Writer’s Voice: How to Find it
My father worked for East African Airways and gave me tickets to fly all over the world. The catch was we had no money and I had to travel on my own. Most of my travels were done between the age of twelve and eighteen. To avoid sleeping on an airport floor (which happened most of the time), I would talk to my fellow passengers and, sometimes, they would invite me to stay with them and show me around. Yes I was Couchsurfing before it got a name and a website!
Little did I know that these regular interactions -minor incidents in my life- would be the focus of my writing in the future. I wish I had kept in touch with these kind and generous people who invited a stranger to stay at their home.
At the age of sixteen, Dad sent me a Trans World Airline’s RTW ticket, a ticket that allows the user to fly to multiple destinations around the world for one price.
One of the stops was Los Angeles. It was early December. Bye, bye Miss American pie was being played non-stop. Shaft the movie and song were top of the charts. I met Ravi on the plane. A twenty-four year old student from India, he shared an apartment with his older brother in a two-storey building with an inner courtyard. He invited me to stay with him for a week and treated me royally. Ravi introduced me to a Danish smorgasbord. He and his brother took me to Disneyland and drove me down Wilshire Boulevard 9 (one of the longest city roads in the world).
Looking back through the eyes of an adult, I’m aghast at the risks I took. It never once entered my head that something could go wrong. And nothing did. Was it destiny or state of mind that assured my safety?
There were no beautifully prepared guidebooks. I walked all day, never knowing what I would find from one corner to the next. If I lost myself, I asked for directions. I had no camera and was never interested in taking photos. It was always the people who fascinated me.
Hong Kong was one of my favourites. A chance meeting with a street vendor became an everlasting memory. She was in her eighties, barely five-foot tall, her face, the texture of cured dark brown leather. She sat on the pavement, offering to sell me a bottle of Coke at the fraction of the regular price. I accepted.
Did I need a straw she asked? I crouched beside her and sipped my coke till the end. Returning the bottle and straw, I noticed she plucked the straw out of the bottle, dipped it in a bowl of water beside her, shook the straw in the air to dry then returned it to the box of straws on offer to her customers. At the age of twelve, I marvelled at her entrepreneurship, completely unbothered by the unhygienic consequences. I knew no better.
From the beginnings of my travels, what my own views were seemed irrelevant – perhaps because of my youth. I was more interested in learning and understanding the views of the individuals I met.
I had no camera, nor did I write a daily journal. Today, as these incidents come flooding back, my mind must have acted as a camera absorbing every detail. It’s as though I’m reviewing old home movies in my head. The events are so clear. They are set on the people that most tourists would ignore but with whom I had to engage, having as little money as they did.
If those memories haunted me like old home movies, why did my own views seem irrelevant? Likely no one would remark on someone such as the ancient Coca Cola seller nor include them in a book. To me people such as her were more important than I was.
Seeing the value and importance in often overlooked characters like the Hong Kong Coca Cola vender, was easy for me because I grew up treating others’ point of view as gospel. I had this tendency since the age of five, when my natural (Indian) mother had foisted me upon a home of strangers. An English working family who had no idea of my life in Africa. I realized that my only means of survival at that time lay in learning to assimilate as fast as possible. This meant listening and adapting to the rules and standards of my adopted family with no questions asked. Now as an adult, when I find myself in a new land I hate feeling out of place, and long to quickly and authentically learn and share in the culture I see. As such I am drawn towards those individuals who in my eyes truly represent the authentic culture I long to be a part of. While some might overlook people who seem unusual to their own cultural frame of reference – I have learned that the true path to understanding a culture is to embrace these individuals’ practices as my own for the time that I share in their culture.
I used the same ‘videocam’ style – like a video camera turned on to absorb the sights around it- on my first ever story ” The Exquisite Shambalaya”, the first chapter of ” Chasing Aphrodite”. Luckily, although most who read my story frowned, my editor allowed me to stick to this style. Not mentioning my name or describing myself in any way other than through what I saw, even though I was the protagonist in the book. By happenstance, I had created my very own and natural style of writing. I was fortunate to have found it from day one.
As in my childhood travels, the stories focussed on the down and out and the eccentrics. I chose Cyprus as the setting for my book because the locals were as eccentric as my community that once dwelt in Africa, who then were forced to disperse to enclaves around the world.
Why did these anecdotes appeal to me? Overnight, at the age of five, I was hauled out of a community in Africa that loved and protected me and thrown into a council estate of strangers in a small town in England. I knew neither their language nor their customs and they never thought to learn mine. In Chasing Aphrodite, the purpose of the journey was to recapture that lost community. Aphrodite became the symbol of that lost world. My travels and life, a desperate attempt to understand and fit in.
In one of my chapters, I describe a taxi journey skirting an endless beach in Cyprus, full of locals enjoying a picnic on a Sunday afternoon. I compare them to my own East Indian family’s picnics on similar beaches in Africa:
“Unlike here on Dhekelia Road where the locals dominated the beaches, there had been no sign of local Africans on Kunduchi Beach, save as accompanying servants or village urchins peering from behind sand dunes to watch the muindi* cavorting in the sun.”
Still later in the book, I write:
“As he gazed out at the revellers on the (Cypriot) beach, he was transported to another beach in Africa, where a native boy peered at him from behind a sand dune, much as he had spent his life peering at the alien world around him, trying in vain to understand it, to make it more manageable.”
So, after listening to all my ramblings, reminiscing on how my adventures and people watching lead me to develop my own style of writing, it’s your turn. Why do you write the way you do? How did you find your voice ? Have you found your voice?
*muindi – We used the colloquial Muindi, which means “(East) Indians”.
Going to the mailroom in my building, pinned to the notice board, I saw a toque. It was beige. Along its edges was written ‘Baguio City’ in bold dark letters.
Twenty years I had been living in this building. During the winter I had observed the occasional glove which, when found by the caretaker, was pinned to the board. I waited a week. The toque was still there. I had never seen one from the Philippines, let alone Baguio. The Philippines baked in heat and humidity all year round. What need was there for a toque?