Nell Freudenberger’s book is about a Bangladeshi woman adapting to her new American life and American husband, George.
Amina and George are hardly star-crossed lovers. Amina a 24-year-old Bangladeshi woman and George, a 34-year-old American engineer meet on Asianeuro.com, an updated version of the village matchmaker.
Amina wants a chance to pursue an American college education and career; George wants a stable life and family. After copious emails and an exchange of photographs, where George is attracted to Amina because she is “straightforward” he embarks to Dhaka to meet Amina and her family.
The exchange is a success despite the pigeon English spoken in her village and the barriers of nationality, culture and religious upbringing- they wed. Amina journeys to Rochester USA “wearing the University of Rochester sweatshirt” that George gave her to begin her American life.
How does Amina adjust to a three-bedroom house in the American suburbs with no relatives and no friends close by? When a washing machine is completely foreign and the colloquial American language is difficult to grasp? How does George accept his wife’s cultural views that her parents should live with them? That it is important for her to have a Muslim wedding ceremony and live in separate rooms until such a ceremony is performed?
The Newlyweds is about a woman trying to negotiate two cultures and adapt to a new culture. As Freudenberger says, “Amina knew she was a different person in Bangla than she was in English, she was older in English. But was there a person who existed beanth languages?” This is question that Freudenberger leaves unanswered. Amina certainly tries to adapt to her American life through her casual job at Wireworks and then Starbucks and even through her dress, yet there is clearly something missing. How can Amina change that ingrained sense of traditional Dashi self? And the answer is, she can’t. She never “counted on her husband being a foreigner, a person who called her honey rather than Muni. In a way, George had created her American self, and so it made sense that it was the only one she would see”.
While Furdenburger’s partiality is directed towards Amina’s perspective she also narrates the cultural difficulties for Amina’s husband George as he struggles to accept her traditional sensibilities and notions of family. Live-in-laws are certainly not what George had in mind, yet Amina cannot fathom having a child without the help of her parents. As an old African proverb says, “its takes a village to raise a child”.
That is, if George and Amina have a child.
Basic notions of the collective and the individual human condition are explored here. Freudenberger uses George and Amina as a platform to discuss different cultural ideologies of a collective dependent society versus the independent and individual culture of American capitalism.
Until the age of six Amina had been raised by her Nanu (grandmother) in the village of Hatibatpur. Sent there after her parents were “struggling to feed themselves in Dhaka”, Amina has little idea of the notion of individualism. Amina lived with her Nanu, her Parveen Aunty and Parveen’s daughter- her favorite cousin Miki. Raised in a shared collective society, privacy is not a word that is compatible with Amina’s Dashi culture. In fact, Amina reveals how she shared a bed with her mother until her departure to the United States.
Such collective shared values are hardly compatible with George’s views on independence and privacy. George aspires for a simple and quiet life, nuclear family structure and order. Amina wants her parents to live in their comfortable Rochester home. This is the most difficult cultural difference the couple encounters. George cannot fathom living with his parents in law, Amina cannot abide living without them. This example, Freudenberger highlights how Western society has become ‘ageist’ and opposed to age and aged people. As Cathy, George’s pious and fastidious aunt says “its wonderful to have a child who wants to look after you”.
It is these moments in Freduberger’s Newlyweds that make her novel somewhat interesting. She uses the example of a mixed race marriage as a platform to discuss notions of family and the self in particular cultures, mainly that between East and West. A depiction of Americans and Asians, Christians and Muslims, liberals and conservatives are all meshed together in her cultural melting pot. The sterile and at times monotonous marriage of George and Amina are a base for Freudenberger to then explore other peripheral characters and their backgrounds.
The cousins of George and Amina, Kim and Nassir respectively, play a large role in the narrative fabric of Freudenberger’s Newlyweds. Kim, George’s eccentric but beautiful cousin struggles under the severe restrictions of her mother Cathy and her own unsuccessful cross cultural marriage with wealthy Indian Ashok. Nassir, Amina’s cousin who served as a love interest during the course of her teens, has returned to her village after living in London. After arriving in America, he continues to contact Amina via email and remind her of her former life as a simple Dhaka girl.
The interference of these past relationships are all barriers that George and Amina face in their far-from-perfect marriage. While Freudenberger does write with a powerful sense of empathy and international sensibility I found her prose lacking in any real depth. She prosaically and unemotionally recounts the microenvironment that is George and Amina’s marriage and switches back and forth between past and present. While her subject matter is not bad, it is her lack of descriptions and poetic language that made me quite detached from her characters.
Freudenberger does not use overly descriptive language to enrich her complicated characters or stimulate their characterization. Kim, Freudenberger’s most multi-layered character is left without any real resolution and merely just falls away from the page. Kim is initially described as “very thin, with a flat chest and narrow hips”. She wears eccentric clothes and works as a yoga instructor, yet Freundenberger uses such bland language when she describes this eccentric character. Kim’s on-off relationship with Ashok is never finalized and in a pivotal moment, when Kim returns to her mother’s house after not communicating for months Freudenberger leaves the action hanging. Kim stands there awkwardly at the door as she explains in not so many words “I’ve talked to Ashok, and we’re trying to make it work”. Kim then merely disappears from the page. This lack of finalization leaves the audience questioning, where did she go?
Freudenberger’s concept of a mixed race marriage is certainly applicable in today’s globalized society. Yet her skills don’t match her ambition. Her banal if at times bland observations of a woman negotiating two cultures made it a tedious read. This is not to say that at times it was not interesting, just rather formulaic and lacking in descriptive prose.
I liked Freudenberger’s concept of an interracial marriage, yet I found her writing style bland and lacking in any real depth. It would not be my first recommendation for a book about interracial marriages. For a good read about cross-cultural relationships I would suggest Corrine Hofmann’s The White Masai and Betty Mahmoody’s Not Without My Daughter.