TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. November 2008

Sektion 5.4. Women’s Performances in Transnational Migration
Sektionsleiterin | Section Chair: Maria-Sabina Draga Alexandru (University of Bucharest, Romania)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

From the Subaltern to the Female Nomad
in Narratives of Transnational Migration by Jhumpa Lahiri and Monica Ali

Maria-Sabina Draga Alexandru (University of Bucharest) [BIO]



For a few decades, migration has been a central conceptual category in a postcolonial world increasingly marked by globalization, which involves, more than anything else, a fluidization of all – geographical, political, cultural, ethnic, psychological – boundaries of the self as distances are becoming increasingly smaller with the advance of transportation and mass communication.  Migration has therefore altered its nature as an act of uprooting the self from a native country in favour of a total repositioning in a new space.  As the journey back has become possible, exile has also increasingly ceased to be perceived as the traumatic event it used to be.

This paper discusses the process of acquiring a voice through a revaluation of a limiting migrant condition as a more empowered nomadic one in narratives of female dislocation/relocation in two novels that came out in 2003: Brick Lane by the Bangladeshi-British writer Monica Ali and The Namesake by the Bengali-American writer Jhumpa Lahiri.  Both novels focus on immigrant families coming from practically the same Bengali culture, even though they are working class Muslims in Ali’s novel and Hindu Brahmins in Lahiri’s.  I shall use these primary texts about relocation from Bangladesh/Bengal to the UK in the former case and the US in the latter – to problematize Gayatri Spivak’s concept of the “resident alien” (Spivak 2002: 47) as an agent of cultural change through Rosi Braidotti’s concept of the female nomad, for whom meaning is the dynamic outcome of a perpetual process of meaning production. The female protagonists in the two novels learn, throughout years of inhabiting the foreign country, to perform themselves in a more empowered condition that makes it possible to inhabit the space of the target culture. My comparative analysis of the two novels will examine the discourses built around the two female protagonists as they develop in relation to the different (British and American) contexts of their relocation. I shall use these concrete examples as case studies on which I shall base my attempt to show that female migrants’ double subaltern position – as ethnic and gendered “others” – is a strategic point from which a nomadic discourse of emancipation is built on a common ground between postcolonialism and gender studies.

Subaltern studies (as practiced by Ranajit Guha, Dipesh Chakrabarty etc.) propose a critical discourse that emerges on the common ground between these two areas.  It presents the advantage of finding an appropriate idiom to talk about Indianness as a particular area within postcoloniality, thus saving it from generalizations that tend to be applied to all postcolonial cultures indiscriminately and about various forms of marginality whose definitions overlap.  It also presents the shortcoming of being stuck in this marginal position which it turns into a strength, an assumed subaltern condition from which there is little escape.  Hence subaltern studies promote a rather static, defeatist theory meant to criticize the (neo)colonialism of the powers that be rather than offer solutions.

The importance given in the light of subaltern studies to the condition of female subjects within Indian patriarchy is emphasized by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak as she discusses the practice of sati in her controversial essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (Spivak 1988, 271-313).  Spivak argues that the subaltern can never actually speak because subaltern narratives are always subordinated to hegemonic ones.  She uses the example of sati, which is seen in Hindu culture as a way for the widow to attain a greater freedom from the cycle of reincarnations through death, whilst the British criticism of this practice regards it as barbaric.  Spivak qualifies this as a controversy between the “white man” and the “brown man” over the destiny of the “brown woman” and shows that the latter has no agency and is caught between two different patriarchal discourses which completely exclude her from the public sphere: she is the “‘third-world woman’ caught between tradition and modernization” (306).  The subaltern cannot speak because he/she is already contained within the categories of the colonizer’s discourse.

A solution to this imprisonment of the subaltern woman within a hegemonic discourse that will give her no right to a voice is suggested by Rosi Braidotti in her reinterpretation of Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the nomad from a feminist perspective.  Deleuze and Guattari differentiate the “migrant” from the “nomad” as early as their 1980 book A Thousand Plateaus, showing that for the latter nomadic trajectories matter more than the fixed points on them:

The nomad is not at all the same as the migrant; for the migrant goes principally from one point to another, even if the second point is uncertain, unforeseen, or not well localized.  But the nomad goes from point to point only as a consequence and as a factual necessity; in principle, points for him are relays along a trajectory. (…)  If the nomad can be called the Deterritorialized par excellence, it is precisely because there is no reterritorialization afterward as with the migrant. (Deleuze and Guattari, 380-1)

The nomad’s identity and stability does not depend on the places he/she goes through, but on the symbolic home he/she carries along on the journey.

