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Tales of life with a foot in two worlds

A novel about the cultural struggles of Bangladeshi immigrants in London has turned Monica Ali into a sudden hot commodity.

October 08, 2003|Lewis Beale | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — The Next Big Thing is a slim, fine-boned woman with shoulder-length, auburn hair and caramel-colored skin.

She's polite, soft-spoken, seemingly unaffected by her overnight fame. And after a two-week U.S. book tour, she's anxiously looking forward to returning to her home in England, where she left her husband and their two small children.

Try as she might, however, 36-year-old Monica Ali can't escape her newfound fame. Her first novel, the charming and moving "Brick Lane" (Scribner), is not only a huge bestseller in Britain but is one of the finalists for this year's prestigious Man Booker Prize. Ali has been named by the literary journal Granta as one of the U.K.'s 20 best young novelists, and on this side of the pond her novel about Bangladeshi immigrants in London made the cover of the New York Times Book Review and was called "compassionate and entertaining" by Los Angeles Times critic Marina Budhos.

Yet none of this seems to have affected Ali in the least. "Most of the time, I'm at home with the kids and it just feels very, very separate from my life," she says. "When you spend a part of each day wiping noses and bottoms, it keeps your feet on the ground," she says of her children, ages 2 and 4.

Maybe it's this very grounding that makes "Brick Lane" so compelling. It's the story of Nazneen, a Bangladeshi village girl who is set up in an arranged marriage and moves to England with her husband, Chanu.

There, she has to deal with cultural disconnection of a high magnitude, an ambitious husband who is more talk than action and two daughters who are slowly but surely becoming Anglicized. Eventually, Nazneen takes a young lover, and when Chanu decides he wants to move the family back to Bangladesh, she must decide where her cultural and familial loyalties lie.

Ali describes her book as "a meditation on fate and free will, and the choices we each have to face daily. It's also an exploration of issues of identity and culture in an immigrant community, and it's a family saga with a good old-fashioned narrative."

As such, it's also the latest in a string of exciting novels coming from South Asia and the South Asian immigrant communities in Britain, Canada and the U.S., works like Rohinton Mistry's "A Fine Balance," Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things" and Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Namesake."

Yet even though this new immigrant literature -- which also includes writers as diverse as Zadie Smith and Chang-Rae Lee -- is receiving enormous critical attention, Ali doesn't see it as a major groundswell.

"I've seen reference to it," she says. "It's a fashion for Asia, anything ethnic, but then I think, who? Name them. And there's always a fashion in publishing. If there is something going on, it's because we've got good stories to tell that raise all these issues of identity, loss and longing, the struggle to survive in a new environment, nostalgia, the clash of cultures and values. These are things that touch on the human condition, so they reach out to people beyond those specific communities."

It's also about cultural acceptance, something Ali knows a lot about. Daughter of a Bangladeshi father and English mother, Ali was born in what was then known as East Pakistan but fled to England with her mother during the 1971 civil war that created the nation of Bangladesh. Her father, a government employee, followed shortly thereafter and opened a small knickknack store filled with jewelry and figurines -- "it was pretty junky," Ali says -- in the northern English town of Bolton.

Because of her mixed background, Ali says, "I wouldn't describe myself as English. I think of myself as British 'but.' There's something else. It's a slightly different sensibility. It's in the detail of a million different things. When I'm interviewed by a white or English journalist, it's 'Tell us about them.' But if I'm with Bangladeshis, I'm also slightly outside."

Ali received a degree from Oxford and worked in marketing. She always had the desire to be a writer -- she was a voracious reader as a kid -- and when her first child was born, she began experimenting with short stories. Inspired by tales her father told about village life in Bangladesh, culture clashes between first- and second-generation immigrants and a book about South Asian women working in the British garment industry, she began writing "Brick Lane."

Although the novel reflects some of Ali's own experiences, the character of Nazneen is, in a sense, a mirror image of Ali's mother. "When my mother went to Dhaka [the capitol of Bangladesh] she didn't know the language, didn't know anyone there, didn't know anything about the culture," Ali says. "She'd often talk to me about what it was like, that total cultural dislocation. With Nazneen, I sort of imagined the process in reverse."

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