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Monica Ali

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English Literature

Monica Ali is a fiction writer who rose to prominence with her first novel titled Brick Lane (2003). She has since published four more books and written a selection of essays.

Monica Ali: Biography

Monica Ali was born in Dhaka, East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) in 1967 to a Bangladeshi father and English mother. The interracial marriage was quite controversial in the family. Ali's father, Hatem, went against the wishes of his family who had chosen a Bangladeshi bride for him when he married Ali's mother, Joyce. The newly married 'white woman' was uncommon in Bangladesh. Ali detailed in the London Evening Standard that:

People came from miles around to see this white woman.¹

Early life

When Monica was three, the Bangladesh Liberation War (1971) broke out, and her parents sought safety in England, settling in Bolton. Unfortunately, the family faced new challenges from an increasingly prominent anti-Asian sentiment in Britain. Racial tensions rose in the late 1960s as Britain experienced an influx of poor working-class immigrants. This led to the formation of right-wing parties (one of which was called the National Front) who held strong views against immigration. The family felt the effects of the racial tension, and Ali's father had difficulty finding a job for a while. In the Evening Standard, she also said that she experienced racism and that she had to walk past people carrying National Front signs.

Education

Ali received a lot of support in her academic pursuits from her parents: her mother was a counsellor, and her father was a teacher. She went on to study at Wadham College, Oxford, where she completed a degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. After graduating, she worked in a publishing house as a marketer and then moved and joined a branding agency. Around this time she met her future husband, Simon Torrance, who worked as a management consultant. Soon after, she became a mother to her first child, Felix, and had to stop working. It was during this period that she started writing short story fiction.

In May 2003, Monica Ali published her first book, Brick Lane. The book was very successful and led to Ali being on the Granta 2003 list for the '20 Best Young British Novelists Under 40'. The book was praised for giving a voice to British immigrants in a story full of literary depth and was adapted as a 2007 film by Director Sarah Gavron.

Ali has since gone on to publish four other books. Alentejo Blue (2006) is the story of a Portuguese village told through the lives of locals and tourists. Her next book In the Kitchen (2009) follows the life of an executive chef in a London restaurant who is faced with the challenge of managing a talented but difficult team of immigrant chefs. Untold Story (2011) is a 'what if?' novel that explores the life of Princess Diana if she had not died in a car accident. Finally, her fifth book, Love Marriage is coming in February 2022.

Facts about Monica Ali

  • Ali's work has been translated into 26 languages. The wide range of themes and locations she uses throughout her books has led to her gaining an international readership.

  • She was named in Granta's Best Young British Novelists in 2003. To be named in this prestigious award from the literary journal Granta is an exceptional achievement, especially for a debut novel. Ali was surprised at the extraordinary reception that the book received.
  • Brick Lane was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003.Brick Lane was included in the long list for the Man Booker Prize. Although Ali did not win the award, her book received a lot of attention in the media which prompted a lot of debate and discussion in the literary community. The prize is awarded annually to the best work of long-form fiction, and it has previously been awarded to authors such as Margaret Atwood for the Blind Assasin (2000) and Yann Martel for Life of Pi (2001).
  • Ali taught creative writing at Columbia University.

  • Ali opposed the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006.She used her voice to speak out for free expression in Britain, which she felt would be impeded by the proposed act. She discussed her views in more depth in a contribution to 'Free Expression Is No Offence', an essay collection published by Penguin. She wrote:

The price of putting this kind of curb on freedom of expression may seem like loose change to some; to others it is a king's ransom. It must be wholeheartedly opposed.²

  • Ali serves as patron of the Hopscotch Women's Center charity.The charity was created to support ethnic minority families new to the UK. The organisation especially seeks to empower young women. In an interview for 'Writer make worlds', Ali mentioned that most of the charity's clients are of Bangladeshi origin or heritage. Perhaps this creates a sense of duty for her to help Bangladeshi women who lack support to assimilate into society. Most of the clients of the charity also need help with everyday tasks like handling cash, taking the bus, or ordering a cup of coffee. Although these activities may seem trivial, they can be quite a daunting task for a woman who lacks fluency in English. The question of what's stopping these women from venturing out into the world may come to mind, and Ali answers by saying that the women are often controlled by their husbands or other male family members.³

Brick Lane (2003)

When asked about the inspiration for Brick Lane, Ali explains that the most vivid sources of inspiration for her are the 'conflict between first- and second-generation immigrants' and also 'stories that my father used to tell about village life'. Although Ali lacks first-hand experience about the lives of many of the characters she explores, she does have an authentic source of knowledge through her parents who lived both in the UK and Bangladesh.

