Themes of Homelessness in Colm Toibin's Brooklyn and Brick Lane by Monica Ali

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The following essay will explore the themes of home and homelessness in ‘Brooklyn’ by Colm Toibin and Brick Lane by Monica Ali. Both novels depict the different experiences of migration due to diaspora according to gender. As a result, this has slightly changed the city; a focus of losing a home and having to make a home of their own.

A home is considered by some, as a structure one resides in permanently, while others consider a home to be a physical household with the company of family members. A place one can dwell in, and consists of feelings of comfort and sense of belonging. Both novels explore the theme of homelessness as both protagonists’ leave ‘home’ to travel to another place. However despite having a place to live in, home was far from it.

Monica Ali was born in Bangladesh, and later migrated to Bolton, England with her family. Brick Lane is partially inspired by her own life. In an interview with the Telegraph, Ali voiced she, weaved ‘together of different strands from [her] childhood.’ (Brown, Mick) Ali is interested in ‘'the idea of taking places that seem familiar and making them new’ (Brown, Mick), hence the reason for choosing Brick Lane, as she can take a ‘slice from London’ and embed a new feel to it.

Brick Lane focuses on the life of Nazneen and how she adapts to the life in a foreign place (England) she comes to build her ‘home’ in. Nazneen who is originally from Bangladesh follows her much older husband to London after a loveless marriage. This is the normality of Bangladesh citizens due to the large number of Muslims residing there. In the novel, men consider diaspora to find better jobs that pay well and take their wives with them. Most of the money they earn is usually sent back to their families in Bangladesh and the remaining is spent on bills and what little is left is set aside to save up to return to their homeland.

Colm Toibin was born in Ireland, later travelled to America. Where he felt ‘desolate and abandoned’. The sense of longing for ‘home’ is heavily portrayed in Brooklyn. During an interview, Toibin expressed he often felt “At times [he] found America a strange, alien, hostile place.” (Toibin, Colm).

Brooklyn focuses on the life of Ellis of leaving Ireland and how she discovers a life in Brooklyn, America. A once in a life time opportunity to go to America was granted to her. Her departure is different to the usual migration. Individuals, who migrate to another country, usually go to work and are never seen again. Toibin introduces diaspora in Brooklyn. Ellis has a room to her-self after her brothers left Ireland to 'Birmingham to find work' (page 26). Diaspora is illustrated through Father Flood, as he mentions Brooklyn is “just like Ireland. They’re full of Irish” (page 37), which immediately emphasises how searching jobs in other countries is favourable, as beautiful images of being in a homely environment while earning money for home sounds perfect.

Both novels portray the protagonists being exiled from their ‘home’ where their families reside in. In Brick Lane, Nazneen had to leave reluctantly due to an arrange marriage to an ‘old’ man, after which she followed her husband to another country, “They would marry and he would take her back to England with him” (page 3). This is a common practice in Bangladesh, where the woman would only follow man. They are the ‘subordinate to men by God’s will and design – (Cohen-Mor 133) therefore choose to believe women are suited for house work and men intellectual work.

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Similarly, in Brooklyn, Ellis had no choice upon her departure as “Rose had organized so precisely” (page 4). Alike Nazneen, Ellis’s future was decided for her by her family. She had no say in her future, she just followed “it had somehow been tacitly arranged that Ellis would go to America” (page38), which suggest much thought and planning had gone into preparing the departure. Ellis’s family had thoroughly balanced the consequences and advantages of sending another child abroad. Toibin and Ali both portrayed a character that has no voice. However, both authors hint, the protagonists from both novels want be able to make the final decision of something that majorly affects their future but, ultimately they bow to the breadwinners – Rose/ Mrs Lacey and Hamid. Toibin illustrates Eilis’s connection to ‘home’ shifting and changes in some ways; this could be a result of her constant struggle to come to terms with her living in two different places, in both her physical self and mental self. This is a result of being so far from home and being unable to make a new ‘home’ for herself. Ellis felt she may have been the ‘wrong sister’ to leave for America. Due to the fact that her older sister Rose “was more glamorous every year, and while she had several boyfriends” (page 19). This illustrates a rather socially active individual who would most likely not struggle to settle into a new environment, away from home.

A home can be in different forms. A family makes a house, a home. Toibin illustrates a sense of impending loss as she ‘[struggles] with the unfamiliar’ place, as Ellis constantly remembers her own sacrifice and not just her sisters - she also loses her mother. Therefore leaving a member of family behind, would mean leaving another home. Ellis not only leaves her home behind, but also leaves behind the woman who made the house into a home. Toibin shows how hard it is for Ellis to see her mother lose yet another child, as the boys have scattered around England and she is only left with her daughters; “it’ll kill me when she [Ellis] goes” which elucidates the reluctance of Mrs Lacey of letting go of her child. This is further confirmed by her sullen expression when discussing the opportunity “’it might be very dangerous’ her mother said, eyes fixed on the floor”. Talking while looking other places can be a sign of dismissal, as it shows one trying to avoid eye contact which would further a conversation.

