Locating Hotel as a Postmodern Trope of Homelessness and a Microcosm of Segregationist Society of London in Monica Ali’s In the Kitchen


Shafayat Hussain Bhat and Amandeep Singh


Shafayat Hussain Bhat is enrolled as Ph.D. Research scholar in the department of Languages and Comparative Literature, Central University of Punjab since January 2016 and has also completed MPhil from the same university in 2015. His Ph.D. work is concerned with diasporic fiction and the title of his thesis is Spatial Dynamics of Home and Identity: A Comparative Study of Selected Diasporic Fiction.

Dr. Amandeep Singh is currently working as Assistant Professor in Punjabi under School of Languages, Literature and Culture at Central University of Punjab, Bathinda. His major interests include diasporic fiction, ecocriticism and spatial concerns in literature.



Hotel as a space of temporary stay represents the site of displacement, fluidity and homelessness, characteristics which are at the centre of debates in postmodern geography. Monica Ali’s In the Kitchen (2009) is a postmodern spatial investigation of a metropolitan city like London which is metonymically represented in the microcosm of the Imperial hotel in the novel. This article attempts to locate the hotel as a spatial metaphor fitting into the postmodern assertions of multiplicity, fluidity and a mobile space. In the Kitchen maps the segregationist spatiality of Britain and an unequal and disempowering spatial pattern which is evidently manifest in the spatiality of the hotel. The basement of the hotel, where immigrant workers of the hotel reside presents a dreary picture of oppression and exploitation. While the hotel stands for a postmodern notion of a home, the void created by the absence of a conventional home is filled by spaces of exploitation and marginalization. Those who have landed at the shores of Britain in the hope of a new home have been confined to the underbelly of seemingly cosmopolitan centre of London, rendering them both homeless as well as invisible to the outer world.

Keywords: Diaspora, Home, Hotel, Space, Spatiality, Postmodern Geography.

     The idea of a hotel, though hundreds of years old, fits perfectly into the postmodern assertions of fluidity, arbitrariness, and an antithesis to the modernist notions of fixity and rootedness. It is a space that reflects the tensions between the idea of a conventional home and globalised world of travel and flux. It is a contested space that refuses to be categorised as a public or private space. This study is prompted by the need to explore the conditions of the marginalized class of immigrants who, because of homelessness are caught in the vicious cycle of exploitation.

     Monica Ali’s In the Kitchen (2009) provides an opportunity to explore the underworld of misery and exploitation as it is set mostly in and around the Imperial hotel in the novel. Since this study keeps its focus on the spatial dynamics of the immigrant experience, insights from thinkers on human geography will be used to better understand the issues. Analysing immigrant experience from a spatial perspective sheds light on the hitherto underexplored prevalent spatial structure of a cosmopolitan space like London, which is home to people of diverse backgrounds. The seemingly innocent spatiality lends cover to an embedded power structure and vicious segregation on which the capitalist model of economy thrives.

     In the Kitchen (2009) takes up the issues faced by migrants from different parts of the world and the hostile treatment meted out to them by the host country Britain. Monica Ali has used the microcosm of a kitchen and the basement of a hotel as a spatial metaphor to foreground the condition of invisible and alien immigrants. Though there are numerous immigrant characters from various backgrounds, the novel primarily revolves around the character of Gabriel Lightfoot, who is chef of the hotel named Imperial Hotel and has a dream of his own hotel. A death in the basement of the hotel exposes the dangerous conditions in which immigrants live. Ali has chosen basement of the kitchen as setting of the novel to show how these immigrant workers who speak different languages are underpaid and are involved in daily deadly fights. Hotel as a trope is a space where multiple transnational languages, cultures and identities interact and converge with each other. Ali analyses London as a cosmopolitan, postcolonial city to expose the spatial hegemony and segregation prevalent there.