Monica Ali's debut novel presents the story of Nazneen, a girl who was born and raised in a Bangladeshi village but moves to London at 18 after an arranged marriage with Chanu, a man nearly twice her age. Nazneen faces the challenge of adapting to a completely different lifestyle: this includes learning to live with her new husband in a culture that is foreign to her.

Nazneen leaves her family and her rural home to live in a low-income housing estate in East London's Brick Lane. She spends her days cooking, cleaning, and looking after her husband. With the permission of her husband, Nazneen becomes friends with Bengali women in the local community.

Brick Lane (also known as Banglatown) is a real street in the East End of London and is home to the UK's largest Bangladeshi population. For Bangladeshi residents in the UK, the Brick Lane community is the closest comparison they have to Bangladesh. It is this community that the novel is centred around.

Nazneen has two children with Chanu, whom she raises in accordance with the ideals of tradition and pride that Chanu imposes. Nazneen later falls in love with Karim, a young man in the local community. In Karim, Nazneen sees a means of finding a place in the world, as he introduces her to the city beyond the small community she has been confined to for most of her life.

Nazneen longs to talk to her sister, Hasina, who is still in Bangladesh. They write letters to each other to discuss their lives and the hardships they are going through. Hasina, in contrast to her sister, falls in love and gets married. However, her happiness is shattered when her husband becomes violent towards her, and then she flees. Hasina lives with the tough reality of being a single woman in Bangladesh, falling into prostitution, and then another failed marriage.

Hasina's and Nazneen's contrasting lives and views on love and home present a comparative look on femininity and family in the different Bangladeshi communities. Nazneen and Hasina are both shaped by their landscapes, and the trials they encounter throughout their lives define them.

With this novel, Monica Ali gives a voice to a community that is rarely heard. She opens the gateway for conversation and discussion on immigrant experience and multiculturalism in London, and its relationship with 'homeland' and the resulting diaspora.

Brick Lane themes

Let's explore some of the novel's themes in more detail.

Fate

The concept of fate is played out as a controlling force in the lives of many characters in Brick Lane.

Since birth, Nazneen has been led to believe that people have no influence over the outcome of their lives. Nazneen inherits this belief from her parents, who surrender to fate in the face of hardship, convinced that they have no right to alter the divine decree. As a result, Nazneen takes life very seriously; she develops a sense of deep reserve which makes it difficult for her to express her true feelings. When shown a photo of her husband, who is 'at least forty years old' and has 'a face like a frog', she doesn't raise any objections. On the contrary, she feels that she must accept him since her parents have made the decision. Further on in her married life, Nazneen serves her husband's needs without complaints, almost as if she were his maid.

On the other hand, Hasina's life is full of suffering and setbacks, and she thinks that God has willed her to suffer. When her first marriage ends by her running away from her abusive husband, Hasina blames herself for disobeying her parents by entering into a love marriage in the first place. This leads her into negative cycles of self-blame that cause her serious mental health problems.

Towards the end of the novel, Nazneen and Hasina learn to understand that they don't have to be victims to fate. Their lives, like everyone else's, are made up of joy and sorrow. As they learn to let go of the notion of victimhood to their fate they become stronger against adversity and more independent as women in society.

Assimilation

The difficulties that immigrants have in trying to assimilate into British culture is a theme that's played out in the lives of many of the characters in Brick Lane. The task of maintaining cultural and religious values from the East with life in Britain is a dilemma that the majority of immigrants face.

Nazneen's husband, Chanu, is a prime example of a character who, despite his best efforts, struggles to assimilate into British culture. Chanu came to Britain full of optimism and dreams. He thought that he would 'join the Civil service and become Private Secretary to the Prime Minister'. He thought of himself as being higher class and smarter than most immigrants, stating that he 'stepped off an airplane with a degree certificate', while the other immigrants 'jumped off the boat possessing only lice on their head'.

Chanu soon realises that he is subject to institutional racism: in his low-level office job, he notices that his white colleagues receive preferential treatment over him. He struggles to progress in his career while his white colleagues seem to rapidly climb the career ladder. His encounter with the Lion Hearts, an anti-Muslim hate group, makes him realise the dire reality of racism in Britain. He eventually leaves the job to work as a cab driver and has to accept the reality of his position in society.

Chanu's inability to climb the ladder of success may be mostly down to his lack of responsibility and skills, but his position as an immigrant certainly doesn't help.

