Illustration by Michael Rea

Monica Ali: “I’m still sceptical about publishers’ real commitment to changing the industry”

The author reveals why she stopped writing and what people would be surprised to know about her
May 12, 2022

What is the first news event you can recall?

The settlement of the lawsuit brought against Distillers that compensated victims of Thalidomide in 1973. I was six years old, and I remember feeling shocked. Not by the images of the children born without limbs (after the drug had been prescribed to pregnant women to counter morning sickness), but by my mother explaining that these families had had to fight against the company responsible. This was a frightening new idea: these grown-ups, men in suits, appeared not to know right from wrong. 

If you could spend one day in one place at one moment in history, what would that be?

11th February 1990, when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Like so many people around the world, I watched the television coverage in tears as he walked hand-in-hand with Winnie through the vast crowds. Though, of course, South Africa continues to face many challenges, I would love to be transported back to experience the celebration, the optimism, the sheer joy of that day. 

What is your favourite quotation?

“The only lies for which we are truly punished are those we tell ourselves.” VS Naipaul, In a Free State

Which of your ancestors are you most proud of?

My great-grandmother, on my father’s side, who died before I was born. My dad used to tell stories about how people would come to consult her jinni about important issues. She would recite special mantras, listen to the jinni and then deliver the verdict. Sometimes she broke purdah and went missing. The jinni, she would explain, had taken her. It took much ingenuity for a woman to find a way of exercising power despite the deeply patriarchal system and my great-grandmother found a way to circumvent many constraints. 

Love Marriage is your first novel in 10 years. Why the gap?

I stopped writing. A healthy dose of self-doubt is essential for a writer, but I suffered a total loss of confidence, which is catastrophic. You need some level of self-belief. I became depressed when I wasn’t writing. What got me out of it was deciding to try writing television drama. Nothing ended up on screen but I had scripts commissioned and loved working collaboratively. Now I’m adapting Love Marriage for telly, so that “apprenticeship” has not gone to waste!

Are publishers less brave in what they feel they can put out these days?

There’s been a rush to publish “diverse” stories by “diverse” writers, which seemed to be initiated or intensified by BLM. That’s a good thing, but I’m still sceptical about the commitment to real change. There needs to be structural changes within the publishing industry to better reflect society. Unless that happens, the culture wars that are fought in this space are not going to go away. 

What have you changed your mind about?

The nature of addiction, thanks to In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Maté. The stories he tells about his patients and his insight and compassion reveal how addiction runs on a continuum through our society. We can be addicted to so many things—social media, stress, power, shopping—in order to medicate and conceal our fears or pain. 

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I practise vedic (mantra-based) meditation. 

What is the last piece of music, play, novel or film that brought you to tears?

Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique, the second movement, when I heard it on the radio recently. Though that was probably because I was missing my son. He plays it beautifully, and his piano is in my study so I’ve heard it many times.

What do you most regret?

Not being able to play an instrument. I had piano lessons as an adult with the intention of having fun and it being a relaxing hobby. Unfortunately, I couldn’t bring that attitude to bear so I’d be frantically practising scales, wishing I’d never put this burden on myself.

Monica Ali is the author of “Love Marriage” (Virago)