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Mapping the Post-War Migration, Cross-Cultural Encounter, and Fluid Identity in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane


Mapping the Post-War Migration, Cross-Cultural Encounter, and Fluid Identity in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane

Sahabuddin Ahamed

PhD Research Scholar

Department of English and Foreign Language

Guru Ghasidas Vishwavidyalaya (Central University),

Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh, India





The post-war migration since the Second World War has been a global phenomenon that retains an increased space of opportunity and challenge for the migrants who cross national borders for the betterment of life in a host country like Britain. Dispersed people from the Third worlds move to Britain and find difficulty in assimilating themselves there— their identity crisis happens. The mass migrants have transformed geographical, cultural, political, and economic spaces of the host country through their cross-cultural activities. Not only to get rid of their past and present traumatic experiences, but also to fulfill their dreams, immigrants attempt to assimilate, integrate, and acculturate themselves in a new society. Their ontological existence and native cultural heritage find a niche in a host land, and their longing for return home become an illusion as their fragmented selves and lived experiences exist only in broken memories. Migrant discourse from postcolonial theoretical perspective is often marked by fragmented and dislocated identity and cultural hybridity that exist in a ‘third space’ constituted by a complex network of their performances and interactions. Migrant peoples, from once colonized countries to the British metropolises, affect the imperial cultures and simultaneously encounter discrimination, and as a result of this, they are often stigmatized and marginalized. Not only by embracing the discourses of modernity and globalization, but also by challenging the dominant Eurocentric discourses and historical subjective positions, contemporary migrant writers and their fictional characters escape the burden of the British imperial legacy and their imposed selves through their assertive and subversive counter-discourses that generate their new ethnic identity that is very fluid, hybrid, and transnational. The paper is concerned with how the interrelated phenomenon of contemporary post-war migration affects the imperial British culture and move through an ambivalent possibility of hybridized and multicultural Britain. It explores hybridized and ambivalent Britishness of the post-war immigrant communities from the former British colonies in Britain represented in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane.


Keywords: Post-war migration, Fluid identity, Cultural hybridity, Racism, Britishness


“There is the emergence at the centre of the previously peripheral and marginal. For the modern metropolitan figure is the migrant: she and he are the active formulators of metropolitan aesthetics and life styles, reinventing the languages and appropriating the streets of the master. This presence disturbs the previous order.”— Chambers 23

Migration as a broad term, encompasses certain aspects displacement, leaving, representing, combining, remembering, assimilating, acculturating, adopting, and distancing in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural host society. It has become an antagonistic and interactive phenomenon for the dispersed communities in a host country who encounter exclusive cultural constructions, multiple discriminations, constant changing scenarios, and cross-cultural interactions in the contexts of modernity and globalization. Migrant subjects define and redefine themselves from diverse ethno-cultural experiences with their shared cultural consciousness. They experience divergent cultural exchanges and multiple routes. They represent allegorical themes of displacement, cultural memory, suffering, adaptation, resistance, and conflict to form and deform the built-up discursivity of traditionalism and modernism and First and Third worlds. Unlike migration during the colonial period, the post-war migration has been a way of global mobility and interconnection in which a-political and de-historicized cultural artifacts take place, and migrant minority communities articulate and rearticulate their identity, culture, and ideology in a new society in a new fashion to find a space, to fill the gap occupied by the hegemonic discourses of the First worlds, and to celebrate a multicultural and transnational society. The process of migration across wide geographical locations forms cultural hybridity and transnational consciousness that mark the presence of pluralized, conflicting, changeable, heterogeneous, and discontinuous cultural artefacts. Stuart Hall argues that one’s cultural identity is “production” due to the his or her multiple experiences of displacement, assimilation, alienation, acculturation, negotiation, and relocation in time and space. In this context, cultural identity is “never complete, always in process, and always constituted within” (222).

