I wasn’t the brightest tool in the school shed. Each time I walked through the gates I felt my skin take on a lugubrious green hue—it most definitely wasn’t mine. Ergo school held all the appeal of a typhoid epidemic. I moved through most classes in a paralytic stupor, with the exception of English language and History. Add them up and they probably hint at an early predilection towards writing.
As a child, I wasn’t acing those classes either. But at home, I wrote meanderingly long letters to my grandmother consisting entirely of ridiculous made-up stories, about people we knew but didn’t care too much for. I’m told this had her in splits for days. Instead of labelling me a malicious future gossip, she saw me as some sort of storytelling wizard. There were no visible signs of green on the skin when I was doing this.
Making up a story about a family who had never owned a car and then saved enough to buy one was my first attempt at formal storytelling.
While other children were declaring their intentions of becoming astronauts and doctors, I knew I wanted to ace gully cricket. I also knew magic hour was bedtime. I refused to go to bed without being told at least one story by my mother, a voracious reader and a terrific age-appropriate story adaptor. I don’t think any character latched on to my imagination the way Scheherazade did: telling stories like her life depends on it? Only, literally! It gave sublime context to an aspirational job title I wanted to hold.
Making up a story about a family who had never owned a car and then saved enough to buy one was my first attempt at formal storytelling. It was at a leading ad agency and I was working on a copy test, the kid with her nose pressed against the glass of the candy store window. Wondering if I’d ever have the privilege of belonging in the fired up creative world of these electric, buoyant people. Especially since the other applicants were much more qualified (academically) than I was or could ever hope to be. A tough-talking executive creative director with no time to waste or words to mince informed me she’d detected a morsel of a gift in me and getting into a graduate programme for English wasn’t going to teach me anything I didn’t already know. I didn’t know it then, but she was my first dragon slayer. The green skin had started falling away. For the next dozen or so years I was creating brand stories for every category from cars and candy to cosmetics and condoms—across different continents. For the first time, I wasn’t flying a freak flag. I had found my tribe. I could tell 1001 stories and get paid for it. On occasion, even bring home a shiny award or two.
Constant moving and motherhood resulted in finding even more reasons to stay in my own natural skin tone. The thirty-second commercial went on to become a one hour thirty-minute screenplay. Sometimes the screenplay came out as a novel. Actually, two of them did!
For the next dozen or so years I was creating brand stories for every category from cars and candy to cosmetics and condoms—across different continents. For the first time, I wasn’t flying a freak flag. I had found my tribe.
It really didn’t matter which country we were in, what language they spoke, what medium I used: I’d find myself at home because stories were everywhere and words made the waters part. This may not have been the panacea for everything that afflicts the world but it felt so right and came with a treasured set of side effects. The power of distillation, for instance. Amongst other things, moving around inundates one with a cornucopia of experiences, things, people, places, but one learns to hold onto only some.
Unconsciously becoming a curator of what matters most. Eventually, you carry moments instead of souvenirs. Places and things fade, meaningful encounters and people find a home inside you. Connections become religion.
As a storyteller, I suppose it translates to me finding my voice in themes about deep connection in the swirl of differences. The things that bring us together. A Year of Wednesdays, my recent novel, is built around a simple idea that a meeting may happen between people from polar opposite worlds but the effects of that one singular meeting has the power to last a lifetime.
One of the questions I get asked about this book is how unnatural was it for me to write—two dramatically different people, from different worlds, different gender, different worldviews, different language styles—in the first person. Oddly, it never crossed my mind until the question was asked. How often has it happened that a three-minute conversation can feel like death by paper cuts, while a three-hour conversation can feel ephemerally short? That’s the thing about connecting. It sees no laws, no norms, no boundaries. You morph into a lighter, smarter, more energetic version of yourself. Everything just flows. It’s exactly the same when you’re writing something you feel at a granular level.
I hope those reading see this as a satisfying denouement for the story of why I write. There’s no green skin. Only a green light, a map of the world, and roads that connect. With myself. With the world around me. With words that begin in your heart, move to your head and travel through unknown places and connect with a stranger. A world that is a patchwork made up from the pieces of you, your imagination, your experiences, or someone else’s experiences, your fears, your loves, your yearnings, your angst and your wildest dreams. Then someone who’s never met you travels through the portal of pages or film, to enter that world, and then, if you’re really lucky, it resonates with them. That is what magic means to me. Kazuo Ishiguro put it as only he can: In the end, stories are about one person saying to another, this is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it feel this way to you?
Sonia Bahl writes—books, movies, ads, grocery lists—in Singapore, where she lives with her gorgeous itinerant daughter, honorary proofreader husband, and made-for-the-movies golden retriever.