Kia Abdullah, now a crime novelist, went to a school with 90 percent Bangali students in London. In the 1990s, her peers did not think speaking Bangla was the "it thing". They only spoke English, as if it gave them a sense of superiority. But Kia thought otherwise.
Raised in a Bangladeshi immigrant family, Kia cherished the ability to speak in Bangla, or more aptly, in the Sylheti dialect. Kia and her mother's conversation hinged on Sylheti. When her mother spoke to her, the subtleties of emotion could be only captured in Bangla.
But over the years, Kia's fluency decayed. When she moved out of her parent's home, she barely conversed in Bangla. After her father died in 2007, her mother was the only person she needed to talk to in the language. Kia soon saw her Bangla proficiency slipping out of her grip.
Then, 2020 happened. The Covid-19 frenzy put every household in isolation. Kia and her mother became two distant islands who could only communicate over the phone. They were left only with their words in Bangla. But Kia did not have enough of them.
When Kia found out that her mother felt lonely, she decided to relearn her first language. She resorted to language learning apps, radio shows, podcasts, self-help books, etc. Gradually, her vocabulary improved.
Then she started calling her mother more frequently. Their conversation did not feel wooden anymore. As a second-generation Bangladeshi, Kia achieved something only a few could - a revived fluency in Bangla.
Kia Abdullah graduated in computer science but her ambition in the literary world put her in a writer's shoes instead of the IT industry's. She has published four novels, including "Take It Back", which was named one of the best thrillers of 2019 by The Guardian and Telegraph.
In an interview with The Business Standard, Kia Abdullah talked about writing, her ties to Bangladesh and more.
The Business Standard (TBS): Tell us a bit about growing up in London with eight siblings. Were you a bibliophile as a child?
Kia Abdullah (KA): I grew up in Tower Hamlets in East London in a family of eight children, so there was always some form of drama and conflict growing up, which, of course, was an excellent training ground for a novelist!
It's strange because I think that Tower Hamlets both hindered and helped my ambitions to become a writer. On one hand, it's the UK's worst area for child poverty and I think it's fair to say that low income is one of the biggest barriers to the arts.
On the other hand, there's something very special about growing up in an atmospheric place. The grit and hum of street life provide excellent material.
TBS: "In 2007, Kia left her job in tech to pursue the one thing she had always wanted: a career as a writer, taking a 50% pay cut in the process"- your bio reads. You are a computer science graduate turned writer. What was the transition like?
KA: In terms of the pay cut, that wasn't great. No one enjoys taking a 50 percent pay cut! In terms of the actual work itself though, there was almost a sense of coming home; like I was finally where I was supposed to be.
I worked on the editorial team of Asian Woman magazine and I absolutely loved it. The buzz, the challenge, the sense of common purpose you get from putting a publication together - there's nothing quite like it.
There was definitely a period of adjustment though. I remember not knowing what a DPS or tearsheet or flatplan was so I had to learn those very basics on the job. There's no point being embarrassed though. I read something recently that said if you're apprehensive about doing a course, for example, because it will take three years and you'll be 30 by the time it finishes, well, in three years' time you're going to be 30 anyway, only you won't have this qualification, so just go ahead and do it! That's how I try to approach my career.
TBS: You have an IQ of 150. As a former member of Mensa International, what was it like to meddle with fellow high IQ individuals?
KA: To be honest, I didn't go to any of the meetings or meet other members. I did the assessment out of curiosity and it was nice when I got in, but I didn't really take advantage of the membership. I'd get the magazine and leaf through it, but that was it so in the end, I left because I didn't see the point.
TBS: During this pandemic, you relearned Sylheti dialect to connect with your mother. Tell us about how your mother reacted when you gained fluency in Bangla, again.
KA: It was a gradual thing, so it's not like one day I couldn't express myself and the next, I could. It happened slowly so that I was relying less and less on loan words and was able to speak to her for longer and about a broader range of subjects. This has been important because this period has been so isolating for her.
One of the things I want to do more once the world goes back to normal is to steer the conversation back to Bangla when my sisters and I meet at my mum's house. We usually default to English and I'll often catch my mum staring off into space – isolated despite the fact that she's with her children. I'd like to be more conscious about including her.
TBS: You have published four novels between 2006 and 2020. Your novel "Take It Back" has been hailed by the British media as one of the best new crime-thriller novels. What inspires you to write thriller fiction? Do you want to explore other genres as well?
KA: I think that crime fiction can be such an effective vehicle for social commentary. The literary establishment often looks down at genre fiction, but I think it's such a powerful way to explore society's ills. Whether it's Empire in Abir Mukherjee's Wyndham series or racial divisions in my novel, Take It Back, crime fiction can engage with weighty issues, but do so in the guise of a gripping, highly readable, highly accessible thriller. I'd like to continue working in the genre for as long as I can!
TBS: Since you are an avid traveller, any Bangladeshi place you plan to visit in the future?
KA: My family is from Sunamganj and I've been there twice, but a very long time ago now. I'd like to revisit the area, but also to explore the wider country. I recently saw a picture of Gobinda Temple which was beautiful and Lalbagh Fort, and of course the beaches.
It's such a shame because I have been complacent with my Bangladeshi heritage. I was born and brought up in Britain, and I express myself in English, so Bangala and Bangladesh always took a bit of a back seat.
After my recent article about relearning my mother tongue, so many second-generation Bangladeshis got in touch to say they have been similarly complacent. Having two cultures is such a gift and I'm disappointed that I haven't fully appreciated that in the past.
TBS: What would be your answer to the age-old cliché: Why do you write?
KA: Because it gives me power. In a world that is still very much a patriarchy, being a woman, especially one of colour, affords you very little inherited power. Writing an article or book that resonates with people gives you the power to make your voice heard.
TBS: How do you feel about your ties with Bangladesh? Do you visit your extended family here?
KA: I mentioned earlier that I've been somewhat complacent about my Bangladeshi heritage. I've only visited twice - once when I was four years old and once when I was 13. So that was many, many years ago now. I would love to revisit and travel the length of the country.
More than that, I'd like to learn more about our history. When I was younger, things like Empire, Partition, colonisation weren't taught at school and so my knowledge is relatively shallow which saddens me.
Separate from that, I know very little about my own mother's journey from Bangladesh to Britain. Sometimes, she'll tell us little snippets, but she's of the mind that the past is in the past.
I'd like to sit down with her and really delve into that experience of coming over here and leaving her homeland. She has a very strong affinity to Bangladesh. She veritably glows at the prospect of returning.
TBS: Who are your favourite authors? Any Bangladeshi origin writer you admire?
KA: In terms of writers of Bangladeshi origin, I would lean towards contemporary writers like Tahmima Anam who wrote "A Golden Age" and "The Good Muslim". I'm also really excited about Shahnaz Ahsan's book "Hashim & Family" which has had huge critical acclaim here in the UK.
More broadly, I think Donna Tartt and Jeffrey Eugenides are masterful writers. When it comes to storytelling, there are few writers better than Stephen King and Jodi Picoult. They are prolific without compromising on quality which is quite a feat.