Though migration has a long history, the contemporary post-war migration offers a possibility of a new cross-cultural scenario which is more transnational. It helps the migrants create a space of their fluid identity and multicultural practices in their adopted societies. With the rapid emergence of migratory artifacts, a new identity politics is forged by the dislocated communities to mobilize their beliefs, customs, and traditions and at the same time, destabilize the long-claimed authentic discourses of the host countries. This paradoxical process continues through representation and transformation of their identity, belonging, community, culture, and language— solidarity and peripheral and a significant change from binary opposition to cultural hybridity. Their utmost attempts are to represent themselves and to be accepted by the new society, though this goal has long been repressed by the hegemonic host culture — finding a way to reverse historically the imposed position and stereotypical representation by the host cultural superiority when they develop a ‘contact zone’ in the adopted society through their experiences of multiple contrast, conflict, integration, and accommodation.

Since the end of the Second World War, the post-war migration in continuation from the former British colonies such as African countries, India, China, South Asia, Caribbean, and Middle East countries to Britain has been a matter of confluence and disjunction, and migrants’ ultimate aims revolve around betterment of life, freedom, economic and cultural development, and opportunity, and in turn, this phenomenon relieves and reverse the past burden of the colonized subjects through their contribution to and dialogic interactions with the imperial British culture— undermining the long existence of its hegemonic discourses. Though they try to adopt and immerse in the dominant British cultural environment, they confront multiple discrimination and negative attitude from it. Their shared consciousness is certainly marked by an inescapable link with their homeland and past history in relation to the British imperialism. In an ever changing and ever transmuting age, the post-war migration as a way of diverse cross-cultural exchanges, global mobility, interconnectedness, and multiple ties defies and disrupt the homogeneous and authentic cultural assumptions in Britain and simultaneously construct a possibility of uncanny hybridized British society brought about by black migrants contributions to and their cultural practices. Through the discourse of contemporary migration literature written by the writers in the colonial metropoles from the former colonies once colonized by the British, one can find a complex web of cross-cultural influx in Britain. These cross-cultural influxes include hybrid cultural sensibility, multicultural Britain, globalized consciousness, era of multi-nationalism, new-liberalism, post-colonial dimension, disjunction of rigid discourses, blurring of boundaries between First and Third worlds, and transnational activities.

With the break-up of the British Empire, migrant people from the former colonies are oriented towards the metropolises and they become successful in forming hybrid forms of English and multicultural hub in Britain from the 1950s onwards. In doing so, migrants perform duality— their former native cultural sensibility and new sense of host cultural environment. Firstly, they are committed to their sense of past heritage, collective consciousness, united ethnicity, recovery of lost traditions, memories of homeland, and search for identity. Secondly, they are caught between two different worlds— in a position of cultural difference and diversity which is characterized by fluid, constructed, disjunction, impure — always in process, transit, contest, shift, and fragmentation. The duality of migrants’ perspectives is mainly found in their longing for the homeland of origin, though distant both in time and space, and their real presence and accommodation in new lands— belonging to displacement, alienation, and discontinuity. They create their ‘imaginary homelands’ through the use of imagination and memory from which they form something fictitious about their past, cultural roots after being caught between two or more cultural locations— feeling of neither here nor there— everywhere and nowhere. Their aspirations and belongingness are based on perverse dream or illusion that only exists in their fragmented memories. This dualistic function is paradoxically contextualized in relation to dislocated individuals’ experiences in a host society like Britain.