     In his influential book Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory, Edward Soja remarks that, “Space in itself may be primordially given […] the organisation and meaning of space is a product of social translations, transformations and experiences” (80). Cities and towns or for that matter any residential areas do not evolve naturally into their present form, but they are deliberately designed in a way to create and sustain a model of space which is responsible for producing an unequal society. Such a spatial structure creates a division of centre and margins and those who are constructed as inferior on the basis of race, class, gender or any other disempowering category are pushed to the margins. Edward Soja in his book Postmodern Geographies disapproves the myth of linear narratives which emphasise the historical and progressive notions favouring time and giving space little significance (2). Soja acknowledges the contribution of Henry Lefebvre who revolutionised the category of space as a form of analysis to challenge the historical imagination which had discouraged any critical insight towards spatiality of life. For example, Lefebvre in his book The Production of space (31) refused to analyse or see city as a progress from industrial to post-industrial state as a historical fact. Rather he believed that the city was a web of complex spatial relations whose fragmented composition can only be understood by analysing its spatiality or spatial relations.

     Monica Ali’s In the Kitchen (2009) is a case study for unravelling a constructed space and a spatial structure, where some live at the centre and many are pushed to the margins as disempowered lot. In the Kitchen is set in London and its action mostly unfolds in the kitchen of The Imperial hotel. She has chosen the kitchen of a hotel as the setting of her novel with a purpose to delve deep into a crisis that affects the lives of immigrants both legal and illegal. At the heart of this crisis is the lack of a home for people who have arrived in London from different places of the world. Kitchen as a spatial metaphor helps us capture the real essence of immigrant experiences. “In the novel, the hotel is a place of poignant antithesis where global, mobile, and affluent elites and the global, mobile and impoverished ‘invisibles’ intersect. At the same time, the hotel functions as the most obvious emblem of the nation” (Theodotou 13).

     Hotel is a place that signifies homelessness and also a place where many homeless immigrants in the form of cooks and chefs find a temporary home. Ali’s focus on the immigrants who work in the kitchen of the hotel helps us understand the acute sufferings of the immigrants who are relegated to marginal spaces and rendered invisible. Hotel acts as a temporary shelter for people and it cannot be called a home in the real sense of the word. “For Postmodernists the collective identity of homeland and nation is a vibrant and constantly changing set of cultural interactions that fundamentally question the very idea of home and host” (Cohen 127). The number of immigrants who have come to England and continue to come in have challenged the inward looking and exclusive notions of home and identity. In the Kitchen is a postmodern critique of the autochthonic narratives of home and space: narratives that project home as an originary and primordial entity of a native community. The Imperial hotel is an intersection where those who have been dispersed and those with “indigenous” claims meet and disrupt each other’s identity notions.

     Looking at the kitchen of his hotel, Gabriel, an English Chef can see a cosmopolitan environment thriving there but at the same time he cannot overlook the living and working conditions of these people working in his hotel. “What a place, thought Gabe, looking away at the grilled and bolted backdoor and the barred and lightless window. What a place: part prison, part lunatic asylum, part community hall” (14). The kitchen provides space to all the immigrants to preserve and practise their respective identities, without lending space to any particular identity to establish any kind of primacy over other identities. The space of the kitchen does not project any particular identity on the basis of class, race or any other category but promotes a cosmopolitan culture where each individual respects every other individual’s language and culture. What keeps them together is a shared responsibility to their work and not any national identity. But Gabriel’s description of the place as prison depicts the larger picture of beleaguered immigrant lives. These workers, who come from different countries of the world, even do not know each other very well. They are involved in quarrels, deadly fights but their world remains unknown to the outside world. It is a kind of underworld that Monica Ali has chosen to write about to explore its dynamics. “The colonial, postcolonial and neo-colonial cartography of the city of London is metonymically contained in the space of the hotel’s kitchen, where a number of workers of very different nationalities – from porters to cooks, from the commis to chefs – meet” (Pereira 1).

