When Commonwealth Writers first approached me, at the end of 2012, about taking on a very special assignment the following year, I was bemused but delighted. CW is the cultural initiative of the Commonwealth Foundation, and they were offering me the opportunity to be their first Bangladeshi Writer in Residence.
I had just taken part in one of the first Commonwealth Conversations, a series of panel discussions that Commonwealth Writers have been organising at various literary festivals and events, to discuss a range of thorny topics from self-censorship to gender politics, and a few things in between.
That appearance had in itself come out of an earlier connection. In 2010, my flash fiction piece “Judgement Day” was Highly Commended in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition. The competition theme for that year had been “Science, Technology and Society”, and we had to write our submissions within the specified limit of 600 words. For someone as technologically-challenged as myself, writing about science OR technology was always going to be a tough call. So perhaps, unsurprisingly, I took the more familiar route and focused on “society”.
The result was a story that is more a feminist fable than a sci-fi piece, hypothesising how the institution of marriage might change as a result of technological progress and changes in wider society, and what might remain all too familiar to us in that relationship, as we view it from the perspective of the early 21st century.
But writing fiction, whatever the constraints of theme and word limit, was one thing. I knew that as Writer in Residence, I would be writing a series of non-fiction posts, more like essays. And while Commonwealth Writers were kind enough to give me a free hand as to the content of the essays, I had a sneaking suspicion that they would – logically enough – be expected to be about writing. For a self-taught writer who has come to that identity relatively late, this posed something of a challenge!
In the end, it proved to be a challenging but very interesting experience. At least for me! Thinking through what writing means to me, and what I have learned on the journey so far, was instructive. So without further ado, let me share with you the process of finding a “voice” in Post One: 🙂
FINDING A VOICE
Let me start by confessing that it was only recently that I began introducing myself as a writer. In fact, it was only recently that I even admitted that I wanted to be a writer. Despite a childhood spent scribbling doggerel, teenage years that produced excruciatingly bad poetry (in mercifully small qualities), and a surprisingly well-received satirical play that a friend and I co-wrote in our first year of university, it never crossed my mind that I might actually be a writer. I had other plans.
Brought up in a family of activists and feminists, both male and female, in Bangladesh, I had mapped out my professional life early. I was going to work in development, be part of the women’s movement, and try to contribute to a larger goal of some kind. I might as well admit it. I was, and remain, a committed idealist – wilfully ignoring a considerable body of evidence that indicates the wisdom of thinking otherwise.
I was eager to learn as much as I could, so I worked on diverse issues: micro-finance, human rights, adult education and urban development. Gender equality was a common thread running through much of the work I did in organisations that ranged from grassroots NGOs, to well-known success stories like the Grameen Bank and BRAC, to international organisations like Christian Aid UK and the United Nations.
I loved the work, and each experience taught me something worth taking along on my unfolding journey. For years I held down two jobs. I supplemented the less-than-adequate income I earned working for local organisations (which yielded many of my most treasured experiences) by working as a translator in the wee hours of the morning. And for years, I ignored the nagging sense that there was something missing. Until, on a whim that I can’t quite explain, I sent in a piece to one of the English dailies. To my surprise, they accepted my submission – and several more after that. Eventually, I was offered my own column in The Star Magazine, affiliated with leading national newspaper The Daily Star.
Even then, I wasn’t brave enough to think or speak of myself as a writer; I just about carried off the designation of “columnist” with some degree of grace. It all changed when I read a newspaper headline about a 10-year-old girl who had been working as a child domestic in the capital city. Her arrival at the hospital shortly before she died revealed a terrible story of violence and abuse, and one that will be familiar in many parts of the world. I was outraged. I spoke to my editor at the magazine and begged her to get one of their fiction writers to take up the issue. “Why don’t you do it?” she asked.
I was reluctant, because I felt that people who abused children wouldn’t be interested in reading a column where someone told them not to do it. “The only way that they’ll take any notice is if they don’t actually realise what they’re reading at first. It has to be a story, one where they get engaged before they see where it’s heading. And it needs to be written from the child’s point of view, so that other people – those of us who see what happens in these households but too often look the other way – really have to face up to the consequences of what happens when we do that, and start thinking about how we can handle these issues differently,” I responded. My editor understood what I was trying to say, and promised to approach some fiction writers with the idea.
Three days later, I sat down to write my first short story. It was the easiest thing I have ever written, almost as if someone was standing at my shoulder dictating the words. None of the stories I have written since has been nearly as smooth, in terms of the writing process. Far from it! “A Small Sacrifice” tells the story of a village child who is sent to work in the city by her impoverished parents who believe that – as manipulative middlemen often tell such parents – she will have a better life in Dhaka. It describes the girl’s incomprehension when she becomes the scapegoat for her employer’s frustrations, and her struggle to understand why people who appear to have everything that her family lacks still seem so unhappy with life.
The story generated many responses after it was published, and it made me realise the power that fiction has to reach out and draw a response from the reader. How it can be used to advocate for certain values or perspectives. I should add though, that I don’t think that using fiction solely as a form of persuasion is a good idea at all. The best writing comes from a story that is deeply felt by the writer. It is that depth of emotion, and the authenticity of the narrative, that ultimately touches the reader. That isn’t something that can be engineered. A discerning reader will easily see through something that is just calculated to manipulate their emotions.
Ultimately, a writer needs to be who he or she really is on the page, and that can be terrifying. Even as it is exhilarating when you are surfing the wave of words and feel completely in control. Because authentic writing involves being vulnerable, putting a piece of your soul on the page and knowing that anyone can read it and judge you for being who you are. Then again, the hard truth is that that’s probably the only way any of us will ever come up with our best work.
This article is reproduced with permission from Commonwealth Writers. Any feedback or comments are very welcome at the CW website at: http://www.commonwealthwriters.org/post-one-finding-a-voice/
You can read more about my work here: http://www.commonwealthwriters.org/farah-ghuznavi/
My author page can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/FarahGhuznavi?ref=hl