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Edexcel English IGCSE: An Unknown Girl by Moniza Alvi

Q4. How does the poet bring out the tensions in the speaker’s identity in ‘An Unknown Girl’?

You should write about the following:

  • the speaker’s thoughts and feelings while being hennaed;
  • the description of the bazaar;
  • the writer’s use of language techniques.

You should refer closely to the text to support your answer. You may use brief quotations.

Edexcel English IGCSE Model Essay by an Expert

Through the description of the bazaar and the speaker’s thoughts and feelings while being given a henna tattoo, the reader learns about the tensions between the speaker’s Indian and Western identities.

The description of the bazaar shows the speaker’s love for India, but also reveals her discomfort at being a Western ‘intrusion’ on the scene. Indian words such as “bazaar”, “hennaing” and “kameez” inform the reader that the poem is set in India, but there are also Western influences on the scene which are described as uncomfortably clashing with their setting. The neon lights “studded” the bazaar, implying violence, as the lights seem to penetrate the scene. The dummies with their “Western perms” are said to “tilt and stare”, which makes them sound eerie. This personification reveals the speaker’s self-consciousness. It is almost as though the dummies are staring in accusation, as she herself is a Western intrusion in an Indian scene. These perceived conflicts in the setting symbolise the tensions within the speaker’s multi-cultural identity.

The henna tattoo symbolises the speaker’s Indian identity, which she celebrates in this poem. She describes the tattoo as giving her “new brown veins”; this metaphor shows that she feels that receiving the tattoo is providing her with more of an Indian identity, as though the Indian culture is flowing in her blood. That this short sentence is on a line of its own shows the significance of this experience to the speaker. She speaks tenderly about the tattoo, describing the lines as “soft as a snail trail”; the combination of assonance and sibilance here create a gentle, reflective tone. She is clearly fond of her Indian identity, and enjoys its embodiment through the henna tattoo. The symbolic significance she assigns to the tattoo, however, suggests that she needs a physical reminder of her Indian identity to feel that it is truly part of her.

However, the tension arises as the speaker portrays the tattoo, and thus her connection to her Indian identity, as delicate and even fleeting. She is “clinging” to the tattoo, showing her desperation to keep hold of her Indian culture. The line, “It will fade in a week” contains simple, monosyllabic language, which creates a sad, regretful tone. This description reveals the tendency of her Indian connection to slip away over time. The poem concludes with the moving image of the speaker “with [her] hands outstretched” towards the memory of this experience. This shows that she is aware of how her memories of India, and thus her connection to her Indian identity, will fade over time.

The speaker is very attached to her Indian identity, but there is tension in her knowledge that she is not entirely Indian, and that this element of her identity will fade.

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