Rosi Braidotti goes even further in Nomadic Subjects (1994)over a decade later, where nomadism becomes a current condition of today’s world, characterized by perpetual movement in space, by continuous repositionings and reconfigurations.  Braidotti redefines nomadism as “not fluidity without borders but rather an acute awareness of the nonfixity of boundaries” (36), a “vertiginous progression toward deconstructing identity; molecularization of the self” (16).  It is a category of the self that, in Braidotti’s view, applies primarily to women, endows them with a freedom of will and action never granted them by tradition and overcomes their different forms of marginality.  In the context of a new millennium nomadism is tightly connected to the continuous becoming of the self that characterizes contemporaneity.  Through its dynamic nature, nomadism does not mean a rebellion against tradition, but an empowering negotiation between what must be kept and what must be changed from one’s traditional heritage when one moves to a different country. 

Braidotti’s reinterpretation of nomadology from a feminist perspective thus raises the female subject from a definitive subaltern condition to the position of the nomadic intellectual who plays a crucial part in the current discourse about relocation and migration, where “the point is not to know who we are, but rather what, at last, we want to become” (Braidotti 2002: 2).  Braidotti relies on the complexity and subversive nature of the female presence in culture, which she sees as emblematic for an intellectual attitude connected to subversion, movement and change. She notices that the feminist movement, which “has provided stability amid changing conditions and shifting contexts”, can be considered a telling example of intellectual nomadism (18). Therefore to Braidotti woman is a kind of paradigmatic nomadic intellectual.  In theorizing a discursive/textual nomadism that can better express the “molecularization of the self” which she sees as characteristic of the new millennium, Braidotti extends this metaphor of the fluid female continuum beyond the boundaries of the feminist movement per se and shows that it provides ways to reflect what she calls “my desire for nomadism, that is to say, my desire to suspend all attachment to established discourses” (Braidotti 1994: 18).

It follows from Braidotti’s argument that in literature written by women acquiring a nomadic identity does not necessarily involve changing locations all the time.  It is not always equivalent to spatial nomadism, but rather to a certain understanding of the self as always becoming, never having acquired its full, definitive status.  Braidotti relies on the complexity and subversive nature of the female presence in culture when she notices that the feminist movement “has provided stability amid changing conditions and shifting contexts”, so that women are to her paradigmatic nomads. If to Judith Butler femininity is nothing but a matter of culturally-conditioned performance within the endless war of “gender trouble”, in which women are meant to act as the projections of male desire, it is a more complex, transnational kind of performance that Braidotti’s female nomad takes across borders. Migrant female identity becomes an instance of performance within a double subaltern position: both gendered and ethnic. In theorizing a discursive/textual nomadism that can better express the “molecularization of the self” which she sees as characteristic of the new millennium, Braidotti shows that this fluid female continuum provides ways to reflect what she calls “my desire for nomadism, that is to say, my desire to suspend all attachment to established discourses”. Such established discourses are the ones that entrap women within rigid subaltern categories that, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak puts it, deny them the right to speak.

Brick Lane and The Namesake both set off as migration stories of young couples – Bengali in both cases – brought together by traditional arranged marriages that involve the relocation of the female protagonist in England in the former and the United States in the latter.  In both novels the main storyline develops through the protagonists’ consciousness, with little variation: the main centre of consciousness in the third-person singular narrative is represented by the female protagonist, wives with a limited knowledge of the new country they are expected to inhabit and, at the beginning, even of English.  Language is played upon in ways that challenge its relation to the self mirrored in it, through the parallel narrative of Nazneen’s life in London and her sister Hasina’s letters from Dhaka in Brick Lane and Jhumpa Lahiri’s compelling use of the present tense and, at the end of the novel, even of the future instead of the traditional narrative past in The Namesake.  In both novels someone goes back to the country of origin, even though for different reasons: Chanu in Brick Lane and Ashima in The Namesake.

