Author and journalist Tufayel Ahmed shares five of his favourite books that celebrate South Asian heritage and stories
As a Bengali Muslim in London, growing up I never felt like I saw myself in the films, television programmes, and books I consumed. Now, as a writer, I’ve loved telling stories about my people—British-Bangladeshi migrants, second-generation Bengalis, Muslims, and queer ones at that—to hopefully give voice to the everyday people who made up my slice of Britain.
In my new book, Better Left Unsaid, I was deeply moved by the migrant experience, and the themes of migrant guilt: how do second-generation migrants, like myself, move through their lives knowing what their migrant parents have sacrificed for them, often upending their lives in a developing country to move to the West for better opportunities for themselves and their children?
I couldn’t have written this book had it not been for South Asian stories and novelists that came before me. Here are just some of my favourites.
Monica Ali’s stunning debut novel is the one book I always tell people to read if they’re interested in books by South Asian authors. The story centres on Nazneen, a Bangladeshi woman who moves to London after an arranged marriage to an older man, and follows her story as she acclimates to a new life in a country she doesn’t know, and a new community far removed from the family and friends she new back home.
" There’s a real palpable sense of being immersed in the Bangladeshi community"
Growing up in East London, where the book is set, there’s a real palpable sense of being immersed in the Bangladeshi community in Brick Lane in Ali’s prose. A wonderful tribute to the men and women of Brick Lane, Tower Hamlets, and East London, the heart of Britain’s vibrant Bengali community, which I am proud to have grown up in.
Hamid beautifully explores what it’s like to be a refugee who has to flee home. We’ve all seen news items about people desperately trying to get to safety in boats, and the resistance and anti-immigrant attitude in parts of the West.
This book deftly explores the other side of the experience. What if your home city was torn apart? What if your family was slaughtered? Saeed and Nadia are two young people bound together as they flee their wartorn city, landing in a refugee camp in Mykonos, and then London, and California, by way of a magical portal. This book will stay with you.
Adiga won the Booker Prize for this novel back in 2008, and it’s easy to see why. A gripping story told in first person, Balram Halwai explains how he worked his way up from being a rickshaw puller to running his own business.
"Adiga won the Booker Prize for this novel, and it’s easy to see why"
The book explores the social inequality between the rich and poor in India, as well as its caste system and the hostitilies that exist between people of different religions in South Asia. Even all these years later, it remains relevant to our times as Britain goes through a cost-of-living crisis that appears to be affecting those with the least, the most.
Shamsie’s Women’s Prize for Fiction winner is a novel I hold dearly for the way it so succinctly explores the idea of dual cultural identities and the expectations of being a model minority in Britain. Anyone who has dual identities will be able to relate to the conflict between where your heritage lies and where you are raised.
In the book, Aneeka learns that her brother Parvaiz has fled the UK to join ISIS in Syria. Once he arrives there, he realises he has made a mistake and Aneeka tries to help bring him home with the help of her new paramour, Eammon. Eammon, it turns out, is the son of the new Home Secretary, who is of Pakistani heritage like Aneeka and Parvaiz, but is unsympathetic to the siblings in his own pursuit of power and attempts to ingratiate himself into the majority-white British government.
I was delighted to learn that so many years after Brick Lane, Ali was back with a new novel, Love Marriage, which came out last year and feels as relevant to our times as Brick Lane did back then. This time, Ali explores the cultural gulf between Asian lead character Yasmin, a trainee doctor, and her white fiancé, Joe.
"The novel dissects the expectations around marriage among different generations"
With their impending marriage, Yasmin and Joe bring their families together, and what unfolds is an often riotous clash of cultures; both Yasmin and Joe suspect that their parents—Yasmin’s, immigrants from Kolkata, and Joe’s mother a liberal white feminist—might not get along. Instead, what follows is Yasmin’s mother, Anisah, having something of a feminist awakening of her own through her unlikely friendship with Harriet, Joe’s mother, which puts the pair at odds with Anisah’s more conservative father, Shaokat.
Yasmin and Joe find themselves in the middle of the drama—as well as their own when Yasmin finds out Joe has cheated, and then begins to question whether they should really get married. The novel dissects the expectations around marriage among different generations, and the challenges that come with being in an interracial relationship, in a clever, humorous way, and the characters of Anisah and Harriet are particularly memorable.
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