Immigrants have always been the genuine voice of the East End. The heart of the modern East End, stemming from Tower Hamlets to Newham, is home to second and third generations of the arrivals from Bangladesh, Somali and Africa, to mention a few. Yet their voices seem to be hidden from mainstream culture. Popular TV soaps, like EastEnders, are to blame for the whitewash.
Tony White has written a different narrative by giving a voice to the lives of young British Bangladeshis around Shadwell in Tower Hamlets. The story is of two young Bangladeshi women, Foxy-T and Ruji-Babes (their tag names), who run an internet and international phone call shop, and the impact on their lives of Zafar Iqbal who has just come out of prison.
Foxy-T, Ruji-Babes and Zafar grapple with the meaning of friendship and love in the context of few opportunities for people like them in the area. However, the significance of the novel is in the way the characters perceive, express and give meaning to their relationships and their lives in their own words. In order to do this Tony White, who is English, has attempted to reproduce the vernacular of young Bangladeshis – a hybrid of cockney, East London Caribbean patois and Bengali. The result is something more than the sum of its parts.
The whole of the novel is narrated using this language. We get a flavour of this in the description of the first encounter between Zafar and the two Bangladeshi women, Ruji-Babes and Foxy-T:
‘Tell the truth though he was more interested in them girls than just talk about himself innit. This Zafar was keen to know what they was doing here in him grandad flat and with there little business in E-Z Call. And they could tell he was a ghetto youth because of all him question them and the way he was slightly take the piss out of them but also keen fe check what kind of angle they was working.’
Although this kind of language may surround us, we are not used to reading it, and for this reason Foxy-T is a difficult book to get into for the first 30 – 50 pages. But the effort pays off as we immerse ourselves in this self-consistent inner world created by the narrator’s imagination.
Tony White attempts to portray the world of young people with a different culture to his own. Does he succeed? Some might think that the language is a simple parody. But if anything, given that Tony is not of the culture he portrays, he does an admirable job in conveying the language of the youth that I know and hear everyday in Shadwell; perhaps the only difference being that many East End youth will also break in and out of Bengali when speaking their English. This is the real sound of the East End, and it deserves to be recognised.
Foxy-T by Tony White is published by Faber.