Urban Transgression and the Female Flâneur: On Leesa Gazi’s “Good Girls”
By Torsa GhosalDecember 31, 2023
Good Girls by Leesa Gazi
The suffocating proximity of Lovely, Beauty, and their fiercely protective mother, Farida, in Bangladeshi British author Leesa Gazi’s debut novel Good Girls insinuates an uneasy dynamic analogous to that depicted in Sher-Gil’s painting. Farida has never permitted her daughters to leave home alone. The girls have received little education, and they have no friends.
Originally published in Bangla in 2010, the novel was translated into English by Shabnam Nadiya in 2020 and published by Westland Books imprint Eka under the title Hellfire; that translation is now available in paperback from Amazon Crossing under this alternative title. Novelist Gazi is also a filmmaker and playwright whose works powerfully depict women’s quests for selfhood and negotiations of agency. Her 2019 documentary Rising Silence follows women who survived sexual violence and mass rape during the Bangladesh Liberation War. The Bangladesh government has since labeled these women as “Birangana” (“brave women”), a euphemism that conveniently glosses over their wartime pain and trauma, as well as their continued suffering and stigmatization in liberated Bangladesh. In addition to her documentary, Gazi’s first feature film, Barir Naam Shahana (“A House Named Shahana,” 2023), chronicles the struggles of a divorced woman in 1990s Bangladesh. In Good Girls, Gazi taps into fraught mother-daughter and sibling relationships whose roiling emotions make for a disturbing psychodrama.
Good Girls unfolds over a single anomalous day in 2007, when the 40-year-old Lovely wanders the streets of Dhaka aimlessly, alone for the first time in her life. Her mother’s reasons for allowing this impossibility are unclear. Within the confines of her home, Lovely normally responds to Farida’s terrifying vigilance by acting as an obedient daughter. She shares a conflictual but not exactly hostile bond with her sister, Beauty, who is also their mother’s prisoner. But all three women guard dark secrets, and they are able to catch fleeting glimpses of one another’s turbulent inner lives only during rare moments of transgression. Gazi’s choice of limiting the third-person narrator’s access to each woman’s private motives in distinct segments of the novel effectively renders the intensifying mistrust in the household.
When Lovely ventures out of the house, her movements are encumbered not so much by the threat that strangers pose—unwelcome male gazes and sexual aggression—but by the fear of punishment from her mother should she fail to return home before the mandated curfew. Despite her apprehensions, however, Lovely welcomes the chaos of the busy metropolis. The Dhaka of Good Girls is unpredictable, seedy, and irresistibly fascinating. It can possess and overwhelm an inexperienced wanderer like Lovely. We wrestle with misgivings as she navigates the urban scene and the clock ticks away. But even as we worry for Lovely’s safety in the streets, Gazi does not grant us the comfort of wishing her a safe retreat home. Because Lovely is not safe at home: the dangers of home and the world bleed into each other, circumscribing the women’s desires and movements.
As a flâneur drifting through a great metropolis, Lovely has remarkable antecedents in literature. For the 19th-century poet Charles Baudelaire, the flâneur was a “passionate spectator,” an artist devoted to observing and sketching urban life. The flâneur strayed from home because he could feel at home everywhere; he delighted in seeing the world while remaining hidden himself. Through Walter Benjamin’s and Michel de Certeau’s philosophical writings, the flâneur has become synonymous with the transitory experience of modernity.
Flâneurs conduct embodied investigations into the changing conditions of urban life in numerous modern and contemporary novels, from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) to Teju Cole’s Open City (2011). But imagine the flâneur not as a poet, philosopher, or socialite but as a seemingly passive woman, one of the girls from Sher-Gil’s painting. Lovely is not a seasoned observer strolling through the city with indiscriminate curiosity; she is a naive wanderer whose sexual repression and limited access to society have roused wild yearnings for the shocks of city life. The city guarantees Lovely momentary respite from her mother’s controlling gaze, but while she relishes her freedom, we wonder how far she can go before her actions misfire.
The literature of wanderlust is not about sightseeing but rather subjectivation: meandering through the city precipitates self-realization. Race, class, and gender are among factors that shape the flâneur’s trajectories. Unlike male wanderers who can pass through crowds unnoticed, as Baudelaire would have it, female flâneurs are beset with the threat of being seen, drooled over, and assaulted. To distinguish themselves from streetwalkers, genteel women find proper excuses to venture out—the female flâneur is, thus, frequently a consumer. Clarissa Dalloway leaves home to buy flowers for a party; Gazi’s Lovely is let out on her birthday to purchase clothes. But excuses aside, Good Girls has little in common with fiction that contrasts the thrills of the outside world with the old prejudices and boring securities of home. Gazi has written a new kind of novel about female flânerie, one in which the dangerous liberties of the street function not as a contrast to but as an extension of the stifling and ominous private recesses in which women are locked up.
