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Brick Lane

ICONS meets Monica Ali

Novelist Monica Ali broke onto the literary scene in 2003 with her dazzling novel of East London life, "Brick Lane". ICONS met her.

How did you come to write a book called Brick Lane? What’s the importance of the place for you?

I was writing a book about a Bangladeshi family, and where I grew up in the north of England, in Bolton, there was an Asian community, but it was mainly Gujarati, Punjabi, Pakistani, rather than Bangladeshi. When I came to write my novel I decided that I could have located it where I grew up but really the kind of symbol of the Bangla community in England is Brick Lane, at the heart of the Bangladeshi community. I live in London as well, so it was relatively easy for me to access for research purposes – so that’s why I chose Brick Lane.

As a Londoner now, how much contact do you have with the place – are you there a lot?

I don’t live there, but I visit, and I shop there – it’s good for buying mangoes in June! – it’s good for clothes shopping, I go to the restaurants. It’s a very vibrant place, because in recent years a lot of new boutiques have set up, bars and cafes, not just the traditional curry-houses, but a lot of young people have moved in. It’s changed somewhat the character of Brick Lane – not necessarily the estates that surround it. So yes, it’s a place I like to visit, and I follow what’s going on there, and the news. It’s in the news a lot, with George Galloway and the Respect Party, and there’s always programmes on about Brick Lane now… And I’m connected with a local charity which runs a youth scheme and there’s a sports facility – the Clement Attlee Foundation – and one of their projects is with youth workers there. It’s one of the few outdoor spaces and sports facilities, it’s a place that has a lot of overcrowding. I’m one of their patrons, so I have that connection too.

There’s an interesting balance, I think – it’s a place to celebrate as a symbol of diversity; but to others it represents a failure to integrate, a sort of ghettoisation. The debate is very present in your book – is this something that concerns you?

It’s one of the issues with overcrowded housing, that people want to stay there even when they get offered housing outside the area because, of course, all the facilities are there: the Bangladeshi bank is there, all the business, you do your shopping in Bangla language – that’s always an issue. But I think the converse is worse; the Government tried a scheme with asylum seekers of "dispersal" – that was the phrase used, "dispersal", send off Somali asylum seekers to parts of the country where there aren’t other Somalis; and I think that’s much, much worse. And there are issues of integration and assimilation, but I don’t think that’s the way forward. You can’t force people to go and live in isolation like that.

In your new book, Alentejo Blue, you venture much further off your familiar turf, to Portugal. How deliberate was the move, and how different was the writing experience as a result?

The old saying about writing is that you don’t choose the material, the material chooses you – this wasn’t the book that I was planning to write next, but I spend three or four months of the year in Portugal in this region called the Alentejo: it's very rural, very, very beautiful, and I found that even when I was back at my desk in London I was so fascinated with the life of the village that I was just drawn back to it, and in the end I couldn’t resist writing about it. And what I wanted to do was… there’s all these programmes on TV – life makeovers, A Place In The Sun - and all that literature like Under The Tuscan Sun, anything else with "sun" in the title…. They’re very, very popular, and I think it’s a dream a lot of Brits have, escaping to these pretty, white-washed, sun-baked villages. But what I wanted to do – which was sort of a paradox, through fiction – to inject a bit more realism – because I think a wild boar getting into your vegetable patches is quaint, it’s very trying if that happens, but I think there are deeper and more interesting issues to consider, so that’s what I wanted to explore in this book.

Did you enjoy writing it?

Yes, I had a great deal of enjoyment from writing it.

And presumably you did a lot of quite deliberate research…

As I say, I live there for part of the year, so the research is organic to a certain extent, but of course, yes, I do… I’m working on another book now, I do a lot of reading.

Where’s the new book set?

It’s set in England but, you know, research is the easy bit. It’s a very good way of putting off the hard work of writing – the importance of research is really to give you the courage to make things up, it’s important to do it. Then you feel licensed to make things up, which is really the job of a fiction writer.