community, but rather as one that is produced by larger power structures that subjects minority groups to social invisibility and neglect. With doors that

“were all the same”, marked by “peeling red paint showing splinters of pale wood” (53), the estate is set in opposition to the prosperous city center that is only “four blocks down (55), and suggests how rather than “narrow[ing] the gap between rich and poor”, social housing serves “to create a firm and visible wall between them” (Hanley 97). Described through buildings that are “constructed almost entirely out of glass” (56), the open buildings and spaces of the city stand in stark contrast with the red brick council estate that renders its residents invisible.

The construction of the estate as a space of difference and exclusion is further

facilitated by the design of the estate. As Emily Cuming points out, “the estate is built in such a way as to make the blocks visible but inaccessible to each other, with the effect that the people Nazneen can see, such as her tattooed neighbour, are in fact the ones she is least likely to encounter physically” (Cuming 205). This has further implications as, Cuming continues,


“it is precisely because the flats in Brick Lane are visible to each other that interiors are carefully guarded from the view” (205), which is evident in the novel’s description of the lives behind the windows as “all shapes and shadows” (17). Spending much of her time staring out of the window, Nazneen sometimes feels the urge of “going downstairs, crossing the yard, and climbing the Rosemead stairwell to the fourth floor” (19) in order to meet the tattoo lady, though she never does because the woman “might be angry at an unwanted interruption” (719. This fear of “unwanted interruption” underlines the idea of the immigrant Other as an unwanted visitor, trying to invade the ‘home’ of the nation, and emphasizes Nazneen’s separation from the both the white working-class residents of the neighborhood and the wider British society. Although Nazneen is already physically separate from their spaces, the guarded interiors underline the narrative of segregation in which the Other is not welcome.

Moreover, although the British community is largely absent from Nazneen’s vision, it is very much present on the level of authority through the regulation of the neighborhood by its laws: “the sign screwed to the brickwork was in stiff English capitals and the curlicues beneath were Bengali. No dumping. No parking. No ball games” (13). Later on, Nazneen notices another sign: “The notice said: No smoking, no eating, no drinking. All the signs, thought Nazneen, tell you what not to do” (51). While this confirms the “public control”

council estates are subjected to through “prescribed forms of behavior” (Ravetz 204), it simultaneously suggests that if social housing is supposed to teach its residents “how to be British” as suggested by Tony Blair, then Britishness is constructed on values of restriction and impossibility for marginalized subjects. Being governed through prohibitions, the estate traps its residents into their homes while obstructing any potential to develop the self in relation to their surroundings, an aspect I will return to in the second part of the chapter.


NW’s Caldwell

Whereas the spatial divisions in Brick Lane create a double form of invisibility for women, NW’s representation of space in relation to forms of exclusion is further explored through

factors of race and class. Following the lives of four second-generation immigrants, Leah, Natalie/Keisha, Felix and Nathan, that are tied to the council estate Caldwell, the novel prioritizes questions of identity and belonging in relation to representations of space. As Molly Slavin points out, the narratives of Leah and Natalie are particularly interesting to consider, not only for the ways in which they “mark their spaces in different ways than men would” but also “in the light of postcolonial geographies of the city, because the women are considered ‘other’ or from ‘elsewhere’” (Slavin 101). Indeed, whereas Leah is the daughter of Irish immigrants, Natalie’s parents are Jamaican immigrants. However, the narratives of characters like Felix and Shar are just as relevant to this discussion as they are similarly trapped in spatial and discursive forms of exclusion and stigmatization as a result of their otherness, making that NW represents what David James refers to as “worlded localism”, engaging with “profound questions of racial difference, cultural displacement and

assimilation” (James 48).

