Germaine Greer on the filming of Brick Lane

People in Brick Lane are in uproar about a plan to film Monica Ali's novel. Do they have a point?

Writers are treacherous; they will sneak up on you and write about you in terms that you don't recognise. They will take your reality, pull strands from it and weave them with their own impressions into a tissue that is more real than your reality because it is text. Text is made of characters. A character is, as it were, graven in stone; when you are charactered you will last for ever, or pretty nearly, but what lasts will not be you. Every individual, every community ever to be written about suffers the same shock of non-recognition, and feels the same sense of invasion and betrayal.

When Monica Ali set out to write Brick Lane, she was - according to Harriet Lane, who interviewed her for the Observer on the eve of the novel's publication in June 2003 - "already very conscious that she was on the far side of two cultures". In fact, Ali is on the near side of British culture, not far from the middle. She writes in English and her point of view is, whether she allows herself to impersonate a village Bangladeshi woman or not, British. She has forgotten her Bengali, which she would not have done if she had wanted to remember it. When it comes to writing a novel, however, she becomes the pledge of our multi-ethnicity.

Ali's mother, born in Bolton, met a Bangladeshi man at a dance, followed him when he returned to his job at Dhaka University and married him there. When the Pakistani crackdown came in March 1971, Monica was three years old. The family eventually escaped and ended up living in Bolton, in a poky flat in a run-down area. The truest part of Ali's writing is about the experience of exile, the pain of unbelonging. In mid-2003 the Bangladeshi High Commission refused her a visa to visit her birthplace. This must have been bitter enough, but returning would have hurt even more.

In interviews, Ali says her family always intended to return to Bangladesh, but in the event they stayed here. Monica won a scholarship to Bolton Girls' School, read PPE at Oxford and later settled down in Dulwich, a smart corner of south London that is a far cry from Bolton or Brick Lane. She was the mother of two children before she began to work on her "cross-cultural" novel, for which she received enormous advances from British and US publishers. Brick Lane was on the bestseller list for 46 weeks and sold 150,000 copies in hardback. Ali was shortlisted for every prize there was.

None of this would have happened if Ali had not created her own version of Bengali-ness. As a British writer, she is very aware of what will appear odd but plausible to a British audience. Her approach to her Bengali characters is not all that different from Paul Scott's treatment of his Indian characters in The Raj Quartet. An author may say she loves and respects the characters she has created. But what hurts is precisely that: she has dared to create them.

Ali did not concern herself with the possibility that her plot might seem outlandish to the people who created the particular culture of Brick Lane. As British people know little and care less about the Bangladeshi people in their midst, their first appearance as characters in an English novel had the force of a defining caricature. The fact that Ali's father is Bangladeshi was enough to give her authority in the eyes of the non-Asian British, but not in the eyes of British Bangladeshis.

Brick Lane is a real place; there was no need for Monica Ali to invent it. In giving her novel such a familiar and specific name, Ali was able to build a marvellously creative elaboration on a pre-existing stereotype. English readers were charmed by her Bengali characters, but some of the Sylhetis of Brick Lane did not recognise themselves. Bengali Muslims smart under an Islamic prejudice that they are irreligious and disorderly, the impure among the pure, and here was a proto-Bengali writer with a Muslim name, portraying them as all of that and more. For people who don't have much else, self-esteem is crucial.

For the novel Brick Lane, Ali didn't need to spend any time at all in the real Brick Lane. Movies are different; permission is now being sought to film the cinematic Brick Lane in the real Brick Lane. The community has the moral right to keep the film-makers out but they cannot then complain if somewhere else is used and presented to the world as Brick Lane. There is only one remedy available if your reality is being recycled through a writer or a movie-maker, and that is to write your own novel or make your own film - and accept ostracism as your just desert.

It hurts to be misrepresented, but there is no representation without misrepresentation. London's Eastenders don't watch EastEnders, because they don't recognise its version of their demanding and rigorous minority culture. They watch Coronation Street instead. Farmers don't listen to the Archers. And Bangladeshi Britons would be better off not reading - or, when it comes out, seeing the film of - Brick Lane.


Germaine Greer

The GuardianTramp

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