Bright Lines: A Novel by Tanwi Nandini Islam

May 31, 2024 | 2024 Summer - More than One Letter, Reviews

New York: Penguin Books, 2015. 296 pages.

Reviewed by Sarah E. Rowley

[Cautionary advice: spoilers ahead!]

Tanwi Nandini Islam’s first novel, Bright Lines, focuses on three members of a Muslim Bangladeshi family living in Brooklyn, New York City. We first meet Anwar Saleem, an apothecary who appears to be living the American Dream, having converted a brownstone from a crumbling crack house to a vibrant home for his family, tenant, and a variety of guests. 

Anwar, a happy-go-lucky pothead who lost his Islamic faith during the 1971 war in Bangladesh, is indulgent with his younger daughter, 17-year-old Charu, who is intent on losing her virginity and starting her own clothing line. But he is especially fond of elder daughter Ella, the child of his best friend and brother-in-law, whom Anwar and his wife adopted when her parents were murdered in Bangladesh for their political beliefs. Ella, a 20-year-old student at Cornell’s agricultural school who shares Anwar’s passion for plants, returns home at the beginning of the novel, whose first act takes place over her summer vacation.

When the novel switches to Ella’s point of view, we learn that she has been hiding two large secrets from her family for years: nightly hallucinations she has suffered ever since her parents’ murders and her relocation to the U.S., and a longtime crush on her straight cousin Charu, who thinks of her as a sister. Gradually, both character and reader slowly discover that Ella is also struggling with gender identity, and in the novel’s final movement, when many secrets are revealed, Ella adopts a new name and a male identity.

But for most of the novel, Ella and the other characters live in a state of confusion, never quite understanding themselves or each other. Anwar and his wife, Hashi, don’t realize that Charu’s omnipresent best friend, Maya, has run away from her strict Muslim father and is hiding at their house, having begun a chaste romance with Ella. The girls have no idea what Anwar’s sexual obsession with their tenant, Mexican nurse Ramona Espinal, is doing to their parents’ marriage. Anwar longs to share with Ella the horrors he and her birth father saw as guerillas in the 1971 war and also to share an important family secret, but can only commit his memories to writing. And as the tensions between devout Hashi and her rebellious daughter build to a boiling point, Charu drafts the resentful Ella into covering up her sexual adventures.

At its best moments, Bright Lines brings the chaotic Saleem household to life, allowing readers to understand the whole in a way none of its parts can. All three central characters—Anwar, Charu, and Ella—suffer from “misdirected love,” romantic obsessions that blind them to their real bonds. There’s also a recurring theme of hallucinations, which affects characters in addition to Ella. Anwar, who spends most of the novel high on hash or ganja (especially when he wants to connect with others), is haunted by visions of Ella’s murdered father, Rezwan. And the elusive Maya is named for the Buddhist concept of “man’s illusion, which kept him separated from the truth.”

Arguably the book’s main character is 111 Cambridge Place, the Saleems’ Brooklyn brownstone. In its beloved gardens, Anwar and Ella labor to create a lower clock, which will tell time as different flowers open and close at different times of the day. The house encompasses both Hashi’s hairdressing salon and optimistic Anwar’s expansive vision of home, sheltering (at least temporarily) the orphaned Ella, the runaway Maya, the immigrant Ramona, and Anwar’s divorced brother Aman. It symbolizes a generous vision of family and belonging, a vibrant and multiethnic Brooklyn, and perhaps America itself. 

But stories about the brownstone’s original inhabitants, the Brights, foreshadow disaster. Abraham Bright, a Black police officer whose house was attacked by his own community whenever other cops killed young Black men, eventually succumbed to madness after his wife’s tragic suicide. The Saleems’ harboring of Maya similarly isolates them within the Muslim community, and sets off a chain of events that may repeat that history.

Islam is especially skilled at portraying the setting, and her Brooklyn—a world apart from the gentrifiers Charu describes as “white women with strollers and tattooed brown queers with oversized glasses”—is a vivid place, where the lavender awning of Anwar’s Apothecary nestles between Ye Olde Liquor Shoppe and A Holy Bookstore. 

In the book’s last third, when the family travels to Bangladesh over winter break, the author economically evokes the country’s varied landscapes, from the sprawling city of Dhaka to the hills where the despised Pahari peoples live to the coast of Cox’s Bazaar. There the family sneaks into a graveyard at night (local mullahs will not allow women to visit openly) to see the graves of Ella’s parents, unmarked because the annual floods have destroyed their stones.

In Bangladesh, Ella at last confronts the illusions of her life—both the hallucinations and her female identity—and gains the strength to move forward as the trans man El. His relatives have similar epiphanies, but at greater cost.

The same could be said of the novel as a whole. Bright Lines bursts with characters, incidents and plot—so much so that the reader doesn’t know where to focus, and many characters and subplots feel underdeveloped. For much of the novel, El’s story, particularly his relationship with Maya, feels crowded out by other dramas. It makes sense that while El is disconnected from his true self, suffering insomnia and depression, he can’t properly connect to anyone else, but the sudden shift in focus to his identity and his relationship with Charu in the final 50 pages comes as a shock.

