My writing isn’t just story-telling. It captures a philosophy of how I live and the values that are important to me.
Each day I walk along a tight rope separating my past from my present. I’ll see a face and tell myself it’s my aunt come to greet me, then realize that aunt died a decade ago and the face I see today was really the face of my aunt all those years ago. How does that help me to steer through my life today? And pass on values that are priceless to me yet seem archaic to my two sons in their early twenties?
My stories and blogs crystallize what those values and beliefs are. Each story has its own destiny and sometimes it shows me how prejudiced I am when I take those prejudices and treat them as values or morals to hand down to my boys.
How to Inspire Your Children
“Emil, why do you carry a tattered plastic bag around with you?” People ask.
If they paid attention, they would notice how often the bag was changed. That each replacement bag bore the name of some obscure emporium from the far corners of the world. It didn’t bother me whether someone noticed or not. It was a game I played with myself. Would this person notice the bag or not ? How many times did I get it right? How many times did someone notice?
What do you think?
Where did I get the notion? From my mother of course.
Here is another extract from my book Chasing Aphrodite:
His natural, East Indian, mother had spent her life in the outskirts of London inching her way to the summit of the rich and fashionable, without ever quite managing to get there. Her favourite store was Harrods of Knightsbridge. She would peruse the papers for notice of its semi-annual sales. Then, she would charge down to London, jostling her way to the marble-floored food emporium in its basement. Once there, she would disgorge all her saved shillings and ha’pennies to invest in their cheapest product – invariably a salt shaker also on sale. She would then insist on half-a-dozen FREE Harrods bags – forest green and bearing the name of Harrods in tasteful gold lettering with, of course, Her Majesty The Queen’s insignia and the motto Purveyors to the Royal Household since 1910.
These bags, which were the real investment, would grace her arm all year round. Mother carried them proudly, like an expensive haute couture accessory she could covet only in her dreams.
A rebel born out of circumstance, I would travel the world, looking for free plastic bags with obscure names from obscure places- a name of a store selling soap and perfume in Limassol, or The Argosy in Manhattan, an antiquarian book store. I would return home conjecturing if anyone would know where that bag came from. Instead, tatty the bag had become from constant wear. Today, I’m sporting a forest green bag with gold lettering from Hatchards of Piccadilly, booksellers since 1797, bearing the royal crests of the Queen, Prince Philip and the prince of Wales.
As my response to the utter dictatorship my mother practised, I would fight everything my mum asked me to do or any opinion she had. Looking back, it’s remarkable how many of her traits I carried with me as I grew older.
She was a news junkie. So am I.
She was highly motivated, sometimes beyond obsession, to succeed in the social and wealth motivated hierarchy of her time.
I am as obsessed in accomplishing my goals, such as my writing.
Growing up under my mum’s regime, two alternatives became clear. Either I rebel or capitulate, becoming a subservient puppet to her every whim. I became a rebel, failing high school and missing university. It took me over 300 lessons before I passed my driver’s test. Even the currency changed in the time it took me to obtain a licence. Mum would buy me the most expensive clothes, well above what was appropriate for my age. From family photos taken from when I was five, I was never without a tie around my neck and wearing bespoke suits. Today, you will only see me in jogging pants or shorts.
But what floors me is how closely I followed her in choosing the right haute couture plastic bag to sport on my arm. I assure you it was subconscious, only coming to the surface as I write.
A year ago, my lifetime independent mother was struck down with dementia. Applying to her lawyers -Beaumont, Church and Proctor – for a copy of her will, they sent me a note of instructions from my mother.
“You will find the original copy of my will in a green Harrod’s bag on a hook behind my bathroom, beneath my dressing gown.”
To the end, Harrods delivered on her wishes.
Having lived in Canada, far longer than in England, I still retain my favourite snacks and drinks from the old country like Lucozade , a golden, fizzy energy drink and Topic, a nutty bar of chocolate and nougat.
One summer day while touring Nicosia in Cyprus, I heard nothing from my teenage boys but,
“Pops, you’re so old fashioned. Move with the times.”
On arriving back home to Pyla , a seaside village, they promptly got off the bus and ran into the Romantic Grocery Store.
By the time I had realized what they had done and chased after them, they had already bought their goodies while I was still catching my breath.
And what had they bought ?
Mini bottles of Lucozade and bars of Topic.
Have you any traits that are those of your parents? Do your children follow any of yours?
Rosie, my biological East Indian mother, is in an age care centre suffering from dementia. For the past week, I’ve been rummaging through her home tidying up and clearing old boxes of letters and artifacts. A box of coins fell into my hands – most of them gold sovereigns and guineas. Among all that gold was a copper penny from England, circa 1945. I hadn’t seen it since I was seventeen. I hadn’t thought about that penny since I wrote this in “Chasing Aphrodite“:
He abruptly crossed the road and stared at what was, once, Lulu’s old home. Each day on his way home from school, he was expected to visit her. Lulu was Flo’s mum and Flo, his foster mum.
