Nationalism in Diaspora Literature: In The Light of What We Know and Brick Lane Evoke Nationalism Among Immigrants.

Nationalism is such a critical concept of understanding our own value and it contains huge amount of facts and minor conception. Conceptualizing the basic understanding of nationalism needs many things to be considered. Community, belongingness, culture and many other forms of human existence are somehow triggered by a nationalistic sense. This chapter will focus on The Imagined Community by Benedict Anderson to help me establishing my claim of a nationalistic approach of Zia Haider Rahman in his debut novel In The Light of What We Know and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. The first part of this chapter will analyze some major characters to understand their nationalistic value, formation of community and their feeling to homeland. Initially this part will approach for the concept of belongingness and formation of community, where culture plays a major part between these two diaspora novels. In The Light of What We Know reveals its theme of exile where Zafar has the feeling of existential crisis and in Brick Lane other characters have the same crisis. This chapter deals with the condition of characters in the western and eastern settings where they come up with their view of home and abroad to show how confused they are. Eventually it finds out the source of the feeling of motherland and root though they are more connected to western life style. In the following chapter we figure out long-distance nationalism, another school of nationalism that has similar function of classical nationalism among the diaspora community and we will also discover how the transnationalism transformed the nationalistic sense among the immigrant community. The final chapter will discuss about extreme nationalistic approach thorough neo-colonialism, the last stage of imperialism which works under the shadow of nationalism and fulfill nationalistic agenda.

In The Light of What We Know is a widely acclaimed work of Zia Haider Rahman, which is an exhilarating story of love, belongingness and war. The narrator is a nearly 40 years old investment banker based in New York and he is in a collapse of his job and unraveling marriage life, who got a surprise visitor in his West London Townhouse, it is his long lost friend Zafar, a math prodigy who mysteriously disappeared. In The Light of What We Know takes us on a journey to several places, which are significant to the content of the novel. Zafar travels to a number of places from where he gets different kind of experiences. It is an age old-story where Zafar explores the world as we know it. On the other hand, Monica Ali’s Brick Lane tells a story about a village girl, Nazneen given in marriage to an immigrant, Chanu, settled in London. The story is about a cross-cultural presentation of the life of immigrant living in London. It explores immigrant lives and their struggle in distant land, different in culture. Brick Lane is a place I Tower Hamlet where most people are Bangladeshi. Surviving in a trans-cultural metropolis is not easy and it has become more complicated after the incident of 9/11 and the great recession.
For community, culture and home we have an innate fascination which does not matter where we live and where we do not. People living in a distant land for centuries but it does not make them belong to that land despite having citizenship because s/he is recognized by cultural background and ethnicity. It is not just a feeling of the individual rather the setting and treatment of the society that makes them feel that way. And nationhood is the ideology which harbors all those feeling for what people can even kill anyone for the imaginary homeland. The concept of nationalism is a very critical and an ancient ideology that has created an enormous impact on human lives even has reached an imperialistic milestone for centuries. Rahman puts such an effort to show his characters struggling throughout their lives in western setting and cultivating soft corner for the homeland though some of the characters are totally confused about where they belong but it eventually proves that their root has at least something to do with their own existence in this globalized world. Tom Nairn informs us,

Nationalism is the pathology of modern developmental history of as inescapable as neurosis in the individual with much the same essential ambiguity attaching to it a similar built-in capacity for descent into dementia, rooted in the dilemmas of helplessness thrust upon most of the world and largely incurable. (qtd. In Anderson 5)

It is inevitable that an individual will always be dealing with nationalism as it is an innate psychological behavior which cannot be left behind whether s/he acts accordingly or not but his mind must be conceptualizing the nationalistic sense. It is not necessary to become a hardcore nationalist but some instincts will always be defending the soft corner for the homeland or culture.
In The Light of What We Know and Brick Lane are two wonderful novels that deliver the message of crises in the lives of its characters. People from third world country like Bangladesh migrate to the west but are they happy with their financial security only or are they also struggles with their cultural value and belongingness. Zia Haider has given an astonishing description with wide knowledge and vision where Zafar being the protagonist is in the shadow of his pathetic life.
On the other hand Monica Ali’s protagonist is dealing with financial crisis, mental suffering, and definitely have trouble fitting into the western society. She is not educated like Zafar but she also feels the same for her homeland. For intellectuals like Zafar, it is easy to describe his dilemma but for Nazneen, is not easy at all. Though Chanu can understand his own value as he is a self-declared intellectual but he was not in any dilemma like Zafar and Nazneen.

