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Home > Diversions
Moving beyond 
the fine print

The New York Times (Shivani Vora) / 3 August 2012

The hype over Fifty Shades of Grey aside, the novel to read this summer, whether it’s on the beach or during the commute to work, is The Newlyweds, by Nell Freudenberger. The American author, who is based in Brooklyn, tells the captivating story of Amina Mazid, a 24-year-old from Dhaka, Bangladesh, who meets an American man named George Stillman online and moves to Rochester, New York, to 
marry him.

Freudenberger, 37, is no stranger to the Indian subcontinent: she’s travelled extensively throughout the region and is also the author of Lucky Girls, which is a collection of five stories set in Southeast Asia and India. Only her first novel, The Dissident, which is about a Chinese artist who goes to live with a wealthy family in Los Angeles during a one-year residency, breaks from her now-trademark exploration of South Asia.

The young author, a Harvard graduate, has received recognition for her talent, including the PEN/Malamud Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship and inclusion in The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” fiction issue.

She spoke to India Ink recently about her latest book, her journey to Bangladesh to research it and her love for India.

Q. How did your interest in the Indian subcontinent begin?

A. When I graduated college, I went to Thailand to teach for a year, and after my gig was over, I went to visit a friend in India who was working there. We spent more than a month backpacking around the country. I landed in Calcutta, and we worked our way through Agra and Delhi and Naggar and parts of the Himalayas. Then we went back to Delhi and took an overnight train to Hyderabad and eventually ended up in Bombay. It’s the kind of country that when you go once, you want to keep going back because there is so much to see. I went back the following year to Delhi and spent two months teaching in the city.

Q. How many times have you been back in total?

A. I have been to India six times and Bangladesh once. The first three times in India was for a few months each, and after that I was always there on assignment for work and spent just a few weeks.

Q. Where did you get the idea for The Newlyweds?

A. It really came about by accident. I was going to Rochester to help my dad after my grandmother passed away, and on the plane there, I sat next to this woman from Bangladesh. We started talking, and she told me the story of how she had met her husband over the Internet and had recently arrived from 
Dhaka. I started e-mailing her and was fascinated by her story. It was so unconventional and brave for her to meet this man over the Internet, and I couldn’t imagine that all you knew was Dhaka and ended up in Rochester of all places, which in some ways was so provincial 
compared to Dhaka.

Q. The characters in the book, George and Amina, develop their relationship largely online. Do you think it’s possible to find love over the Internet?

A. Sure. It seems like everyone meets their spouse on the Internet these days. In a way, it’s a more scientific way to find love than in a bar.

Q. How much time did you spend in Bangladesh researching the novel?

A. I was there for two weeks and went with the woman I based the story on and her husband. Their plane got delayed because of a snowstorm so I actually arrived in Dhaka by myself, and her parents were there to meet me at the airport. They took me back to her apartment, and I went to sleep in her bed. Then we went to her grandmother’s village as well.

There are so many unusual things about her — she’s an only child, and her parents allowed her to marry in this way. And she comes from a tradition of your family arranging your marriage, but she arranges her own and that too, over the Internet.

Q. What were your impressions of Bangladesh?

A. Dhaka is overwhelming. It has that busy, rushed feeling of a big Asian city. Her grandmother’s village was absolutely beautiful. Everyone we met was friendly. You had a sense of this bucolic old way of life that’s being environmentally threatened because cyclones are becoming such a big risk there.

Q. Critics might say that it’s very difficult to write about the nuances in Indian or Bangladeshi culture without actually being Indian or Bangladeshi. What do you say to that?

A. I have anxieties about that myself, and whether I have done justice to Indian or Bangladeshi culture is not for me to judge. But I do think that if I wrote about myself — a 37-year-old mom from Park Slope with two kids — it would be incredibly dull.

Q. Do you have a favourite Indian restaurant in New York City?

A. I don’t really love Indian food. When I’m in India, I eat it obviously, but it’s not my great passion. I like South Indian food though.

Q. Do you have a plan for your next book yet, and does it take the reader back to Asia?

A. I hope I write a great book set in my neighbourhood so people can stop asking me why I have this fascination with India, but I am doubtful that will happen. Right now, I have no plans or ideas for a book. I have a four-month-old baby and can barely keep my head above water, but I hope to be brainstorming 
by September.

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