Portrait of Monica Ali

In Monica Ali’s Worlds

C. S. Bhagya

In this e-mail interview with C. S. Bhagya, Monica Ali gets candid about the language games in her work, the women who populate her narratives, and what compels her to return to writing novels.

You have written across genres, including novels, short stories, and essays, but have returned to the novel quite frequently. What about the form of the novel has allowed you to write the stories you have wanted to tell?

When I was growing up, novels were an escape (from a tense household, from loneliness); they were my only means of travel; they schooled me in ways that school couldn’t. People talk of ‘losing yourself’ in a novel. As an adolescent reader that’s exactly what I was often longing – and able – to do. The more I disappeared, the better. This ability mostly eludes me now, as a reader. The ‘I’ is stubbornly present, asking: How does this work? Why does this not work? As a writer, I think part of the reason I’ll always return to the novel is simply that it allows me to banish the ‘I’ for long stretches when I’m working. By no means all of the time, of course. Constructing a novel also requires the analytical part of the brain to work, and work hard. I enjoy that too. The challenge of it, the intellectual jigsaw. I like the research phase – not least because it’s a hell of a lot easier than the writing. Also, the novel offers the greatest opportunity to go under the skin of others, explore their psychological terrain, their worldview, walk in their footsteps. In other words, create characters.

Within conditions of information-saturation characterising contemporary “post-truth” reality, where news is a constantly evolving beast and immediate access to new information is ever-increasing, how do you think the novel (and what could plausibly be termed its ’slowness,’ both of writing and reading) fits into this world? 

I don’t know. But the death knell has been sounded for the novel for rather a long time, and still somehow it staggers on. Partly because it mutates. (Autofiction, surely, is a reflection of ‘post-truth’ reality.) Partly because the desire for stories is hardwired into us, as a means of trying to make sense of our lives. As far as I understand it, the boom in book sales during the pandemic has mainly been non-fiction while literary fiction is largely in the doldrums (with a couple of prize-winning exceptions). But the major competition for all types of novels is Netflix. There is just so much television drama around and while a lot of it is disposable, some of it is brilliant, and it’s impossible to make brilliant dramas without beginning with brilliant writing. So a lot of writing talent is perhaps flowing away from the page and onto our screens.

[T]he novel offers the greatest opportunity to go under the skin of others, explore their psychological terrain, their worldview, walk in their footsteps.

I recently taught Brick Lane to an undergraduate student and we spent a lot of time unpacking Nazneen’s motivations and the transformation of her life in Britain. We were particularly intrigued by the different registers of English at play in the novel, especially in the letters exchanged between Nazneen and her sister, Hasina, whose acquaintance with the language seems distant at best. We wondered if the correspondence was actually taking place in Bangla, given the difference and remove from ‘standard’ English in their (particularly Hasina’s) letters? 

Yes, you’re right, the correspondence was actually taking place in Bangla. It couldn’t be otherwise, given that we know that Nazneen doesn’t know much English, and have no reason to suppose that Hasina would know more than a word or two. So, the question is: why broken English? It’s not about the logic of translating Bangla to English. Although there is an element of that: Hasina has only a basic education and wouldn’t write at all fluently. But the rendering goes beyond the logic. I was seeking to create her character through the letters, which is the only way in which, as readers, we experience her directly. I wanted to convey some of the naivety, the chaos, the brokenness of her life.

Following from the previous question, how do you negotiate with your characters’ multi-lingual landscapes and lives when you are fitting them into a novel written in English? What kind of linguistic, artistic, and creative translations would you say take place when writing such characters? 

See above! It’s a tricky business. I think if you get trapped in the logic you will please the pedants but quite possibly at the cost of getting closer to the characters. It’s a lesson I took early in my reading life from A House for Mr Biswas – Naipaul renders conversations that would most likely have taken place in Hindi in a kind of Indian-inflected English. But I don’t have all the answers, I’m still groping around to work these things out. You have to feel your way towards the tone, the register, the cadence, the rhythms of each of your character’s speech, no matter what their mother-tongue is, and in the end those considerations – how I hear their voices, which spring from their way of being in the world – are what guide me. Whether that’s the right or wrong approach, I don’t know.

A painting of a woman in a hijab painted on a bench in London.
Brick Lane, Books about Town benches in London July-September 2014. Photo: Maureen Barlin (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Brick Lane introduces many important concerns, such as the limits of cosmopolitanism in Britain, Islamophobia, and anti-immigration sentiments, among others, all of which continue to be relevant today, perhaps even more so than before because of Brexit. Despite these difficult, dark themes, Brick Lane still ends on a note of optimism as Nazneen reclaims her autonomy in a Britain which appears to promise many opportunities for a woman like her. What kind of stories would you anticipate for a post-Brexit Britain? What would a post-Brexit Brick Lane look like? 