Throughout NW, the neighborhood of Willesden depicts a changing urban landscape that is closely intertwined with Britain’s colonial past. The council estate Caldwell in which the main characters grew up is described as “full of people from the colonies and Russiany lot” (77), thereby depicting how categories of race and ethnicity divide people across specific, and often less well-off, districts. In contrast to the central position of the council estate in Brick Lane, NW focuses on the borough of Brent, associated with high levels of poverty, in

which the estate Caldwell symbolizes the sense of entrapment that echoes through the novel and neighborhood. Although occupied by a large variety of ethnic communities, their differences fade in their representation as lower class residents, all connected “by walkways


and bridges and staircases” and the sameness of the architecture: “here is the door, here is the window. And repeat, and repeat” (301). Moreover, descriptions of the estate point to the social neglect these buildings have been subjected to. With “lifts that were to be avoided almost as soon as they were built” and some of the windows “fixed with brown tape, grubby net curtains, no door number, no bell” (301), the estate is associated with the type of public housing that is visibly segregated from the prosperous city center of London, and which, rather than represented through the cultural differences that constitute the area, is separated through its association with a generalized Other.

The council estate as a space of exclusion is closely connected to a narrative of failure, which corresponds to Lisa McKenzie’s observation of recent media representations of council estates that are “aimed at a type of fetishist fascination of looking ‘at’ the poor, who are shown as ‘deficit’” (McKenzie 104). Instead of “looking at the structures in society, […] the default position of what is thought of working-class people is that they have something missing, something wrong with them, and if their behavior and culture were righted that would solve the situation” (105). In NW, the association of the council estate with poverty reinforces this discourse as it is set in opposition to an ideal of Britishness, which is made evident in descriptions of the area as a “hopeless sort of place”(245) by the (white) rich, a place that is “ungentrified, ungentrifiable” (47). Keeping its residents caught within the walls of inequality, the council estate becomes a space marked by grim descriptions of proximity:

“Four gardens along, in the estate, a grim girl on the fourth floor screams Anglo-Saxon at nobody. Juliet balcony, projecting for miles” (3), underlining its separation from London’s center.

Although Smith’s incorporation of such examples of ‘poverty porn’ reinforces the narrative of council estate residents as living in the margins of society, it is not used in its typical portrayal of “images of suffering and destitution” of people that are “not depicted in a


humane way” (Caouette and Price 66). Rather than reducing the experience of poverty to a stereotypical, one-dimensional portrayal of residents as suggested in media representations, Smith revises the use of the term and uncovers the relation between class representations and larger exclusionary practices. This becomes particularly evident in descriptions of the

characters as experiencing feelings of entrapment and claustrophobia, being, like Leah,

“fenced in, on all sides” (1). Despite attempts to break free from the territorial lines of the estate, with “ivy from the estate” (67) covering Leah’s garden, Smith points to the

impossibility of fully escaping the implications of one’s surroundings.

The experience of claustrophobia in relation to the estate does not stand on its own, but is intertwined with the lasting effects of Britain’s colonial past. When Felix visits his father Lloyd, a Jamaican immigrant, the relation between spatial divisions and Britain’s history is made evident. Reflecting on his past, Smith depicts how spatial divisions have left him “unchanged in twenty years”: “Yeah, old Lloyd […] still up in the old estate, in Caldwell, yeah, never left” (101), suggesting a close relation between spatial immobility and a static identity. When Felix enters the house, he is immediately aware of the pressing atmosphere, as it feels “like a sauna in here!” (103). However, although the flat is described through poor living conditions with “the constant central heating, the cooking, the lack of ventilation [causing] large mould flowers to bloom on the ceiling” (104), Lloyd’s past is not discussed through a narrative of failure but is rather presented as a history of fighting against racist forms of exclusion.

In its depiction of the estate as a space of entrapment, Smith incorporates images of resilience and strength that, rather than confirming a narrative of failure, point to larger processes of power that restrict people from participation and representation in the national community. As Lloyd looks back on the racism he experienced, he grows frustrated from the memories of suffering: “Hard times! You lot don’t even know. People now … ‘The struggle!’


… I seen the struggle” (107). Although Lloyd remarks the hardships of the period, his memories of the anti-racist activism that prevailed stand in stark contrast to his confinement to both the estate and his position in British society, as he wonders: “Where’s my rights under the English law?” (108). The estate depicts a grim image of a space of invisibility, with scraps of mould falling from the ceiling (104), a narrative that is literally, physically, imposed on Felix. After stepping outside, Felix has to “wipe his face and concentrate on breathing like a normal person” (110). Thinking of his sudden choice to leave as “the path of self-

preservation” (109), Felix not only depicts the estate and all that it represents as an

oppressive, claustrophobic space, but he also points to the need to escape entrapment within the narrative of his father that renders him invisible as a British citizen, thereby underlining the relation between spatial segregation and inclusion in the construction of the nation.


