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Monica Ali: ‘You have to have a core of self-belief to be a writer’

Having dual heritage has often made Monica Ali feel as though she’s expected to choose one or the other. But she’s proud to be both.

Born in Dhaka, in what is now Bangladesh, Monica Ali grew up in Bolton before attending Oxford where she studied PPE.

She didn’t take up writing until she was in her early thirties, when her first novel, Brick Lane was an overnight smash-hit. More books followed, but 10 years ago she had a crisis of confidence and stopped writing altogether. Now, after some therapy, rest and self-reflection she’s back, reinvigorated, with a new novel, Love Marriage, about two families from different cultures coming together in modern-day Britain.

Here, in her Letter to My Younger Self, she talks about growing up in Thatcher’s Britain, and how she owes her career to the Buddha of Suburbia.

My big preoccupation at 16 was getting out. We lived in a housing association estate and really, we had no money. I got a free place at the local private school and I became focused on education and saw university as my way out. At home it was quite difficult. I had to do a lot of sneaking around to go out and go to parties and go drinking and so on. There were a lot of secrets and lies and rows and tension – between my parents and between me and my father. My parents didn’t have a car so while other people’s parents would pick them up – so they knew where they were going – I could quite easily lie and get taken home by somebody else. I just wanted to have my freedom and that was a source of conflict.

If you met the 16-year-old Monica you’d think she was confident, outgoing. Up for a good time. Desperate to be cool. Looking back I think I was in a state of hypervigilance the whole time. There were two things that made me always on the lookout – skin colour and poverty. Living on the estate, I was always on the alert. Because this was the late Seventies, getting into the Eighties, and the tail-end of the National Front. There was still a lot of graffiti around. I certainly didn’t think of myself consciously as working that hard to fit in, but looking back I was, I really was. And fitting in is actually the opposite of belonging. You need to make the effort.

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I never thought I’d be a writer but reading was huge in my life. Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Zola. All that melodrama! I could always escape into a book. I think reading sort of saved me really, because I could become deeply involved in a novel and be transported. I can’t quite lose myself in a novel now the way I could as an adolescent, but writing does that now for me. It’s a kind of oblivion. There are still times when I can’t get there and it’s really frustrating and I can’t sink into it, I can’t get into that flow state. But then the world falls away and I fall away and I love that, that sort of altered state.

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If you’d told me at the age of 16 that I was going to be a writer I’d tell you you were insane. Up until I read The Buddha of Suburbiain my early 20s I didn’t have the faintest idea that might be something that I could do. And even then, it took me some more years to actually have the guts to try it. It was after I had two children, my daughter who was a baby and my son who was two. My grandfather died and we went to the funeral and we happened to have already booked this little holiday in the Lake District the next day. And I was carrying this galvanising feeling that you only have one life, so you’ve got to try the things that you really want to do. So I sat down and my husband took the children out for a couple of hours and I started what became Brick Lane. Until then I didn’t know what I wanted to do other than get a job, earn money, live my own life, have a garden, that sort of thing. I thought about the civil service, maybe becoming a lawyer, because I was good at arguing. But actually, I didn’t really want to do any of those jobs.

2003 With her debut novel, which was shortlisted for that year’s Man Booker Prize for Fiction Photo: SCOTT BARBOUR/GETTY IMAGES

People often asked me how I managed to write Brick Lane with two young children always around, and I’d say oh, you know, it was fine. I could write when they slept. But looking back, I was deluding myself. It was really hard. But on the other hand, once I got started it actually all happened really quickly. A friend who worked in publishing showed the first three chapters to her editor – I didn’t think anything of it really. Then I got a call from the editor saying, have you got any more? I sent the other two chapters and then I got another call saying, we want to make you an offer. It was so unexpected. Because this was a novel about a Bangladeshi housewife who spoke hardly any English. There was no reason whatsoever for me to think there would be any interest or appetite for it. Things have changed a bit since, but 20 years ago that sounded like a ludicrous proposition for a ‘hit’. So when I got that phone call it was very exciting – I did do a jig around the house. It didn’t seem real. But then I began to feel a bit anxious in case it put me off my stride, people looking over my shoulder. But actually, as soon as I got back to the writing, I didn’t feel that at all. It made no difference.

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If I could give advice to my younger self I’d tell her to go to therapy much sooner in life. I remember laughing when my therapist called certain things that had happened to me trauma. I hadn’t been beaten or abused. So it took me a while to understand and accept what she meant by that and to understand my tendency towards minimising events in my life. I’d also tell my younger self to get into meditation much sooner in life. A few years ago, I tried a mantra-based meditation and it was life changing. It really helped me be kinder to myself.

You have to have a core of self belief to be a writer. I think that was there for me from quite a young age, but then… I lost it. This is the first book I’ve published in 10 years. Because 10 years ago I stopped writing. And then I got depressed. And the depression made me less able to write and so it became this downward spiral. I lost my confidence.

Because I wrote about such a wide variety of things after Brick Lane, I think it confused people. I wrote about whatever interested me. So I wrote about a village in the Alentejo, an area that I know really well in Portugal. And then I wrote In the Kitchen, which was based in London and Lancashire, in a mill town not too dissimilar to the one I grew up in. Then I wrote Untold Story, about a fictional princess (the character was taken to be Princess Diana).

I think I was really naive in thinking that I could write about whatever I wanted, like a white male writer can. The response was bafflement. I remember one critic saying about Untold Story, “a curious marriage of author and subject matter”. People would ask, are you trying to get away from something? To me the question they really seemed to be asking was, are you trying to get away from brown people? Are you trying to get away from your ethnicity? I understand that it confused people but… my mum’s white, my father’s Bengali, I was born in Dhaka, but I’ve lived here all my life. So I felt I was being entirely true to who I am. It’s taken me a lot of therapy to understand that for me, that reaction felt like a kind of obliteration of the self. That sounds like hyperbole, but actually, I’m not exaggerating; this idea that I have to choose to be one thing or the other – it’s existential. I’m not one thing or the other, I’m both. And I’m glad to be both. So I think that critical reaction made me feel things which went very deep, which led to the loss of confidence and depression and all of that.

If I could go back to any point in my life, it would be when the kids were little. We used to have this house in Alentejo in Portugal, very rural. I would spend long summers out there, and friends would come and go, my husband would come and go. It was really dusty, that red dust which is very common out there, and the kids would roll around and cover themselves in this red mud. And then at the end of the day, just as the sun was going down, I would get the hose out and hose them down. And they’d be shrieking and jumping in and out of the spray. And it was just lovely. I would happily go back to that time.

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@Janeannie

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