Brooklyn Heights, which tells the story of Hend, a single mother who emigrates from her village in Egypt to New York City, is interesting mostly because of the story it tells about her early life, rather than because of the post-immigration narrative. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s enough to carry the whole book.
At first sight, Brooklyn Heights, looks just like another example of the “single story” of African literature I’ve found this year. Like the narrators of Americanah and Ghana Must Go, Hend has left the familiarity of her homeland for a new life in the US. On closer inspection however, the similarities don’t extend much further than that, and that’s not even touching the problems with bunching the works of and Egyptian author in with Nigerian writers and assuming they belong to the same literary tradition based solely on a continental basis. In contrast Ifemelu and the Sais, Hend doesn’t find happiness or really stability. Instead she finds herself completely lost, as not only does she struggle to fit in to “American Life”, she also finds it hard to adjust to the immigrant experience as it were. She generally fails to make a connection with her Egyptian or other Middle-Eastern neighbours, and spends most of her time looking back on her past experiences to see how they got her to where she is.
Miral al-Tahawy’s Goodreads biography makes it easy to assume that Hend’s experience in Egypt is based on her own childhood. They both lived in a close-knit village with very traditional gender delineation, both made their living as Arabic teachers and both intended to become writers (obviously al-Tahawy succeeded, unlike Hend). This is perhaps, I think, why the Egypt sections are more interesting than the New York sections. I don’t want to imply that it’s because al-Tahawy is only a good writer when depicting her experiences, but my issue with the New York side of the story was that generally, it felt quite disjointed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an interesting look at the experience of a Middle-Eastern immigrant in the 21st century, but there are a lot of dropped plot threads and the extensive flashbacks (as well as the fact Hend never refers to her son by name!) makes it quite difficult to engage with the present day narrative. The ending is also particularly esoteric and seems to come pretty much out of nowhere.
At first I thought it was interesting that the book was originally written in Arabic. After all, it’s set in New York about an immigrant, but then I realised that’s a ridiculously Anglo-centric way of looking things. Anglophone authors write stories set all over the world, so why shouldn’t authors who don’t speak English as their first language write stories set in the Anglosphere in their mother tongues? Anyway, this led me to the question of how the book would have been received by Egyptian readers, and whether their perceptions of the books strengths and weaknesses would have been the same as mine. Which in turn is making all sorts of assumptions about the way that people read that frankly makes no sense.
Equal opportunities musings aside, Brooklyn Heights was interesting, but not outstanding, or particularly engaging to read.