Rahman and Ali both have shared the common ground of immigrant’s dilemma in their characters who always try to find out their own value in this transnational world where people still feel for their own political and existential value. The first chapter of In the Light of What We Know, shows Zafar’s interest in a map while he was sitting in narrator’s house. Though he surveys other collections but he is stuck on an old map of Indian subcontinent under British Raj where he draws his eyes on the north east corner which is the position of Bangladesh. The author quoted,

Zafar surveyed all this but his eyes settled on the far wall that was covered with my father’s collection of old maps, mounted and framed, of the Indian Subcontinent under the British Raj, an area that today stretches from Pakistan across India and Bangladesh. Zafar drew up to the maps and it was apparent that his focus had fixed on one in particular, a map of the north-east corner of the subcontinent. (5)

This event reminds us of some important facts of divided India, 1947, the separation of India and Pakistan and 1971 when East Pakistan and West Pakistan become separated. Both the event occurred on the basis of religion and language. The map of the Indian subcontinent represents one nation state of India but when the separation took place the Pakistani president took advantage of religion and the common people agreed to the separation. It is not only religion but also cultural differences that have helped breaking this land and obviously the idea of nationalism was rooted among the people of both nations. As far as we see Muslim have sympathy for Muslims, so despite being geographically distant, Pakistan and Bangladesh had separation from India. The nationalistic agenda has to be fulfilled through religious blindness that people have soft corner for. It is not necessary to know anyone but personally sharing similar cultural and religious belief can unite people as it happened in undivided India.

Considering Zafar’s feelings for a particular part of the map as just a feeling of belongingness, despite having British citizenship he keeps a good connection with Bangladesh and Afghanistan where Bangladesh being his birth place he must have nurtured a kind of concept of home. It is never said throughout the novel that he belongs here but he shows a certain amount of emotion which makes him feel better and provides a nostalgic environment. The beginning, takes place in the narrator’s home in New York where he becomes nostalgic and continues the story of the journey to Bangladesh. This first expression makes it clear that both the narrator and Zafar have good connection and knowledge about homeland and often think about their own belonging.

On the other hand, Monica Ali’s protagonist struggles in London with her husband Chanu. It is very interesting that the novel titled Brick Lane carries a very significant meaning to the Bengali community in London. The inhabitants of Brick Lane are mostly Bangladeshi, particularly from Sylhet. As Benedict Anderson points out, people do not need to know each other but they are comfortable with their own culture and concept of community which is raised by nationalistic sense. It is not only Brick Lane but many other places in western countries where Bangladeshi people live in Bengali community so that people can keep in touch with their culture and nationalistic value. In Brick Lane Nazneen keeps remembering her childhood and always gives credit to the mother land, the image of Bangladesh and Britain is totally different in her mind where England sounds an unpleasant experience in her life and Bangladesh gives her the idea of peace. Monica Ali beautifully describes Nazneen’s dream,

She looked out across jade-green rice fields and swam in the cool dark lake. She walked arm-in-arm to school with Hasina, and skipped part of the way and fell and they dusted their knees with their hands and the myna bird called from the trees and the goat fretted …….And haven, which was above, was wide and empty and the land stretched out ahead and she could see the very end of it (16).