     The issue at the heart of the novel is “about a nation which needs to rework its model of space” (Jain 12) to include those who are racially marginalized. Jasbir Jain’s observation on the need to rework the model of space captures the central message of Ali’s In the Kitchen. The need to ‘rework the model of space’ stems from the need to include ‘others’ in the spatial fabric of the nation which is home to both natives as well as those who have arrived or have been brought to England due to various reasons and compulsions. Monica Ali employs the hotel as a “symbol of the transient condition of contemporary nomad and migrant selves and of advanced capitalism and its forms of exploitation” (Paganoni 207). Kitchen of the hotel bears testimony to the exploitation of the disenfranchised class of the millennium. That the hotel is involved in two illegal scandals of prostitution and human trafficking comes as a shock to Gabriel. Gabriel’s search leads him to the unknown and invisible ugly side of Britain through the microcosm of the Imperial hotel. A number of immigrants working in the hotel are held hostage and in bonded labour by snatching away their documents and are forced to work on low wages. Lena, who Gabriel meets after Yuri’s death is an escapee from the prostitution mafia run by people associated with the hotel where Gabriel works. Through her Gabriel comes to know about a larger network of human trafficking and prostitution in which poor immigrants are pushed forcibly. What comes as a shock to Gabriel is that many people he knows and work in the hotel are involved in such scandals and that politicians like Fairweather express helplessness about such things points to political acquiescence in such matters.

     Hotel as a spatial metaphor is quite relevant to the depiction of immigrant experience of those who suffer from homelessness. While those who work in the hotel, find a temporary home, yet this space is riven with death and gloom. The issue of home in the novel can be analysed from three angles. The first is homelessness of the immigrant workers and their exploitation at the hands of influential people. Second, Gabriel who is a native Englishman also suffers from a similar crisis of home and identity much like his multicultural staff of hotel kitchen. Having lived in many places and experienced different cultures, he also identifies himself with the condition of his workers. Third, home can be analysed at the level of the nation which is England. All these three angles can be understood by locating hotel as a spatial metaphor of postmodern geography.

     Hotel acts as a microcosm of the larger society of London which is the global centre of migration and capital. Hotel is a place that signifies homelessness and temporariness. “Ali’s novel exploits the liminal and fluid setting of the hotel, a mutable and culturally constructed mixture of representation and physical form” (Paganoni 206). By choosing a native as principal character to depict the conditions of immigrants and changing spatial scenarios throughout the world and particularly in Britain, Monica Ali lends more credibility to her narrative. Through Gabriel’s eyes we witness the change that has taken place in the spatial composition of London. The novel shows the constant challenge to the exclusive notions of Britishness and how Britain is a home to not only white British people, but people of multiple ethnicities and races and immigrant communities. Gabriel’s kitchen is full of people who have left their home and homelands behind for a new home in the UK, but they have been contained in spaces that block their attempts at becoming part of the host country. These workers like Nikolai (Russian), Lena (Belarusian), Oona (Caribbean), Olek (Ukrainian), Benny (Liberian), Victor (Moldovan), Suleiman (Indian) are all without a home. He often talks to them about their countries and their homes and such talks make him aware about his own home and identity. When he asks Benny whether he had someone waiting for him at home, he says that it depended on what he meant by home. So he in a way frees the concept of home from its territoriality, laying it open to multiple meanings. Everyday practices of making home in Britain also reflect access to resources and documentation. Those who are asylum seekers or undocumented migrants have limited access to homemaking practices (Binaisa 52). So, for someone like Benny, home is neither in Liberia, where he comes from and nor in London, where he is staying.

     Death of Yuri in the basement of the hotel, a space which is referred to as catacombs, a spatial symbol for the dead, points towards the larger living conditions of immigrants in the British society and how they are viewed. The ‘catacombs’ which is a resting place for the likes of Yuri is a kind of subterranean space where they must retire after their work to remain invisible to the outside world. The economy of Britain is dependent on the likes of Yuri, who burn their blood to keep the engine of economy going, yet they cannot be accepted outside in the spatial mainstream and must remain hidden in the underground. These illegal immigrants who remain hidden due to police actions get trapped in the networks of bonded labour and human trafficking. The question that arises is; what makes this class of immigrants undesirable to belong to the spatial mainstream? What is it that debars them imagining their host country as their home? The answer lies in unravelling the definition of home and the narrative that shapes the notion of home in a larger context. Rosemary George states that, “national subjects/citizens who are in the process of formulating or reformulating a new national identity for themselves and for fellow citizens culturally create and recreate home as vigorously as do diasporic peoples” (561). Rosemary’s remark brings attention to the politics of creating a home whether in settler countries or in diasporic context. In both the contexts, the process involves a complex set of negotiations that paves the way for formulation of a home that may be found on the premises of inclusion and exclusion. In the Kitchen basically revolves around this provision of home as a space of inclusion and exclusion. It analyses home in the larger context of the nation, which is bound to leave some people on the outside.

