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Drama, Conflict and Thwarted Desire

Monica Ali talks to Dominic Davies

Monica Ali


Photo: Liz Emerson

Described in 2003 as the “Best of Young British Novelists” by Granta magazine, Bangladeshi-born writer Monica Ali’s first novel, Brick Lane (2003), made the shortlist of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. She has since gone on to write three more novels of critical acclaim: Alentejo Blue (2006), the story of a sleepy Portuguese town, In the Kitchen (2009), a murder mystery based in the kitchen of a London hotel, and Untold Story (2011), which imagines what would have become of Princess Diana had she not died in the Paris car accident in 1997. She has also written non-fiction, including an essay for English PEN’s collection, Free Expression is No Offence [1].

You are on the Advisory Board for the Oxonian Review, and you studied PPE here in Oxford at Wadham College. Could you treat us to a memorable anecdote from your time at university?

When I was at college, it seemed everyone wanted to become a journalist. There was fierce competition to work on every student publication. I thought I’d try my hand, and proposed a feature to Cherwell—an interview with Billy Bragg, who was in Oxford with Red Wedge. I decided to take a friend along for company on the evening of the interview, and he went back to his room afterwards and wrote the article while I went to a party.

I remember feeling that it was an impossible task—to write anything worth reading, from an interview that necessarily consisted of recycled answers (he was mid-tour). Writing without time to reflect (the deadline was the next morning) also appeared impossible.

I was definitely not cut out for life as a journalist. My friend kindly put my name alongside his on the byline. It was the last time I saw my name in print for many years.

When you first started writing you began with short stories, though you quickly turned to the novel as you wrote more. The Oxonian Review is, as it happens, running a short story competition [2] this term. What do you think are the limitations and advantages of writing short stories? Would you ever return to writing short stories?

I still write short stories from time to time. I’m working on one now.

Writers frequently compare short stories to poetry. The similarities are there, in terms of brevity, or rather concentration, economy, intensity, the balancing acts, the word play. But I always think of a successful short story as like the painting that makes you pause when strolling through a gallery. It’s the one that draws you in, that makes you look, and look again. It captures only a moment but it makes you think about what happened before, and what will happen afterwards. When you look away, you are a little more aware, a little more alive to the world than you were before.

You’ve said that you begin writing your novels by building characters and characterisation. You’ve also said that you think the closest genre to the novel form is drama, and more specifically, acting. These two observations seem to be related?

I think what I had in mind is the process of trying to get beneath the skin of your characters. If they don’t come alive for you, as a writer, then they’re unlikely to come alive for readers. It would be like watching an actor reciting lines rather than inhabiting the character.

The basis of a good novel, like that of a good drama, is conflict and thwarted desire. When I was a visiting professor on the MFA at Columbia a couple of years ago, I realised that the most common mistake of creative writing students was to create characters filled with a certain kind of ennui, the postmodern world-weary streetsmart nothing-matters-who-gives-a-damn kind of character. That’s okay as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far, because what’s at stake? I’d tell my students to always make their characters want something immediately, even if it’s a small thing, a sandwich will do, and then withhold it from them. It usually helped them to get them moving forward with their work again.

With your wonderful metaphor for the short story as a painting in mind, alongside these issues of characterisation and drama, quite a visual relationship to creative writing is implied. Do you have very strong visualisations of the worlds and people you create as you write?

It’s an essential part of the process. It has to be vivid. If I can’t “see”, for example, the setting, then I can’t hope to convey much about that setting in words. That doesn’t mean endless physical description. It could be a mood, an aspect, a small detail, but for me that first requires a visualisation of the whole.

What sort of priority do you give ideas of social and political commentary, critique, or even dissent, that are at play in your novels? And to take that a bit further, I wondered if, when you’re writing, you ever feel a social or political responsibility as a novelist?

I always start with the characters and the stories, and then the other stuff just comes out. My writing is going to be informed by who I am and how I feel about the world. That’s inevitable. What I find astonishing is that when novels have an implicitly critical view of the social order, the novelist is deemed political, whereas when novels have an implicit acceptance of the social order, that novelist somehow exists outside of the real world, somehow has no relation to, engagement with, or perspective on, social or political issues. These novels (most of the novels published each year) appear to exist in a cultural hegemony. Nobody looks outside the box in which they have no awareness of being contained.

If one were to be a just and scrupulous critic, then one would evaluate the social and political assumptions, biases and underpinnings of all books, including those whose authors would profess to work in a social and political vacuum.

How do you feel about people (I guess, academics especially) reading politics into your novels?

I think that’s a smart thing to do, always.

You spend a lot of time researching your novels before you write them. Which of your novels did you most enjoy doing the research for, and why?

Of the four books I’ve published, the one I most enjoyed researching was In The Kitchen. The story grew from a newspaper clipping that I’d kept, about a kitchen porter whose naked corpse was found in the bowels of the Café Royal in London on Christmas Day. He was a Ukrainian immigrant, and had been living in the basement to save money. I enjoyed the research because it was so diverse. I spent a huge amount of time in hotel kitchens, met a lot of recent immigrants from all parts of the world, and also spent time in Lancashire where I grew up, researching the cotton mills for another strand of the novel.

Over the years there have been a couple of novels that I’ve started and then quickly abandoned. If I’m not enjoying writing something then I won’t continue. That’s not to say that every day that I spend writing is filled with joy. Any writer will tell you that it’s sometimes pure agony.

The subject matter of your novels is astonishingly varied from book to book. Do you see any similarities between some of the themes they explore? They are, on the surface at least, incredibly different novels.

I always want to challenge myself as a writer. The couple of novels that I started writing then put aside felt like safe ground. If I feel too sure, it’s not interesting enough for me. I need to start with the feeling of “I don’t know if I can do this.” But I am who I am and the things that preoccupy me continue to preoccupy me, and of course they find a way through in the writing. I’d say that issues of identity, of what constitutes “self”, of belonging and not belonging, and of what we can and cannot control in our lives, are central to all my work in one way or another.

Are you working on a new novel at the moment? And does it take up any of these themes?

I am working on a new novel. It’s based on the life of Dean Mohamed, the first Indian to write and publish a book in English, the owner of the first “curry house” in London, and celebrity “shampooing surgeon” by appointment to George IV. He was a man who reinvented himself many times over. It’s certainly a challenge for me, never having attempted historical fiction before. I’m immersed in research right now, and I’ve no idea how long it will take. Will it take up my usual “themes”? I don’t know. I only care about the characters and story when I’m writing, so I’ll have to wait and see.

This new novel sounds fascinating and incredibly ambitious. Do you think you could have tackled something like this ten years ago? Or has your experience enabled you to take on more challenging projects?

Some writers kick off with historical novels. In my own case, I don’t think I could have kicked off with this novel that I’m working on now. The research requires a vast amount of time, and when I wrote my first novel I had a toddler and a baby to look after, and no childcare. Now I have the luxury of time, and I love doing the research. Long days in the library, reading, absorbing and synthesising. It’s like being back at college! But research is the easy part really. The bigger challenge is always to put the research aside, not to get bogged down in it, and not to let it show brashly on the page. You have to know your stuff, but ultimately the point of research is to give you the courage to make things up.

Dominic Davies [3] is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is Editor-in-Chief at the Oxonian Review.