In 2011, V.S. Naipaul controversially stated that no female writer matched his own literary ability, whilst describing female writing as concerned with ‘sentimentality’ which showed ‘a narrow view of the world’. I read about this topic for the first time recently and must admit that it caused me to arrive at V. S. Naipaul’s Half a Life with a biased opinion of the author and his work, ready to jump on any implication of sexism. I found the novel interesting but gave up 2/3 of the way through as I felt the story lapsed into a repetitive (at least for me, in 2013) immigrant story of identity crisis. I can’t say I was too impressed. Despite this, V.S. Naipaul’s comments lingered with me as I considered my (very limited) reading of female immigrant experience – mainly Leila Aboulela and Monica Ali.

A common theme of Naipaul’s writing is immigration, and so I feel it is pertinent to apply his comments to the female alternatives of these narratives of immigration. The ideas of immigration traditionally written about have been overly masculine– the overarching grand dream of the immigrant going to another country to make his fortune (often the ‘mother country’ of a former colony). Fraught with disillusionment and guilt, the ultimate crisis of the immigrant is his inability to consolidate his identity with this idealised picture. Note my purposeful use of ‘his’ – whilst in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane this masculine narrative is present, it is only a subplot in the form of Chanu, the protagonist’s husband. The masculine narrative is a side story in relation to the main female body of text which appears for the majority of the novel to never be seriously considered as Chanu’s characterisation is ridiculous but endearing (much like Changez in Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia). This is a reversal of the usual masculine immigration narrative. Although, the female narrative is still dependent on the male narrative – as we can see in the ending.

Yet unlike V.S. Naipaul’s decidedly masculine narratives of immigration, the narrative geography of Brick Lane is much smaller. Nazneen is not trawling the famous sights of London, but remains in the small sphere of the Tower Hamlets estate with her fellow Bangladeshis, as well as the area of her home. Apart from one incident of the family going on ‘holiday’ to see Buckingham Palace and another incident near the beginning when she rebelliously explores the local area, Nazneen does not appear to know or care about the rest of London outside of her home. This strikes me as similar to V.S. Naipaul’s claims of narrowness. Yet is the female narrative ‘narrow’ and ‘sentimental’ because it is truly narrow – or because when automatically compared to the grander, nobler default position of masculine narrative it suddenly becomes trivial and inferior with its preoccupation with cooking curries and gossiping neighbours? The answer seems to be not that V.S. Naipaul is correct in his sexist claim, but that if some female immigrant narratives – like Brick Lane– are narrower, then this is not necessarily a negative aspect (must all literature be epic and Ulysses-esque?) but indeed serves to colour and add texture to human experience. The question is not ‘is narrowness a female quality in writing?’ but ‘does it matter?’

The circumstances that surround the immigration experience for women are inevitably quite different to the same experience for men. In the same way we may look Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and see Nora’s experience of 19th century society as oppressive and destructive as a direct result of her gender, and look at this problems of ‘the woman question’ from a (somewhat ironic) modern perspective safe in the knowledge that things are different now, we may look at female immigrant experience in the 21st century as a product of their gender. How is Nazneen, the female protagonist in Brick Lane, going to attempt to encapsulate and describe V.S. Naipaul supposed ‘wide’ view of the world when she has been moved to a society where she does not at first, and is not allowed to, speak the native tongue, and is completely reliant on her husband for money and agency? Chanu advises, although never forcibly, Nazneen not to walk around the estate because it makes people (other immigrant families) talk and gossip. If this is the case for a character, how can they begin to show a ‘bigger’ picture? Crucially, this does not detract from the quality of narrative. Brick Lane has had huge success. Indeed, such intimacy adds to the quality.

V. S. Naipaul’s crucial misunderstanding is the assumption that female and male writers come to their writing on an equal footing. This is less of an issue nowadays in contemporary British literature (although not defunct) but considering his example is Jane Austen it seems somewhat absurd that he does not have even a remote notion that women’s experience may be limited because of their sexist society.  How can Austen not be concerned with the subtleties of marriage if that is all her social reality allows her to be concerned with – can she go fight a war, can she open a slave plantation like her male counterparts? The experience of Nazneen in the culture of her diaspora community and the culture which she left (shown through her sister’s letters – a woman abused and exploited, with no rights) oppresses women moreso than British culture. And so Nazneen’s narrative cannot begin from an equal viewpoint as a middle-class white British woman who has greater agency and freedom.

What is so significant about Brick Lane is what Nazneen does with this supposed ‘narrowness’. The central contradiction which runs through much British-Asian literature (generally concerning first generation immigrants) is between culture and religion. Where the societal structure from where Nazneen and Chanu originate in Dhaka is based on Muslim ideas of gender roles, when this is transported to London, despite the attempts of the characters, it never really ‘fits’ and the non-religious Chanu cannot consolidate his beliefs (Nazneen cannot work otherwise the other families will laugh at me and overall it wil emasculate me) with the reality (we need to money, Nazneen is capable). Rather than screaming ‘FEMINIST!’, this undermines any type of society where the structure is based on gender roles (women  in the home, men outside the home).

Nazneen’s growing agency is fuelled by her affair with Karim. But the novel’s ending breaks the typical romantic structure which anticipates and lays the groundwork for Nazneen and Karim to walk off into the sunset of Tower Hamlets. Nazneen remains at home, sewing and selling this produce through her female friend’s contacts, with her two thoroughly anglicised children and no prospect of another husband, whilst Chanu goes back to Dhaka. Whilst this leaves the romantic reader unsatisfied, it shows a conscious rewriting of the traditional love story – we have all the basis and development for an elopement and happy marriage without the expected conclusion. Mostly importantly, Nazneen is not ‘saved’ by a man (Karim), but ‘saves’ (whatever this may mean – gains independence?) herself.

I do not want to give Naipaul’s comments any validity because aside from being unfair they are just plain wrong. However, they serve as useful in showing how narrations of immigration from male and female perspective are typically strikingly different. Too often the focus is on the male experience, with the female experience as an afterthought. Yet female writers should not have to compete with male writers by writing in the same way whatever that may be – no consensus as yet been drawn for what ‘male’ or ‘female’ style is. According to V.S. Naipaul this would be masculine as wider and feminine as narrower, but it is not clear at all how wide could necessarily be superior to narrow. What Brick Lane does so cleverly is to take this ‘narrow’ experience and makes it comfortable, intimate, interesting, and of great literary value. Simultaneously, Monica Ali takes the romantic novel – written for and by women – and subverts our expectations. Through this, she is giving us a new type of immigrant experience and narrative to explore.