Not only is the construction of the council estate as a space of exclusion and difference an important example of the ways in which Britain’s colonial history still shapes London’s social structures, but its physical and discursive separation from British society suggests that its residents are separate from the construction of Britishness. Therefore, rather than a mere spatial issue, the segregation of minority communities plays a central role in the process of self-identification, and underlines the relation between spatial control and identity control in the construction of the national community. As Lawrence Grossberg remarks, “although everyone exists within a strata of subjectivity, they are also located at particular positions, each of which enables and constraints the possibilities of experiences, of representing those experiences and of legitimizing those representations”, making that “the question of identity is one of social power” (Grossberg 99). Rather than separate from larger discourses of power, identities are, in line with the construction of the nation itself, far from fixed but rather


socially, politically and discursively constructed.

Moreover, as William Neil points out, the “construction of identities is always

connected with the constitution of space” (Neil 11). In a similar way that the spaces in which minority communities reside are produced as spaces of differences, set against (white) wealthy neighborhoods through stereotypical descriptions and media representations, the conceptualization of a British identity seems to depend on the presence of the Other, making that both the construction of nations and of national identities are intertwined with difference.

As Seyla Benhabib points out,

Since every search for identity includes differentiating oneself from what one is not, identity politics is always and necessarily a politics of the creation of difference […]

What is shocking about these developments, is not the inevitable dialectic of

identity/difference that they display but rather the atavistic belief that identities can be maintained and secured only by eliminating difference and otherness. (Benhabib 3)

In the attempt to preserve a homogeneous national identity, the British national community is largely constructed through this form of othering. By considering how this process occurs in Brick Lane and NW, I will analyze the ways in which marginalized subjects are caught in

discursive forms of objectification and exclusion, and how institutions, such as schools and the media, play a central role in upholding a narrative of a unified national identity that homogenizes minority communities as Other.

Brick Lane

In Brick Lane, Nazneen’s experience of entrapment and alienation underlines that segregation is not a mere spatial issue that restricts her engagement with British society, but also largely controls her identity as a result of cultural and linguistic othering, and suggests that spatial


segregation facilitates segregation in other institutions. As it renders minority communities invisible in the national community while it simultaneously increases their visibility as Other, spatial segregation perpetuates other forms of discriminatory and exclusionary practices by dominant groups. An important example of this can be found in the role of the English language. Throughout the novel, monolingualism of the English language functions as an ideology rather than a lived reality, and can be understood as a national measure to decide who belongs. As Celia Roberts points out, “language as a symbolic and political resource […]

both represents and constructs what a nation is, what it is to be an ethnic minority and also signals membership of particular groups, ties to certain identities” (Roberts 68), making that language ideologies are about more than language alone and are tied to questions of social power and identity.

The tension between monolingualism and multilingualism both works to maintain spatial segregation and functions as identity control, as Nazneen’s lack of knowledge of the English language restricts her to the estate and thereby to the Bangladeshi community, making her exclusion from the British national community a partly linguistic issue. The relation between spatial segregation, language and the national community is underlined when Nazneen watches ice skating on television for the first time and observes a woman “making a triangular flag of her legs” (36). Both the symbolism of the word ‘flag’ and the remark that the ice skaters they are watching are the English national champions “Torvill and Dean” (141) underline how the national community is “imagined” through shared experiences such as sport events (Anderson 13). However, Nazneen’s inability to linguistically comprehend the event points to her alienation from the British community on the level of both culture and language. Listening to Nazneen mispronouncing the words “ice skating” as “ice e-skating”, Chanu tells her not to “worry about it” as it is “a common problem for Bengalis. Two consonants together causes a difficultly” (37). Whereas he has “conquered this issue after a


long time”, Nazneen is “unlikely to need these words in any case” (37). While Chanu’s ability to conquer “the issue” of an accent points to individual effort, the necessity to overcome such marker of difference underlines the ways in which linguistic othering functions as an

important exclusionary practice. That Nazneen is unlikely to need to improve her English, because she is “going to be a mother” (57), emphasizes the relation between language and identity through which Chanu prevents her from entering the British public sphere, and depicts her separation from the nation as a particularly gendered issue.