The dust in Brick Lane is quite unpleasant while in her village dust seems very pleasant and she used to dust her own body out of entertainment. The very understanding of her own belongingness is quite full with happy memories and when the concept of home is there, nothing seems peaceful but homeland. Ali directly quotes that “You see said Chanu when he explained this for the first time most of our people here are Sylhetis. They will stick together because they come from the same district. They know each other from the villages, and they come to Tower Hamlet and they think they are back in the village.”(21) Though they are living in London but their feeling is indigenous. It is a nation within a nation. It is human nature to promote their cultural value and to establish own value, there is no better option than creating and enhancing a particular community within another. It is not necessary to apply ones nationalistic agenda strategically because people more often do it unconsciously and the trigger is always there in our heart which is called the “pull of the land” which is stronger than the “pull of blood as it is mentioned by Chanu (24). Even he says “Their bodies are here but their hearts are back there” (24). Wherever people live, the homeland always pulls them back. Anderson says that, “Part of the difficulty is that one tends unconsciously hypothesize the existence of Nationalism-with-big-N (rather as one might Age-with-capital-A) and then to classify ‘it’ is an ideology (5)”. He also says, ideology always works like a ‘religion’ and ‘kinship’ rather than ‘liberalism’ and ‘fascism’. We can say that it is not something to implement in peoples mind but it naturally comes from the society, community, culture and eventually from the strategic goal of a particular government where education and media helps them installing the sense of patriotism, even without mentioning the word ‘Nationalism’.

In the second chapter of In the Light of What We Know, Zafar has a sweet sense of describing Bangladesh but it is interesting that he is confused about his own belongingness and struggling to understand his identity. Zafar, despite having negative impression, he has peaceful feeling of his mother land. While he was describing Afghanistan, he proudly praises Bangladesh, particularly Sylhet as ‘my beautiful Sylhet’. An interesting fact that he loves to identify himself as British but the ideology which is rooted into his blood cannot be removed. His root plays an enormously important role in his life and creates a beautiful image of the motherland. The novel carries the theme of exile and Zafar being the person behind the shadowy curtain always comes up with a feeling of exile. Having a British citizenship, he cannot help himself getting out of that feeling. It is sympathetically same to the other immigrant coming from various parts of the world to live in another country. For Zafar it is quite hard to find his own existence, he was born in Bangladesh, raised in Britain by his adopted parents and fathered by a Pakistani which is even unknown to him. So always the border and nationhood is a complicated matter for him. Treatment of British community is not much convincing and it is sure that he cannot fit into the Bangladeshi environment either for he is habituated with western life style. It is even more complicated to fit into British society because of his obsession for elites. In every way he feels unsatisfied about his existence and feels he is politically, biologically and culturally exiled from this transcultural world. Rahman informs us that:

Zafar was an exile, a refugee, if not from was, then of war, but also from blood. He was driven, I think, to find a home in the world of books, a world peopled with ideas, whose companionship is offered free and clear, and with the promise that questions would never long be without answers or better questions. (51)

Looking for home is a form of exile which is happening in this present world because of war mongering of superior nations. People like Zafar will never be settled in a particular place or homeland. The society ignores his presence and his existence; even his blood will show the same attitude. As Edward Said has come up with his quotation in Reflections on Exile that, “Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the inhalable rift forced between a human being and a native place between the self and its true home; its essential sadness can never be surmounted”(174). It is the feeling that can only be understood by the person who experienced the pain. And this is the same quotation quoted by Rahman in the first chapter of the novel. On the other hand, in Brick Lane Chanu took his final decision getting back to Bangladesh leaving his children and wife behind because he feels the pull of the home is stronger than the pull of blood. All this feeling comes from the feeling of nationalistic view and the pull for the imaginary home.

The idea of homeland evokes enormously different and strange feeling for Zafar, as he has suffered in Bangladesh. Though he has described Bangladesh as an experience of horror and pain, may be it is because of his western life style, he could not fit into the Bangladeshi environment initially but at the end he felt a kind of peace while staying in his birth place. His experience of Britain is not satisfying too because of his ethnicity. It is the writer who has experienced a lot about western living and Zafar is the creation of his subconscious in terms of his feeling of homeland. This is the time of technology but in Bangladeshi villages, it is terrifying which is definitely painful for anyone lives in western countries. But something gives a little bit peace when it is about homeland. And Zafar has the exact feeling for the time spent in Bangladesh when he says that,

Those years in Bangladesh were all in all years of tranquility. They did indeed begin with horror and end with pain- I will come to that- but in between they were peaceful years, and there is nothing to say about them except this: Peace, day out, does not make for memories but collapses into a haze of warm feeling like long summers of play and plenty. Yet can there be doubt that peace and stability are what a child needs most? (58)

