Ali, Monica 1967–

views updated

Ali, Monica 1967–

PERSONAL: Born 1967, in Dhaka, Bangladesh; brought to England, 1971; daughter of Hatem (a teacher) and Joyce (a counselor) Ali; married Simon Torrance (a management consultant); children: Felix, Shumi (daughter). Education: Wadham College, Oxford, graduated.

ADDRESSES: Home—Dulwich, England.

CAREER: Writer. Has worked in marketing for two publishing houses, and for branding agencies.

AWARDS, HONORS: Named one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists, 2003; W.H. Smith People's Choice Award, 2003, for Brick Lane; Brick Lane was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and nominated for the Guardian's First Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award, 2003, and was named one of the New York Times best books of 2003.


Brick Lane (novel), Scribner (New York, NY), 2003.

Alentejo Blue (novel), Scribner (New York, NY), 2006.

ADAPTATIONS: Brick Lane was adapted to audio; film production of the book began in 2006.

SIDELIGHTS: Monica Ali established her reputation as one of Great Britain's most talented writers before her first novel was even published. She was named one of the Granta's Best Young British Novelists solely on the basis of her then-unpublished first manuscript, Brick Lane, and by the time it was released critics were eager to determine whether it would live up to the hype. "Surely, Brick Lane can't be that good?," wrote Harriet Lane in the Guardian, referring to the book's prepublication notoriety. "Actually, it's better," she answered herself; "Ali's novel is warm, shrewd, startling and hugely readable: the sort of book you race through greedily, dreading the last page." Ali, who was born in Bangladesh and grew up in England, chose as the subject for her novel the immigrant experience of London's Bangladeshi community, which is centered around the East End district known as Brick Lane. Critics hailed the book as a fully realized portrait of an insulated community that is as rich in detail as any novel by Dickens or Flaubert. Comparisons to other non-white British writers, such as V.S. Naipaul and Jhumpa Lahiri, and praise for her mature voice were plentiful. "Ali already has a sense of technical assurance and an inborn generosity that cannot be learned," wrote Michael Gorra in the New York Times Book Review.

Brick Lane tells the story of Nazneen, a rural Bangladeshi girl who barely survives her own birth and is married off at the age of eighteen to a middle-aged, self-important man named Chanu. He whisks her away to the inhospitable East End of London with vague promises to return home as soon as he is a success. Holed up in a dingy tenement for years on end, Nazneen is isolated by culture, language, and tradition, and confined to a very limited social circle. A devout Muslim, she believes that it is her duty to passively endure her fate and submit to the will of her husband, which she does without fail through the birth and death of her first-born, a son, and the births of two more daughters. From her arrival in the mid 1980s to the days following September 11, 2001, Nazneen bears witness to her community as it is savaged by poverty, drugs, and ultimately, religious fundamentalism.

Providing contrast to Nazneen's sequestered life are letters from her sister, Hasina, who remained in Bangladesh and married for love. Hasina's letters tell a harrowing tale as her life takes a more dramatic and tragic path than Nazneen's. Following the demise of her marriage to a violent man, Hasina is forced into prostitution as the political climate changes the country beyond recognition. Though Nazneen longs to return home, her sister's letters make it clear that the world she left behind barely exists anymore. The glacial pace of Nazneen's acclimation to England occurs mainly out of necessity and because of her daughters. She learns enough English to scrape by, and when Chanu loses his job she is forced to take on piecework as a seamstress, working out of her apartment. Her work is delivered and collected by Karim, a flashy, handsome Muslim activist, who awakens a passion within Nazneen that she has never felt before. Chanu, sensing he is about to lose his wife to another man and his daughters to Western culture, prepares for the family's return to Bangladesh. Meanwhile, Nazneen, accepting the fact that she will burn in hell for her sins, embarks on an affair with Karim.

Apart from Nazneen, many critics complimented Ali on the pathos rendered in the character of Chanu, a physically repulsive man who acts superior to his wife because of his "education," but who is nothing more than a self-deluded, possessive man incapable of the intellectual growth he desires. He is "one of the novel's foremost miracles," wrote Lane. "Twice [Nazneen's] age, with a face like a frog, a tendency to quote Hume and the boundless doomed optimism of the self-improvement junkie, he is both exasperating and, to the reader at least, enormously loveable," she wrote. It's a "moving portrait," wrote Guardian reviewer Natasha Walter of Chanu and his relationship to Nazneen. "Ali paints a terrifically subtle portrait of how such a marriage is threatened in a culture in which a woman is encouraged to grow beyond it, how he and Nazneen build a strange relationship of simultaneous closeness and apartness, how they hurt one another and also depend on one another." "Chanu inevitably recalls V.S. Naipaul's Mr. Biswas," observed Gorra. "That's not a limitation. Chanu doesn't stop being himself, but he also belongs to a recognizable tradition, and so does Brick Lane."