The Nationality Act of 1948 passed by the British government gave them the opportunity of being a citizen in Britain. Since then it has been the most natural destination for the migrants from the developing countries. The migrant people got chanced to retrieve their hidden history in contact with the mainstream host culture and tradition. But the process is both fruitful and fearful for the growth and development of the migrants and their relations with the host country. There are many assumptions about hopeful such as acceptance and recognition of migrant presence and their contributions to the adopted society, possibility of their better life style, hybrid cultural expressions, positive foreign policies about global citizenships and investments, negotiations among nation-states, and human rights and international relations about them. The opposite factors behind it are the breakdown of national identity and authentic nationalist discourses, shift from monologic to dialogic cultural constructions, cultural mixity, discrimination based on class, race, gender, and color, dominant canonical status of literature, hegemonic ideology, and existing unequal power relation in every discipline, different kinds of existing violence, and traumatic experiences. Despite these facts, the migrant writers and their fictional characters have become a part of mutual relationships with their host culture and make a bridge between homeland and host land and beyond from their negligible marginal status.

The trope of post-war migrancy has been the most powerful metaphor to describe the contemporary black British and hybrid identity as the writers from the former British colonies immigrated to Britain and constructed and contribute to a new multicultural milieu. The migrant writers contest the canonical status of the standard national literature of Britain and its rigid nationalism with new, complex, and hybrid forms of literary expressions which draw postcolonial impetus such as anti-colonial resistance, decolonization, interstitial identity, multicultural metropole, and decentralized discourse. Their hybrid sensibility is explored in their extensive use of native literary forms along with the standard English such as oral-story telling, folklore, local myths, ethnic identity, vernacular dialect, allegorical representations of nation, and resistance. In this essay, Monica Ali’s depiction of first-and second-generation immigrant characters and use of vernacular Bengali dialect and standard English. This is the mechanisms of responding to their stigmatized and marginalized position imposed by the past imperialism and its legacy and the present discrimination, racism, and violence, and to the standard version of categorized literary canons. The contemporary changing scenario has helped immigrant writers to emerge as prominent voices in several cases such as social, economic, political, cultural, and literary fields by employing a kind of double perspective— as both British and non-British and insider and outsider, thereby celebrating a new hybrid cultural space in Britain.


Monica Ali’s debut novel Brick Lane traces the experiences of Bangladeshi immigrant community living in Brick Lane, an area in East London. It focuses on the first-and second-generation working-class immigrants from Bangladesh and their tremendous impacts on the British society who assume different roles in their migratory lives to stay there and on their Britishness that becomes a part of the core Britishness in contemporary multicultural Britain. It demonstrates the effects of ethnic Bengali communities on the host country and the contamination of pure Britishness. By remapping and renegotiating the complex, hybrid, and divergent state of identity, belonging, ethnicity, community, culture, and language in Britain, the novel redefines the concept of Britishness that problematizes and reconfigures the notions of exclusive, fixed, and dominant Britishness. The fictional characters go through the need of cultural assimilation, integration, adoption, and multiculturalism as a survival strategy in the unfamiliar cultural environment.

Nazneen, the main protagonist, finds herself alienated and isolated in a foreign soil after her arrival to Britain. Her fragile sense of living in Brick Lane is surrounded by other Bangladeshi Sylheti immigrants with very little interactions with the wider world of London. Dislocated from home country and undergoing unfamiliar circumstances and racial and gender discrimination,  she feels a sense of loneliness, alienation, and marginalized position in a new land. As she wanders through the streets of Brick Lane, she notices the difference between the business district and the area of Tower Hamlets where she lives in— marking cultural clash between white Londoners and black immigrants and rich and poor neighbourhoods from a close proximity. As the narrator describes the buildings, streets, and peoples’ clothes and racial behaviour that appear alien to Nazneen because of her native cultural background, immigrant experience, and her minority status that mark her out as outsider from the new cultural milieu:

“But now she slowed down and looked around her. She looked up at a building as she passed. It was constructed almost entirely of glass, with a few thin rivets of steel holding it together. The entrance was like a glass fan, rotating slowly, sucking people in, wafting others out. Inside, on a raised dais, a woman behind a glass desk crossed and uncrossed her thin legs. . . . The next building and the one opposite were white stone palaces. There were steps up to the entrances and colonnades across the front. Men in dark suits trotted briskly up and down the steps, in pairs or in threes. . . .Every person who brushed past her on the pavement, every back she saw, was on a private, urgent mission to execute a precise and demanding plan: to get a promotion today, . . . Nazneen, hobbling and halting, began to be aware of herself. Without a coat, without a suit, without a white face, without a destination.”  (Ali 58).