By being shielded from British life, associated with cultural and linguistic

assimilation, the idea exists that the women will remain true to a Bangladeshi identity, thereby becoming what Nira Yuval-Davis describes as the “symbolic bearer of the collectivity’s identity” that men in particular rely on in order to maintain the connection to home (Yuval- Davis 45). Chanu’s anxiety about Nazneen learning English, suggesting a fear that to speak English means to become English to some extent, not only underlines language as largely

“establishing and maintaining identity” (Roberts 68), but also reflects on the difficultly of coming to terms with a hybrid identity. This latter aspect is further explored through the role of (educational) institutions in constructing and maintaining a unified national identity.

According to Anthony Smith, through standardized education “state authorities hope to inculcate national devotion and a distinctive homogeneous culture, an activity that most regimes pursue with considerable energy under the influence of nationalist ideals of cultural authenticity and unity” (Smith 19). Particularly in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in London, the teaching of “core British values” became part of a larger plan to bind people together under a uniform British identity (19).

However, as becomes evident in the characterization of Nazneen’s oldest daughter Shahana, whose refusal “to listen to Bengali classical music” or “to go home” (180) is presented as logical as a result of her upbringing in and attachment to British culture, the


education system can be an important factor in upholding and facilitating exclusionary practices by failing to promote an inclusive understanding of Britishness. By imposing a narrative of unity through standardized language teaching and national history, educational institutions, Brick Lane suggests, promote a national identity that is more about exclusion than about inclusion. In his remark that “all these people here who look down on us as peasants know nothing of history” (194), Chanu suggests that educational institutions misrepresents the history of the British nation: “In the sixteenth century, Bengal was the Paradise of Nations.

These are our roots. Do they teach these things in schools here? Does Shahana know about the Paradise of Nations? All she knows about is flood and famine” (194). In Chanu’s view of the school system as misrepresenting history, his identity is denied and controlled.

Although Chanu challenges the idea of the Bangladeshi community as a homogeneous one, distancing himself from “the peasants who jumped of the boat possessing only the lice on their heads” (34), he suggests that intergroup distinctions are erased in the construction of Britishness that is set against a generalized Other: “to a white person, we are all the same:

dirty little monkeys all in the same monkey clan” (14). In this way, Chanu points to the discursive homogenization of the nation, a process that “can only be obtained in and through the discursive construction of ‘enemies of the nation’, who are simultaneously outside and inside the nation” (Schinkel and Schrover 1125). This also underlines the role of spatial segregation, making that marginalized communities are physically both inside and outside, which makes the generalization of the Bangladeshi community an important form of identity control. As Chanu argues, “as long as we are below them, then they are above something. If they see us rise then they are resentful because we have left our proper place” (24), thereby outlining how he considers a British identity as still built on colonial ideas of power. Their restriction to their “proper place” thereby not only reflects on a hierarchical position in society, but also points to the spatial segregation that separates the community from British


society. In this sense, the spatial segregation of marginalized communities facilitates other forms of exclusion that reinforce fragmentation on local and national levels.


In NW, the characters’ experience of entrapment similarly reflects on the restricted nature of identity, keeping them trapped in stereotypes and stigmatized perceptions, and thereby refutes Leah’s belief of being “the sole author of the dictionary that defines me” (1). Early on in the novel, the connection between space and identity is explicitly made: “Why is it that everyone from your school is a criminal crackhead?” (61). This remarks suggests a close relation between spatial upbringing and the direction someone’s life takes, and points to something more than individual choice in shaping one’s future. Although the subjects are nevertheless convinced of their ability to take back control, evident in Natalie’s focus on “self-invention”

(183) and Nathan’s belief that “no one” is “chaining him” (303), the novel outlines the many chains that do exists for these subjects as they are trapped in the territorial lines of the


