Born in 1967, in Dhaka, Bangladesh; emigrated to Britain, 1971; daughter of Hatem (a teacher) and Joyce (a counselor) Ali; married Simon Torrance (a management consultant); children: Felix, Shumi (daughter). Education: Earned PPE (philosophy, politics, and economics) degree from Wadham College, Oxford University.
Addresses: Home—Dulwich, England. Office—c/o Doubleday (UK), c/o Transworld Publishers, 61-63 Uxbridge Rd., London W5 5SA, England.
Worked in the marketing department of Pluto (a publishing house); became sales and marketing manager at Verso (a publishing house); also worked for a branding agency; first novel, Brick Lane, published in 2003, and adapted for film, 2007.
Awards: Named one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists, 2003.
In 2003, Monica Ali's debut novel Brick Lane won generous accolades for its comic yet heartfelt portrayal of a young Bangladeshi woman and her life in London. Nominated for one of Britain's most coveted literary awards, the first-time author's tale was hailed as "a serious work in the best sense of the term," wrote Nation reviewer Diana Abu-Jaber. "It has weight, purpose and passion." Across the Atlantic, Brick Lane also resonated with critics. "It usually takes two or three books [for a writer] to establish their form," asserted Michael Gorra in the New York Times, "and yet Monica Ali already has a sense of technical assurance and an inborn generosity that cannot be learned. Brick Lane inspires confidence about the career that is to come."
Ali was born in 1967 in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, which at the time was known as East Pakistan. Her father, Hatem Ali, was a teacher who had met her British mother, Joyce, while studying in the north of England a few years earlier. Ali's mother returned to Dhaka with him, where they defied the wishes of his family—who had already selected a bride for Hatem—and married. "People came from miles around to see this white woman," Ali told reporter Lucy Cavendish in the London Evening Standard about her mother's newlywed adventures. "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." Civil war broke out in East Pakistan 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. "When the Pakistani tanks rolled into Dhaka, and after a number of my father's colleagues had been called to a meeting and shot, we used to sleep out on the balcony at night, fully clothed in case a knock came at the door," Ali replied to a series of readers' interview questions that appeared in London's Independent.
The Ali family settled in Bolton, a city in northwest England, but several years had passed since her parents had met, and anti-Asian sentiment was on the rise in Britain. In the early 1960s, the few southwest Asian residents in England were largely professionals, such as doctors, but intervening years had brought a new influx of poorer immigrants, which raised tensions and prompted the founding of a right-wing anti-immigration party called the National Front. The family struggled on several levels—her father had difficulty finding a job, and so her parents ran a small trinket shop for a time—and they all sensed unease from their English relatives and strangers alike. "I experienced racism," Ali told Cavendish in the Evening Standard. "I had to walk past people carrying National Front signs. I think people have forgotten how insidious it all was."
Ali entered Wadham College of Oxford University, and graduated with a PPE degree, the acronym for the philosophy, politics, and economics course. She went to work in the marketing department of a small publishing house and moved on to a similar job at another house before joining a branding agency. During this period she met her future husband, a management consultant named Simon Torrance, and quit work when she became a mother. When her first child, a son they named Felix, was born, Ali decided to join an online shortstory writing group. She had never tried writing fiction before, but as she told the Observer's Harriet Lane, "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."
When her mother's father died not long following the arrival of Ali's second child, her daughter Shumi, Ali's grief was compounded by guilt. "I'd been meaning to take Shumi up," she recalled in the interview with Lane, "but it's very difficult to get around to doing things when you've got a toddler and a baby, and by the time we went up there, we were going to his funeral…. There's something galvanizing about a funeral. I felt the need to not put things off any longer." Immediately after the funeral, she and her husband went on vacation, and it was then she began writing Brick Lane.
Ali finished two chapters and thought she should get some feedback, and so she passed them along to a friend who worked at a publishing house. Within days, she was offered a book deal that included a generous advance, some of which she used to pay for childcare while she completed the novel during much of 2002. In the first week of January of 2003—months before Brick Lane was to be officially published—Ali became an overnight sensation when her name appeared on a much-anticipated list of the 20 Best Young British Novelists Under 40, a once-a-decade ranking from the prestigious literary journal Granta. Another member of that list was Zadie Smith, whose award-winning 2000 novel of a Bangladeshi family in London, White Teeth, would be frequently mentioned in reviews of Ali's debut. Previous names on the Granta list included Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and Ian McEwan.
Brick Lane was published in May of 2003, and was immediately heralded by critics as living up to the Granta judgment. The story's focal point is Nazneen, born in a Bangladeshi village and married off at age 18 to a man several years her senior, who takes her to live in London. They settle in the South Asian stronghold of London's East End, anchored by the thoroughfare of the title which takes its name from the brickmaking industry that thrived there a century earlier. Nazneen is bewildered by life in London, lonely, and ambivalent about her husband, Chanu, even as her dependence on him grows with the birth of each of their children. The course of the novel spans 13 years, from 1988 to the events that follow 9/11, and Nazneen eventually begins to venture further afield from Brick Lane as the years pass; when she first arrives, she is afraid to even leave the apartment, but eventually meets her neighbors and even takes a job as a seamstress. Through her job she meets a young, charismatic Muslim activist named Karim, and it is only with him that she begins to explore the parts of London a world away from the insular community centered around Brick Lane.