In multicultural London, she finds herself as a goddess in her distinct wearing of sari and think that she would behave like a tolerable person and develop multicultural competence. She gains everything by embracing the host culture and that happens when at the end of the novel she decides not to return to Bangladesh with her husband Chanu, even though she had longed for it all her life. On the contrary, Chanu does not fit himself with the immigrant condition in London as he thinks it differently. Though he initially celebrated the British way of life by appropriating its culture and tradition, but his later realization and position in the host country from postcolonial perspective represent the reverse of British imperialism as he is satisfied in making money in the imperial nation which had once exploited his native country and its people during the British Raj: “Mentally. Just taking money out. And that is what I am doing now” (Ali 216). He has a naïve belief in the past tradition and an anti-colonial view of London. Despite his praise for humanism, security, and opportunity in the land, he discovers the hidden racism there when his Open University degree from Dhaka is not accepted. Being unable to adapt with a new cultural environment, he is totally disillusioned with British society and his children, and finally he decides to come back to Bangladesh.

In this novel, the neglected and unseen socio-cultural space in Brick Lane is shifted and transformed than the space that Nazneen experienced in her initial stay in London. While walking down the streets of Brick Lane with her husband, she finds enormous transformation in the area:

“The bright green and red pendants that fluttered from the lamp-posts advertised the Bangla colours and basmati rice. In the restaurant windows were clippings from newspapers and magazines with the name of the restaurant highlighted in yellow or pink. There were smart places with starched white tablecloths and multitudes of shining silver cutlery. . . .in the other restaurants the greeters and waiters wore white, oil-marked shirts. But in the smart ones they wore black. A very large potted fern or a blue and white mosaic at the entrance indicated ultra-smart. You see, . . . .All this money, money everywhere. Ten years ago there was no money here.’” (Ali 254-5)

This description demonstrates how migrants become a part of a rigid cultural space and are no longer considered as strangers. They have been a part of host cultural system that includes them. Their activities are like parasite that contaminate and dismantle the pure and hegemonic cultural practices— experiencing cultural contestation, transformation, and accommodation. This becomes a postcolonial assumption that undercuts the imperial colonial discourses, reshaping and appropriating dominant notions of nation, culture, community, language, meaning, and power. Another example of dismantling of authentic Englishness is seen in Brick Lane when there is the use of minority language, ethnic distinction, and racial insult in a fixed and pure sense of the English race, society, culture, and language. The pure and static nationalist identity and culture are subverted through the processes of disruption, contamination, and parasite: 

“The windows were fixed with thick metal grilles that had never been opened and notices were screwed to the brickwork that read in English and Bengali: Vandals will be Prosecuted. This was pure rhetoric. . . .Someone had written in careful flowing silver spray over the wall, Pakis. And someone else, in less beautiful but confident black letters, had added, Rule. The doors were open and two girls in hijab went inside.” (Ali 238)

In contrast to Chanu, Mrs. Azad acts as a mouthpiece of women’s empowerment who responds to Chanu’s odd patriarchal power and his harsh invective against the younger generation. She leads a British way of life as she wears short skirt, drink beer, and identify herself as a Westernized Muslim woman. She challenges his assumptions regarding the status of women and immigration condition: “Fact: we live in a Western society. Fact: our children will act more and more like Westerners. Fact: that’s no bad thing. My daughter is free to come and go.” (Ali 115).