     Susheila Nasta in her book Home Truths: Fictions of South Asian Diaspora in Britain quotes Caryl Phillips to throw light on the notion of home in British context. She quotes Caryl Phillips as,

The once great colonial power that is Britain has always sought to define her people, and by extension the nation itself, by identifying those who don’t belong. Thus, many black or Asian immigrants and their descendants in the post-war period who did not conform to the predominant image of white cultural acceptability felt that they had no place or space to express their relationship to the dominant narratives of British life. (3)

     Monica Ali addresses the issue of home in the larger context of the nation which in this case is England. There is a fear and anxiety that the outsiders are outgrowing in numbers and changing the very fabric of their country and culture. The immigrants are not only affecting a physical change in the surroundings but are also making an influence on the local culture as well. The local populace wants to maintain a kind of distance from the outsiders. They believe that too many immigrants have polluted their way of life. “The Howarths moved into number 17. You can breathe a bit up here said Howarth. I have got nowt against ‘em but who wants to smell curry seven o’clock in the morning to eleven o’clock in the night […] breed like rabbits n all” (69). It is this other perspective that mostly lacks in other diasporic narratives. Monica Ali gives us a thorough insight into the home of an English family as well. Their concerns and apprehensions regarding the changing demography are vividly described. At the centre of this narrative lies a fear of the ‘other’. Jopi Nyman sees Ali’s novel as an attempt “for the need to replace nationalisms with cooperation and mutual acceptance” (Nyman 101). But as Caryl Phillips remarks above, Britain as a nation defines itself by excluding those who do not fall within the premise of ‘white culture’.

     Nana’s concern about Asians especially Muslims taking over the place shows that she feels her home and homeland are under threat from outsiders. She believes in a home that is fixed and unchangeable, not recognising the change that is inevitable. “These whatsits, Muslims, there’s no understanding them, is there? I mean, we‘ve took them in. we’ve them a home […] Mug shots, terror plots, training camps, grainy videos…what’ve we done to them? And we have to check under our beds every night. Not safe, none of us. Are we? Not safe in our own beds” (390). Gabriel’s grandmother Nana is one such character in the novel who always feels that their homeland and country are being taken over by immigrants. She refers to incidents that have actually not happened in reality. She suffers from memory loss in her old age and imagines things that have not actually happened. For example she believes that someone’s house was overtaken by immigrants from Pakistan. “The whole attic said Nana in an ecstasy of indignation, was full of Pakistanis”. Nana imagines things that don’t happen in reality. It is her mental illness that makes her concoct imaginary happenings. Ali seems to have on purpose such concerns expressed by a character who suffers from dementia, to render them unfounded and merely speculative.

     As Avtar Brah remarks that in diaspora space, both immigrants as well as those who claim to be natives are on the same plane and are no different from each other and this holds true in case of Gabriel. Gabriel’s experience and his later crisis also stems from the fact that he has lived in many places across the world and this transnational experience has impacted him accordingly. “Gabe had worked in places where porters came as a job lot, the first getting along a cousin who recommended a brother-in-law who also brought his friend. Before you knew it, there was gang of them, and that only spelled trouble ahead” (99). Gabriel is production of the transnational experience, a globalised world where everything from capital, labour, technology, culture, crime etc. travel from one part to the other part of the world. Gabe at times feels like the people who are working in his kitchen. He too feels without a home and suffers from an identity crisis. For instance, when he once observes his flat where he lives, he feels a strong sense of homelessness.

Back in the sitting room he paced steadily. The more he looked at the furniture, the less familiar it felt. The hard green sofa belonged in a waiting room, the black chaise was hideous, the lacquered shelves were empty and the white-cube coffee table was pretentious beyond belief. Who would want to live here? Who could call this place a home? (433).