Fate, specifically whether a person decides to accept or reject it, is a key theme in the book. As Ali told Benedicte Page in Bookseller, "I was interested in internalised folklores—how people's memories and landscapes and the environments that surround them when they grow up inform their outlooks. So Nazneen is constantly grappling with this question of what it is about the world that she can change and what it is better to accept, or what must be accepted." In regard to how much of the novel is autobiographical, Ali stated in an essay for the Guardian that "I cannot draw any clear parallels with my family history. But I can feel reverberations. It is not so much a question of what inspired me. This issue is one of resonance."

Many critics reserved special praise for the novel's language. "Ali practices the self-effacement of the supremely confident writer as she subordinates her style to her protagonist's perspective," asserted Benjamin Schwarz in the Atlantic. New Republic contributor James Wood similarly wrote that in "the suppression of obvious authorial style … the result is a lovely simplicity, as we are led to inhabit the wide-eyed ignorance of a village girl from Bangladesh, and to watch it develop itself." "One feels the enabling weight of the 19th century," wrote Gorra, in the novel's "deliberately unflamboyant and metaphorically precise" prose. Miranda France, writing in Spectator, extolled Ali's "powers of observations" as "magnificent, placing Ali among Britain's greatest writers, never mind young or old."

Though numerous reviews for Brick Lane were positive, the book did not satisfy everyone. Time International critic Aparisim Ghosh considered the book a bland example of immigrant literature: "If you've grown up on a diet of Bengali and British-Indian literature, Ali's debut is little more than a lentil broth, warm and easily digested, but predictable and lacking in flavor." Even more harsh was the reaction of some Bengalese residents in the very community Ali portrayed. The Greater Sylhet Welfare and Development Council, an agency that represents the country's half-million-strong Bangladeshi community, submitted an eighteen-page letter to Ali and the media, objecting to the novel's portrayal of the community. Comparing the novel to Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, the group considered the depiction of Islam in Brick Lane to be blasphemous. When a movie adaptation of the novel went into production in 2006, the Bangladeshi community in London protested loudly against it. As Maev Kennedy reported in a Guardian article, Brick Lane Traders chair Abdus Sadiqui protested that the author "says it is fiction, and the film will be fiction, but to me that is not true. She has targeted our Sylheti community, for some reason, why I don't know, and she is saying things about us which are just not true." Despite the complaints, the film continued with production.

In response to the outcry against the book, Fareen Alam wrote in the Guardian that, to the contrary, the book "celebrates the humanity and complexity of a community which even Bengalis like me know so little about; a community that has been pushed to the margins of Britain's ethnic mosaic, characterised by its many economic and social troubles, filed away under the convenient label of an ethnic problem…. It seems that only 'ethnic' writers carry a burden of 'representation' whether they want to or not." In answering critics who wondered what right she has to write about Bengal culture when she does not even know the language, Ali wrote in the Guardian that "the answer is I can write about it because I do not truly belong. Growing up with an English mother and a Bengali father means never being an insider. Standing neither behind a closed door, nor in the thick of things, but rather in the shadow of the doorway, is a good place from which to observe. Good training, I feel, for life as a writer." The controversy did not prevent Ali's book from staying a bestseller, nor did it detract from its critical success. "The award-winning Brick Lane is a great achievement of the subtlest storytelling," wrote Wood, "the kind that proceeds illuminatingly, in units of characters rather than in wattage of 'style.'"

When thinking about her follow-up to Brick Lane, Ali initially intended to write another novel set in England. After a trip to Portugal, however, she found it so difficult to get the setting and the people out of her mind that she abandoned her first idea and set her new work of fiction in Portugal. In nine loosely connected chapters Alentejo Blue relates tales of native Portuguese and expatriate Brits who visit a tavern run by the corpulent Vasco. According to the author in a Book Page interview with Alden Mudge, her intent was not so much to tell a story as to portray "the character of that place." Many reviewers, however, found this to be a flaw, complaining that Alentejo Blue has no firm structure or theme and that readers may find it difficult to care about its characters. "[I]t's difficult to say what [the novel] … is about," remarked Tarquin Hall in the New Statesman. "Each chapter picks up the banal and static life of yet another character, often tied only loosely to the village." A Publishers Weekly contributor felt that the "characters' lives generate little tension," while in a Spectator assessment D.J. Taylor complained that "the natives … are a fairly anonymous lot. Ali's gaze seems much sharper when it turns to passage migrants." Nevertheless, many reviewers, even those who noted the book's flaws, praised Ali's writing. "While each character's story or vignette is wonderfully wrought, enthralling or moving, comic or tragic by itself, as they overlap and interweave, the whole becomes much greater than the sum of its parts," asserted Mudge. Leigh Anne Vrabel, writing for Library Journal, praised the "luminous, heartfelt language," and in Booklist, contributor Brad Hooper stated: "Her sensitivity … leaves her an astonishing inhabiter of the psychology of a variety of characters."



