Monica Ali – In the Kitchen
Feisty and tough, is how Monica Ali characterises herself. She is a novelist who creates controversy because she has the audacity to be both Asian and a woman who puts the spotlight on racism and inequality in modern Britain. She was born in Dhaka, Pakistan in 1967, to a white British mother and Pakistani father. When Monica was three they moved to Bolton, Lancashire. Insomnia made her a writer. When her son was born, he was a bad sleeper, so she worked at night. Her children are now 8 and 10 but she still works in an obsessive way.
She describes her early life as a traumatic time. Her father was not able to leave East Pakistan (as Bangladesh was then known) and was not in touch with the family for over 9 months.
It is from the north of England that she draws some of her characters in her new novel “In the Kitchen”, launched in Spain, in September, at the Hay Segovia Literary Festival.
Her first novel, Brick Lane, prompted the promise of book burning by Bengali men, because of her portrayal of the silent lives of Bengali women. Brick Lane was turned into a successful film of the same name. When asked is Brick Lane a flight between traditional and occidental democracies”? she said,
“The problem I faced was not from the “other” but was from the liberal press who told me – “you are not allowed to represent that community. Your voice is not authentic enough””.
Her second novel, Alentejo Blue, seemed to go askew, being based around an imaginary village in central Portugal. It followed a similar pattern, examining a collection of characters both ex-pats and Portuguese.
“In the Kitchen”, Ali returns to similar themes of Brick Lane, immigration and trafficking for prostitution, as she explores the internal and external life and breakdown of the Head Chef, Gabriel Lightfoot (Gabe). She calls him “a chef adrift”. As manager of a complex hotel restaurant, involving a staff representative of the United Nations, he begins to show the cracks inherent in a “modern man in his early 40’s”. As a character he is frustrating, distant and lovable. Some would argue not dissimilar to Ali herself.
For this book she spent time researching in 5 London Hotels. The reasoning behind this she says is because “kitchens are high pressure places enriched with comedy”. This kind of “research gives you a foundation to take liberties and to make things up”. She contrasts her research with the sanitised celebrity chef culture currently sweeping the UK and her desire to go deeper “to go below stairs,” “to explore the terrain of immigration beyond empire and the change of immigrant – Eastern Europeans in fields, Somali’s washing up – to uncover the reluctance of the UK to go into that space.
She has written three very different books and she promises more, but refuses to expose her current inspirations. She sees herself as British and notes “there are different ways of being British”. Although having never been back to Bangladesh, she follows the news, and comments that her parents, in particular her father, tell stories of Bangladesh to her children “of fighting tigers.” She feels her upbringing has given her a foot in each camp. “It makes you observant.” It is like “standing in the shadow of the doorway, having to fit in on both sides”. “Fiction does not work in straight lines. A novel is not only a novel. The problem with writing, with writing novels is that they are not engaged enough. A novel has a special power. It can do what other media cannot. Non fiction proceeds by candle light in a different way.”
As a teenager her favourite writers were Dickens, Flaubert and Dostoyevsky. Orwell has been an influence on her recent writing. She is critical of the huge trend for memoir to be linked to a novelist’s writing. In Brick Lane, the inspiration for her protagonist a poor Bengali woman who comes to the UK to marry, was her mother, rather than herself. Her mother underwent a social and cultural dislocation when she married in East Pakistan.
When questioned further about racism and British society she goes to ground behind the mask of “I am just a writer”. Not least because “fiction allows you to explore complexity – to take a nuance and not be obliged to come out with an answer”.
One senses a fierce intelligence that has been damaged by criticism and therefore she flips between attacking questioners with one sentence statements such as “I should be locked up” or “what do you think? and frustratingly refuses to open up to any questions that go much deeper than the superficial.
She assures us that if she had any answers to the way forward for world peace she would be with the United Nations, not writing novels.
Indeed if the world was collapsing she would be reading, writing or eating and so back to “In the Kitchen”. As Gabe’s life disintegrates, the reader is pulled into a mire of confusion. While he is exploring who he is, a dead body is found in the hotel cellar, his father dies and his girlfriend runs for sanity. Ali seems to have the gift of prophecy as the book accurately portrays some of the economic crisis that has spread over the UK and London in particular in recent months. This is explored through the eyes of a Labour MP and a business man, who Gabe hopes will bankroll his own restaurant. His father sees the British economy as a house of cards with no foundation. The crucial question raised by the MP is “can you ride it?” or indeed as the UK has found in recent months will “reality come around and bite you in the end”.
There are some moments of humour, notably when Gabe is questioned about a dirty plate by a pompous guest. He gives the plate his own version of “spit and polish”.
In all, “In the Kitchen” is worth reading for those glimpses of humour, intelligence, characterisation and daring.