Monica Ali’s Brick Lane is an X-ray of an enclosed community living in a kind of London ghetto situated very close to the centre of the metropolis, yet almost invisible to it other than as an abstract exotic other, a self-contained world with little connection with what is going on around it: the Tower Hamlets Bangladeshi community concentrated around the highly tourist Brick Lane area.  Ali’s novel looks at this world from within, seeing it through the shy eyes of Nazneen, the girl brought to London from a Bangladeshi village to marry Chanu Ahmed, a man twice her age, whom she learns to care about in years of secluded, lonely life in London.  Her life is designed to be like that of many Muslim immigrant wives whose only function in a foreign country is to look after their husbands and bear them children.  Her husband does not encourage her to learn English for fear this might spoil her peasant innocence – a quality that weighs much in his choice of a wife – and it is not until she has to communicate with her England-born daughters Shahana and Bibi that Nazneen learns to inhabit the language of the adopted country.  Placed from birth under the sign of Fate by her all-fearing mother Rupban, a total victim of Muslim female subordination, Nazneen is brought to England against her will.  Yet it is in England – the country she, like her daughters, chooses not to leave when her husband does – that she finds a power she had not known she had.

Jhumpa Lahiri builds in The Namesake a discourse that gives primacy to the private rather than the public, to small, apparently insignificant details rather than central plot-development.  This creates an alternative narrative that supplements the central plot focused on Gogol/Nikhil and brings into the limelight a series of female characters that are not technically protagonists, but whose personal trajectories are crucial in the story of identity formation in the novel.  Of them, Gogol’s mother Ashima’s trajectory is maybe the most interesting account of the shadow process of inhabiting the “otherland” through revaluations of the domestic in narratives of female dislocation/relocation. 

The Namesake starts with Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli’s move to the States straight after their marriage as Ashoke is completing his doctoral studies in engineering at the MIT.  The early details of their married life fill the first pages of the novel, with the birth of their son.  The baby is hastily named “Gogol” by his father in order to obtain his release from hospital in the absence of the letter from Ashima’s grandmother that should have named the baby according to the Bengali tradition, and which never arrives.  We learn that the Russian author Gogol is not only Ashoke’s favourite writer, but that his volume of short stories containing the famous story “The Overcoat” is connected to his surviving a train accident regarded by Ashoke, with hindsight, as the main rite of passage of his life.  By the time Sonali/Sonia, the couple’s daughter, is born, five years later, we also learn that in the Bengali tradition people have a “pet name”, given by their parents at birth, and a “good name” they wear in public.  Gogol’s “good name”, Nikhil, is utterly unsuccessful when the child goes to school and he is noted to be indifferent to the name “Nikhil”.  Yet as the boy grows of age and develops a typical first-generation/second-generation attitude of rebellion against his parents and their traditional way of life, he decides to have his name legally changed to Nikhil (a name the American girls he is beginning to date seem impressed by).  This triggers a whole series of identity confusions that culminate in the protagonist’s return to family values on his father’s unexpected death, which binds the family together more than ever before and prompts both Gogol and Sonia – now grown-up independent Americans – to suddenly become fascinated by their rediscovered Bengaliness.

The importance of names in the novel is signalled from the very beginning by the epigraph from Nikolai Gogol and emphasizes the aesthetic inevitability of authorial choice:

The reader should realize himself that it could not have happened otherwise, and that to give him any other name was quite out of the question. (Lahiri, epigraph)

Names are important in the novel and are invested with a ritual extra significance that consecrates their status as identity markers.  Apart from the protagonist’s constant waverings between his pet name (Gogol) and his good name (Nikhil), with interesting turns of hierarchy between the two as he grows apart or comes closer to his family, there are other instances where naming – which, interestingly, enough, is not a punctual event, but a recurrent one – is invested with a variety of significations.  It symbolizes Bengali traditions as opposed to the relaxed American manners: Ashima never utters her husband’s name (Ashoke), as this is not considered either proper or polite in the Bengali tradition, and is consequently shocked when Maxine, Gogol’s American girlfriend, addresses her by her first name.  Names as pronounced by different people are associated with different things and their perception changes as characters grow.  They sometimes – with Ashima, though not with Moushumi – change with marital status; depending on this, new questions are posed in relation to the degree of independence of characters.  They have a strange life of their own even after their bearers die (as it happens with Ashoke’s name signed by Ashima on the Christmas cards she has been addressing minutes before she receives the phone-call announcing his death). 

Female presences in this novel are important guidemarks for the protagonist, whose stages of growing up are mirrored by them.  Gogol’s American girlfriends, Ruth and Maxine, represent abstract projections of a dream of happiness and of American (or rather New York) integration that Gogol cherishes for a while; yet they never gather any real psychological complexity, as there is very little connection that can be drawn between their presence in his life and the other, Bengali world, he belongs to.  In contrast, Ashima – his mother, whose loving care Gogol finds stifling for most of the novel – and Moushumi – who becomes his wife out of conviction, despite the initial resistance due to the fact that their first date is arranged by their mothers – play a much more important part in his process of self-definition.  This happens to such an extent that their trajectories, which Gogol successively identifies with, determine his own evolution through a complex process of mirroring whose stages of psychological complexity are minutely recorded in Lahiri’s prose.