Throughout the novel, the characters appear to not only want to escape the space of the council estate, but also a narrative that marks them as outsiders. Explored through aspects of language, the narrative of failure associated with the council estate as identified by McKenzie is marked in characters like Shar and Nathan through their use of non-standardized language, making linguistic objectification an important element of marking difference. During a

confrontation with Leah, after having tricked her into giving her money, Shar tells her: “I ain’t got your money, yeah? I’ve got a problem. Do you understand me? I AIN’T GOT NOTHING FOR YOU. I don’t need you and your bredrin fuckin with me every fuckin day. Pointin, shoutin. I can’t take no more of it to be honest with you” (55). Shar’s dialect reinforces her position as an outsider, socializing her into a specific identity. According to Lesley Milroy,


‘ethnic signs’ such as language varieties “are […] pre-positioned by the very act of selection itself. They declare simultaneously ‘I am strong’ and ‘I am weak’.” (Milroy 204). However, rather than a portrayal of a positive co-existence of different language varieties in the city throughout the novel, Smith’s use of non-standardized language in relation to a subject that is associated with deceit and fraud underlines its stigmatizing role, marking those who are already locked in the margins of society not merely as an outsider but also as a threat to an ideal of morality. Connected to a space that is already associated with high levels of crime, Shar’s language use reinforces the social construction of both identities and space in relation to discourses of belonging.

Besides its reflection on practices of exclusion on the level of linguistics, language is also central in discourses of belonging through the stereotypical representation of

communities that locks them into specific identities, which suggests, as Smith points out, that

“people were not people but merely an effect of language” (248). As Stuart Hall states,

“stereotyping reduces, essentializes, naturalizes and fixes ‘difference’” (Hall 247), and thereby traps (groups of) people into particular categories or preconceptions. This is evident, for example, in the reference of men like Felix as “youths”: “‘Never the boys from the posh bit up by the park, they’re just boys, but our lot are ‘youths’, our working-class lads are youths, bloody terrible isn’t it?’” (112). This mention of the spatial separation, distinguishing the working-class residents of the estate from the boys in “the posh bit up by the park”, illustrates how language becomes an instrument of power that is used by the dominant

community to define itself against the Other. With its negative connotations, the classification of the men as “youths” illustrates the discursive means by which they are stigmatized and excluded, trapping men like Felix and Nathan in a narrative of failure, leaving them with “no way to live in this country when you’re grown” as they have “no one [that] wants” them (313). In this way, the invisibility these subjects are subjected to as a result of their physical


location has implications beyond the level of space, and points to their inability to escape a national narrative that is largely dependent on their exclusion.

The discursive othering of minority communities, and the suggestion that working- class people need to right “their culture” as suggested by McKenzie, also points to the necessity to consider class relations in line with other categories, particularly race. This becomes evident in the narrative of Natalie who moves away from the estate in an attempt to control her identity, trying to avoid classification as a member of an assumed homogeneous minority community. Never truly belonging anywhere, Natalie becomes “crazy busy with self-invention” (183) and moves “just far enough” away from the estate to “avoid it” (63), suggesting the belief that moving away will distance herself from those aspects that

emphasize her otherness. However, although believing that “we’re all free!” (317), Natalie’s view of personal responsibility for one’s circumstances is challenged throughout the novel and corresponds to Benhabib’s remark that “identities can be maintained and secured only by eliminating difference and otherness” (Benhabib 3). In the more affluent neighborhood she moves into, Natalie sets herself in opposition to the estate in an attempt to break free from its territory, associating with “private wards” and “private cinemas” (87), far removed from the continuous daily proximity of the lower class ethnic minorities of the estate. However, described as a “coconut” who “thought she was all that” (10), Natalie’s social mobility is considered to misalign with her blackness, thereby locking her more securely into the identity she is trying to leave behind. Although able to change her class position, she remains trapped in discourses of race that place her outside of British society and ties her to the marginal space of the estate. In this sense, intersections of class and race point to the complexity in

attempting to claim agency through one particular discourse.

The characters’ inability to move beyond the institutionalized and discursive othering they are subjected to underlines the ways in which British discourses of belonging continue to


be centered around social and cultural cohesion that sets itself against a generalized Other.

In this way, the spatial segregation marginalized communities are subjected to facilitates other forms of exclusion, and restricts the subjects in coming to terms with the multiplicity of their identity. Locked within racial and class identities, upheld by stereotypical representations, the characters’ positioning outside of the wider city and nation captures their complex position in relation to discourses of belonging. While attempting to overcome their spatial positioning, the subjects are unavoidably tied to the estate and all it represents, marked by their position as outsiders.


