Author explores cross-cultural marriage in 'The Newlyweds'

Reuters, Saturday 26 May 2012

Nell Freudenberger sets her latest novel between the US and Bangladesh, where a couple meets and face the challenge of day-to-day life across cultures

Marriage has been a hotly discussed topic since President Barack Obama voiced his support for same-sex unions, but author Nell Freudenberger looks at the institution from a different perspective in The Newlyweds.

In her latest novel she tells the story of Bangladeshi Muslim Amina who marries George, an engineer from Rochester, NY, after they meet on an online dating website. They confront cultural confusion, differing expectations for the future and secrets from their pasts as they muddle through their first years of marriage. Their relationship and Amina's understanding of herself are tested when she goes back to Bangladesh to help her parents immigrate to the United States.

"I think no matter how much you're in love, it's a different thing to live with somebody day to day and to raise children," Freudenberger said. "I think that must be true for all marriages, whether arranged or not, internet or not, between two cultures or not."

The Newlyweds is Freudenberger's third book. Her earlier works, The Dissident and Lucky Girls were New York Times Book Review Notables. At 37, she is also among the New Yorker's "20 Under 40" notable fiction writers, and was named one of the best young American novelists by the literary magazine Granta. Women's magazine Elle described The Newlyweds as a "densely beautiful novel." Writer Gary Shytengart said it was "one of the most believable love stories of our young century," and Oprah's O magazine praised Freudenberger's "keen observations and generous heart."

Like her previous books The Newlyweds centres on navigating cultural differences, but Freudenberger said she never set out with that theme in mind. The idea for the book occurred when she befriended a woman on a flight from New York City to Rochester.

"I found myself sitting next to this young woman and I was curious about her and her husband, who were holding hands," she said. "When I heard her story that they had met on this international marriage brokerage website I was so curious, and thought what a different courtship that is from mine. "I started to think about what it would be like for her to leave Bangladesh for the first time to come to Rochester to live, and I couldn't get it out of my head."

Freudenberger became friends with Farah Deeba Munni and asked for her permission to use her life as a basis for a book. "As a writer, I get so few ideas that actually have the legs to be a novel, so it was a relief to hear her give me her permission," Freudenberger said.

Much of the latter part of The Newlyweds takes place in Bangladesh as Amina negotiates her relationships with her large extended family and helps her parents through visa interviews, failed business deals, and even acid attacks as she moves toward her ultimate goal of bringing them to live in the U.S.

Freudenberger's inspiration for Amina's origins was based on a trip to Bangladesh she took with Munni. During the trip she stayed with her family. "I was writing this from the point of view of a character like Farah, and to wake up the next morning in her bed with her parents there sort of felt as if I were her, for a couple minutes," she said.

Freudenberger believes that her characters' relationship is not as different as it may look. Some see it as a modern, empowered version of the Bangladeshi tradition of arranged marriage. "Because she learned English and because that allowed her to become familiar with the internet, she was able to take her destiny into her own hands and arrange her own marriage," Freudenberger explained. "It didn't mean that she knew her husband any better than her grandmother had known her grandfather when they married, but she was the one who was making the choice."

Freudenberger also draws comparisons to the increase in online dating in the United States. "I'm not sure that their marriage is so different from most Americans now. Certainly a lot of my friends here meet each other online, and I'm not sure how different what they did was."

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