Reviews for Brick Lane hailed it as the successor to Smith's White Teeth as well as the debut of a talented new literary voice for twenty-first century Britain. Commenting on the Granta list, the Nation's Abu-Jaber asserted that "Brick Lane fulfills that early promise and establishes Ali as a writer of real literary depth and dimension. There is an elegance and a steadfast, patient, careful construction of observed detail to this prose, a meticulous layering of character and social observation that endows Brick Lane with a sophistication and maturity that might surprise readers who've come to expect flash and dash in modern fiction."
The novel's only shortcoming, some reviewers felt, was delivering a too-neat wrap-up of the strands of plot between Nazneen, Chanu, and Karim. "Exas-peratingly, Ali's complex and largely deterministic story ends with a discordant postscript of mushy self-fulfillment," noted Atlantic Monthly book critic Benjamin Schwarz. Other assessments found a comic warmth in Ali's characterization of Chanu. Writing in the Observer, Lane termed him "one of the novel's foremost miracles: twice her age, with a face like a frog … and the boundless doomed optimism of the self-improvement junkie, he is both exasperating and, to the reader at least, enormously loveable." Benedicte Page of Bookseller also commended the portrayal of the husband, calling him "a wonderfully drawn character: pompous and an arch self-deceiver, and yet endearing, with his passion for learning and his endlessly disappointed hopes for self advancement."
Brick Lane was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003, given to the best work of fiction in English from an author in Britain, Ireland, or one of the Commonwealth nations. The Booker Prize is considered one of the world's foremost literary honors, and its list of finalists customarily prompts an outpouring of debate in the British media. Ali failed to win, but the success of her debut novel allowed her and her husband to buy a vacation home in the Alentejo region of southern Portugal. Their visits there inspired her next work, Alentejo Blue, published in 2006. Less a novel than a collection of stories about the denizens of a tavern in the village of Mamarossa, the work is peopled by Portuguese and Britons alike, such as the young village woman who yearns to work in London as an au pair, and the dissolute, caddish British writer who dallies with another Brit and then takes up with the woman's daughter. In the final chapter, the stories come together on the night of the local festa, or day of revelry.
Reviewers hoping for a successor to the epic saga of Brick Lane were somewhat puzzled by Ali's follow-up. "Brick Lane's characters were stifled by their circumstances, compelling the reader to urge them on," remarked Tarquin Hall, writing in the New Statesman. "Alentejo Blue's main characters (if they can be described as such) are just stifled, and inspire nothing much apart from irritation and indifference." Writing in Entertainment Weekly, Jennifer Reese conceded that "Ali understands her characters—what they want, how they deceive themselves, where they fit into this forlorn corner of the world—with perfect clarity," though she noted that "this scrapbook of a novel never gathers much narrative force. But it is made of intriguingly beautiful bits and pieces."
Ali and Doubleday, her publishing house, sold the film rights to Brick Lane, but when shooting began in the summer of 2006 there was a movement to prevent British director Sarah Gavron and the crew from filming in the actual Brick Lane area of London. Some in the Bangladeshi community claimed that the novel portrayed "Bangla Brits" as backward and uneducated, a stereotype that a planned book-burning ceremony of Ali's acclaimed novel did little to dispel. Local business leaders warned that violence might erupt should the film crew show up, and so the decision was made to shoot the exterior scenes elsewhere. Ali did not comment on the matter, but others did, including novelist Salman Rushdie, who supported her. In a column that appeared in the Independent, Johann Hari—a resident of Brick Lane himself—remarked that "Ali's crime has been to challenge the supremacy of Bengali men by articulating the secret experiences of Bengali women," and called the dispute part of a recent "cascade of protests by ultraconservatives within Europe's immigrant communities trying to silence women from their own neighbourhoods calling for change." As Ali noted back in 2003, she was surprised at the overall critical reception of her debut novel in general. "I had no idea the book would cause such a fuss," she told Samantha Conti in W. "I kept thinking, Who's going to read a book about a Bangladeshi housewife?"
Brick Lane, Scribner (New York City), 2003.
Alentejo Blue, Scribner, 2006.
Atlantic Monthly, December 2003, p. 108.
Bookseller, April 4, 2003, p. 31.
Entertainment Weekly, June 23, 2006, p. 72.
Evening Standard (London, England), June 2, 2006, p. 32.
Independent (London, England), June 3, 2004, p. 9; July 31, 2006, p. 28.
Nation, October 20, 2003, p. 25.
New Statesman, June 26, 2006, p. 65.
New York Times, September 7, 2003.
Observer (London, England), June 1, 2003, p. 5; September 14, 2003, p. 15.
W, September 2003, p. 370.