In its production as a space of difference, the council estate plays a central role in restricting the access of marginalized communities to the wider city and nation, facilitating their position as outsiders. Although often understood as a uniform form of social housing, the

representation of the council estate in Brick Lane and NW uncovers the different ways in which it is produced as a space of exclusion. In Brick Lane, spatial segregation creates a double form of invisibility for the Bangladeshi women as a result of gender roles and discrimination, which is facilitated by the spatial construction of the estate that prevents engagement with British society. In contrast, NW focuses on the relation between class and race relations and the discursive construction of the subjects as out of place. However, rather than a mere spatial issue, the construction of the estate as a marginal space facilitates other forms of segregation by rendering its residents invisible in the construction and maintenance of an inclusive national identity. Following this discussion of the exclusionary practices that the characters are subjected to on the level of space and identity, my next chapter will turn to a focus on bodies and analyze the conditions by which the subjects may move beyond the territorial lines of the estate.


Chapter 2:

Bodies and Barriers: Performing Belonging

Building on the previous chapter on identities as restricted through spatial segregation, this chapter will move to an analysis of bodies in both novels to reflect on the exclusionary practices that the visible Other is subjected to and their attempt to move beyond the territorial lines of the council estate. Drawing on (feminist) theory on public discourse on bodies and clothing in relation to Judith Butler’s work on performativity, I will argue that belonging is not a natural experience but rather created through bodily acts related to clothing and

behavior. As modes of (un)belonging are reinforced through physical signifiers, which largely determine inclusion in or exclusion from the national community, subjects alter their

appearance and behavior in order to enter the wider spaces of the city and nation.

I will start from a discussion of Butler’s work on (gender) performativity and outline its relevance to a discussion of national belonging. By outlining how ideas of Britishness continue to be centered around racial and cultural hierarchies, I will analyze discourses of belonging as intertwined with the representation of London and the nation as white, masculine spaces. As a result of these power dynamics, the visible Other attempts to negotiate gender and racial barriers through bodily performativity. However, although marginalized subjects are able to claim a sense of national belonging by engaging in performativity, the nature of performance also points to the instability and fragility of the characters’ relation to the national community.

Performativity and National Belonging

The concepts of performance and performativity are considered to be important tools to

“denaturalize taken-for-granted social practices” (Gregson and Rose 434) and reflect on the constructed nature of social identities and differences. In Gender Trouble (1990), Judith


Butler first outlined her theory of performativity in which she explains how (gender) identity, rather than being a natural or neutral phenomenon, is constructed through the repetition of bodily acts: “Performativity is not a singular act, but a repetition and a ritual, which achieves its effects through its naturalization in the context of a body, understood, in part, as a

culturally sustained temporal duration” (Butler 8). Instead of being the expression of an inner core, an essentialized given, (gender) identity is an external effect, produced through the repetition of a sociocultural performative exchange. In this sense, identity is “performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results” (25), thereby underlining that gender is not a ‘doing’ by a pre-existing subject, but that this subject is constituted through those very gender acts. Although other theorists have made similar arguments with regard to the constructed nature of identity, Butler points to the necessity of repetition in order to maintain a specific identity. The repeated performance of certain identities allows them to become internalized and thereby part of one’s lived subjectivity. At the same time, the

requirement for repetition also points to the possibility of disruption when internalization does not occur, and through which hegemonic identity norms may be disrupted.

Throughout this chapter, I will employ the concept of performativity beyond the category of gender identity and discuss its relevance to the performance of belonging to the national community. Rather than a natural given, national belonging is partly constructed through the repetition of bodily acts that are socially accepted and that celebrate the national community by conforming to and creating social and cultural cohesion. In line with Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, ideas about Britishness continue to be centered around a unified identity, as discussed in the previous chapter, but is done so beyond the category of culture and is also applicable to race. In this way, following the previous chapter in which I discussed the spatial and discursive construction of discourses of belonging, this chapter will particularly address the visual dimension of belonging in which the visible Other faces


exclusionary practices unless adhering to an ideal of sameness, although its performance exceeds mere physical characteristics.

