Monica Ali – Fiction is a way of seeing the world through another’s eyes

Monica Ali arrived in Hull posing the intriguing question Whose Story Is This? Introduced by Steve Dearden, the award-winning author of Brick Lane, addressed the Humber Mouth audience inside Hull Central Library on the second night of the annual literature festival.

Picture: Jerome Whittingham @Photomoments

Monica used an example of a young student of creative writing who had come to her with a question to introduce the issue of cultural appropriation. The student had asked as a white woman was it permissible for her to have Nigerian characters in her story.   

Monica had to answer to these questions of cultural authenticity with her first book Brick Lane. At the time some groups had felt she was misrepresenting the Bangladeshi community in the story. They had objected to the idea that her central character Nazneen has an affair. There was an outcry, but as the author pointed out tonight, it was just a small section of the Bangladeshi community that objected to the book, many others supported and defended her right to write the story she wanted to.

Untold Story, Monica Ali’s third novel from 2012, focusses around a princess figure, that on the surface bears no relation to Nazneen, but with a little digging Ali is able to draw a few parallels, between the two characters. Both are strong, spirited women who exist in a world, where they are expected to conform.

‘Fiction is away of seeing the world through another’s eyes, engendering empathy, it is not immediately obvious to you or others.’

Ali moves on to her second point suggesting the question over who gets heard is rooted in issues of power and privilege. Quoting from the study Writing The Future she reports that 74% of authors believe there is little or no diversity in the publishing industry, when publishing houses were asked the same question that figure rises even higher. Shockingly Ali suggests that writers from ethnic minority backgrounds are encouraged to increase the gang culture tropes, to fulfil and satisfy the narrow white view of minority communities. This suggests the publishers actively engage in pushing a stereotype, having created a market for such work, knowing that the product will sell again and again.

It is when talking about the industry Monica Ali appears to get most exercised, quoting figures and reports about the lack of diversity in publishing, how the structural system is weighted against increasing diversity, due to the unpaid interns: the London-centric publishers only attracting those who can afford to work six months for free.

‘You don’t have a duty to present an A-Z of a particular community. Neither do you have to feel loyalty to a community.’

When writing a family memoir – as Ali did as a birthday gift for her father recently – she pointed out that some writers will wait to publish after certain persons have passed on, so freeing them up to write their own truths, without fear of upsetting the family. Alternatively she advises writing the story first, then before publishing, sharing it with the family, to give them a chance to put their side across. The writer can then decide for themselves whether they then wish to adapt their manuscript.  

Sharing a sneak preview of a new story she is currently writing, Ali invites the audience into a young prospective bride’s bedroom on the eve of her parents meeting of the in-laws. The story immediately sets up a number of dramatic tensions as the protagonist, this time a twenty-something called Yasmin, worries incessantly, how her parents will react to her intended’s family.

She must contend with ribbing from her younger brother. It turns out that her new mother-in-law to be, once posed for some ‘feminist’ photos – images that her brother has found on the internet – they are a source of great concern and Yasmin is desperately trying to minimise the potential damage, this revelation might cause. Ali paints a warm and busy picture of modern family life, with a caring supportive father beautifully detailed in his brown suit and bifocals, ready and waiting to put his daughters mind at rest that everything will be okay.

Opening for questions from the floor, the first is about gender appropriation, how a writer might choose to assume a different identity in order to increase readership, target a particular demographic. I am reminded of Mohammed Moulessehoul, known as the ‘authentic voice of Arab woman‘ who wrote under his wife’s name, Yasmina Khadra.

The focus shifts from gender to that of education. A primary school teacher describes the recent educational reforms by Michael Gove as nothing short of monumental vandalism, stating that the children are tested now on what is easy to test, but they are left with a complete lack of ability, to find their voices as citizens. I like to think of it as they are being taught the mechanics of a subject, rather than the magic.

Another voice from the floor, suggests that it cannot all be the responsibility of schools and teachers, that actually this process begins in the home. If we want to encourage new voices, then reading stories to children is paramount. Ali jokes that in order to reach the children, you would have to remove the mobile phones, television and other modern technological distractions, to give them the time to sit down with a good book.

The take away from tonight is really that it should not be a question of may I but rather, can I? If I can write this story, I should do so from a position of humility, through diligent research and courage. The story belongs to the storyteller until it is out in the world, then it belongs to everyone else and they will each have their own interpretation and view of it.