The Writing Life

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By Monica Ali
Sunday, June 25, 2006

How do you write? It's a question that comes up often; not one that I have seriously attempted to answer before. Sometimes "On a laptop" seems to suffice. That I rarely get beyond such superficialities is, perhaps, a reflection of my feeling that I don't need to know how I write. But the question is linked to another: What do you write about? I can get closer to an answer if I start there.

In his Nobel Lecture, Harold Pinter said that his plays are "engendered by a word, a line or an image." Of the writing process he remarked that "the characters . . . are not easy to live with. . . . You certainly can't dictate to them."

Nabokov would have snorted at this. "My characters," he famously said, "are galley slaves."

Strongly stated positions. I wonder if both do not protest too much.

I want to explore how my own material comes about. Brick Lane , my first book, was classic first novel material. It was born out of my own experience, whether in the family dynamic or in the so-called "themes" of intercultural or intergenerational conflict. But these "themes" are not a novel. They did not take me by the hand and lead me into a fictional world.

Nazneen, my heroine, did that. She was my beginning. Nazneen is born and brought up in a small village in Bangladesh. She came to me, I think, through my mother. My mother is white. She was born and brought up in a small town in the north of England. But she went to Bangladesh (East Pakistan, as it then was) to marry my father. And the experiences she spoke of to me, time and again, of total cultural and social dislocation, inscribed themselves deeply. When Nazneen goes to London to marry, I had three pairs of eyes through which to see: my own, hers and my mother's.

My second book, Alentejo Blue , is set in a rural village in the Portuguese backwater of the Alentejo region. It's not a book I had planned to write. I had begun work on a different book, set entirely in England. But I was spending time in Portugal, and even when I returned to London, my thoughts kept drifting back there. I had these images: an old man raising his hat, a black felt fedora, a cut on his hand; a local girl sending a text message to her boyfriend; a photograph of a middle-aged English woman on a donkey; a man, always walking away, always carrying a suitcase.

These images excited my interest. They were also curiously enervating. I did not want to write about a Portuguese backwater, and yet I knew I would. At first I thought I would filter everything through an interloper, a character who is a writer. I saw -- pretty quickly -- that this would not do. That character did not provide the driving impulse. The place itself did this, or -- to turn it around -- the place was the character.

To give voice to a place one has to develop a choral range. Initially I fought this, then, plunging in, I relished it. Altentejo Blue is written from the perspective of young and old; male and female; locals, expats and tourists. The fact that I did not, at first, want to do this stemmed -- at least in part -- from not wanting to do the work. Because this is the work, the real work, that a fiction writer does. To begin to inhabit another perspective is the hardest part of the hard labor of building a world out of words.

Most people, though, seem to find research more impressive. When Brick Lane was published, I was repeatedly asked how much research I had done. How did I go about it? When I said that I had done research but didn't consider it hugely important, I was met with a baffled response. Now, with Alentejo , I can say again, truthfully, that I have done the research. It seems to satisfy people. For me, research is a useful means of procrastination. (I'm not being entirely flippant. One needs to hesitate.)

But research is about knowing, and knowing is easy. Anyone who cares to can find out that there is overcrowding and drug abuse in the Bangladeshi community in London's East End. You don't even have to go there. You only need to know how to use a search engine.

There is another, more profound way in which research is useful to the fiction writer. Research gives you the courage to make things up. The task of the novelist is not to know. It is to imagine. Like a succubus, one must seduce and possess the character. How this is achieved, I do not know. Except that it is a state that one sinks into, and the rest -- not just knowledge, but style and technique -- are products that are available if you pay the price of time and dedication to the craft.

Asking myself questions about the material -- what is it? where does it come from? -- brings me closer to answering the original question: How do you write? I approach writing through character, and my approach to character is perhaps most easily visible in Nazneen, the protagonist of Brick Lane .

" What could not be changed must be borne. And since nothing could be changed, everything had to be borne. This principle ruled her life. It was mantra, fettle and challenge. "

This question, of what Nazneen can or cannot control, or feels she can or cannot, runs through the book. Do I, the author, believe in fate? Nearly every reader with whom I came into contact asked this.

But Fate holds as little interest for me as my horoscope. If I write about a religious woman who feels the beating of angel wings as she walks, it is not that I am interested in angels. The confluence of factors, external and internal, ("conditioning" and "nature") that gives rise to the beating wings is where my fascination lies. Nazneen struggles with what she can control in her life and what she can't. Because of her upbringing (her family, her social context) the struggle is framed in terms of fatalism and a competing urge toward freedom.

Issues of agency, it seems to me, are precisely what one grapples with when creating a character. If a character is behaving badly, the question to ask is why? Maybe the answer is "that's just how he is." But the author is always ascribing or withholding the power of volition. We ascribe background, a family, a setting, coincidence, chance. What will the character do? How free is he to choose?

As the author I can set a course, I can sit at the helm, but this ship is not a slave ship; I must take my turn below deck.

Although this is my writing method, it does not mean that like Nazneen, other characters are bound up in a consciousness of agency or otherwise. Indeed, most of us, when we're not busy theorizing against it, are little aware of anything other than our own, seemingly autonomous selfhood. With Nazneen, I could say, like a conscientious math pupil, I have shown my work.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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