Interview with Monica Ali

The acclaimed novelist and distinguished writer-in-residence at the University of Surrey talks about teaching, researching her novels and why she skipped all her lectures

February 16, 2017
Author Monica Ali, University of Surrey

Monica Ali is a Bangladeshi-born British author and writer. Her debut novel, Brick Lane, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. She was appointed the University of Surrey’s first distinguished writer-in-residence in 2015, and it was recently announced that she will continue in the role for another year. She delivers masterclasses and writing surgeries for students in the School of English and Languages while working on her novels.

Where and when were you born?
Dhaka, 1967. It was East Pakistan then; after the civil war, it became Bangladesh.

How has this shaped you?
If the war hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t have come to the UK. My parents were in the middle of applying for Australian work visas. If I’d grown up in Australia, or in Dhaka, would I still be the same person I am today? In my work I’m always exploring questions of identity and fate, how much we shape our own lives and how much we are shaped by events.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
When I first arrived [at Wadham College, Oxford] my politics tutor told me that going to lectures was a complete waste of time. I’m afraid I took him at his word, and didn’t go to a single lecture in my first two years. I did read a lot, but I regret that I didn’t make more use of all that the university had to offer.

What is the biggest misconception about your job?
People always ask, where do you get your ideas from? As if there’s some secret place, or as if they can be plucked from the sky. Ideas come out of all the books I read, research I do, news I hear, plays I see, television I watch, places I travel, people I meet, conversations I have…

What motivated you to take up the post of distinguished writer-in-residence at the University of Surrey?
I was motivated by the prefix. Just kidding. This is my second year in the post, and I was delighted when they asked me to stay on. I teach a class on aspects of craft (character, narrating, dialogue and so on) to a mixed group of undergraduate, MA, MFA and PhD students. I get a buzz out of witnessing all those writers in different stages of their development.

You have been involved with teaching at several universities. What have you gained from taking on these roles?
I was a visiting professor at Columbia University. I occasionally tutor an individual student [for City, University of London]. Surrey is my regular gig. Teaching forces me to stand back and analyse how I do what I do when I write. When I write, I’m not aware of process or technique, I work by feeling and instinct. It’s interesting to dig down and make conscious what has previously been, for me, subconscious.

If you were the higher education minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to the sector?
I’d scrap tuition fees. Anxiety about paying back enormous debts leads to education becoming all about employability. In the long run, I fear that the arts and humanities will suffer as a result.

To what extent can creative writing be taught?
When there’s no talent there, you can’t create it. When there is talent there, you can help to draw it out.

How do you approach researching material for a new novel?
Reading, talking to people, filling notebooks – all the usual things. The hard thing is not letting it show too much. There’s always a temptation to cram things into a novel just because you learned them in your research.

What event divided your life into “before” and “after”?
Having children. Once you have children, your purpose in life is clear. They don’t give your life meaning (you have to find that for yourself), but they bestow the great gift of purpose.

What advice do you give to your students?
Read. Write. You can’t be a good writer without being a good reader. And the desire to write is not enough. You have to get words on the page. Also, be curious. Be observant. Be alive to the world around you.

Should university be a “safe space” for students?
Other than in the literal, physical, sense, no. University should be a place where all ideas and preconceptions are exposed to challenge and scrutiny. I abhor the notion of “no platforming”.

What keeps you awake at night?
So many things. I do voluntary work at HMP Brixton, and the state of our prisons is scandalous. Trump. Brexit. A book I’m reading about bio-enhancement technology, which envisages a future in which the human race bifurcates between the enhanced and the non-enhanced.

What brings you comfort?
Box sets of HBO dramas.

What is the strangest letter or gift you have ever received?
When I was on a book tour in the States, a woman at a reading gave me a big basket of cupcakes that she’d baked. They were lovely, but I had to go and get on a plane and couldn’t take them with me.

Do you have a personal rule that you’ll never break?
No. I don’t like rules. Except perhaps, be curious. But I reserve the right to break it whenever I like.

Which lessons from history are important to remember today?
The actions of a tiny, incompetent terror group, the Black Hand, led to the First World War. We should remember that it is the reactions of governments that have the most potential to unleash chaos and violence. It is a lesson that has not yet been learned.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Go to those lectures.


Ann Rossiter has been named as the next chief executive of MillionPlus, the association for modern universities. In 2010, she became executive director of the Society of College, National and University Libraries, where she prioritised developing a digital library for UK higher education. She has previously been director of the thinktank Social Market Foundation and a special adviser in the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. She will take over from Pam Tatlow at MillionPlus at the end of March. “Modern universities have a crucial role to play in the success story that is UK higher education,” she said. “I am honoured to have the opportunity to represent them.”

Ranvir Singh has been inaugurated as chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire. She is best known for her broadcasting, and has presented Daybreak, ITV Evening News and Good Morning Britain, where she is currently political editor. During the ceremony, she said: “I am deeply honoured to be given the chance to lead the charge for a great place of learning, a place that hones passions, and propels young people out there to think big, and put those feelings and desires into action.” She was raised in Preston and attended the university for her postgraduate degree in broadcast journalism. In 2013, she received an honorary fellow­ship from Uclan for her contribution to broadcasting.

Edward Hanna has joined the School of Geography at the University of Lincoln. Professor Hanna will lead major research projects into the impact of climate change on Earth’s weather systems and rising sea levels.

Nora Ní Loideain, an expert in technology and democracy, has been named director of the Information Law and Policy Centre at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, an institute of the School of Advanced Studies, University of London.

Karen Blackett, chair of MediaCom, has been selected as the next chancellor of the University of Portsmouth. She will succeed broadcaster Sandi Toksvig in the role in October.

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