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Monica Ali’s most formative influence comes from awareness gained through her mixed race heritage

  • Published at 04:50 pm November 13th, 2019
DLF_November 10_Pg 5_Brick lane
Photo: Mehedi Hasan

Star author of DLF 2019 talks ‘Beyond Brick Lane’

At a lively session moderated by poet, writer and women's rights activist Sadaf Saaz, Monica Ali spoke of the fact she has no specific sense of home -- something shared by her principal character in Brick Lane, Nazneen, who struggles to adapt to London life. Held at the AKSB Auditorium on day two of the DLF, the session, titled “Beyond Brick Lane” started off by discussing the Bangladeshi born British writer’s ambivalence about whether she belonged to Bangladesh or not, even after being exposed to various aspects of the country while she was growing up. 

The Liberation War broke out in Bangladesh  in 1971, and this forced Ali's parents to move to England for their safety and that of their four-year-old daughter, who has slim but vivid recollections of this period.

“There has been an absence of Bangladesh in my life, yet I’ve always felt a constant presence – starting from the music that my father used to listen to, to my mother’s newlywed stories,” she said. 

Her father, Hatem Ali, was a teacher who had met her British mother, Joyce, while studying in the north of England. Ali's mother returned to Dhaka with him, where they defied the wishes of his family -- who had already selected a bride for her father -- and married. 

“People came from miles around to see this white woman. Sometimes she’d have to get up in the middle of the night and get dressed because people had walked for days to meet her,” said Ali. 

Fiction does not always work in straight lines. Listening to her mother’s stories, and thinking about her mother’s experiences actually inspired her to pick up the pen and create the protagonist of Brick Lane, Nazneen. Her most formative influence, Ali says, was the "awareness of difference" her mixed race heritage brought.

During the session, the acclaimed novelist  went on to talk about her time at Wadham College of Oxford University, from where she graduated with a PPE degree. When her first child, her son Felix was born, Ali decided to join an online short story writing group. She had never tried writing fiction before, but as she said during the panel, “quite quickly, I felt a bit constrained by the short-story format, as though I didn't have room to breathe. There was something else that I wanted to do. And then it was a question of getting up the courage." 

Now, researching her new book -- Ali is unforthcoming as to what it is about -- she claims that financial success, and the celebrity her work has earned her, has not changed her, rather given her the opportunity to express even more fully who she really is.