The moment I boarded the Emirates flight to Paris out of Dhaka, and settled into my spacious business class seat (“Complimentary glass of champagne, you say? Don’t mind if I do!”), all thoughts of being a writer seemed to dwindle. They faded away just like the teeming city below, as the plane thrust into the twilight. Writing was something that had belonged to a specific time and a place in my life — a chapter that had clearly now ended.
Once I settled into my home in Provence, the newspapers were of course all in French. That was problem no.1, even if I had wanted to carry on. Writing correct French was a snip, but writing French that people would want to read was beyond my reach. And besides, what to say? My whole shtick in Bangladesh had been that of the amused, bemused foreigner, in a culture that raised deep questions: how to deal with Uncle Reza when he arrives on your doorstep, suitcase in hand, announcing he’s going to stay for a month? How to cope with being waited on hand and foot by the Director’s wife, who then disappears back into the shadows of the tiny kitchen? How to process the fact that this illustrious educationist has an illiterate 8-year-old maid who feeds off the family’s leftovers, while squatting on the floor?
No such cultural conundrums in the picturesque, rosé-sipping, lavender-scented south of France. Life was comfortable and relatively unchallenging. Besides, the whole foreigner-in-France routine had been done with style and verve by many a witty writer before me — including a bestselling series on life in Provence, written not five miles from where I was living.
With nothing to say, I opted to say nothing.
It was only years later, while living in a sprawling farmhouse, guarded by a brace of 200-year-old plane trees, that I stumbled on something to get my juices flowing once again. I began to tune into what passed for online dialogue in the world of professional translation and found I didn’t much like what I saw. Too much of a victim culture, too much conflict, not enough vision.
Now, when faced with something that makes you uncomfortable, you can: a) complain about it; b) do nothing about it and slink away; or c) change it. My preference was for c).
And so once again, I began to put pen to metaphorical paper. However rusty you get, you don’t forget how to write, any more than you forget how to drive, or swim. What may fall by the wayside is the discipline, and the well-honed powers of observation that result from frequent writing, but they too can soon be relearned.
So I began to post frequently, outlining what I thought was an alternative perspective. It met with some success, expressed in terms of comments, likes, and engagement. That then grew into a page of my own, followed by a group of my own, then various business offshoots, culminating in my current job — in which I am essentially paid to fill the air with words for the benefit (so I’d like to think) of my esteemed translation colleagues.
Without really trying, I developed a sort of voice along the way. My professional writing started out with a slightly didactic feel at first, despite my best efforts to keep it light. But over time that mellowed. These days I tend to write like I talk, but more organised, and without the pauses, or the weird accent. I delight in unusual words, I’m a sucker for wordplay, and am a big fan of the well-positioned short sentence, to break up the flow. Not to mention the occasional bit of self-deprecation, to prick the balloon of pomposity. (As you can see, my professor’s remark way back in the Oxford years certainly hit home).
I began also to pepper my personal Facebook page with anecdotes of varying lengths. Seeing how well they went down only encouraged me. Meanwhile, in my professional role, I started to write profiles of colleagues and translators from across the world (see the Portfolio for examples).
Now that my writing muscles were well and truly toned again, I quickly grasped two things. The first was that I really enjoyed trying to capture life episodes in a way that kept people hooked, despite the deluge of noise all around. And the second was an insight into just how intrinsically fascinating other people were — even those who were convinced they had nothing to say.
Then there was the feedback. I heard from many of the people I wrote about that they were delighted with the results. Add to that the various should-write-a-book comments I received on my personal page about being a natural storyteller, plus an inspired conversation with my wife over a macchiato in a Barcelona café… and it seems that Tell My Story had no choice but to be born — it was just a matter of time.
From inspired conversation to website took precisely six weeks — a switchback ride of intense communication with the designer, generating to-do lists the length of a football pitch. But all that’s behind us now. What lies ahead is a great deal of hard work, fuelled by a conviction that this can succeed.
And this time I can guarantee I won’t be putting down my pen for a long time to come.