Cultural sexism

The female characters in Brick Lane are subject to sexism, whether it's in Bangladesh or Britain.

In Bangladesh, the two sisters, Nazneen and Hasina, are born into a community that generally considers men superior to women. Their father Hamid, would have preferred to have sons instead of daughters, as boys are valued more in Bangladeshi society. When he was told about the birth of Nazneen, Hamid responded by saying '"I know. Never mind [...] What can you do?" And he went away again'.

When Hasina elopes with Malek, Hamid searches for them and occupies himself by 'cursing his whore-pig daughter whose head would be severed the moment she came crawling back'. When he realises that she won't return, he dismisses the matter and acts as if he never had a daughter in the first place.

As a wife, Nazneen is treated with little respect by her husband Chanu. Chanu takes pride in his education, while only giving credit to his wife for her housekeeping ability. He expects her to cook, clean, and bear his children, but rarely considers her opinion. Despite this lack of respect, Nazneen is content with Chanu because he doesn't beat her. Her expectations are low from other marriages that she's witnessed.

Monica Ali understands that Bangladeshi women in the UK face the double disadvantage of being minorities in Western society, as well as being subject to the sexist culture in the background of the lives of British immigrants. Nazneen's story displays the reality of these issues while also showing a path of overcoming them.

Brick Lane character analysis

Let's discuss the most relevant characters of the novel.

Nazneen

Nazneen is the central character in the book. In the early part of her life, she held onto her mother's belief that her life is subject to God's will, which made her quite fearful and timid. Newlywed, Nazneen moves to the UK with her husband, Chanu. She feels isolated and alienated in a foreign country. Later in life, Nazneen takes steps to empower herself: she gets a job as a seamstress and stands up to her husband. She engages in a romantic affair with Karim, which ends when she realises that their love has no real foundation.

She splits from her husband when he chooses to return to Bangladesh and makes a new life for herself in the UK. In the end, Nazneen has overcome her passivity and meekness by taking fate into her own hands.

Chanu

Chanu has emigrated to the UK from Bangladesh. He's described as having a frog-like face and being overweight. Compared to most people in his community, Chanu is highly educated: he holds a degree in English literature and takes pride in that fact. Despite his intellectual abilities, he lacks focus and perseverance, leading him to leave his job as a low-level civil servant to work as a cab driver. He doesn't have a strong relationship with his wife, and they separate when he decides to return to Bangladesh.

Hasina

Hasina is Nazneen's sister, and in many ways, her opposite. While Hasina is described as beautiful and bold, Nazneen is plain and shy. Hasina has always chosen to take her fate into her own hands. She goes against the wishes of her parents by having a love marriage, she runs away from her abusive husband and finds different jobs to support herself. Hasina's life is conveyed in the book through the letters that she sends to her sister, which also emphasise the distance between the sisters.

Karim

Karim is a passionate young man who first appears in Brick Lane as a westernised Muslim. His character portrays the archetype of Western seduction of the immigrant Bangladeshi girl and poses another challenge of assimilation for Nazneen. Later, he develops an interest in traditional customs and he goes on to form the pro-Islamic group called the Bengal Tigers. He enters into an affair with Nazneen, which breaks down quickly as the pair realise that their relationship was built on fanatical ideals.

Razia

Razia is Nazneen's closest friend and neighbour in the East London community. She's described as a kind and loving girl with a wicked sense of humour. Her self-confidence in learning English and working as a seamstress inspires Nazneen to realise her own worth. Razia supports her children after her husband dies and goes on to build a successful sewing business.

Hamid

Hamid is Nazneen's and Hasina the father of Nazneen and Hasina. He's a wealthy man in his village, who owns a paddy field. He is unfaithful to his wife and becomes furious when his daughter Hasina elopes with Malek. He arranges a marriage for his daughter Nazneen to Chanu, a man who is around 20 years her senior.

Monica Ali (1967-present) - Key takeaways

  • Monica Ali is a British writer who was born in Bangladesh.
  • Monica Ali's first book is Brick Lane.
  • Brick Lane was a very successful novel and was nominated for multiple awards.
  • Brick Lane includes themes such as fate, assimilation, and sexism.
  • The characters in Brick Lane shed light on the situations faced by many immigrants in the West.

