‘It would be great if writers are judged on their writing and not what people think’: Monica Ali
Brick Lane author Monica Ali on her recent visit to Bangladesh, expectations and assumptions people have from a woman of colour and what her forthcoming novel has in store for readers
BANGLADESH-born British writer Monica Ali, created a sensational buzz in the publishing world even before her debut novel, Brick Lane, was out in 2003. She was named as one of the ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ by Granta magazine based on her unpublished manuscript and later when the novel – about a Bangladeshi woman living in London – was released, it received positive critical reviews and was even shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Interestingly, she took to writing only after the birth of her son and since then she has published three novels, Alentejo Blue (2006), In the Kitchen (2009) and Untold Story (2011). Recently, she was in India for Tata Lit Live! Festival (Mumbai) and spoke about her recent visit to Bangladesh, her process of writing and her forthcoming novel that is expected to release soon. Excerpts:
Q: How was it visiting your own country after so many years?
I didn’t know what to expect, I was excited and nervous and I didn’t know how will I be received. It was a really big deal for me after all those years away. I was just overwhelmed with their kindness, hospitality and the genuine interest and engagement, I loved every minute of it... It was fantastic.
Q: How lovely! Let’s go back to what made you write your first novel, Brick Lane? What served as an inspiration for this novel?
A lot of things. Nazneen, who is the main character in the novel, is a girl from rural Bangladesh. She doesn’t speak English, gets married and moves to London. My mother, who was a Britisher, experienced the opposite. She moved to Dhaka to be with my father without knowing the language, culture or religion. She faced a sense of social and cultural dislocation. When I was listening to her story of cultural defamiliarisation, in a strange way, I started thinking about the character Nazneen. So, this was like a trigger.
Another thing is this idea of a person who may walk past a brown woman in London without giving her a second thought or looking into her inner complexities. I wanted to explore that.
Q: You started writing after giving birth to your first child. Is there a connection between the two?
Yes, there is… My firstborn was a terrible sleeper which turned me into an insomniac to some extent and I ended up using the time constructively and that’s how I started writing.
Q: Any plans of writing a sequel to Brick Lane?
I don’t have any plans as of now but I never say never... I sometimes find myself wondering what would have become of her teenage daughters, Shahana and Hasina? What they would be doing? Would they have ever gone back home? Who did they marry? Where would they live? All these questions come to me.
Q: Can you please take us through your process of writing?
It’s much easier to research than write. And then it’s important for me to put my notes away and not try to cram every bit of my research into the writing. So, I write in fragments, put ideas into the storyline, but I don’t start writing the entire thing until I can hear the characters talk.
Q: Did you face any challenges because of your identity, a South Asian Muslim?
Yes and yes! I grew up in the 70s in North Avenue in London, a front for the far-right Nazi party, and how could it not affect me? Of course, it did.
Q: And, do people have any expectations from you as a writer because you’re from Bangladesh?
I’ve written and talked about that in the UK. It is this idea that as a writer of colour, you’re there to represent your community.
It is assumed that you don’t contain much juice and you’re just voicing your authentic and heavy emotions and you are not as creative, imaginative, hardworking or dedicated as other writers may or may not be... It would be great when the writers are judged on their writing and not what the other people think.
Q: Lastly, tell us about your upcoming novel? When is it coming out?
I’m very superstitious about talking about an upcoming book. But it is contemporary, set in London and is a drama between two very different families.
I have finished a draft, I hope to finish the manuscript by next year.