His way of presenting everything clearly says that the land he is connected with has so much to offer while the country, he is living in cannot provide him solace. The confusion that he has is a transnational dilemma what he barely understood in his early ages. He was not sure about his identity and came up with a statement that, “I was twelve years old and travelling alone across a country that was neither home nor foreign to me” (59). This is a feeling of the individuals of globalized world where people are not certain of their belongingness, particularly those who are living in a distant place from their motherland. And here is my point that if there was no sense of nationalism people would not even think this way. The same confusion is shared by Karim in Brick Lane; he has always tried to live like a British. He has even tried to establish his identity as a British but is it possible for him to fit into that definition of Englishness? Karim considers himself as a British and proudly says, “This is my country” (175), while he was having a conversation with Nazneen. He also proudly points out, he has problem uttering Bangla properly but he can speak English without any hesitation. This is a kind of fantasy that we all have and we pretend to belong somewhere we aspire to belong. Zafar also has the same aspiring fantasy to belong to the elites but it is inevitable that his wish would not be granted. Zafar becomes intimate with Emillia, a British elite so that he can become one of them, but ultimately he feels that he would not become one of them but he will look forward to his children holding the British aristocracy.

All these fantasies of the immigrant take us to another form of nationalism where they pretend to be loyal to the country of naturalization. It is said that every story has three different versions. Whatever we do or whoever we take side of, carries a meaning. If we say that Zafar and Karim both are nationalists because they have the same feeling for Britain as they belong to Great Britain but both have the pull of the ancestral land. So it will not be naïve in a sense, if we try to define these two characters as double Nationalist.

On the contrary, Chanu is somehow a practical nationalist because he thinks differently. According to him, Britain established their colony for the sake of their own financial benefit. They settled in various parts of the world in the name of business but ended up ruling them. For example, the Indian Subcontinent was under British rule for more than two centuries and took money and other property out of the subcontinent for their national benefit. Chanu, practically borrowed that ideology that the immigrants should work in Britain and take out the money as colonialists did before. Chanu points out that, “You see when the English went to our country; they went to make money and the money they made, they took it out of the country. They never left home mentally.” (177) It is a lesson for immigrant people not to leave their homeland mentally. Chanu came to Britain to change his fortune but he could not do much for himself and his family. Before him, Nazneen was the one who talked a lot about visiting Bangladesh but could not go because of enough money. So in that capacity both have strong feelings for the homeland where they desire to get back. This event is strongly connected to a capitalistic stigma where people are stuck for their financial condition or it seems like they would get back where they belong. The sense of capitalistic stigma highly contributed to the rise of nationalism. Anderson states in the third chapter of Imagined Community that, “The revolutionary vernacularizing thrust of capitalism was given farther impetus by three extraneous factors, two of which directly contributed to the rise of national consciousness.”(55) Though it is not necessary to be a nationalist in terms of capitalistic agenda only but the politics became successful through the financial system of capitalism which plays a very important role of turning people into nationalism. Chanu does not consider himself as British, in the same way Rahman’s unnamed narrator denies to identify himself as an American. It somehow brings an issue of family status where both Chanu and Narrator have quite a good background, though Chanu is not as wealthy as the Narrator but they share the common ideology about homeland and nationalism.

Nationalism and Religion 

Nationalism is also connected to religion. A nation always has a national religion, though ironically most of the countries and individuals believe in secularism but it is religion always an issue for nationhood. Anderson says in his book that, “If the nationalist Imagining is so concerned, this suggests a strong affinity with religious imaginings.”(10) The novel Brick Lane is mostly set in the aftermath of 9/11 which triggered religious sympathy. Islam was demonized so were the Islamic nations. Muslim people who were living in America, Britain and other parts of western countries, predominantly Christian was not treated the same as they were treated before 9/11. Muslims became the national threat for western countries including Britain. Rhetorically Christianity became the nation and Islam became its enemy so they always wanted to get rid of Islam and Muslims. The 9/11 has shown its worst form for the Muslim immigrants and they denied their connections and faith in Muslim community. The Christian nations become one nation on earth and Muslims were set apart, but still some Muslim communities protesting against the demonization Islam in western world to protect their own existence in distant lands. In Brick Lane, Karim was a very devoted British but when the time came he thought he has a responsibility to protect his Muslim community living in London, and supports Bengal Tigers, a Muslim right organization. Interesting fact here is that most of the members of their community are Bangladeshi immigrants which seems like the organization is connected to nationalistic agenda if we go through history of reforming a nation on the basis of its culture and religious view.