“Tell Flo I’m at the end of me tether.”
She would say this each day as she fed her three cats or pottered around her sitting room dusting furniture. Close to ninety, her face leathered and tanned, she would then sit, regally ensconced, in her favourite armchair, her eyes glued to Coronation Street. She reminded him of a ball of crumpled brown paper and just as light to hold. Around her, the paint and wallpaper had slowly peeled away, while bric-a-brac cluttered every nook and side table. A pair of startlingly yellow budgerigars brashly chirruped on their shiny silver perches.
He last visited her when he was seventeen, shortly before she died. It happened on a Friday, when she would always have a special treat in store for him. As he kissed her goodbye, she paused.
” ‘ang on a minute,” she said.
” I almost forgot.” from one corner of her table, she extracted the latest copy of Bimbo, a comic for five-to-eight-year-olds and handed it to him. In her other hand she held out a penny, superannuated long ago by decimalization. It was the only tangible reminder he had left of her.”
At Rosie’s home, the penny weighed heavy in my hand. Rosie could never display such sentimentality- so strong, ruthless and single minded was she in pursuing her worldly goals. Despite all her independence and self-achieved power, she now occupies a cell in Generations Care Home for chronic dementia. At her last weigh-in, she was stable at 88 pounds ( 40 kilos ), reminding me once again of that “ball of crumpled brown paper” I had once thought of when observing at Lulu.
For more than a year, Rosie has hardly got out of bed and barely remembers her family.
Last Easter, one of her community volunteers handed me a large bar of Toblerone chocolate. Rosie had asked the volunteer to go out and buy it for me.
In England, Toblerone was an almost unheard of luxury. It was shipped in from Switzerland and sold only on special occasions. Then, Easter was a time of showering children with chocolate eggs. In desperate poverty, my mother could only afford a tiny bar of Toblerone to give me. And I, not even six years old, could do nothing to help her.
Despite her lifelong striving for wealth and recognition, suffering from chronic dementia, she thought first of a bar of chocolate over all her sovereigns and guinea, while I confronted by the same bag of coins chose a bent penny over all her riches.
How often have you watched the powerful and dominant in your life then turn into, ” a ball of crumpled paper? What have you chosen to be of import to you? What items do you think you will cherish until old age?
How to Write Strong Characters: Choosing Who to Write
One of the frightening results of writing is how, even when you’re describing a stranger you’ve met, the qualities of those in your own life seep into them. Also frightening is how those characters come to life and remain in you as much a part of your life as your real friends and family.
Here is a character I wrote of in “Chasing Aphrodite” :
“Across the road, at the edge of the beach, a gnarled old African woman, shoeless and dressed in shabby, faded brown, sat cross-legged in front of a large sawn-off metal container. It had once transported ‘ ghee” (East Indian clarified butter), a two-foot square cube, still bearing the imprint of its importer tattooed onto the greasy, silver metal. It was filled with smouldering charcoal, upon which lay three grilled sweet yams.
He pointed at them and asked ” Hapa begani ? ” (How much?)
“Shilingi miasaba, Ndugu.” (Seven hundred shillings, brother.)
The night before, a bottle of coke at the Kilimanjaro had cost him 4,000 shillings (about $2.5 US). His nanima (grandmother) would have lamented the days when the same bottle had cost no more than one.
How could this woman support herself and God knows how many other mouths she had waiting to feed at the end of the day with the takings of this meagre business? He gave her 1,000 shillings. She began to cry. Her back stayed ram-rod straight, her face impassive but for a trickle of tears. He looked down, suddenly embarrassed, and quickly withdrew.”
If ever I had to make a speech on receiving an award for my book, I would dedicate my thanks to that “gnarled, old, African woman”. Africa at that time was suffering from pandemic aids, parents were dying in their twenties, leaving kids, less than teens, in the hands of their aging grandparents.
It was characters such as the yam seller that inspired me to write, to have them memorialized for their actions and choices in life. Who would pay any attention to such a character while travelling ? Who would write about her. To me, a life well led is one of service to those around you without second thought. To choose that duty instinctively without question in the same way as you breathe.
Would you choose the same life path day in day out ,watch yourself being ground down in order to nurture and protect another? And without question?
I’m reminded of a statistic I read that money transfers from migrant workers to their impoverished families back home amount to over US $500 billion- five times the value of aid from first world countries to the underdeveloped. Through my Filipina wife, I have met Filipinas, well educated at home come to Canada and spend the rest of their lives nannying to support extended families back home. They have nothing left for themselves neither in savings or building a comfortable life for themselves. Their daily goal is to finance the education of their younger siblings so they in turn can enjoy a better life than those nannies have in Canada. To sacrifice so much with no second thought baffles me even today.