That the visible Other faces objectification and exclusion in the open spaces of the nation points to the ways in which constructions of the nation have importantly overlapped with ideas of whiteness, with Britishness having “systematic, largely unspoken, racial connotations” (Parekh 38). Even when, as Ben Pitcher points out, “a pluralist version of nationalism has been mobilized by New Labour in an attempt to define a cohesive national identity, definitions of multicultural citizenship and ‘Britishness’ continue to construct hierarchies of race and culture”, making that Britain endorses an ideology of “multicultural nationalism” (Pitcher). This concept of multicultural nationalism points to a simultaneous celebration of diversity and the promotion of a somewhat homogeneous British identity, thereby carefully closing British discourses of belonging off by racialized limits.

Similarly, Anthony G. Reddie remarks that the history of British racism is intertwined with a national culture that is built on the normative power of whiteness, which is related to

“privilege, entitlement and superiority” (Reddie), but he acknowledges, in line with other scholars, that a homogeneous understanding of whiteness in relation to social privilege fails to consider the realities of the white-working class. However, as Reddie suggests, the

“transcendent impact of Whiteness […] finds its most corrosive power in the nature of its symbolic rendering as a signifier for that which is normative and acceptable” (Reddie). Rather than suggesting that whiteness is synonymous with the absence of forms of social

marginalization, its conceptualization as the ‘standard’ makes that whiteness has been considered as “invisible since it has gone unmarked, assumed, and considered normative”

(Shirley 33). As a result, white bodies are ultimately considered to naturally belong in the spaces of the nation whereas those who deviate from this norm are pushed into the position of outsider.


In both Brick Lane and NW, a similar hierarchy of race and culture is present which subjects the visible Other to exclusionary practices. Deviations from the white (male) norm, which become marked through skin color or dress, make subjects the target of discriminatory and exclusionary practices. As a result of this, as I will discuss in my analysis of Brick Lane and NW, subjects modify their appearance and behavior in the performance of national

belonging, which suggests that they are ‘assimilable’ into practicing British citizenship. At the same time, however, both novels point to the complexity inherent to performative practices.

As the nature of performance points to its possible disruption, the performance of identity underlines its instability and the fragility in the subjects’ claim to belonging.

Religious and Ethnic Dress in Brick Lane

In Brick Lane, the choice to wear or refrain from wearing religious dress is immersed in a gendered performance of national belonging. The novel’s concern with the relation between women, clothing and the nation captures the female body as the site at which cultural differences are established and negotiated, thereby making national belonging a particularly gendered issue, related to larger discourses of female oppression and exclusion. Throughout the novel, Ali problematizes the practice of wearing religious dress through various

perspectives and attitudes, ranging from women adapting to a westernized style of clothing in the name of female liberation to celebrating it as part of a religious and ethnic identity.

However, these perspectives are not simply presented as autonomous choices but are rather embedded within discourses of citizenship and nationhood as (re)imagined in an increasingly global world.

Throughout Brick Lane, Monica Ali depicts how visible markers of otherness make British Asians and Muslims the target of racist attacks in the context of both national and international conflicts that increased tensions surrounding Islam. In his book on the


emergence of the “dangerous Muslim” as a racial category following 9/11, Junaid Rana traces how Muslimness came to be associated with a threat to the stability and cohesion of the national community, particularly as a result of its association with danger: “the post 9/11 Muslim migrant is suffused with the potential of terror through the rhetoric of illegality and criminality and the broad danger of an Islamic peril” (Rana 53). This association of Muslims with “the potential of terror” is underlined in Brick Lane in which the visibility of the hijab, as a marker of difference, is met with racist attacks in the aftermath of 9/11. As Anusha Kedhar observes, “those who can more easily be identified as minorities due to visible signifiers of difference such as skin color and dress have been especially targeted as scapegoats for the insecurities and inequalities that globalization has endangered” (Kedhar 78). In this way, the visual aspect that defines Muslims “as minorities” reflects on the national community as built around an ideal of sameness, making that those who deviate from this norm are held

responsible “for stoking racial tensions, undermining social cohesion, and threatening the security of the nation” (78). As a result, British Asians and Muslims are not merely excluded from the national community through their position as a visible Other, but they are considered to be a serious threat, an enemy of a national ideology of homogeneity.

