Migrants’ Emotions? Mapping through Contemporary Bangladeshi Diaspora Novels and Memoirs in English

By Dr Umme Salma, The University of Queensland

Emotions play a central role in migration and migrants’ life. Whatever drivers function as catalysts for mobility—wars, conflicts, education, work or a better life—the phenomenon of migration and subsequent resettlement is intensely emotion-oriented. People leave their home base and move to new places, producing mixed emotions in them: from excitement to anger, resentment, distaste, grudge, regret, yearning and contentment through five regular phases of migration. People who aspire to migrate and feel excited about a new place become worried and anxious about being displaced from the familiar. At the same time, they can release sighs of relief, thinking that they are no more in the same place. Similarly, after moving and re-grounding in the new site, the same person may long for the left, the lost, the past, the things no more in his life: “Who have you left, my heart, o my heart!”[1] 

Street logo sign of Brick Lane in English and Bengali, in London
James Cridland, Street logo sign of Brick Lane in English and Bengali, in London, 15 April 2007, Wikimedia Commons

However, the emotions that are involved in dislocation vary depending on whether migration is long-term, short term or transient or the migration is forced or pre-planned. This emotional variance has been dramatised in world migration and diaspora literature since 1960 when the British empire began to furl its overarching sales, nations began to feel social and economic changes, and the Global North needed social and economic boosting. This literature represents voluntary and forced labour and high-skilled, marriage and education migration and depicts migrants’ emotional instability around home, roots, belonging and identity. This literature, often in English, dramatises multiple trajectories of outbound, transnational, and return journeys between the place of birth and the destination(s) and thus embodies how migrants’ emotional geographies look like with exposure and attachments to multiple locations, spaces, languages, cultures and histories.

This panorama of migration has attracted migration scholars for some time now. Cross-cultural traffic, place-making, claiming space and identity formation have become regular but tasty dishes on research plates. New ideas have evolved with continuous experimentation with migration, culture and identity. Edward Said, V. S. Naipaul, Bill Ashcroft, Homi Bhabha, Avtar Brah and Iain Cambers are famous names who laid the ground for migration studies under the niche of postcolonialism and offered mixed and blended cultures and identities lens to understand migration and social relationships.

Front cover of Abid Khan's Spiral Road (2007)
Front cover of Abid Khan’s Spiral Road (2007)

However, migrants as an emotional community and their emotional styles are still an underdeveloped branch of scholarship. Although categorising migrant communities and classifying their emotional techniques and approaches is a huge, complex task, a start would be great and tempting. I fall under this temptation and am curious to find the status of emotions and emotional expressions of South Asian Muslim migrants. As an Asian-born migrant in Australia, I feel comfortable and confident researching this region and plan to begin with a minimal focus on Bangladeshi diaspora novels in English. Contemporary literature, published in the rough last forty years, fascinates me as it represents the historical, cultural, and political realities of South Asia and the globe and invites readers to view their time with a fresh, new lens. Literature is, thus, an anthropological source that, under the guise of fiction, represents people’s narratives and emotions of physical and cultural dislocation, home, loyalty, hope, despair, love, anger, loss, and gains.

Here comes thus four Bangladeshi novels and memoirs in English in my way to research: Adib Khan’s Spiral Road (2007), Zia H. Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know (2014), Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (2003) and Ed Hussain’s memoir The Islamist (2007). They are Bangladeshi migrant stories engaged with the Indian Partition, the 1971 Bangladesh Literation War, 9/11, the War on Terror, the 2008 Economic Depression and the question of religion and faith. The writers, inspired by their life stories, weave these tales of several cities and thus present a great source to explore the sea of emotions migrants plunge in a ‘heart-home-host’ dilemma.

Front cover of Ed Husain's The Islamist (2007)
Front cover of Ed Husain’s The Islamist (2007)

I crafted this ‘heart-home-host’ dilemma phrase after many reflections. Although I don’t have any grudge about the five phases of migration, I question its linear image of emotions. I prefer to see emotions as cyclical, mixed and consequential, to use Barbara Rosenwein’s term.[2] They are like a wheel, rotate, shift, amalgam, fade, and recur. Therefore, I contend that migrants find three pronouns (I-We-Their) perpetually present in their life. The ‘I’ signifies the migrants themselves, ‘We’ the home(land), and ‘Their’ the hostland(s) and constantly negotiates with them. This pronounal division may sound dichotomous. But they are not. I envision them as parts of the self with which migrants engage and among which they constantly negotiate throughout their migrant life. This three-pronged structure causes emotional interplay and begets a bag of mixed emotions and emotional sequences, both positive and negative, based on whether their needs are met or not. Gender plays a significant role in these emotional expressions, as the way men feel varies from how women feel, based on their contexts of migration, migrant status and re-grounding process.

Front cover of Monica Ali's Brick Lane (2003)
Front cover of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (2003)

During my PhD and long before I became familiar with Emotions Studies, my research engaged with the emotions of entrapment and breaking free.,. Now, fortunately, I am in the emotions research realm which gives me scope to extend my research toward investigating men’s feelings of anger and emotional geographies and include religion as an important catalyst to understanding Bangladeshi Muslim migrants in Bangladesh, the UK, the USA, and Australia. I find this investigation fascinating because this has the potential to complement and deepen my understanding of male migrants as angry and lost people, as my doctoral research shows. During that study, I investigated Bangladeshi migrant culture and transcultural identity. I found that in the selected novels of Monica Ali, Nashid Kamal and Manzu Islam, Zia H. Rahman and Tahmima Anam, men characters are grumpy, rash, and violent. Despite having fewer gender, class, race, and cultural barriers than women characters, they fail to reconcile with themselves, their societies and host lands. They are half human, half beast and full of creepy and insidious intentions, leading to shocking outcomes and psychological downfall.

Front cover of Zia Haider Rahman's In the Light of What We Know (2014)
Front cover of Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know (2014)

However, in this investigation, there is a missing link that has recently dawned on me. This missing link is the link to 9/11. This political-religious event revokes the image of pious Muslim men as ‘Islamic Rage Boys’[3], and provokes debates over whether they are so or if there are more alternative sub-stories. I engage with that link now and use ‘Emotional Bedouin’ as a crucial term in my research. This term will be an analytical tool that will bind disparate narratives together and help analyse Muslim men’s positionality within pre-and post-9/11 timeframes. I hope the research will shed further light on the men migrants’ emotional life, actions and reactions and open a humane space to converse across cultures and faith boundaries.

Dr Umme Salma is a Casual Academic and Guest Lecturer at The University of Queensland and honorary CHE Virtual Research Fellow at The University of Western Australia. She holds a PhD in Postcolonial and World Literature in English, achieved from the School of Languages and Cultures, The University of Queensland. She was also a 2019 Graduate Digital Research Fellow at The University of Queensland Digital Scholar’s Hub. Salma published scholarly articles in South Asian Review, Asiatic, Gitanjali and Beyond, IIUC Studies, and Transnational Literature and poems and book reviews in Hecate and Transnational Literature. She also presented in sixteen prestigious seminars and conferences in Australia, England, and Bangladesh. Her current project includes a first monograph Entrapment and Breaking Free: Mapping Migrant Emotions in Bangladeshi Diaspora Novels in English, and a bilingual book of poems, If You Read Poems, A Lark Sings.

[1] This is a verse from a Bengali nostalgic song.

[2] Barbara H. Rosenwein, Generations of Feeling: A History of Emotions, 600–1700. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

[3] Amina Yaqin, Peter Morey and Asmaa Soliman. Muslims, Trust and Multiculturalism: New Directions. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

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