Integration and Assimilation in Monica Ali's Novel "Brick Lane"

Term Paper 2012 12 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Culture and Applied Geography



1. Introduction

2. Post-colonial immigration: Muslims, Bangladeshi in particular, in Britain

3. Notion of Acculturation
3.1 Integration and Assimilation as acculturation strategies

4. Integration and assimilation in the novel

5. Conclusion: successful integration


1. Introduction

Monica Ali is a British author who was born in 1967 in East Pakistan (as Bangladesh was called then) to a Bangladeshi father and English mother. The family had to move to England due to the civil war in 1971. Monica Ali studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Wadham College, University of Oxford and later worked in design and publishing. Brick Lane, her debut novel, caused a sensation and controversy back in 2003 when the novel was first published, and again in 2007 when the novel was made into a film.

Brick Lane is about a Bangladeshi woman who came to England at the age of eighteen due to an arranged marriage knowing only two words in English: “sorry” and “thank you”. Nazneen struggles to adjust to her new life as a wife and an immigrant in a new country. On her journey of adjusting she learns new things (“ice e-skating”, making money by sewing, the English language) and makes new friends. One of them, a younger man, even becomes her lover. He opens a new world for her and contributes a lot to her personal growth. She finds strength to fight against a mean usurer and even Fate itself.

The novel brings up a lot of issues for discussion, such as feminism, racism, post-colonialism, fatalism, Islam in a modern multicultural society, and problems of cultural minorities. In this paper I would like to consider problems of integration of such cultural minorities in the modern British society as exemplified by three families described in Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane.

2. Post-colonial immigration: Muslims, Bangladeshi in particular, in Britain

The history of Muslim settlement goes back to the sixteenth century. The first Muslims were however North Africans and Turks who were freed from galley slavery on Spanish ships by English pirates. With the rapid expansion of the British Empire and the growth of the East India Company many Indian servants and nannies, some of whom were Muslim, came to England (Gilliat-Ray 2010, p. 13, p. 24).

The territory of modern Bangladesh used to belong to the British Empire.

“In the sixteenth century, Bengal was called the Paradise of Nations. These are our roots. [...] The whole world was going to Bengal to trade. Sixteenth century and seventeenth century. Dhaka was the home of textiles. Who invented all this muslin and damask and every damn thing? It was us. All the Dutch and Portuguese and French and British queuing up to buy” (Ali 2004, p. 185).

“Four European countries fought over the place. And when the British took control, this was what gave them strength to take all India. [...] During the eighteenth century [...] this part of the country was wealthy. It was stable. It was educated. It provided – we provided – one third of the revenues of Britain’s Indian Empire” (ibid., p. 187).

Due to the extension of the Empire a lot of sailors were needed. The East India Company recruited a lot of Muslim seafarers including Bengalis, especially from the Sylhet region. Because of very poor working conditions and low wages some of these seafarers “jumped ship” and started a new life in London (cf. Gilliat-Ray 2010, p.30):

“[...] most of our people here are Sylhetis. They all stick together because they come from the same district. [...] Most of them have jumped ship. That’s how they come. They have menial jobs on the ship, doing donkey work, or they stow away like little rats in the hold” (op. cit., p. 28)

In the 1970s a massive immigration from Asia took place. The political differences between India and Pakistan that led to a partition of Kashmir, the Punjab, and Bangladesh brought a lot of Asian immigrants to London (Lobo 1978). Brick Lane was the first port of call for many of the Bengalis, but it has always been famous among immigrants from all over the world:

“Do you know how many immigrant populations have been here before us? In the eighteenth century the French Protestants fled here, escaping Catholic persecution. They were silk weavers. They made good. One hundred years later, the Jews came. They thrived. At the same time, the Chinese came as merchants. The Chinese are doing very well” (Ali 2004, pp. 463f).

Nowadays, Brick Lane is the heart of the city’s Bangladeshi-Sylheti community, and is known locally as Banglatown. Thousands of Bangladeshi people moved to London to look for jobs, and live together in Brick Lane, essentially forming a small Bangladesh in the East End of London.

Bangladeshis are the most homogeneous ethnic group in the Muslim community, they “stick together” as Chanu says. This causes problems of overcrowding:

“Three point five people to one room. That’s a council statistics, […]. All crammed together. They can’t stop having children, or they bring over all their relatives and pack them in like little fish in a tin. It’s a Tower Hamlets official statistics: three point five Bangladeshis to one room” (ibid., p. 49)

As this ethnic group members prefer to stay so close together, even separate themselves from British society, it is only understandable that problems of integration occur.

3. Notion of Acculturation

In order to demonstrate how people from one culture integrate themselves in some other culture it is necessary to explain such concept as acculturation. The classical definition belongs to Redfield, Linton, and Herskovits: “acculturation comprehends those phenomena which result when groups of individuals having different cultures come into continuous first-hand contact with subsequent changes in the original culture patterns of either or both groups” (in Berry 1997, p. 7).



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University of Hildesheim – Institut für Interkulturelle Kommunikation
Integration Assimilation Monica Ali Bangladeshi in Britain



Title: Integration and Assimilation in Monica Ali's Novel "Brick Lane"