Ashima represents a certain kind of relational identity which, in good Indian tradition, cannot be conceived other than in connection to the clan.  Brought to America by her arranged marriage, she finds herself in the middle of a completely unknown culture to which she does not know how to relate and there is nobody around to tell her.  She goes through the experience of motherhood alone, without the family support that in India goes without saying and whose absence is felt as a crisis (as is the letter from her grandmother containing the baby’s name which never arrives).  Conscious, from one point on, that they are never going to return to India and that it is her duty as a wife and mother to become American, Ashima never really manages to do so consciously.  For most of her married life she clings to an Indian model of the family as an indestructible unit outside which individual identity cannot be conceived and she finds it very hard to accept her children’s wish to become independent as all their American friends are.  She brings up her children in strong connection with the Bengali immigrant community on the East Coast, she takes them to Bengali school and Kathakali shows.  She always conceives of herself as indestructibly connected to her family back in Calcutta, from whom she should never have been separated and whom she constantly misses. Even though she gets a part-time job to fill her time while her husband is away, she is never truly independent.  Her husband – the reason she is in the States – is a vital component of her self (as Bengali tradition no doubt requires) and his death deprives her of any real connection with America.  Her decision to go back to India (even though there is a suggestion that she might decide to divide her time between India and the States every year, thus becoming a typical NRI commuter as a lot of them are) is the only other option.  Yet as she is packing her belongings in the Pemberton Road house she is planning to sell, Ashima suddenly discovers an unexpected feeling that this house is actually much more of a home and that, ultimately, she herself is now much more American than she has ever thought before:

And though she still does not feel fully at home within these walls on Pemberton Road she knows that this is home nevertheless – the world for which she is responsible, which she has created, which is everywhere around her, needing to be packed up, given away, thrown out bit by bit.  (280)

Ashima feels she can only go one way or the other, condemned to what seems a perpetual life of wandering and missing: 

For thirty-three years she missed her life in India.  Now she will miss her job at the library, the women with whom she’s worked.  She will miss throwing parties.  She will miss living with her daughter, the surprising companionship they have formed, going into Cambridge together to see old movies at the Brattle, teaching her to cook the food Sonia had complained of eating as a child. (279)

For Ashima the world that surrounds her family universe is made of America and India; outside this dichotomy nothing else matters.  In this sense she is a typical migrant, stuck in a tragic wavering between dislocation and relocation, never to feel at home anywhere.  However, as compared to the younger Moushumi – her son’s short-time wife who keeps looking for what she wants and never finds it – Ashima gains a stability and a freedom that, as in the case of Nazneen in Brick Lane, astonishes her as she discovers in herself un unimaginable power.

In Brick Lane the narrative perspective is Nazneen’s, and we see the text maturing as she does, with breaks brought about by the alternations with Nazneen’s sister’s Hasina’s letters.  The letters, supposedly written by Hasina in Bangla, are rendered by Ali in her novel in a broken English that has been accused by critics as being totally pointless, yet can be interpreted as a reflection of Hasina’s confusion and broken self.  Despite that, however, Hasina – an unfaltering alter-ego in whose adventurous, even though difficult life back in Dhaka Nazneen doesn’t cease to reflect her own rather eventless life – is not so much of a victim (even though we may get this impression when we read through the account of her tragic love marriage, her hardships as a factory worker, prostitute and then maid, only to end up running away with the family cook at the end of the novel).  Hasina’s dramatic turns of fortune are to Nazneen signs of her sister’s refusal to give up her fierce fight for happiness, for which, we guess, Nazneen – who sends her money saved with difficulty – admires her without fail.  It may be that this perpetual reflection of her life in her sister’s prompts Nazneen to start working, to follow her heart and have an affair with Karim (interestingly enough, a Muslim active in a radical fundamentalist movement called Bengal Tigers) and then stay behind with her daughters when her husband Chanu decides to leave London to go back to Bangladesh.  These are all steps in an emancipation from a rule that she initially accepts, yet grows to feel as oppressive, that Nazneen is pushed to think about in relation to her sister’s much bolder stretch out for happiness.

