Sushi Das interviews Lesley Jørgensen, author of Cat & Fiddle
In 2011, Lesley Jørgensen won the CAL Scribe Fiction Prize for her debut, Cat & Fiddle, a multicultural, multigenerational portrait of marriage and culture clash in modern-day Britain. Here, she talks to Sushi Das about love, belonging and her own marriage into an Anglo-Bangladeshi family in England.
‘In Christian text, the focus on sexuality is battening it down. It’s really only acceptable in relation to procreation. But guidance set out by the Koran and Sharia law assumes sexual relations are not only for pleasure, but fundamental to the well-rounded human being.’ So says Lesley Jørgensen, her voice down the phone line unhurried and her words carefully chosen – much as you’d expect from a lawyer.
But Jørgensen isn’t explaining the two sides of a case she’s working on – she’s talking about her first novel, Cat & Fiddle, a book that explores the crossing point between East and West, that thing we have come to call culture clash. Indeed Cat & Fiddle is a corruption of ‘Catholic & Infidel’.
Essentially, the book centres on two families living in England – one is a Bangladeshi family with three adult children, and the other a well-to-do English family involved in the restoration of their inherited estate, Bourne Abbey. The lives of the book’s nine main characters become entwined as the intricate plot unfolds to reveal secret double lives, family expectations and the pressures exerted by class and religion, as well as the complexities of love, marriage and sexuality. Pride and Prejudice – Anglo-Bangladeshi style.
The Choudhury family’s two daughters, Rohimun and Shunduri, and son Tariq try to reconcile their parents’ Muslim expectations with their own desires, which are often laced with western influences. Rohimun, who is in an abusive relationship with an Englishman and grappling with her identity, is a family outcast. Shunduri, who looks to Posh Spice as a role model, has her heart set on a fairytale Bollywood wedding to a dodgy Bangladeshi boy. And Tariq, a handsome, ‘university-clever’ young man, struggles with his sexuality and sees the world in black and white. He temporarily goes ‘fundo’ – experimenting with Islamic fundamentalism and joining the mujahideen in Africa – as he works out who he is and where he belongs.
All the while, their mother, Mrs Begum, who personifies levity, is obsessed with organising their arranged marriages. She looks to the British royals as role models for answers to her family problems.
Nearby, members of the Bourne family, while they busily splash the cash to restore the abbey, come across an ancient discovery that connects the Bournes and the Choudhurys in a most shocking yet somehow pleasant way.
Undoubtedly, the author’s former marriage into a Bangladeshi family in England informs her understanding of the strong bonds and internal politics of South Asian families. Jørgensen’s depiction of the Bangladeshi characters in the book and their cultural norms is perceptive and convincing. In what must have been a test of strength, Jørgensen navigated her way through a divorce as she wrote the book.
Having been raised in a nuclear family, she says she had a ‘rose-coloured view’ of larger ones. She was attracted by the support they offered, but during her marriage of nearly ten years, she soon discovered large Asian families often came with pressure to ‘behave in a certain way’. She was emotionally overwhelmed by her former husband’s extended Bangladeshi family with all the ‘stories they tell about each other and all the different versions’. And somewhere within the family web, she found that pressure to behave in a certain way was actually ‘pressure arising out of love’.
Bollywood music, saris, henna rituals and Islam, as well as childhood memories of her mother’s family living near Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire, are all part of the fertile soil that Jørgensen tills to cultivate her characters. Perhaps it’s inevitable that she writes from the perspective of all nine characters.
‘There are a number of instances in Cat & Fiddle where you see the same event through the eyes of different people, and how they read things differently… The idea of there being equal value in everyone’s point of view was terribly important to me,’ says Jørgensen.
‘I think that comes from working in legal practice, the number of times you realise you’re dealing with competing truths, not just versions of events where one person is right and the other person is wrong. It often presents you with issues of personal morality.’
At the heart of the book lies community: escape from community, the constraints of community and the loss of and longing for community. The characters, who are all ‘on the outer in some way’, as Jørgensen puts it, yearn to belong. ‘In modern Western life we’re divorced from not just the extended family, but a stable community,’ she says.
‘You need other comparators, whether you’re going through divorce, childbirth, pregnancy, losing weight or whatever. A hundred years ago you would ask, how did Mrs Jones down the road deal with that? How did auntie so-and-so deal with that? These days we don’t have that same network, so we look to the Kardashians or the royal family or someone else we feel we know through the media. I find it annoying when social critics say it’s all just tabloid press, because it’s supplying a need that the community is no longer supplying.’
The judgemental and unbending character, Tariq, is particularly aware of the void inside him. He is neither Anglo nor Desi (slang for South Asian). As Jørgensen writes in the book: ‘He needed a community, and a system of belief. He was nothing, less than nothing, without that.’
He is forced to question himself: ‘Was he a traitor or a martyr? Anglo or Desi?’ In much the same way his sister Shunduri seeks to bridge a generational gulf: ‘She was floating between the two worlds: of the aunties and tradition and arranged marriages; and the Desi world of the girls she had come to visit.’ She finds herself ‘lost somewhere in between… Purgatory’.
Ultimately, one wonders if Jørgensen herself is caught between two worlds. Having been a part of, and then divorced from, her Bangladeshi family, is she feeling a void where community once existed?
Sushi Das is The Age newspaper’s opinion editor and author of *Deranged Marriage*.