Monica Ali

[NOVELIST]

“THE PARADOX IS YOU DRAW ON YOURSELF TO CREATE SOMEONE WHO IS DIFFERENT FROM YOU.”
How to write an unfamiliar character:
Lose yourself
Smell their shoe leather
Dig into your own foulness

When Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane was published in 2003 to rapturous acclaim, commercial success, and many prize short-listings, it was possible for an ex-Londoner living in Berkeley to think the book sounded interesting, certainly, but also as though it was the right book at the right time. Here was a novel that, in its account of a Bangladeshi woman plucked from her village for an arranged marriage with an older man living in London’s East End, explored issues both timeless and timely: immigrants’ dislocation, the clashing of modern and traditional cultures and of secular and religious communities, and in particular the appeal of radical Islamist rhetoric for disaffected young Muslims living in an economically blighted part of the city.

When I read the novel itself, I (the ex-Londoner) was astonished by what an all-encompassing, imagination-absorbing, don’t-bother-me-I’m-reading experience it was. Falling into the fictional world Ali created in its pages was the best kind of falling: the textures of the places she described and the voices of the people she populated them with were vivid, human, true. The moment I was actually reading I ceased to think of Brick Lane as a novel that was making any sort of point about London, or Islamicism, or Muslim traditions, or Western society; I was simply reading a story of a group of characters who were by turns comical, pathetic, canny, rebellious, self-deluding, well-intentioned, angry, affectionate, resigned. There were, it seemed to me, touches of Naipaul’s Biswas in the portrait of Chanu, the paunchy, self-important husband, and various critics likened Ali to Jane Austen in her ability to create a social world out of whole cloth. But the creation of Nazneen, whose sensibility shapes the novel, is Ali’s particular triumph. Ali draws a brilliantly subtle, empathetic portrait of a woman who sometimes knows more than she has room to know in her contained life, and who ventures beyond the constraints placed on her to become the complicated, admirable woman she is by the novel’s end.

When I spoke with Monica Ali in London last autumn, it was toward the end of her tour for her second novel, Alentejo Blue. If Ali was under any pressure to replicate or produce a sequel to Brick Lane in her second book, this is nowhere evident; Alentejo Blue is different in most notable respects from Ali’s debut. The novel, which comes out in paperback next month, is set in the Alentejo region of Portugal (where Ali and her husband and children spend several months a year, most school holidays and summers), and is made up of stories of various characters who live in a small village there: the misanthropic English writer Stanton, trying to work on his Big Book; the outsize barman Vasco, polishing glasses, collecting gossip, trying not to eat too much cake; the young romantic, Teresa, who is hoping that by moving to London to become an au pair her life will take a dramatic turn for the better; and various other exiles, travelers, and natives, who are trying in their ways to keep themselves whole.

Ali and I met up recently in a wine and tapas bar in Herne Hill in south London, near her home. Over a couple of hours our talk ventured widely, to Uganda, Bangladesh, the Café Gratitude in Berkeley, the possibility of thinking about one’s novel while doing a jigsaw puzzle with one’s child, Melvyn Bragg’s bibulous interview with the painter Francis Bacon, and the writing of sex scenes.

—Sylvia Brownrigg

*

THE BELIEVER: You know, to the extent that there are characters who are more often written about and characters who are less often written about, it does seem that your attraction is to those who haven’t had as many pages devoted to them. And I don’t know if that’s a deliberate redressing, or more just a sort of native interest. Maybe you met a family a bit like that and thought, What would it be like—?

MONICA ALI: Writers write for all different sorts of reasons (though I guess we all share a love of words), and there is no onus on writers to write anything other than the truth about the world as they see it. If their interest is fairly close and narrow, and it’s about their shopping experiences, then that’s what they must write. I don’t hold some idea that all writing must be socially inquisitive. The freedom of the writer to write exactly what they want is entirely dominant for me.

Having said that, I think the gift of literature, what it gives us, as I said before, is an ability to walk in another person’s shoes. That’s what the writer does, and that’s what literature can give you when it’s really doing the best job that it can do. That is its heart, that is its moral purpose. To see the world from another point of view. That is something that would drive me to write. That is what fires me up.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Sylvia Brownrigg is the author of a collection of short stories, Ten Women Who Shook the World, and novels including Pages for You and, most recently, The Delivery Room (published by Picador UK). Her critical writings have appeared in a wide range of publications including the New York Times, the LA Times, the Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian (UK), and Salon.com.

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