Having lived away from Britain for so many years, Gabriel faces a crisis in imagining Britain as his only home. Any individual such as Gabriel whose ideas and identity have been shaped by a transnational experience would exhibit similar tendencies of identity crisis and homelessness. As Avtar Brah says, “home is where you are from, but it is also what you move towards socially, politically and psychically. It is not a fixed node, but a moving signifier constructed and transformed in and through social practices, cultural imaginaries, historical memories and our deepest intimacies” (“Some Fragments” 173). This gives home a subjective twist which has psychic and social composition. Gabriel is a modern mobile individual who is uprooted despite living in his homeland, completely disoriented and struggling to make sense of home. He empathises with his workers who are homeless and feels one like them. “Transnational practices are often conceptualized as being carried out across spaces, excluding the possibility of attachments to specific places” (Sheringham 61). So, it is quite natural for Gabriel to not to feel at home in Britain only as his transnational experience also cuts across spatial boundaries of home.

The new world that Gabriel Lightfoot enters is one of unhomeliness: traditions no longer secure a sense of identity for its inhabitants […] In The Kitchen shows that contemporary globalization and its effects demand a reassessment of Britishness […] the novels vision of Britishness forces us to think the role of nation as a source of identification (Nyman 213).

     Gabriel like his multicultural staff in his kitchen also faces the dilemma of identity and belonging. Unlike his white chauvinist father, he never identified himself with the milling town of Blantwistle, the place of his birth and an epitome of an England that promotes whiteness as the essence of British identity that is struggling to keep the narrative intact. Gabriel’s father Ted mourns the fact that the homogeneous British identity has been displaced by a more inclusive and heterogeneous identity formation. Gabriel responds by inviting Ted’s attention to the kitchen of his hotel which is plural and cosmopolitan and represents every part of the earth. “You should see my kitchen, Dad. I’ve got every nationality in there and everyone gets along” (242). Gabriel is a product of the contemporary London, which is a centre of global flows in the form of people and capital. As Doreen Massey in her article ‘Geographies of Responsibility’ asserts that, “it might be argued that London/Londoners have begun to assume an identity, discursively, within self the self-conception of the city, which is precisely around mixity rather than a coherence derived from common roots” (3-4).  In his interactions with his father, he points towards the kitchen of his hotel as an example of multiculturalism and coexistence, even though there are serious limitations to what he refers to as a space of mutual living. The notion of home is still tied to a nativist discourse which renders so many people homeless despite living in a place for centuries.



By choosing to keep hotel at the centre of her narrative, Monica Ali has attempted to depict the disruptive postmodern spatiality which is characterised by flux and mobility. The focus of the novel remains on the space and place, the politics and the power relations that are embedded in the spatial structure of a society. Issues depicted in the text are visualised through concrete geography that is shaped by the narratives of race and is also confronted by the new realities of globalisation and immigrant arrivals. The hotel reflects the tension between the conventional home and forces of globalisation. The town of Blantswistle and the kitchen of the Imperial hotel are two cartographic representations of the segregationist as well as the changing spatial dynamics of England. The Imperial hotel serves as a kind of mirror of Britain as a nation, where two worlds exist side by side but spatially segregated from each other. Ali’s novel espouses the cause of heterogeneous communities and the space of kitchen is a rebuttal to the homogenous majoritarianism. The multicultural space of the kitchen of the hotel stands for the changing spatial dynamics of Britain. It is now a home to not just the white British but to those as well who have landed at its shores as immigrants in search of a new life. Ali’s novel is a compelling narrative for the need to recognise the ‘other’ as an indispensable part and to recognise their rights to call Britain as home. It challenges the autochthonic claims of home or narratives of identity based on tribal notions and exclusive premises of whiteness in the contemporary transcultural and transnational world. She does this by placing these discourses within the spatial rhetoric of transcultural and diaspora space. She situates her novel in the space of the hotel, especially in its kitchen, to portray the diverse life and people of multiple nationalities struggling to make their way into the fabric of British society. These unacknowledged and unwanted immigrants are spatially confined to the subterranean world and Ali tries to give voice to them. The Imperial hotel stands as a symbol for Britain which has lost its past glory even though it still exists to exercise control over its multicultural staff that Gabe calls “United Nations task force”.



Works Cited

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