Bangladeshis upset by author's account of life in 'Brick Lane'

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The Independent Culture

Community leaders from east London have attacked Monica Ali for her "despicable" representation of local people in her Booker-nominated novel, Brick Lane.

The Greater Sylhet Development and Welfare Council (GSDWC), which represents Britain's 500,000 Bangladeshis, has written an 18-page letter to the author condemning her portrayal of the community.

The group claimed that in the critically acclaimed novel, for which Ali was voted one of Granta's best young British novelists, Bangladeshis were portrayed as backward, uneducated and unsophisticated.

The book follows the life of a young woman sent from Bangladesh to Brick Lane to be married, and has caused offence with references to Bangladeshis infested with lice, jumping ships and "living like rats in holes".

Kalam Choudury, the GSDWC chairman, said: "We have been shocked and angered. It is a despicable insult to Bangladeshis. It is stereotypical and a slight on people living in Brick Lane."

The letter compares Brick Lane with Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses.

But a literary expert said the group had been too easily offended. Valentine Cunningham, professor of English at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, said: "Novels claim to be realistic and often they are and that's the problem. Novelists draw on their own experience and often that has a ring of truth to the outsider but may be uncomfortable to those within the community.

"There is a triumvirate of ideological concern - gender, race and class - and people perceive themselves to be misrepresented when it is simply a case of the old satirical traditional at work."

Ali has continued a literary tradition of authors provoking anger by writing about her roots. Critics of Angela's Ashes, a grim portrayal of a poor family from Limerick, Ireland, claimed the author, Frank McCourt, exaggerated the degree of suffering. The late actor Richard Harris, also a native of Limerick, claimed McCourt knew little of the poverty because he came from a relatively affluent family.

D H Lawrence suffered a backlash from the mining community of Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, because of the portrayal of his family in Sons and Lovers.