Narrative recently caught up with Monica Ali as she marks the publication of her novel Love Marriage.
1. Who is your favorite character in fiction; your fave character in life?
Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich . . . I know some people find her insufferable for her overbearing, interfering ways. But I love all the fun that Austen has with her, and the heart of the book for me is not so much the love story with Knightley as it is the moral reckoning Emma has at the picnic at Box Hill. She realizes the awful truth of his reprimand about the way she has insulted poor Miss Bates. “How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates!” Self-knowledge, despite our therapy culture, is still frequently in short supply. And Emma is one of the finest examples in literature of how we fail or succeed in seeing ourselves as we really are.
2. A line (that you or someone else wrote) that continues to inspire you?
“In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.” The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. One mute is interesting, two is highly intriguing . . . who are they, and why are they always together? The opening line draws you in straight away.
3. The story, book, or poem you wish you could read again for the first time? What did it teach you?
A House for Mr Biswas by V. S. Naipaul is the story of one man’s struggle to carve out, against the odds, his place in the world. It’s also a sideways look at colonialism, race, and religion. It taught me that tragedy and comedy are inextricably entwined.
4. What’s a writing day for you?
At the moment, because I’m still in the middle of promoting this book, there’s not much routine. But when I’m writing, the day tends to be—do a few sun salutations, meditate, walk the dog, go to my desk. If it’s a bad day, if the words aren’t coming, then I’ll do more walking. That usually helps. If it’s a good day, then the dog is very dutiful about reminding me to get up and move. Also, I try to end each writing day before I run out of juice. It can be a long day or a short day. The point is to finish at a point where I think I know what I want to write next so that I don’t come to the desk “cold.” But I don’t always manage that. It’s very tempting to keep going when you’re on a roll.
5. Your cure for when the spirit flags?
Yoga and meditation. Also reading. The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard are my favorite comfort reading. Five volumes of sprawling family saga spanning from the 1930s to 1950s in which to lose myself. Howard is a sharp observer of human drama and psychology, and she writes about pain, loss, and longing superbly well. Somehow—for me—this works like some kind of balm.
6. Ten words you use most on the page? In life?
Apart from the, and, he, she, etc.? I don’t know! I do know that I tend to sprinkle in really and just rather liberally. But then I go back and take most of them out. In life? I don’t know either. Though I suspect one or two swear words might make it into the top ten.
7. What’s your current obsession?
The war in Ukraine. I keep doom-scrolling. It’s heartbreaking and scary and truly feels like we have reached a fork in the road. Which path will history take?
8. What’s the most useful criticism you’ve ever received?
I once had my hair cut short, and I was trying to convince myself that was a good decision. My husband told me I looked like a member of the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Brutal but to the point. I grew my hair back and have never been tempted to have it cut short again.
9. What did you know at age twelve that you wish you hadn’t forgotten; and/or what do you know now that you wish you knew then?
At the age of twelve I knew how to lose myself in a book. That’s almost impossible now because I’m always thinking analytically, about how this or that effect is achieved, why it works or doesn’t work. But I think that’s why I write, because writing is such an immersive experience (on the good days). I can leave myself behind.
10. To quote Auden, “O tell me the truth about love.” We’re all ears.
I’ve been telling anyone who asks that the book is about love and marriage. While that’s true, the engine of this novel is actually sex—infidelity, revenge sex, sexual addiction, covert incest, sexual violence, issues of sexual preference or identity. In narrative terms, sex is the propeller that moves the story along. In terms of character, sex is at the heart of how the protagonists struggle with their identities or mature into them. In terms of relationships and family dynamics, sex is pivotal in the creation of tension, drama, lies, and shame. In a Freudian sense it is every character’s weakness and strength. Sex is part of our identity; how we fall in line with other people’s expectations, how we hide our desires even from ourselves, how we limit ourselves because of societal expectations that we’ve imbibed and internalized or because of the way that male-female power dynamics function. For Yasmin, my protagonist, it’s an integral part of her growth, of her finding herself, the good bits and the bad bits of herself, and accepting them.
Finally, is there a passage from Love Marriage that you’d like to share with our readers?
In the Ghorami household sex was never mentioned. If the television was on and a kissing-with-tongues scene threatened the chaste and cardamom-scented home it was swiftly terminated by a flick of the black box. When Yasmin began her first period, her mother had slipped her a pack of Kotex Maxi Pads and murmured instructions not to touch the Quran. For Yasmin this was both confusing—she never touched the Quran anyway, except at the behest of her mother—and abundantly clear. Menstruation, as she had learned in a biology class, was linked to reproduction. And the dotted-line diagrams in the textbook were, surprisingly yet undeniably, linked to the actors who pushed their tongues into each other’s mouths, thus ruining everyone’s viewing pleasure.
Now, at the age of twenty-six, Yasmin knew all about sex. The human body had long since yielded its mysteries. She had slept with three men and was engaged to be married to the third, Joe, a fellow doctor at St Barnabas hospital. Her parents, Shaokat and Anisah, liked Joe because as a doctor he was automatically suitable, and because everyone liked Joe, he was gifted that way. If Anisah longed for her daughter to marry a good Muslim boy it was an opinion she kept to herself.