One of those saints I look up to (and perhaps what impels me to write about characters such as the yam seller) was my English mother Flo.
Her family lived from hand to mouth. At least one member of the family was out of work. Yet, when they realized my divorced, single-parent mother couldn’t look after me, took me in as one of their own for a dozen years, giving me everything I needed. Why do people give so generously of themselves? And so naturally.
Curiously, on looking back, without my realizing it at the time, the above yam seller seems to be a composite of my late English foster mother and my ailing Indian mother. Was it coincidence?
Flo, my English mother took pity on Rosie, my Indian mum and on me. Rosie had divorced my dad in Africa and landed in England with no means to look after herself, let alone me.
Flo took me as one of her own, despite living in chronic financial straits. That sense of duty, of doing the right thing, was permeated into me, not by words, but her deeds. The yam seller reminded me so much of that duty of caring for others almost blindly, never questioning the cost of her commitment to do the right thing, be it her or, say the Filipina in another story, who sent all her money back home to support her family, while she starved and worked thirteen days out of fourteen.
Rosie was extraordinarily proud and hell bent on proving her own success, financially and socially. It was her “ramrod back” and “impassive face” that dressed the tears of the yam seller.
Have you ever seen the ghost of a past friend or family in a stranger across the street? Has that frisson in you encouraged you to cross the street and take a gamble to converse? What did you gain in that encounter?
How I Used Game of Thrones to Improve my Writing: Finding My Own Keeper of Stories
Did anyone watch the final episode of Game of Thrones? (I jest obviously.)
At the end, the time comes when a leader has to be chosen to unite the seven kingdoms. As each powerful leader is chosen, he is rejected by the council of royals.
Tyrion, the dwarf son of mighty Lannister stands and nominates Bran the cripple as leader. Tyrion explains “People are not bound together by banners, castles or mighty kings but by tales of their heritage held by ‘The Keeper of Stories'”. Bran is that keeper.
I met a “The Keeper of Stories” while on an early morning walk of Finikoudes (Palms) promenade in the town of Larnaca, Cyprus.
Picture a healthy man in his early fifties, wending his way between jumbo, rainbow coloured parasols strewn across the promenade. He spots a spindly old lady, barely five feet tall, jog-walking, lapping him time and time again. It was so annoying.
Instead of wearing a bright T-shirt and shorts, everything she wore was beige, including her baseball cap with “McGill” written all over it.
He had to slow her down. Conversing with her might do it.
“Coming from Canada?” he asked.
“That cap of yours. Did you study at McGill1?”
“No,” she retorted, obviously miffed at being interrupted in her exercise.
“So where did you get it?” he asked, intruding even further.
“Some friends gave it to us. My husband’s name was McGill. “her pukkah2 English intonation dared him to keep silent.
It took a week of coming across Hazel “by chance” and following in her wake to break her silence.
Hazel had piqued his curiosity. What was an English Octogenarian doing leaving him in the dust every day. She should be sitting in the outdoor cabanas among her coterie sipping tea and eating croissants remarking on all the crazy individuals running around in this heat even in this early of a morning. Instead she was jogging as though she was half her age. The other part of him wanted somehow to burst that bubble of British stiff upper lip. It was a personal challenge to prise open her “secrets” in lieu of always being overtaken.
When she eventually broke her silence, it was as though a dam had burst flooding him with every manner of thought and insight into Cyprus.
Here is what I wrote about her in “Chasing Aphrodite” :
“Hazel was the consummate gossip, but try as he may, he could detect no malice in her. She seemed to know everyone and everything about Cyprus. She spoke to him of bus drivers who never arrived on schedule, detouring several streets to deliver elderly women safely to the Carrefour; of the taxi driver who felt sorry for a customer and loaned him fifty Euros; of the village she now lived in, twenty minutes away by bus, where the local hotelier allowed her to use his pool and gym for free. She spoke of local restaurant owners, of flea market operators and Russian nouveau riche taking over; of the hostility between the Greeks and Turks on this divided island. Once started, hazel showed no sign of reticence.”
So much was learned from Hazel about Cyprus, the people, customs and history. She was a touchstone to them and to the dozen civilizations that conquered this island because of its invaluable deposits of copper and were then forced to relinquish their hold- to participate in their own Game of Thrones.
Now I wonder, have you ever come across a Keeper of Stories?
How did that person affect or influence you? For what purpose did they enter your life?
(1) McGill: the Canadian equivalent of Oxford or Cambridge
(2) Pukkah: Genuine
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”.