A stranger on a plane becomes a lifelong friend, and writing inspiration

Nell Freudenberger's new novel, The Newlyweds, was inspired by a mid-air encounter with a Bangladeshi woman on her way to change her life forever.

Nell Freudenberger is one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists and the author of one previous novel and a short story collection. Photo Courtesy David Jacobs
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We've all had them. Those strange, convoluted conversations with strangers on interminable plane journeys, embarked upon to pass the time. They are rarely the inspiration for sparkling novels. But when the award-winning author Nell Freudenberger struck up a polite conversation with a Bangladeshi woman on a 2006 flight to New York, she found her new acquaintance's life story was just as gripping as the book she was trying to finish.

"I happened to be reading The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh, which is set in the Sundarbans, near this lady's grandmother's house," Freudenberger explains. "I was flying home because my grandmother had just died, so we got talking. And we just connected. By the end of this flight she had invited me to meet her grandmother in Haibatpur. And I knew, almost immediately, that there was a story to write."

Her travel companion was Farah Deeba Munni, who was sitting beside her white American fiancé on the way to Rochester to begin their life together, after meeting on an internet marriage site. "This wasn't just a brave thing for a Bangladeshi Muslim to do," says Freudenberger, "it was completely unconventional. She was risking alienation from her entire family - although her parents were very supportive. And yet, the way in which they got together is not so different from how her grandparents' marriage was arranged decades ago."

And so not only did a lasting friendship begin, but a novel, too. Freudenberger, one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists and the author of one previous novel and a short story collection, embarked upon the story of Amina, who meets the engineer George Stillman online. After a brief courtship, she heads to Rochester to marry him, and The Newlyweds chronicles her struggle as a Muslim woman attempting to assimilate into suburban American life. When she returns to Bangladesh, ostensibly to bring her parents back to the US with her, Amina is faced with a dilemma which threatens to change the course of her life.

It's also where the book moves into wholly fictional territory, but Freudenberger still felt she needed Farah's seal of approval every step of the way.

"I'd asked her permission when I started writing, but when I told her I really did want to come with her to Bangladesh, I had my heart in my mouth. If she'd said no, then the book would have been in serious trouble. I knew that my character would go back to Bangladesh, but I didn't know what she would do when she got there, or what would be pulling her to stay. But I had to see the places. I wanted to meet the people. More than anything, actually, Farah wanted to ensure I got all the details about Islam correct."

Freudenberger says that Colm Toibin's recent Booker-shortlisted novel Brooklyn was a great inspiration, and the comparison is apt. Like Toibin's book, set in the US and Ireland, the driving force behind The Newlyweds is the emotional pull of two very different countries on its protagonist. In fact, such concerns are a feature of Freudenberger's work: Lucky Girls centred on the travels of American women in Asia, and The Dissidents is about a Chinese performance artist in Los Angeles.

"Perhaps that's how I explore my country, by putting people in places that are unfamiliar and seeing how they get on," she says. "I just find it fascinating that there is this sugared version of America that people in, say, Bangladesh might cling to, even though it disappeared years ago. In fact, it may never have actually existed at all."

And yet Freudenberger's writing is less about such big ideas as these than, as she puts it, "the small pieces of people's lives". Speaking of which, was there no point at which Farah thought the continued interest in her life was a bit, well, odd?

"Well, I don't think she found it as odd as it would be if I now said to you: 'I think you're the most interesting person I've ever met, and can we go and meet your grandparents?'," she laughs.

"Basically, I was panicked about whether she'd like it and relieved when she did. And, you know, I feel like I've achieved what I set out to do when I first had that feeling on the plane - that I could reflect a life and place so different from my own."

The American dream: Nell Freudenberger on the cliché of America

"In The Newlyweds, Amina is excited by the promise of coming to America, so I wanted her to find herself in a place which wasn't at all what she expected and see how she coped with it. So she lands in Rochester, which was once the home of Xerox, Kodak and Gannett and is now basically a ghost of its former self.

"But it's not just Bangladeshis hoping for a 'better life' who fall for these outdated images. I was being interviewed for an English newspaper recently and even the photographer remarked that it must have been so much fun to go to high school in America. But it's not all like Grease or Glee; the high school experience has been mythologised to a ridiculous extent.

"It was really interesting to hear Farah talk about the American shows she'd seen in Bangladesh, actually. One was The Fall Guy, which was really weird because my father is a screenwriter and did some work on that show. But even he would say that they were absurd visions of American life."

The Newlyweds (Penguin) is out now.

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