America's Intelligence Wire, July 30, 2006, "London's Bangladeshi Community Calls for Overall Cancellation of 'Brick Lane' Film."

Atlantic, December, 2003, Benjamin Schwarz, review of Brick Lane, p. 108.

Booklist, May 15, 2006, Brad Hooper, review of Alentejo Blue, p. 21.

Bookseller, April 4, 2003, Benedicte Page, "An Encounter with Fate," p. 31; June 2, 2006, review of Alentejo Blue, p. 12; June 9, 2006, "Review Blues: Monica Ali Fails to Build on Brick Lane," review of Alentejo Blue, p. 46.

Economist, June 7, 2003, review of Brick Lane, p. 77.

Entertainment Weekly, June 23, 2006, Jennifer Reese, "Tourist Vista," review of Alentejo Blue, p. 72.

Guardian (London, England), June 1, 2003, Harriet Lane, "Ali's in Wonderland"; June 14, 2003, Natasha Walter, "Citrus Scent of Inexorable Desire"; June 17, 2003, Monica Ali, "Where I'm Coming From"; July 13, 2003, Fareen Alam, "The Burden of Representation"; December 3, 2003, Matthew Taylor, "Brickbats Fly as Community Brands Novel 'Despicable'"; July 28, 2006, Maev Kennedy, "In a Sense, If You Come under Fire from Those Conservative People, You Must Be Doing Something Right: Anger at the Filming of Brick Lane Echoes Earlier Clashes between Art and Religion."

Independent (London, England), June 1, 2003, Suzi Feay, "It's One Raita Short of a Spicy Literary Banquet"; June 20, 2003, Bonnie Greer, "The Friday Book," p. 15.

Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 2003, review of Brick Lane, p. 765; April 15, 2006, review of Alentejo Blue, p. 363.

Library Journal, May 1, 2006, Leigh Anne Vrabel, review of Alentejo Blue, p. 74.

Nation, October 20, 2003, Diana Abu-Jaber, "London Kills Me," review of Brick lane p. 25.

New Republic, September 8, 2003, James Wood, "Making It New," p. 29.

New Statesman, June 2, 2003, Francis Gilbert, "Novel of the Week," p. 53; June 26, 2006, Tarquin Hall, "Little Britain," review of Alentejo Blue, p. 65.

New York Times, June 25, 2006, Liesl Schillinger, "The Simple Life," review of Alentejo Blue.

New York Times Book Review, September 7, 2003, Michael Gorra, "East Enders," p. 9.

Observer (London, England), June 1, 2003, Harriet Lane, "Ali's in Wonderland."

Philadelphia Inquirer, June 28, 2006, Gaiutra Bahadur, "Silence Speaks Volumes in a Portuguese Village," review of Alentejo Blue.

Publishers Weekly, June 23, 2003, review of Brick Lane, p. 43; April 24, 2006, review of Alentejo Blue, p. 35.

Spectator, June 7, 2003, Miranda France, "The Best of British," p. 37; June 3, 2006, D.J. Taylor, "Fragments of Village Life," review of Alentejo Blue.

Time International, July 14, 2003, Aparisim Ghosh, "Flavor of the Week: Despite All the Mouthwatering Publicity, Monica Ali's Debut Novel Is a Bland Stew of Bangladeshi Cliches," p. 51.

Times of India, July 27, 2006, Nona Walia, "Stop Filming 'Brick Lane': Bangladeshis."

W, September, 2003, Samantha Conti, "Ali's Knockout: Britain's Newest Literary Star, Monica Ali, Takes a Trip Down Brick Lane," p. 370.


Age, (August 20, 2003), Nicola Walker, "The State of Bengali England," review of Brick Lane.

Book Page, (December 13, 2006), Alden Mudge, "Second Act: Monica Ali Changes Course with a Surprising New Novel," interview with Monica Ali.

Contemporary Writers, (December 13, 2006), profile of Monica Ali.