Nazneen starts developing a more flexible nomadic identity when, pregnant, yet curious and bored with being alone at home, she gets out of the house on her own for the first time and explores the Brick Lane are with the fresh eye of the total stranger:

Nazneen walked.  She walked to the end of Brick Lane and turned right.  Four blocks down she crossed the road (she waited next to a woman and stepped out with her, like a calf with its mother) and took a side street.  She turned down the first right, and then went left.  From there she took every second right and every second left until she realized she was leaving herself a trail. (44)

Nazneen interprets her own pointless wandering as a spatial reflection of her sister Hasina’s moral confusion: “She had got herself lost because Hasina was lost” (45).  At the end of the adventure Nazneen ponders on her first conversation in English, which consists of having said “Sorry” to a stranger: “She had spoken in English, to a stranger, and she had been understood and acknowledged.  It was very little.  But it was something” (48).

It is at this point in her life that Nazneen, prompted by the awareness of her sister’s increasingly difficult life, starts noticing that life – both at home and in this foreign land – is made of many interdictions: “The notice [in Dr Azad’s waiting room] said: No smoking, no eating, no drinking.  All the signs, thought Nazneen, only tell you what not to do” (51).  Mrs Islam’s story from her village (about how the women got the men to dig a new well by withdrawing sex) reveals to Nazneen the secret of her power: “If you think you are powerless, then you are.  Everything is within you, where God put it.  If your husband does not do what is required, think of what you yourself have left undone” (52).

When her daughters Shahana and Bibi take Nazneen skating – an activity she has always admired, yet never got to perform, her friend Razia, whose life has been at least as tough, proclaims England as the country of all possibilities – “‘This is England’, she said. ‘You can do whatever you like.’” (413) – actually makes a statement regarding the meaning of freedom.

Gayatri Spivak’s use of concept of “Resident Alien” (which in official USA documents describes the status of permanent residents that do not hold American citizenship) becomes a useful theoretical tool in such a debate on migrant women’s identity as it problematizes the forced survival of obsolete imperial practices in the contemporary global world and brings into the limelight both the problematic nature of rigid identity-related categories and the relevance of female migrant experience – placed in a position of a double exile from power – in this debate.  The term, first used by Spivak to analyse the experience of inhabiting a foreign country one identifies with by choice, yet never fully belongs to – with reference to Rabindranath Tagore’s Gora and Rudyard Kipling’s Kim – is brought closer to our day as, Spivak says “Large-scale movements of people, renamed ‘diasporas’, are what defines our time” (Spivak 2002: 47).

As it effectively names the paradox of the situation in which one’s status as a resident in a country is recognized in the absence of a full acknowledgement of this country as home, the term is shown by Spivak to signal the survival of identity-defining categories that are no longer relevant to contemporary experiences:

The figure of the long-term Resident Alien belongs to a tenaciously held territoriality that is, also, of course, abstract; as all territoriality must be; yet it robs the figure of the more salient abstractions of an everyday civility, a willing suspension of civil rights.  The virtuality of the new demographic frontiers is accretive rather than privative, it enlarges rather than shrinks.  It creates the kind of para-state collectivities that were part of the predication of the shifting multicultural empires that had written the spatialized temporizing of the planet before monopoly capitalist colonialism – colonialism in the narrow sense.  The figure of the Resident Alien seems to belong, by contrast, to postcoloniality in the narrow sense. (Spivak 2002: 48)

This postcoloniality in the narrow sense evidently signals in Spivak’s text the need for a rethinking of migration as a less final category and of citizenship as a more inclusive one.  In its peculiar way of defining acceptance as exclusion – a kind of “almost the same, but not quite” (in Homi Bhabha’s terms as he referred to colonial mimicry, Bhabha 85) – the term is particular relevant to women’s migrant experiences, as it can easily be argued that in narratives of migration women tend to play crucial parts.  Refigurations of female experience as nomadic rather than migrant in recent literature present the advantage of being more faithful to the flexibility and adaptability of women’s capacity for relocation in today’s global world.

Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake share an attempt at a femininization of migrant experience as multiple and dynamic, therefore – in its refusal to be stuck within the boundaries prescribed by patriarchy – as nomadicIn both cases, the evolution towards a nomadic identity happens in Braidottian rather than Deleuzian terms: it does not involve movement in space, but a fluidization of the categories of identity with an emphasis on the process of becoming than on the final product.  The identity performance of female characters is projected as more adaptable to the conditions of the otherland than male characters.  This happens through a revaluation of the terms in which the domestic is perceived, being turned from a category of oppression into a category of empowerment.

Works Cited


5.4. Women’s Performances in Transnational Migration

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For quotation purposes:
Maria-Sabina Draga Alexandru: From the Subaltern to the Female Nomad in Narratives of Transnational Migration by Jhumpa Lahiri and Monica Ali In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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