Maya, one of the most intriguing characters, remains a cipher for most of the story, which hurts the book, given the importance of her actions to the plot; the same could be said of Ramona. Charu, with whose perspective the book spends far fewer chapters than those of Anwar and El, feels under-explored, and perhaps dismissed as shallow due to her femininity; it’s unclear how her very different sexual awakening is supposed to connect or contrast with El’s. A few scenes in the point-of-view of Charu’s unscrupulous uncle, Stalin Bhai, are so extraneous they should have been cut. 

Other subplots—like Anwar’s desire to better understand his best friend, Guyanese marijuana dealer Reshaud Persaud, whom the reader and other characters know is a trans woman—fizzle out. Another subplot, about bigotry against the indigenous Pahari peoples of Bangladesh, concludes predictably, but lacks the space appropriate to the depth of its themes.

In the end, the book feels overstuffed. A great deal happens, but because much of the plot does not feel grounded in the characters, some events tip over into melodrama. Islam is adept at capturing daily life, but her writing weakens noticeably in action scenes, which include a firebombing, a suicide attempt, a deadly traffic accident, and a near-drowning. 

But this lack of focus, complicated by the density of symbolism, is a common problem in first novels, and the fact remains that very little fiction explores the experiences of young trans men, especially from a contemporary perspective, or those of Bangladeshi-Americans, or of more-or-less secularized cultural Muslims. 

Indeed, one of the great pleasures of the book is spending time with multi-faceted Muslims like Anwar, Charu, and El, who are all but invisible in American literature. Islam’s protagonists avoid religious services and use drugs and alcohol—yet live in a multiethnic Muslim community, recall Qur’anic surahs like poetry, and reach for faith in times of trouble, whether reciting a quick du‘a on forgetting a bicycle helmet or enacting funeral rites.

In other words, they have the same complex relationship to their religion, ancestral or present-day, that U.S. literature often assumes for Christians or Jews, but vastly simplifies for Muslims. Islam’s Bangladesh is as religiously complex as her Brooklyn; she notes the land’s Buddhist past, the Hindu victims of the 1971 genocide, and the persistence of Christianity, Hinduism, and tribal religious practice among the Pahari today, even as we feel the Muslim majority’s power.

Anwar, the son of an anthropologist who converted from Islam to Buddhism, is a non-believer who, like El, avoids religious services, but his devout wife Hashi wants to pass Muslim values on to their children. Boy-crazy Charu meets Maya, her North-African-American best friend, in a masjid Arabic class, and aggressively pursues extra-marital sex while designing a clothing line of “haute hijab.” They live their faith, or lack thereof, like real people.

The depiction of Islam is most complex and interesting in Maya, who prays five times a day, violates an Islamic taboo by getting a Qur’anic verse tattooed on her hip, wears hijab when she feels like it, and socializes with a mostly queer crowd. For most of the book, readers don’t understand why Maya has run away, and believe she is escaping the strict religion of her father, an Islamic cleric. Eventually we learn that Maya is fleeing the complicated family dynamics created by her mother’s lupus, forcing the reader to re-examine their own Islamophobic assumptions.

And while a certain melodramatic plot twist prevents El from sharing his trans identity with his adoptive parents, other events—including a touching scene in which Hashi gives still-feminine-presenting El a male makeover—leave little doubt that if he had, they would have accepted him, as other family members do.

Bright Lines invites comparison with Kim Fu’s For Today I Am a Boy, the acclaimed 2014 novel about a trans girl growing up as the only boy in a Chinese-Canadian family. Like Bright Lines, that novel is about a trans character in the complicated years before claiming a trans identity, and the intense dynamics of an immigrant family. But Fu, an exceptionally skilled writer, is able to focus on Audrey while showing how her three cisgender sisters react to the same family pressures. Islam’s lack of focus means that Ella’s story is often lost among others, until El emerges as the lead character in the final 50 pages. The novel’s chaotic variety of incidents makes it more similar to Felicia Luna Lemus’s 2003 Trace Elements of Random Tea Parties, in which a Mexican-American young adult grapples with her heritage and genderqueer identity—but that book is also more focused on its protagonist.

In her refusal to focus solely on El, Islam emphasizes the importance of family in Bangladeshi culture, which she shares with Bengal writers. It’s hard to read Bright Lines without thinking of Tahmina Anam’s masterful Bengal Trilogy, which chronicles three generations of a family in Bangladesh from independence to the present. Islam’s work, which explores how those conflicts reverberate decades later and thousands of miles away, is an intriguing addition to the growing shelf of Bangladeshi literature.

Bright Lines remains an absorbing, thought-provoking, flawed novel on an important topic which many, especially in the overlapping LGBT and Muslim communities, will be glad to read. The ambition displayed here suggests Tanwi Nandini Islam’s work is worth looking out for in the future.

Sarah E. Rowley lives in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. She is, among other things, a prolific reader and co-editor with Robyn Ochs of Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals Around the World. 

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