1 Dipal Acharyae, 'My London: Monica Ali', Evening Standard (London, England), 2006.

2 Lisa Appignanesi, Free Expression is No Offence, 2005.

3 C. S. Bhagya, 'In Monica Ali's Worlds'. Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds, 2021.

4 Monica Ali, 'Where I'm coming from', Evening Standard, 2003.

Monica Ali

Through the female characters in the UK and in Bangladesh, Monica Ali shines the light on the lives of women who are restricted in their society. Women in Bangladesh find themselves restricted to private spheresof life, such as housekeeping and raising children. In the UK, immigrant women struggled to assimilate into British culture and feel at home.

Monica Ali is the author of Brick Lane. Although she has never lived in the Brick Lane community, Monica Ali has a Bengali heritage. Her father is from Bangladesh, and she was born there before emigrating to the UK. 

Brick Lane is a British multicultural fiction novel.

The topic of sexuality is explored in the lives of the central characters of Nazneen and Hasina. Nazneen follows her mothers' advice to remain 'pure', then enters into an arranged marriage with a man she doesn't love. Hasina takes a different path and expresses her sexuality by entering into a love marriage. The traditional culture in Bangladesh encourages women to lead private lives and not use their voices to express themselves in public.

Final Monica Ali Quiz

Question

Where was Monica Ali born?

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Answer

Monica Ali was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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Why did Monica Ali leave Bangladesh?

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Answer

Monica Ali left Bangladesh with her family because of the civil war that broke out.

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What university did Monica Ali graduate from?


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Oxford University

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How many languages has Monica Ali’s works been translated into?


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26

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Monica Ali opposed the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006.


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Answer

True. 

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Brick Lane is Monica Ali’s debut novel.


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Answer

True.

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Who is the central character in Brick Lane?


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Answer

Nazneen.

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How does Nazneen enter the UK?


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She arrives in the UK after her arranged marriage to Chanu.

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The Brick Lane community is predominantly Bengali.


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True. 

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What is the name of the anti-muslim hate group in the Brick Lane novel?


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Answer

Lion Hearts

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What year was Nazneen born?

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1967

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How old is Hasina when she elopes?

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16

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Why does Hasina leave her first husband?


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He physically abuses her.

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Why does Chanu leave his civil service job?


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He doesn't believe he will get promoted after he witnesses his white colleague’s progress before him.

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What is the name of the political group that Karim is chairman of?


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The Bengal Tigers

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Why does Chanu borrow money from Mrs. Islam?


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To pay for a sewing machine so Nazneen can work with it.

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What subject does Chanu hold a degree in?


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English literature.

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What are the names of Nazneen’ children?


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Answer

 Raqib, Shahana and Bibi.

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Why does Shahana run away from home?


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She doesn't want to go to Bangladesh with Chanu.

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What was Karim's motivation for being a part of the Bengal Tigers?


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Karim was primarily interested in his personal goals and ambitions in relation to his involvement in the Bengal Tigers organization.

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Why was Dr. Azad concerned about the youth in the Brick Lane community?


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There was a growing drug problem among young people in the community.

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How do Hasina and Nazneen communicate with each other?


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Hasina and Nazneen often send each other letters discussing the major news in their lives.

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Why does Hasina have to leave her factory job?


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Rumours spread that Hasina is sleeping with the boss for financial benefit and the factory workers look down on her. 

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Why does Razia start her own business?


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After the death of her husband Razia has no source of income, so she uses her initiative and starts a sewing business.

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How does Rubpan die?


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She dies by committing suicide, which is revealed in a letter from Hasina to Nazneen.

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What is the largest religion among the Bangladeshi population?

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Islam

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What year did the Bangladesh liberation war take place?

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1971

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How many Bangladeshi people were killed in the Bangladesh Liberation War?


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It is estimated that between 200,000 to 3 million people died.

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How did the 9/11 attacks affect the British Immigrant population?


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The immigrant population in the UK were the target of many racist and anti-immigration groups such as the EDL. 

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How did Monica Ali’s father inspire her to write Brick Lane?


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Her father often told stories about life in Bangladesh.

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What subject did Monica Ali get her degree in?


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Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE).

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Which city Bangladesh are the majority of people in Tower Hamlets from?


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 The city of Syhlet.

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What is the nickname of the borough of Tower Hamlets?

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Banglatown.

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What are the major themes explored in Brick Lane?


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Fate, assimilation and sexism.

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How does Monica Ali show Bangladeshi culture in Brick Lane?


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The reader is exposed to Bangladeshi culture at the start of the novel when Nazneen lives in Bangladesh. Throughout the novel, the reader learns about Bangladeshi culture from the letters that Hasina writes to Nazneen.

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