In 2003, Bangladesh-born Monica Ali’s debut novel, Brick Lane — about a Bangladeshi housewife struggling to adapt to life in London — was short-listed for the Man Booker prize and won her reviews that called her vividly drawn characters “Dickensian without ever resorting to caricature” and championed her ability to “shift gracefully from comedy to tragedy and back again.” But last April, as the 35-year-old Ali sat in her local pub, walking distance from her home in suburban south London, she mostly seemed like a witty, Oxford-educated mother of two who’d parceled out just enough time before picking her kids up at school to talk about her latest book, Alentejo Blue. In it, Ali shifts from the familiar territory of Brick Lane’s London immigrant society to a small, cash-strapped community in rural small-town Portugal whose inhabitants court the tourist dollar while fearing how their generations-old way of living will be upended by the modern world. Ali, who speaks in a manner so cultured and precise that when she laughs she actually says “ha-ha-ha,” began her writing career in a strictly New Age manner: by submitting her short stories for review to Internet groups. “Some people’s critques are harsh, but you think, ‘You’ve got a point there,’ and other people are harsh and you think, ‘They’re completely nuts and haven’t got the first idea about writing,’ ” said Ali, with another “ha-ha-ha.” “But what was really useful to me was to just get into the habit of regularly writing.”
L.A. WEEKLY:Even though this is only your second novel, Alentejo Blue will be called a departure. How does that sit with you?
MONICA ALI: People will think I’ve written two completely different books. I understand that. But I don’t quite see it that way. To me, Brick Lane is about a village transferred to an urban structure. So I’ve written about villages twice. Which is fairly surprising to me. I don’t have a nostalgic sense about community. I’m not somebody who feels very rooted personally in one particular place.
Do you think that’s because your family moved to England from Bangladesh during the 1971 civil war?
I was born in Dakha and grew up in the north of England near Manchester. Then I moved away to go to university and I lived in London. That’s not an itinerant existence by any means. I think [my feelings of having no roots] are more a product of living between two cultures with a Bangladeshi father and an English mother, always being slightly on the cusp, being in the shadow of the doorway.
Was it exotic to be a Bangladeshi kid in northern England?
In Bolton, where I grew up, there’s quite a large Asian population — Punjabis, Pakistanis, but not that many Bengalis. There wasn’t a big tight-knit Bangladeshi community. It was a very ordinary immigrant’s tale: My father was a civil engineer by background. Then he couldn’t find a job when we came here. So he was a bus conductor, worked in a factory, that sort of thing. Then they set up their own little shop selling trinkets. We never had any money. Actually, after my brother and I left home, my father went back to university and got a different kind of degree, and started lecturing part time in history and politics. So he made another life after that.
That feels straight from Brick Lane. How did Portugal get into your head?
Actually, this wasn’t the book I was planning to write next. I started a different book, the one I’m writing now, which is actually set in a hotel-restaurant kitchen in London and in the north of England. But I kept starting the first chapter, trying to force myself to focus in one particular direction, and all I could think about were the Alentejos, this region in Portugal where I’d been spending quite a lot of time. A series of images kept going off: an old man in a black felt fedora, a young local girl texting her boyfriend on her mobile phone and a man with a suitcase who was always walking away from me, although I didn’t know who he was or where he was going. In the end, I thought, “If you’re feeling a compulsion to write about something, the thing to do is to go with it.”
Did your second book seem harder to write than your first?
I think I misremember certain stages of writing. I had this idea in my head [while working on Alentejo Blue] that at least with Brick Lane, I knew exactly where I was going and I was writing from a position of knowing. Then I looked at my journals: My notes are full of anxiety and not knowing. [Laughs.] It’s all hard.
Was Mamarrosa based on a specific town?
The village we go to is not called Mamarrosa — that’s imaginary. And I’ve taken liberties with the place and so on. But, yeah, it’s very much inspired by the place I know so well.
How long have you been going to the mystery town whose name you obviously won’t give me?
Three years. It’s a wonderful place, the Alentejos. It’s very rural where our house is — there’s all this very red clay, which is baked quite hard and is quite a contrast with the ancient cork oaks. The air always smells gorgeous because of the eucalyptus and pine. You can drive on these narrow roads up to an hour and hardly see any houses along these winding, beautiful paths with trees on either side and gentle rolling hills. If I wander down to the bottom of our garden, I’ll see the shepherd bringing his sheep and sitting in the shade for the day while the lambs are playing, and you just feel like slowing down. It’s a completely different pace from the brittle, metropolitan life we lead in London.
In every small town, talking behind each other’s back is an ingrained part of the social fabric. How long did it take you to pick up on the local gossip?
About two seconds. I was straight in there, and it just goes around like wildfire. It’s the dynamic of the community.
Do people in your town in Portugal know what the book you’ve written is about?
Do you think any of your neighbors will pick up Alentejo Blue and think it’s about them?
People surprise you with that kind of thing. Either you think they’re going to spot themselves and they don’t. Or you think they won’t spot themselves and they will. There’s no one character that’s based on one individual. But it’s going to be published in Portuguese. There’s a big literary tradition and heritage in Portugal that’s quite visible in Lisbon. But it’s not so visible in the bits of Alentejo where I hang out. Bookshops aren’t a big feature of the location — I haven’t stumbled on one yet.
Have you gotten any unexpected reactions to the book?
Some time ago, a friend of mine read the manuscript and said, “I’m really glad that you’ve written about Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development.” Which was kind of hilarious. I said, “The rest of us call this ‘globalization.’ ”
ALENTEJO BLUE | By MONICA ALI | Scribner | 240 pages | $24 hardcover