The association of Asian bodies and religious dress with a threat to the stability of the nation is reinforced in national debates on a ban on veils, in some cases followed by a

prohibition of burkas and niqabs, most recently in Switzerland. In recent debates in Britain, a similar discussion continues to take place, sparked by comments of politicians such as Boris Johnson who compared Muslim women in burqas to “letter boxes” and “bank robbers”

(Elgot). In these debates, the concern with protecting national values through a ban on veils is particularly presented as a Muslim concern, something that is similarly depicted in Brick Lane when white Britons spread leaflets that argue against the “Islamification of our neighborhood”

and worry about “extremist putting veils on our women” while emphasizing that “[t]his is


England!” (258). However, by drawing a connection between the veil, women and the construction of the nation, Brick Lane suggests that Johnson’s remarks are an

oversimplification of a much more complex issue, one that requires a consideration of the relation between nationalism, clothing and gender discourse, aspects that are central to the novel’s discussion of belonging.

The focus on Muslim women’s bodies and clothing in discourses of national security reinforces the idea that “women’s bodies, clothes and behavior are narrated as symbolic markers of the imagined boundaries of nations” (Edenborg). Nationalist ideologies attempt to regulate women’s bodies and sexuality, aspects that are undermined through religious dress.

While “linked in popular perceptions to the idea of hiding, concealment and the effacement of women’s presence in the public sphere”, forms of Islamic dress are “also about increasing a woman’s visibility in the public sphere – making her visible as Muslim” (Tarlo 132). It is this visibility of Muslimness that is central in debates surrounding national unity and security. As Ghassan Hage observes, “the hijab represents a woman who is willfully subjecting herself to a law other than the law of the nation […] It is this that those who are trying to find a sense of security in their national space cannot tolerate” (Hage 10). That finding “a sense of security”

in the spaces of the nation is intertwined with an invasion of the privacy of the female body emphasizes the connection between visions of nationhood and the social control and regulation of women.

This anxiety surrounding discourses of national belonging is central to Brick Lane, in which the visibility of religious and ethnic dress facilitates exclusionary practices, making Muslim women the target of racist attacks unless they engage in the performance of

Britishness that is closely intertwined with whiteness. This connection becomes evident when Nazneen visits her doctor’s home and his Bangladeshi wife is presented as an assimilated immigrant through her clothing, which depicts her in opposition to the stereotypical Muslim


woman: “A woman in a short purple skirt leaned against the doorpost. Her thighs tested the fabric, and beneath the hemline was a pair of dimpled knees. Her arms folded beneath her breasts. A cigarette burned between purple lacquered nails” (83). Nazneen, who is wearing a sari, is struck by Mrs Azad’s westernized style of clothing, which becomes a topic of

discussion. Feeling to need to explain and defend herself, Mrs Azad points to the symbolic power of clothing in the public spaces of the nation:

‘Listen, when I’m in Bangladesh I put on a sari and cover my head and all that. But here I go out to work. I work with white girls and I’m just one of them. If I want to come home and eat curry, that’s my business. Some women spend ten, twenty years here and they sit in the kitchen grinding spices all day and learn only two words of English […] They go around covered from head to toe, in their little walking prisons and when someone calls to them in the street they are upset. The society is racist. The society is all wrong. Everything should change for them. They don’t have to change one thing. That’ she said, stabbing the air, ‘is the tragedy’ (114).

In these lines, Mrs Azad naturalizes the authority of the nation, in which those who oppose its norms and values are met with racist attacks, suggesting that she represents a form of

domestication by setting herself in opposition to the Muslim women who are trapped in their ideological “little walking prisons”.

Moreover, by setting herself in opposition to the Muslim women while associating with the white girls at work, suggesting that she is one of them, Mrs Azad performs whiteness that is central to her inclusion in the national community. The ability to perform whiteness as a non-white person corresponds to AnnLouise Keating’s rejection of the idea that “all human beings classified as ‘white’ automatically exhibit the traits associated with ‘whiteness’: They are, by nature, insidious, superior, empty, terrible, terrifying and so on” (Keating 907).




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