I’ve recently become the Patron of Hopscotch Asian Women’s Centre, a charity which helps women and girls with issues ranging from domestic violence to training in jobs skills. Most of their clients are of Bangladeshi origin or heritage. And if I were writing Brick Lane today and researching it as I did twenty years ago, I’d find many if not all of the same things that were happening back then. For example, staff have told me about how they help some of the clients with practicalities such as handling cash, how to catch a bus, how to order a cup of tea in a café. The challenges come in the form of not speaking English, of being controlled by husbands or other male relatives, of not having ventured out of the community. One difference I’ve picked up so far is the problem of older wives being divorced or abandoned when their husbands, having built up some financial resources after many years of hard work, decide to take a new young bride from the village. I’m sure there would be some other changes if I delved deeper, but I’m not sure they would substantially change a Brick Lane researched and written today.

That’s not to say there aren’t other stories to be written! For example, today I would write Shahana’s story. Or Bibi’s. Where might they be? What might they be doing? I think the answers would be: anywhere and anything.

Princess Diana’s story has been catapulted back into the media limelight because of the latest season of The Crown, prompting questions on privacy, authenticity, and the unreasonable expectations placed on women in the royal family. Could you say something about what prompted you to tell her “untold” story in your last novel? 

A couple of years ago, I was interviewed onstage at British Council literature event. The interviewer expressed surprise that I’d chosen to write about an imaginary English princess. After all, my first book, Brick Lane, was about a Bangladeshi housewife who didn’t even speak English. Would the real (the authentic) Monica Ali please step forward? I said that I understood his surprise. Nazneen, the protagonist of Brick Lane is a virgin bride, she is uneducated, unworldly, has an arranged marriage to a much older man, suffers the scrutiny of the wider community, has an affair but decides that a man is not the way to salvation, and reinvents a new life for herself. The protagonist of Untold Story, on the other hand is a virgin bride, who is uneducated, unworldly, has an arranged marriage to a much older man, suffers the scrutiny of the outside world, has an affair but decides that a man is not the way to salvation, and reinvents herself and her life. No similarities there at all!

That got a laugh from the audience. As I’d hoped it would. There’s an element of my answer that’s a bit tongue-in-cheek. And an element that isn’t. Of course, the protagonists of Brick Lane and Untold Story are also, in some ways, wildly different. But the fundamental motivation for me in writing about Nazneen and Lydia is pretty much the same. Nazneen might easily be dismissed by a casual observer – a brown woman in a sari – and not granted the unique and complex interior life that we all have. That’s the same dehumanizing view that it’s all too easy to apply to celebrities. Diana (who, as you note, was my inspiration for Lydia) was labelled in so many ways. But each individual is more than the sum of her signifiers.

Do you think the publishing industry and the international prize circuits are doing enough to spotlight the work of writers of colour in the UK? What more needs to be done/ could be done?

The publishing industry has been slow to change. But I think efforts are being made, and in the wake of BLM this year, perhaps those efforts will be accelerated. We need more diversity in editorial departments, marketing and sales departments, in literary agencies, and so on. Until that happens, the risk is that changes will be somewhat on the surface.

We need more diversity in editorial departments, marketing and sales departments, in literary agencies, and so on.

What role do you think reading literature plays in addressing structural inequality, discrimination, and injustice? 

Research has shown what we as readers have always known: that reading fiction can help the development of empathy. And a sense of empathy is at the root of all morality, and so plays into our attitudes towards these issues of injustice and so on. Whether this has any material impact on, for example, structural inequality, is another question. Possibly so, but probably not. With a few notable exceptions (Dickens) it’s hard to point at novels that have directly helped to effect social change. On the other hand, it would be hard to argue that novels rarely or never contribute to the shaping of minds and therefore of society. Not necessarily in a progressive way. Ayn Rand, for example, continues to inspire many people.

Could you tell us a little about what you are working on at the moment? 

I finished a novel towards the end of last year. It’s called Love Marriage, and it will be published (so I’m told) in Spring 2022. It’s set in 2016/17, in London, and it’s about two very different families, the Ghoramis and the Sangsters, who are thrown together after a whirlwind engagement. I’m working on the edits for that at the moment. I’m also writing the initial episode of an original television drama. The script has been commissioned by the BBC, but as I’ve learned over the years, most projects fall by the wayside so the likelihood is that this one will too. It’s about the giving and taking of offence. That’s about all I can say about it at this stage!

Has your relationship with writing changed during the pandemic? How has it impacted your thinking about writing stories, your relationship with your craft, and your beliefs about the importance of telling stories? 

No, I don’t think so. I feel grateful that I’m able to continue working when so many others can’t, or have lost their jobs. So far, I have felt zero desire to write anything pandemic-related. But I guess that could change, who knows.

Cite this: Bhagya, C. S. “In Monica Ali’s Worlds.” Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds, 2021, [scf-post-permalink]. Accessed 28 January 2022.