Monica Ali can’t bring herself to say much about her upcoming book. It’s contemporary, set between 2016 and 2017, in London, about two families with very different backgrounds. Beyond that, she can’t say more whilst the writing process is still under way. “Maybe it’s a superstition or something,” she says with a laugh, in an interview with Firstpost, during the Tata Lit Live! Festival in Mumbai. “My agent thinks it’s coming before Christmas. It’s not coming before Christmas,” she adds.
Given the long break she’s taken from writing, coming back to it was scary for her, in one way. “I started twice, novels which are now in my bottom drawer. I didn’t finish, I don’t want to finish. I got the fear. And I was just too wrapped up in thoughts of ‘this is a failure, you’re no good, stop writing’,” she says.
This fear, and break from writing, are largely a result of being boxed in as a BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) writer, after her debut Brick Lane. Ali created a sensational buzz in the publishing world even before Brick Lane came out in 2003. The book, about a Bangladeshi woman living in London, became an instant hit, receiving positive critical reviews, and was even nominated for the Man Booker Prize. Her next three novels, Alentejo Blue, In the Kitchen, and Untold Story, were all conceptual and thematic departures from the first, a shift which unsettled readers, not matching their expectations of the writer.
Among other things, readers criticised her for voicing protagonists of different demographics. “White men go anywhere and everywhere in their imagination. But somehow there’s a notion, slight unsaid, under the radar, that as a minority, as a brown woman, really all I’m doing is voicing my authenticity. I mean, there’s no hard work, talent, imagination, determination,” she says. It seems Ali, as a BAME writer, can only have authenticity as a brown woman, not as a person. “All of my characters, I’m drawing on myself, on other people in my imagination, it’s the same process. So it’s not like this mystical thing that is questionable if a brown woman does it,” she adds.
Still, even through all the fear and criticism, Ali couldn’t not write. “When I wasn’t writing, I was depressed. Because what I need to do in my life is to write. So, I am writing, and I am going to finish, and I am a bit scared if I let myself think about it. But actually, the thing is, I’m so wrapped up in the story and the characters, that’s taken over.” While writing, her primary responsibility is to her characters, not worrying about representation and so on. “I don’t feel there’s a duty for a writer to represent anything or to write about a particular topic in a particular way. That is death to all creative writing,” she says. “I’m a writer first and foremost.”
While she’s being honest to herself and writing about the things that come to her most organically, Ali is not oblivious to the political in the arts. “All writing is political. As George Orwell said, ‘the opinion that art has nothing to do with politics is itself a political opinion’,” she quotes. A writer can accept the culture they’re in or engage with it critically, either way making a political statement. “Even if you’re writing a novel about going shopping, getting a boyfriend, that’s political. Because it’s an acceptance of the world as it is. And if you have critical engagement, then you’re seen as a social writer or a political writer.” But art cannot be devoid of politics, because as a member of society, one is in constant dialogue with the world around them.
Instead of a set agenda then, Ali’s writing process starts with an idea, which she often comes upon through being aware of the world around her. “It’s a process of facing outward while being curious. Reading. Thinking. Meeting people. Talking to people. Keeping up with the news. Reading non-fiction.” Ali doesn’t believe in sitting around, waiting for the muse to strike. “It’s going to strike you a lot more if you keep attuned to what’s going on around you.” And she knows she’s found the right idea when she notices it in everything she’s reading or hearing, a bit like an alignment in the universe. “Every moment seems to be serendipitous. And it’s not. Because that’s what I’m really focused on.” A bit like method writing then? “Do you know, it really is,” she muses.
And once she has the idea, Ali dives into research, while being mindful to eventually put it away, and “not be led by the research to just cram in lots of facts that are irrelevant.” Armed with the facts, she’s scribbling notes and fragments onto notebooks, but the real writing only starts with the voices. “I can’t start writing the actual novel until I can hear the voices in my head. It sounds crazy. Maybe I am. Maybe we’re all a bit crazy. I need the names of the main characters. Don’t know how they come out. So I’ve got the names, I can hear the voices talking to me, then I can start.”
More tangibly, Ali finds two things particularly useful when writing. For one, she tries to stop writing each day while she still has some idea what’s going to happen next. “I try to leave off writing each day at a point where I haven’t run out of creative juice. I want to know what happens next.” So in theory, she’s never facing that terrifying blank page. And the other thing that helps is reading her work out loud — to her dog, who sits by her feet. “Because then you hear where the dialogue is false or where the rhythm [has] fallen in a way you hadn’t calculated. When the wrong words are stressed.”
Ali is most comfortable when presenting a warm, empathetic portrait of a place and the people populating it. “Good writing is about being empathetic, about listening, about being open. It also means sometimes confronting difficult truths. Going places that are uncomfortable.” And the way to this empathy is through nurturing one’s imagination. “Some people don’t exercise their imagination. It’s like a muscle. Empathy is a muscle, you have to exercise it,” she says. While the imagination isn’t nurtured and valued in most education systems, Ali reiterated its importance. “And I think the more you read fiction, the more it expands your imagination. Because that’s a tool for stepping into other people’s heads,” she says. And it’s this imaginative empathy that one can fully expect in Ali’s upcoming novel.
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Updated Date: Nov 30, 2019 10:26:15 IST