While worrying about whether a red fabric she bought from the market is too garish, Lovely recalls the lines of a poem: “This world made red by red. Oh, mother, your babe has been killed by the killer.” The lines are jarring given the innocuous context that has called them to mind, but they evoke the potential for violence lurking everywhere. It is telling that Lovely’s impulse purchase is a knife, and her near-ecstatic lust for the object is narrated with an unnerving sincerity. We are told that “[s]he hungered to touch the blade. […] As the knife slid from its sheath into her hands, the fierce blaze of winter sun streaked across the stainless-steel blade. The light splashed Lovely’s eyes and face like a lit sparkler. Such joy!”
The streets turn out to be violent and sleazy training grounds for Lovely. She is simultaneously an adventurer and a potential victim, a spectator and a spectacle. In Ramna Park, she notices how a “man having his ears cleaned was still staring at her, unblinking.” When the man smiles at her, she looks away. The next time a man approaches her, she considers, “What harm was there in looking? […] What could possibly happen?” As she gradually finds the courage to look unabashedly, she reads and interprets the man’s appearance (he seems respectable but foolish) and guesses his age (she decides he is younger than her). However, she is an unreliable assessor of threat, a subpar interpreter of the city’s text, due to her captive upbringing.
Lovely constructs and populates a mental world to compensate for what she lacks in real life. Her dilemmas and racy imagination find an outlet in a parenthetical voice identified as a “man in her head” who eggs her on to prolong her flânerie. But then, it’s not as if she is the only architect of an alternative reality in Good Girls. Her sister Beauty joins her to play make-believe games where they take on various roles. For her part, Farida imagines that “[s]he’d done everything necessary to create the veneer of a conventional life,” though her household is anything but conventional.
Although Lovely’s perspective is foregrounded, Gazi rotates points of view among the three women to bring their constructed worlds into collision. Farida’s need for control shines through her every thought and action. She is disappointed when the servants make delicious luchis because she wants to believe no one can cook like her. Farida has an overbearing drive to feel needed and indispensable. Living in a society that forces women to “absorb” misfortune without complaint, she is desperate to control whatever she can. When she lets her daughter out of her sight, she senses that “nothing was working perfectly” that November morning. So, as Lovely wanders, her mother inches toward a breaking point.
Some “day-in-the-life” novels delight in chronicling the minutiae of the everyday. They climax not in extraordinary events but in little epiphanies that may or may not transform their characters’ lives. Another type of novel focuses on a particular day, in order to induce tension that is released in a catastrophe. Gazi’s novel belongs in the latter category since the oppressive status quo portends its own combustion from the outset.
The experience of reading is not unlike flânerie in the sense that both processes present us with probable and surprising turns, as well as expected and chance encounters, and require us to navigate diversions and challenges that reconfigure our image of the world. Like walking through a bustling metropolis, following a story, as Paul Ricoeur notes in his 1991 essay “Life in Quest of Narrative,” “is a very complex operation” during which we are “guided by our expectations concerning the outcome of the story, expectations that we readjust as the story moves along, until it coincides with the conclusion.” As readers, we move towards what Ricoeur identifies as a “unity of intention.” A popular Bangla proverb—“Piprer dana gojae moribar tware,” which Nadiya translates as “An ant grows wings when it’s time to die”—surfaces as a refrain in Lovely’s mind as she strays and transgresses. The proverb forecasts a disastrous end for the audacious, exemplifying how conventionalized language such as cautionary sayings work to keep people in line. Like every remark on the passage of time in Good Girls, the proverb builds anticipation of a coming crisis: before the end of the day, before the end of the story, something disastrous will happen.
When that something does happen, it feels both startling and inevitable. There is no room for catharsis in the world of Gazi’s novel. We are left gasping as the final paragraphs plunge us into yet another uncomfortable spectacle and open the portal to a new phantasmagoria.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Torsa Ghosal talks with Sorayya Khan about her new memoir, “We Take Our Cities with Us.”
The author discusses her debut novel, “Border Less,” and the multiple artistic and cultural boundaries it straddles.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!