“In the Kitchen” by Monica Ali

Nov 29, 2009 by

In the kitchen

British Asians:

Monica Ali was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to a Pakistani father and an English mother. The family immigrated to Bolton, England, when Ali was three years old.

Today 4.2 million immigrants from South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka) are living in the United Kingdom; their presence has caused this group to be named British Asians. Monica Ali may not consider herself a member of this group, but to the outsider she fits the profile of the young South Asian artist who often starts out writing about her own culture as she did in her debut “Brick Lane”.

Several very successful South Asians have shown up in the popular entertainment industry since the 1970s, such as Freddie Mercury forming the rock band “Queen” and music producer Biddu Appaiah who composed famous songs like “Kung Fu Fighting” and “I Love to Love”. In 1982, Ben Kingsley starred in his ground-breaking role as Mohandas Gandhi, and in the beginning of the new century, Parminder Nagra joined the US American medical drama series “ER” playing a doctor. Naveen Andrews, who started out in Hanif Kureishi’s film “London Kills Me” (1991) and the miniseries “Buddha of Suburbia” (1994), is now one of the main characters in the American TV series “Lost”.

Besides the obvious universal talent of the aforementioned artists and several others, the British film industry found it hard, at first, to see how the lives of Asian immigrants could be of interest to a wider audience. It was not until 1985, when the film “My Beautiful Laundrette”, written by Hanif Kureishi and directed by Stephen Frears, hit the movie theatres that the filmmakers got convinced of good stories hidden within the Asian community. This gave Asian artists a chance to address and display prejudices and urban myths in a satirical manner, forcing white Englishmen not only to laugh at the Asian people but also at their own stupidity. The miniseries “Buddha of Suburbia” and the comedy talk show “The Kumars at no. 42” charmed the audience with this humorous approach to such a delicate subject and unarmed many, also outside the British Isles.

British Asian writers first appeared in the beginning of the 1980s, and have since bred household names such as Hanif Kureishi, Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul and Raman Mundair. Now, a group of famous and upcoming British Asian writers have launched a website, “The Asian Writer”, where you can find many authors still unknown to the mainstream literature world in Europe.

Monica Ali:

Monica Ali started writing about her own culture and particular environment in “Brick Lane”, which follows a Bangladeshi woman settling down in an arranged marriage in East London. Eventually adapted for screen, the portrait of this woman, her choices and actions which include adultery, caused protests from the local community around the real Brick Lane. Yet the novel won the British Book Award prize “Newcomer of the Year” in 2004. Ali’s second book, “Alentejo Blue”, takes the reader across the water to Portugal with not one main voice but a set of voices, from a small village in the area called “Alentejo”.

In her latest novel, “In the Kitchen”, Ali returns to England and speaks through the voice of the white English Chef, Gabriel Lightfoot. Gabriel is a middle aged executive chef working in an underground kitchen in an old worn down hotel in central London. Here, he manages a multicultural staff from places like Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Russia. Often, Gabriel does not know whether his employees are refugees, illegal immigrants or part of the anonymous foreign low paid migrant workers doing “the odd job” in London. In order to make something of himself, he makes a plan for his life that involves buying his own restaurant and getting married to his girlfriend, Charlie. According to his plan, he will be leaving the kitchen in six months, so he has not bothered to get the proper names or personal data from his staff. But the sudden death of Yuri, a porter from Ukraine, changes everything.

Right from when Gabriel was young, he was set on becoming a chef in a restaurant decorated with the prestigious Michelin stars, but over the years he changes his goal, and steadily gains the necessary experience to become his own boss with his own place. Based on Gabriel’s working class background being from the northern county of Lancashire, we learn that people there still live with their nostalgic dream of a cohesive community. At the same time, while suffering from job losses, they feel threatened by immigrants, and therefore their racism is very much alive. Though having tried to distance himself from this background in order to gain his own life experience and values, Gabriel is forced back to face his past due to his father having terminal cancer. This gives him a new understanding of the complexity and secrets of his family, which went unnoticed to him as a child.

Shortly after the discovery of Yuri’s body, an Eastern European worker named Lena approaches Gabriel. With the police crawling all over the restaurant and especially down in the kitchen, Lena, being an illegal immigrant, doesn’t dare to go back in search of some hidden items. Since she is claiming to be a former sex-worker and a victim of human trafficking, Gabriel takes Lena under his wings and invites her to stay in his flat. During her stay, Lena becomes more than just a friend in need for him, and this threatens Gabriel’s carefully made plan of marriage with Charlie.

The novel is not only about shedding light on the life of migrant workers in the modern Britain. It also deals with the breakdown of a man’s dreams and hopes for a better future, which triggers both a loss of identity and values, and skeletons falling out of the family closet. Abuse and using other people to get what you want from life, and the awareness of doing so, are also an important issues.

Monica Ali shows the reader, that it doesn’t have to be the immediate family or friends who end up teaching you the facts of life. The unsettling images of Yuri’s dead body haunt Gabriel in his dreams and start a journey of searching for a place in the world. So he puts to a test, what he thought to be certainties in life.

Gabriel learns that truth can be found in the most unlikely places and that he cannot run from an unsolved past. Through Lena, he discovers that love goes beyond satisfying one’s own lust and desires. And to his regret, it finally dawns on him that you should hesitate trusting a suit with money. The strangers, who play a minor role in his life, end up being crucial contributors to “making life happen” instead of his original plan.

On a larger scale the story is about the fractured lives many people lead in Western societies today, which have come with the loss of close communities where you would club together with family and friends, with a solid sense of who you are, where you belong and what your national identity stands for. Somehow Gabriel has lost all this, while his father had managed to keep both a longterm relationship with his wife and his lifetime workplace. So Gabriel’s family up north symbolizes the past, and, at the same time, the security many people nowadays see in the extended families that people in cultures outside Europe seem to have.