Nazneen also leaves behind her mother and family. Leaving her family behind to go to another house and barely see them again was something she knew would happen eventually this is due to the misogynistic views held in smaller countries. Nazneen’s husband reminds her ‘women don’t go outside’ in Bangladesh. Therefore if Nazneen were to marry someone who resides in Bangladesh, she would not be able to visit them as often as she would like, just as she is unable to visit them from Brick Lane, London. Unfortunately such views are still very common and nothing has changed over the years. It is important to note Nazneen leaving her family behind portrays her leaving her ‘home’ behind due to the fact that her mother always taught her and comforted her. She lost her home the second time when her mother was found “leaning low over the sacks of rice in the store hut, staked through the heart by a spear” (C2, P56)

Nazneen and Ellis both leave behind a family, which they later permanently lose to death. In Brooklyn, Mrs Lacey writes a letter in which she plainly evokes “she died in the night in her sleep” (Page 253). Alike Nazneen, Ellis permanently loses her emotional home. Her decision to return to Ireland could be a sign of Ellis submitting to her emotional breakdown of losing yet another form of home, it can be seen as life simply slipping away and Ellis is unable to do anything, just as she was unable to have a say when she was exiled from Ireland. In Brick Lane, Nazneen loses her only son Raqib as well. An emotional turmoil is what Nazneen went through. Refusing to believe her child was gone, “Dont worry. They won’t take long. They’ll give him back to us soon.” Nazneen shows denial towards Raqibs death, this is very normal for a parent. This would be the second family member Nazneen loses in the novel; loss becomes a prominent theme, as Nazneen is struggling mentally. Personally coming from a Bangladeshi family, a common saying in Bangladesh is ‘children are the last ingredient to a happy home’. This therefore shows Nazneen has yet again lost part of her home.

Both novels explore the theme of freedom and imprisonment. Nazneen gains both, freedom from her home in which he is groomed to become a house wife, which is pointed out when she discusses her marriage potential with her father “Abba, it is good that you have chosen my husband. I hope I can be good wife, like Amma” (page3). Nazneen is taught to only listen to her husband and look after the household by her family in Bangladesh. Due to being brought up seeing her father keeping her mother in the confinements of the household only, Nazneen follows only that. However upon the arrival to England, Nazneen has a greater insight into how life is different when compared to Bangladesh and its Misogynistic views. Nazneen was able to escape such an imprisonment, only to be introduced to new prison. This leaves her bewildered and dismayed. Ali simply portrays Nazneen’s prison, “The lamb curry was prepared. She had made it last night with tomatoes and new potatoes” (page19) which highlights Nazneen’s only job.

Both protagonists form a new home in their host countries. “The conflation of home, as both security and prison therefore is limited identity” (Dr Hossain Al Mamun). Nazneen has assimilated the structure of the once host country and Bangladesh forms the part of her fond memories and instead feeling of unfamiliarity. This leads to recognition of the desire to claim domestic space as fraction of belonging; the necessity to stay assertive about the final decision “I can’t go with you” (page 626). This juxtaposes her first statement of submitting to her father’s decision. “Nazneen expresses the need for a state of order echoing her own growing sense of stability and reflecting the mentality of one no longer locating themselves elsewhere.”

Ellis is portrayed as a young girl who matures into a woman and achieves an identity. This is a result of becoming metaphorically ‘homeless’, after being sent to America. Ellis is left to find her own home due to leaving her real ‘home’ in Ireland, through which she adopts a new identity. Due to her new home and identity, Ellis decides to leave Ireland once again. Ellis is aware Mrs Lacey will be very lonely but she is also aware of the newly formed home she has established in Brooklyn, despite its bittersweet thoughts of uncertainty as she questions her decision.

Bangladesh is represented as a society that persistently punishes Hasina for wanting freedom of choice. Which she felt eloping with her love was the only way she could establish this. However, for Nazneen who also chose freedom in England, where the society allows her to discover and assert her autonomy. Ali elucidates how society has a major affect on an individual’s ability to feel comfortable and adopt their own identity and be comfortable in their own home.

In conclusion, both Ali and Toibin successfully portray two individual’s leaving one home to form another. It is unfortunate that the protagonists from both the novels have no say in their departure, and therefore know nothing about the new environment. In Brick Lane, Nazneen arrives to London with only knowledge of two words ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’, which shows her struggle to cope in a new place she cannot communicate in. Similarly in Brooklyn, Ellis feels out of place upon arriving at Brooklyn despite having no language barrier. One could think both protagonists should feel comfortable as they settle in an Irish and Bengali dominated area. Despite the rough start in a new environment both protagonists tackle every hardship along the journey such as death and struggle with identity; they both establish a new home and choose their new identity over their old self. Ali and Toibin tried to elucidate the necessity to have faith in ones new identity and to have confidence a new home can be formed despite the struggle to settle. Ellis and Nazneen both lose the home they grew up in and shared memories with their families in, after leaving the country they also lose the members who made their paternal house into a home, but despite the struggle they form a new home which they do not intend to lose.

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