Photo of the author by David Jacobs
On a surface level, Freudenberger is literally telling someone else’s story: that of Farah, a Bangla woman whom she met on a flight to Rochester, with whose consent and approval she developed the narrative. On a deeper level, Freudenberger places herself in an alien context. As a white, Jewish, American woman she is writing about a brown, Bangla, Muslim woman’s immigrant experience in America. Does she have the right to do this? More importantly, does she succeed?
The answer to the first question must always be: Yes. Writing, especially fiction, is an exploration of worlds both known and unknown.
As to whether or not she succeeds in writing honestly about a culture that is not hers, the answer is both yes and no.
For one, Freudenberger uses the third-person narrator whose voice can easily be Amina’s or that of an omniscient being (as narrators tend to be). She uses the narrator to bridge the gap between the cultures by providing access into Amina motives and a bird’s eye view of her world. While this helps to paint a sympathetic image of Amina, it removes the reader from being completely enmeshed in Amina’s plight, turning a critical eye on her instead. Further, when the author revisits Amina’s wish to have a child multiple times throughout the book, the repetition and clarification of motives appear superfluous. It also reminds the reader that the book has been written for a Western audience who may need to be reoriented with the cultural context of Amina’s decisions.
At times, when the narrator’s attention shifts to the other characters, it is subtly disorienting. Freudenberger’s depiction of Amina’s friend Kim and her relationship with her lover Ashok is especially mired in clichés as the free-spirited Kim tries to mold herself into the perfect Indian wife, or Freudenberger’s version of it. She learns to wash her feet the Indian way (“…squeezing a drop of antibacterial soap onto each foot and then expertly washing one with the other, using a frantic scrubbing motion.”); she learns to cook, clean and shop for him. She “learned to put things away immediately after using them and to wash pots as she cooked, since it was hard for her husband to enjoy a meal if he could see the dirty pots sitting out in the open kitchen.” For those of us raised in South Asia, this portrayal of Ashok can be a little cringe-worthy. And despite her emotional scars, Kim comes off as just another yoga-loving, incense-burning American hippie who went to India to find her soul but lost her heart instead.
In the end, the strength of the book lies in Freudenberger’s understanding of cultural complexities. She captures both worlds, Bangla and American, and the plight of immigrants in a realistic and sincere manner.
Anisha Sridhar is a writer and current graduate student at NYU. She blogs at www.anishasridhar.wordpress.com.