From this change people might gain a freedom to choose and to leave their families, jobs or their life situation, whenever they want to. But there are no longer sacred truths and certainties anymore. Not aware of this, and in his crisis, Gabriel frantically seeks for the one truth and talks to two staff members. Nicolai represents the scientific approach to understanding why humans act and think the way they do. Oona represents the belief in a more new-age world view of destiny and faith. Gabriel himself rationalises his past failures and makes up stories of what his life is like, to cover up his loneliness and sense of not belonging anywhere. He has become a drifter in a multicultural metropolitan, and in order to gain control over his life, he tries to reason with himself, still following his plan, but he forgets the most important elements in life.

In choosing a white middle aged male from the executive level as main character, Monica Ali has surprised once again and has gone in a the complete opposite direction than with the young Bangladeshi woman, Nazneen, in “Brick Lane”. Ali’s understanding of the psychology of crisis and the detailed descriptions of Gabriel’s stimuli, thoughts and actions are simply brilliantly done. The language gives a vivid insight into the life and working conditions in particularily dark corners of our society.

The initial drama is well crafted with a multi-layered theme, but the breakdown of Gabriel’s world does not lead to any other realisations, besides him going back to reconnect with his roots.  Monica Ali paints a picture of the problems many people have to face in modern society. On the other hand, she does not make much use of the potential in the hard-earned lessons Gabriel has endured.
Therefore, as a reader, you end up feeling that “In the Kitchen” is treading water with a crisis that seems to go nowhere. You are left hungry for “the knot of open wounds” to be tied up and hope for at least some tangible conclusions that may lead to a new faith and understanding of life.

It is a shame the ending was not given the attention it deserved, when a longer and more detailed closure was expected and called for – a shame, because it sure is not due to a lack of skills, knowledge or talent of Monica Ali, which gives you the notion that the novel was ended in a hurry.

Lone Christensen

————————————————————————————————————-

Monica Ali appeared as a guest at the Danish Royal Library’s event “International Forfatterscence” which was filmed by the Danish national TV and later will be avaible to view on their webpage: http://www.dr.dk/Kultur/International_forfatterscene/20090916131146.htm
Books and film by Monica Ali:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_ss_1_5?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=monica+ali&sprefix=monic&sprefix=monic

British Asian writers in the UK:

www.theasianwriter.co.uk

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Twitter Weekly Updates for 2009-11-29

Nov 29, 2009 by

  • RT @sarahw: Stephen King is planning a possible sequel to THE SHINING, tenatively titled DOCTOR SLEEP. http://is.gd/52ZkP (via @Dave_White) #
  • Episode 53 is 2 hours long! #
  • Hmm… seem to be having some trouble uploading. Looks like you guys will have to wait a little longer. #

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Bookbabble Episode 53: There’s A Sequel For This?

Nov 29, 2009 by

Bookbabble Episode 53: There’s A Sequel For This?

Recorded 16 Nov 2009
Babblers: Bjorn, Marcel, Renee, Donny

Synopsis:

We are so agreeable with each other on this episode.  The group clobbers each other with this one: should classic works have sequels?  What would we consider as a sequel?  Which ones were good, not good, and shouldn’t have been written in the first place?  Dracula, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Gone with the Wind, Winnie the Pooh, JD Salinger, Shakespeare and many others get dragged into this debate.

 

Show Length:  2:00:17 mins

 

Mentioned

 

 

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Twitter Weekly Updates for 2009-11-22

Nov 22, 2009 by

  • Great chitchat with Brian Evenson! #
  • RT @donnyyap: Gallery of book covers: http://bit.ly/nCprW #
  • One of our guests, Crystal Koo, is featured in a newly released webzine by online publisher Rocketkapre at http://bit.ly/2iJs3P. @swordskill #
  • The crew discusses censorship, with guest Glenda Larke! Bookbabble Episode 51: We Can’t Let You Read That! http://bit.ly/1R6EKf #
  • The continuing saga of the Google Book Settlement: Google makes concessions on digital book deal. http://bit.ly/34UInV #
  • RT @thefictiondesk: Martin Amis writes about Vladimir Nabokov. Again. http://bit.ly/2syyae #
  • RT @bbcworld: Why Nabokov's son defied father's wish to burn final book http://bit.ly/1aVQ6l #
  • Man Asian Literary Prize goes to Chinese author Su Tong http://bit.ly/1Ev2XT #
  • An interview with award-winning author – Bookbabble Episode 52: Genre and Literature – Hanging out with Brian Evenson http://bit.ly/32ZYgq #
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Bookbabble Episode 52: Genre and Literature – Hanging out with Brian Evenson

Nov 14, 2009 by

Bookbabble Episode 52: Genre and Literature – Hanging out with Brian Evenson

Recorded 9 Nov 2009
Babblers: Bjorn, Marcel, Renee, Donny, François with guest Brian Evenson

Synopsis:

The group is pleased to have Brian Evenson, award-winning literary/horror author of Altmann’s Tongue, Last Days and The Open Curtain, among many others.  We discuss the man and his work in this interview, covering genres, literature, his work as the Chair of the Literary Arts Program at Brown University, translation works, ebooks and prodigious reading input.

 

Show Length: 1:27:23 mins

 

Brian Evenson on the Web

 

 

Mentioned

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  • Daniel Alarcon
  • Wells Tower
  • Tom McCarthy
  • Laird Barron
  • Shelley Jackson
  • Antoine Volodine
  • Underland Press

 

Books

 

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