New Internationalist

Monica Ali

Issue 442

From feminism to fictional princesses, the award-winning author tells Rowenna Davis what’s on her mind.

What political cause do you feel most passionate about at the moment?

This year is the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. Since 1911 we’ve come an awfully long way. But why, in 2011, are women performing 66 per cent of the world’s work, producing 50 per cent of the world’s food, and yet only earning 10 per cent of world’s income and owning one per cent of the world’s property?

When I started at senior school we had a woman Prime Minister, the Sex Discrimination Act had already been passed, and it seemed that the need to fight for equality would be over by the time I had a daughter of my own. But when I walk around with my daughter, who’s 10, she sees billboards of virtually naked women and she asks me, ‘Why has that woman got no clothes on, mum?’ And then she answers her own question – ‘It’s to sell, isn’t it?’ And she’s right, of course. But it’s also the wholesale sexualization of the culture, and it’s been dressed up in terms of female empowerment and individual freedom, and I think it’s very hard to be a little girl growing up to see and make sense of that for yourself. So putting feminism back at the centre of the agenda is what I feel most passionate about right now.

What’s your biggest fear?

My biggest fear personally is not having enough time to do everything I want to do. In terms of the wider world – where to start? There’s so much to worry about: poverty, climate change, pollution, the arms industry, the oppression of women, over-population… the list is long. I think one of the biggest worries is that the problems can seem so overwhelming that people disengage and switch off, as if there’s nothing that can be done. But no problem is totally intractable if the political will is there. So I think that’s the challenge – to keep engaging people to make their personal contribution, and not see it as too small to count.

Do you believe in multiculturalism?

Yes. One of the brilliant things about living in London is how diverse it is. One of the weaknesses of the ‘official’ multicultural model, however, was the way it encouraged different groups to compete (for instance for funding) by emphasizing their differences. It’s great to have differences, but there also needs to be some emphasis on the things that bring us together.

‘Princess Diana was like a hand grenade lobbed into the heart of the royal family. She stuck two fingers up to the Establishment’

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

My kids and my dog, jumping on the bed. Also a cup of tea. Can’t start the day without one. After that, it’s whatever I’m working on. I’m always fired up about something. There’s also usually some sort of campaign on the go. At the moment it’s working on the membership committee of English PEN, which campaigns on behalf of writers around the world who have been imprisoned because of their writing. It’s a charity, and with all the funding cuts coming up, we need more members to secure our future. So the other day I was stuffing envelopes for a mailing.

What’s your earliest memory?

My mother reading The Story of Ferdinand to me and my brother on the flight out of Dhaka, when we left during the civil war. I was three and my brother was five.

What are you working on at the moment?

I have a new novel just out, inspired by Princess Diana, and that’s keeping me busy. It’s a ‘what if’ story. What if she hadn’t died? A lot of people on the left sneered at the public reaction when she died. But she fascinated me. She wouldn’t, as she said herself, ‘go quietly’. She was like a hand grenade lobbed into the heart of the royal family. She stuck two fingers up to the Establishment. I wanted to examine the possibility of reinventing a life. Above all, by taking my fictional princess completely out of her old context, I was interested in, as always, the nature of identity: what makes us who we are.

Monica Ali’s Untold Story, a novel inspired by Princess Diana, is published by Doubleday.

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