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Bookish Birthdays: Monica Ali

18th Oct 2013

Bookish Birthdays: Monica Ali
This week Monica Ali celebrates her 45th birthday. Author of one of the most acclaimed novels of recent years (albeit a decade ago now), Brick Lane, she became a figurehead for championing female rights and widely lauded for exploring multicultural communities, a strong activist for women within them.

At least she brings her literary as well as clothing credentials to the campaign, quoting Mark Twain: Naked people have little or no influence in society. Clothes do matter and style does become important. It’s a bit like writing. What you say is important but also how you say it. So true.

Possibly still best know for her debut novel, Ali’s Brick Lane explores the position of women in the Bangladeshi community via London’s favourite street of curry.

Following the life of Nazneen, a Bangladeshi woman who moves to London at the age of 18 to marry an older man, Chanu, it charts her change from a submissive lady only able to say sorry and thank you English to someone who challenges her insular lifestyle and explores London, triggered by an affair with Karim, a young and more radical man.

That most famous of feminists, Germaine Greer, criticised Ali’s ‘lack of authenticity’ due to the fact that she had never lived on Brick Lane. The novel provoked controversy within and, (typically condescendingly), on behalf of, the Bangladeshi community in Britain, with some people believing that the novel negatively portrayed immigrants living in the Brick Lane community, fearing narrow minded assumptions being made.

That most famous of feminists, Germaine Greer, criticised Ali’s ‘lack of authenticity’ due to the fact that she had never lived on Brick Lane. Because imagination is in no way integral to literary fiction and there’s no reason to feel uncomfortable when a white woman tells a woman of colour how to talk about her own heritage…

Born to Bangladeshi parents who moved to the UK when Civil War broke out (then the country was Dhaka) Ali went to school in Bolton and studied at Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford, before moving to London where she now lives with her husband Simon and their two children.

However, having grown up with anti-Asian sentiment around her, she writes from the perspective of someone with mixed authenticity, and thus her portrayal of immigrants caught between tradition and integration is realistic and compelling.

Her 2011 novel Untold Story is a bit more light hearted, although a spin on the Diana, Princess of Wales story is always likely to generate some controversy.

Diana, living alone in Kensignton in Suburban America fakes drowning, alters her face, and goes on to live life as Lydia. But in many ways the topics covered are similar to those of Brick Lane – a woman constrained by convention and rules who carves out a life for herself.

Also published on Doubleday are two other stories of small communities and the trials and tribulations that they experience: In The Kitchen, a tale of a chef trying to run a tight ship, and Alentejo Blue, about the Portuguese village of Mamarrosa.

Neither has generated as much critical or popular praise as Brick Lane, which was shortlisted for British Book Awards Literary Fiction Award, Guardian First Book Award, Man Booker Prize for Fiction won British Book Awards Newcomer of the Year and WH Smith People’s Choice Award.

Understandably, Monica Ali sees literature as important and a way for countries to and identities to be examined. Writing for The Atlantic in 2009 she said that:

It’s not only major events by which a nation reckons itself. In Britain, the only thing we can say for sure about our national identity is that it is changing around us, faster now than in previous generations. How better than through fiction to reflect and examine that change? We have a national literature now; that it is created by a multitude of diverse voices…that presents a plurality of ideas and themes and perspectives.

A strong woman, articulating how she and millions like her explore life, recognising the value of literature to discover and form identities. No wonder we love Monica Ali!