Finding My Voice as a Writer

How reams of bad verse turn into a beautiful novel, rich in nostalgia and childhood – That’s what Aruna Nambiar, author of Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth writes for you. 

I remember writing from the age of ten, about the time a teacher read out one of my school essays in class. It was a pathetic mystery inspired by the Famous Five, but the thrill lingers, of having it read out to a gaggle of bored classmates who would have rather been playing sea-sand-water-land-mud or running to the school gate to buy bitterly cold, richly purple, sickly sweet golas. How pathetic? Well, let’s just say that the blood-stained murder weapon turned out to be a knife bearing the remnants of a jam sandwich… never mind.

There followed reams of bad verse (we had just studied Yeats and Wordsworth), a revolutionary essay (I had read the entire blurb of My Experiments With Truth) decrying the racism of an English cricket player who had called India ‘dirty’ – how dare he?, a very original autobiography of a school shoe, and other such mind-bending rot. The sheer volume of my output qualified me to become the editor of the school paper, a job which no other self-respecting schoolgirl wanted to be caught dead doing. Drunk with literary power, I proceeded to fill the magazine with self-written articles and essays and stories. Had I put a wind-blown picture of myself on every cover, it would have been the precursor to the Oprah magazine.

While I studied engineering and management, I was immersed in RK Narayan, Wodehouse and Bryson and my angst gave way to satire, heavily laced with sarcasm and the occasional immaterial reference to English high-society life. By the time I became a banker, I was reading Marquez, Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. I flirted with the idea of writing a magic-realism story of a Theyyam performer who saves a Kerala village from a curse, preferably with an intertwined incestuous love story linked to the history of India. Thankfully for the world at large, my seventy-hour weeks didn’t allow me to get started on this magnum opus. Then followed marriage, an Ian McEwan phase, travel, a dalliance with Khaled Hosseini, house shifts and car purchases, a brief interlude with Elizabeth Gilbert, and then, a career shift into writing and editing.As an editor, I read a lot, mostly manuscripts in their most raw state. And I learned to tell the good from the bad. But more importantly, the original from the wannabe. And I realised I was in danger of being a wannabe. That most of my stories never dared to voice an original thought or feeling, or even use an original way of telling them. And once I realised this, I was ready to write my first novel.I think what I’m trying to say is that if you want to become a writer, first you have to read. A lot. Widely. You have to write. A lot. Badly even, at first.

But when you’ve read enough and written enough and experienced enough, one day you will realise that the greatest books, the most memorable stories are the ones that do not conform to a genre or trend, the ones that say different things, or the same things differently, the ones that dare to break the rules, follow their own norms. And once you realise this, you may find the courage to let go of all your notions, your preconceptions, your influences and inspirations, your fears and your vanities, and you may just let your own voice speak.

And that’s one way to tell a story, to write a novel


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