The setting of the novel is in tower Hamlet which is a vibrant multi-racial community in Brick Lane. It is inevitable that racial discrimination is a very typical condition in London because it cannot be overlooked in such a place. Though Bangladeshis are more accustomed there but they are not the only people in Tower Hamlet. There are white and black people living in the community. Nazneen has white neighbors: “In the flats immediately next door, there were white people” (304). Bangladeshi people meet other race every day when they are going for shopping and other works. The writer quotes that “a group of African girls tried on shoes, a white girl stood in front of a mirror turning this way and that” (392-94). When Chanu talks about his plan to take his son back to Dhaka at Dr Azad’s home, he refers to Britain as a racist society. Here are his words: “I don’t need very much. Just enough for the Dhaka house and some left over for Ruku’s education. I don’t want him to rot here with all the skinheads and drunks. I don’t want him to grow up in this racist society. I don’t want him to talk back to his mother. I want him to respect his father.’ and ‘The only way is to take him back home.” (111).

Both the novels share the common ground of the understanding of other race is a problem in the West. It is evidenced that in UK the hate crime on racial basis has risen in 2015-16 by 40%. On August 10, 2016 BBC News Journal reported that in UK migrant citizens are being harassed by white people. When white people oppress immigrants they often utter that ‘get out of my country’. It was reported that in July; more than 3326 hate crimes were reported to police. It is quite clear that the phrase” my country” presents a very extreme nationalistic interest where non-European races are being presented as “other”. In the book Orientalism, Edward Said has pointed out, “For orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the west, “us”) and the strange (the orient, the East, “them”). (43). Zafar, Chanu, and Karim are the examples of the treatment of “othering”. Is there a connection between Nationalism and Racism? Throughout the history of mankind, race was a very important principle, especially in the nineteenth century. And nationalism is a loosely constructed ideology allied to racism. George L. Moss, in his article, Nationalism: Critical Concepts in Political Science said that,” Racism was never an indispensible element of nationalism.”(1382). Racism is an ethno cultural ideology that discriminates people by their culture, color, and national identity. But nationalism is the ideology that breeds racism out of national superiority. British national identity gives English an identity of superior race standing out in history of mankind. So they treat other immigrants as aliens. Alistair Cormack claims in his article on Brick Lane “is particularly of interest as an examination of the double bind that female migrants face, treated as alien by their host nation and as commodities by the men in their own communities” (700). It is the nationalistic sense that has isolated women from the patriarchal society and definitely this is a kind of racism based on gender. Migrant women are alien in the current nation and recognized as a commodity in their own communities. In Brick Lane at the beginning, Nazneen is treated as a prisoner because her husband Chanu, does not allow her to work or socialize outside of the community. Women in that case are not seen as human rather they are seen as property of men and also as different race than men. So that way racial discrimination is a product of nationalism although it is hard to specify which concept came into play first but it is clear that all these sense work and came as a package.


In short we can say that nationalism is a holistic process of human identity which is multidimensional concept involving shared communal identification of one’s nation. The concept of nationalism is passed down to generation to generation and work like a biological feature of human existence. In Brick Lane Monica, Ali’s characters show nostalgic attitude toward Bangladesh where Chanu says that the pull of land is stronger than the pull of the blood. In The Light of What We Know and Brick Lane deal with the matter of nationalism where community gives a sense of a little homeland within another land. It is also the sense of nationalism that alienates immigrants from the natives. The concept of identity and belongingness are deeply connected to nationalism and racial discrimination is also rooted into Nationalism. Zafar, in In The Light of What We Know, though considers himself as a British but keeps good connection with Bangladesh and become nostalgic when he thinks about his visit. Though most of the characters suffer from existential crisis in this transnational world but practice their own culture, religion and maintain indigenous traditions. Though immigrants live in a distant land but every one of them are connected to their ancestral land and serve nationalist agenda.

It was published in EWU. Can be read full research here

Related articles


Share article


Join Our Newsletter

Authentic, Informative and Demanding Topics. Delivered to Your Mailbox.

Latest articles

Popular Tags