 Amid ethno-racial and national tensions and lack of communication, and feeling of alienation, Nazneen adapts herself with the host country as well as struggle to maintain her past cultural heritage. When she hesitates to skate in a sari, her friend Razia encourages her that “this is England. . . .You can do whatever you like” (Ali 494). This discloses an emancipatory response to the traditional Bangladeshi dress, and the Western boot represents cultural freedom, liberty, and personal choice— marking Nazneen’s sense of empowerment and cultural competence. Though having separated from her husband Chanu and lover Karim, Nazneen is not unable to lead her daughter to the right path from where she is abandoned and exploited. She experiences a new sense of freedom, independence, and autonomy following the departure of her husband. Shahana, Nazneen’s daughter act like a memsahib and speak in English fluently— her aspiration towards the Westernization. The generational gap is found between the migrants, though not fixed—there are similarities and differences with their descendants through decades and across nations and cultures. In Ali’s novel, Chanu is highly troubled by her daughters’ acts that their appearances are like more English girls and does not know anything about their father’s country of origin. They are born in England and live there. They learn their father’s native land in their class from books and show no more desire to know anything about their past roots. Alienated and frustrated Chanu finds his immigrant life intolerable, disillusioned, and tragic, and finally leave London for Bangladesh. Therefore, Ali’s novel brilliantly exposes the ways of forming cross-cultural interactions in which migrant ethnicities and their cultural identities are complex and hybrid and constructed, represented, transformed, and negotiated in the British society.


To sum up, Ali’s novel develops the idea of what Edward Said calls “contrapuntal” in postcolonial frame that revisits the past imperial experience not in its singular or dominant discursive ways but in its complicated, interdependent, overlapping, and affiliative experiences and histories from where it uncovers the hidden and invisible histories, voices, and social realities (18). Her fictional characters attempt to destabilize the imperial metropolitan culture and its fixed conception of Britishness through their efforts in contaminating and appropriating English language and culture, producing transformative and unstable cultural identities, resisting the imperial culture, and dismantling any pure and authentic discourse. Migrant characters are not tied to any one national identity but exist in multiple locations and a large number of traditions and diverse experiences, disseminating like ‘free play’ of language. They occupy a transnational space that is globally linking them across borders through their discourses of multiple material and emotional belongings. Their migratory condition is like that of Gloria Anzaldua’s ‘mestiza’ consciousness that provides cultural inclusivity, “hybrid progeny, a mutable, more malleable species with a rich gene pool,” thereby creating transformation in everyday lives, dismantling all boundaries, and formulating multicultural and transnational consciousness for the migrants (77). It approaches through its unstable nature of constant flux. Their cultural hybridity is a result of ambivalent transplantation and exchange of cultural artefacts that is very productive, destabilized, and hybrid in its every possible permutation. In Britain, migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, and émigrés take up in-between positions, they destabilize dominant discourses by imitating the host culture and thereby making a ‘third space.’ The constant gatherings of migrants create what Benedict Anderson terms “imagined communities” that exists “not only by their falsity/ genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined” (6). At different places, spaces, and times in relation to different displacements and attachments, the boundaries are re-sited and re-mapped. Britain as a First world nation not only represents the process of cultural assimilation but also cultural integration and acculturation consisting of blending of two or more cultures, groups, and communities. It has been a desire of the migrants not only to be accepted but also to be adopted and absorbed in a new society. There has been a transition from cultural difference to “hybrid counter-energies” and “imaginative geography and history” in which “the authoritative, compelling image of empire…finds its opposite in the renewable, almost sporty discontinuities of intellectual and secular impurities—mixed genres, unexpected combinations of tradition and novelty” (Said 335).

Works Cited

Ali, Monica. Brick Lane. Black Swan, 2004.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. ed. Verso, 2006.

Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Aunt Lute Books, 1987.

Chambers, Iain. Migrancy, Culture, Identity. Routledge, 1994.

Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.” Identity, Community, Culture, Difference, editedby Jonathan Rutherford, Lawrence and Wishart, 1990, pp. 222-37.

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. Vintage Books, 1994.