Asian and diaspora fiction not very different: Monica Ali (Interview)

New Delhi, July 22 (Calcutta Tube) British novelist of Bangladeshi origin Monica Ali, who is a judge for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2010, says the English language is evolving in exciting new ways. She also believes diaspora fiction is not very different from Asian writing as in the end readers just want a good, well told story.

‘Writers such as Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul have introduced readers to English with a sub-continental inflection and that trend has continued with writers such as Gautam Malkani, for instance. Language is always fluid and evolving in exciting new ways,’ Ali told IANS in an e-mail interview from London.

She said crossover or diaspora fiction was not much different from Asian fiction because ‘readers were always for the same thing – a good story, well told’.

‘Apparently, there’s this thing called ‘post-colonial fiction’,’ Ali said.

The 43-year-old writer, born to a Bangladeshi father and a British mother, shot into the literary firmament in 2003 with her widely acclaimed novel ‘Brick Lane’ on the Asian diaspora in Britain. The book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003 and made into a movie in 2007.

Her subsequent books, ‘Alentejo Blue’ and ‘In the Kitchen’, set respectively in rural Portugal and in the chaotic corridors of a London hotel, throw light on the middle class and subaltern communities that inhabit suburbia and villages.

Ali is known for her moving insights into the lives of people of Asian origin and the white middle class in Britain.

‘I do enjoy doing research. It puts off the dreaded day when it is just you and the blank screen. I spent a lot of time in hotel kitchens. And, yes, I’ve been studying the British middle class. It has been a very long-term and continuing project. Every day is research! I think I have written about some difficult subjects, but I hope my books are fundamentally optimistic about human nature,’ she said.

Ali said all her books have been driven by the fact that ‘life is tough’. ‘That’s the way I feel anyway – life is tough. But humour and connecting to others can provide a way through,’ she said.

Ali, a social activist who fights against racism, is an intense writer.

‘I try to write with the door closed and inhabit only the world I’m creating on the page. Then I edit with the door open and an ideal reader in mind,’ she said.

An avid reader since childhood, Ali has been inspired by classics.

‘I read a lot of 19th century classics, Tolstoy, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Zola, Flaubert, etc. Also I read R.K. Narayan and V.S. Naipaul at an early age.

I don’t know if diaspora children read more than British children. Perhaps so, as a means of escape,’ she said.

Commenting on the role of literary awards, Ali observed that the ‘awards raised the profiles of writers’.

‘All prizes work in a similar way – to raise the writers’ profile. But I do hope that people write not in the hope of receiving prizes, but because they are artists and have something to say,’ she said.

The writer, who rates ‘Asian fiction highly’, said she was thrilled to be invited to the panel of the Man Asian Literary Prize.

‘I’m never invited to anything. I was thrilled to be invited on this panel – perhaps it will open more doors…’

Ali is working on a new book, but she refuses to divulge anything about it.

‘I can only promise you it is totally different,’ she said.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at

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