Arts & Life

Lately in Literature: From colonialism to the 21st century in Natasha Brown’s ‘Assembly’

May 30, 2022, 9:31 p.m.

I boarded the 14-hour flight back home for spring break with just one backpack. I had fit a coat in the bag for the snowy weather that would welcome me once we landed. With the coat, my laptop, all the documents you have to carry as an international student and hand sanitizers, I didn’t have a lot of space left — but I had to have a book. I managed to fit Natasha Brown’s 112-page debut novel, “Assembly.” Don’t let the novella’s brevity deceive you, because those 112 pages were enough for Brown to convey a compelling story, disheartening yet relatable for far too many people.

“Assembly” is the story of its Black, British narrator, an Oxbridge graduate who works at a finance firm. The novel captures a critical period in her life where disruptive moments, both good and bad, come one after the other. She receives a promotion and is bombarded at the firm by comments of being a “diversity hire.” At the same time, she gets invited to her boyfriend’s parents’ garden-party and encounters the life of the white and rich like never before. Despite having known how much of a difference privilege can make in one’s life, walking into a world vastly different from hers makes this reality especially tangible. On top of everything, she is diagnosed with cancer and has to make a decision regarding her treatment. Although this sudden revelation is likely to immediately panic readers, the narrator’s response is more emotionally ambiguous — it reads as if this disease is not a shocking revelation, but rather part of the many struggles she’s been dealing with forever.

The book opens up with the narrator giving an influential speech to school children. She had grown up in dire circumstances in a country that never treated her as one of its own, but had made it to a prestigious school and now a prestigious position at work. Higher social class had given her a platform — a voice that certainly did not feel like her own — and now she feels pressured by the expectation to inspire others to be like her, too.

“How many women and girls have I lied to? How many have seen my grinning face advocating for this or that firm, or this industry, or that university, this life?” Brown writes, portraying the narrator’s internal conflict as she inspires kids to build their future. Yet she knows the future she is preaching is far detached from her own skin.

Brown voices the narrator’s frustration with having to abandon her roots to progress in social class. While the narrator feels she has to make this progress — she finally has the opportunities that her ancestors did not — she is guilt-ridden for losing crucial parts of her identity by blending into a different culture. Her guilt only grows as she is asked to make school children follow her own footsteps. She realizes the absurdity of advising kids to live life as if it’s a fight for reputation and class, a wicked game of snakes and ladders.

I don’t believe Brown’s aim with the novella was to expose a deeply corrupt system, but to show the painful experience of being assimilated into a culture. She crafts a protagonist who is slowly disintegrating within a world that demands her labor, only to add to a system that further oppresses her. Our narrator feels how she is losing a piece of her identity to make it out in the world. “I am what we’ve always been to the empire: pure, fucking profit. A natural resource to exploit and exploit, denigrate, and exploit,” writes Brown.

The narrator calls this experience a “crushing objecthood” and her own “dehumanization.” The assimilation, like her cancer, spreads and takes over her body. Her cells turn against her; her body becomes her rival. The experience echoes the way her identity shifted to fit the expectations of others, how her persona deviated to belong in an artificial big-corp culture, how she worked to please a government that did not value her. Despite being British, she faces the reality of being considered “the other” by her own people as a result of her race, a phenomenon Aimé Cesaire coined as “thingification” while describing the life of colonized people.

“I am talking about societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out,” writes Cesaire in the “Discourse on Colonialism,” published in 1955. We can see how the loss he describes, experienced by colonized people, is relevant today for generations of people grieving over their loss of culture and facing the same racist rhetoric.

“Dissolve yourself into the melting pot. And then flow out, pour into the mold. Bend your bones until they splinter and crack and you fit.” writes Brown.

The narrator is so appalled by this demand to ascend that her clear frustration reflects in other parts of her life, such as her relationship and her cancer treatment. Brown presents her audience with a question the narrator has been grappling with; before the readers get the chance to take it in, however, the narrator has already come to a conclusion.

To me, the book’s brevity is purposeful and appropriate. The narrator’s mind is set and it doesn’t take too many pages to convey her thoughts. As her reality is exposed, readers will be able to understand why her final decision in the book was quick, easy and unequivocal. In so few pages, Brown establishes her protagonist, immerses the readers in her life and crafts a farewell that allows the protagonist to regain agency and detach herself from the expected narrative of upward movement. Although the ending feels abrupt and the novel is short, it conveys that one does not need any more words to reflect people’s need to escape from a society that has forever exploited their labor and abolished their identities. 

Throughout, Brown’s prose stands out for its brevity and clarity; however, there are also chapters in which she is more lyrical. She provides small yet vivid descriptions of setting to convey the protagonists’ phenomenological experience and writes brief streams of consciousness that read like poetry. With a clear and compelling prose, Brown’s debut called to be finished in one setting and left me wondering — as an international student about to land in a city that still felt like a stranger’s home — how much I belonged or could ever belong there. No matter how different each reader’s experience from the protagonist can be, “Assembly” will leave all its readers questioning borders, discrimination and belonging. It is a must-read for those trying to comprehend the ongoing effects of a colonial past.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

Leyla Yilmaz '25 is a writer for the Arts & Life section. She is from Istanbul, Turkey and a prospective Biology major who enjoys frequent trips to the bookstore and collecting cacti. Contact the Daily's Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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