Centre for Stories

Inez Tan

"A lightbulb moment I must have had at an early age was looking at a book and thinking, “I can do this too.”"

Singapore Hot Takes is an interview series with contemporary writers from Singapore looking at issues like craft, reading, influence, community, and ethics.Inez Tan is the author of This Is Where I Won’t Be Alone: Stories (Epigram Books), which was a national bestseller in Singapore. Her writing has won the Academy of American Poets Prize, and has been featured in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Softblow, Letters Journal of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, Rattle, and the anthology A Luxury We Must Afford. She holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan, and is currently pursuing an MFA in poetry at the University of California, Irvine. Find her online at ineztan.com.

Inez Tan stands outside by a white wall

Photo: Marc Nair

What was your early reading life like, what did you read and what books left an impact on you?

Firstly, I wanted to thank you for inviting me to do this interview with the Centre for Stories. I love what the organization is doing to help people share their stories, and I’m honored to be writing to you today!

I was always reading as much as I could, everywhere I could, but an early favorite that’s still very much with me is Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech. I read it constantly from the age of eight or nine, because it was funny and warm and I think I recognized something of myself in the main character, Sal, who moves to a new town and has to start over with a new school and new friends – and does. Later when I was older, I began to understand the undercurrents of grief and loss that permeate that book, and which give it depths that called out to me even when I wasn’t fully perceiving them. I think the best books have layers that speak to you each time you approach them.

About fifteen years later, as an adult, I did a writing exercise where we were asked to write out the first few pages of a favorite book from memory. I knew I wasn’t getting the words exactly right beyond maybe the first sentence, but I was amazed to see how much my early voice had been unconsciously shaped by that book.

How did you come to writing? Was there a pivotal moment when a lightbulb went off? Or, was it a gradual process?

A lightbulb moment I must have had at an early age was looking at a book and thinking, “I can do this too.” What I mean is that so much of the desire to write, I think, comes from loving books and realizing you can make more of what you love.

I did have a lightbulb moment as I was writing the stories for my first book, This is Where I Won’t Be Alone. I was thinking of the stories my friends and I had really loved when we were growing up – a lot of fantasy and sci-fi, from Harry Potter to The Lord of the Rings to William Gibson – and how those were ‘our’ stories; they did so much to shape our inner lives. We had grown up in Singapore, but all our favorite books were written and set elsewhere. I love that so much about stories – that they can let you in on the experience of someone who isn’t exactly like you. But I did also start to really yearn for stories about Singapore.

At the same time, I don’t consider myself the ideal person to write about Singapore, by any means. I lived there from age 7-15, and while I’ve returned to visit every year, I know my experience of Singapore is a strangely limited one. But I include what I do know in my stories – small things like shopping for stationery at Popular Bookstore in Bras Basah, or studying at the McDonald’s at King Albert Park that was torn down a few years ago – and it’s meant a lot to me to hear readers say those kinds of details really resonated with them.

Tell us about your latest book. What are its themes and techniques?

The stories in This Is Where I Won’t Be Alone come at the themes of home and belonging from a variety of angles. In one story, a sentient oyster observes a transatlantic mother-daughter relationship; in another, two twins growing up in Singapore struggle to navigate their relationship as one does brilliantly in school while the other teeters on the brink of flunking out. I think every character grapples in some way with finding a sense of belonging – from a lonely retrenched man in Singapore who begins obsessively watching ants, to a young scientist whose research has just relocated her to the moon. To me, home is so much more than the place you were born, or where you grew up – it’s any place you choose to make a home for yourself in, real or imaginary,  the people you’re with, and the person you are when you’re with them. These stories have a wide range of subjects, because there’s such a wide range of ways to think about home.

I wanted to use a phrase that Singaporeans would recognize for the title of my book, and I knew I had what I needed when I thought of the song “Home” by Kit Chan and Dick Lee, one that most of us grew up singing in school and on National Day. It’s actually a very melancholy song – it begins, “Whenever I am feeling low, I look around me and I know there’s a place that will stay within me, wherever I may choose to go.” It’s a song about longing for home, maybe even when you’re at home, and thinking about leaving home. To me, that’s a very Singaporean feeling, and one that I returned to over and over as I was living in Massachusetts, Michigan, and California while writing the stories in this book.

Where does this book fit in contemporary Singaporean literature? Here, I am wondering about the work of peers that you like, and the broader ecosystem in which you work?

I see a lot of #singlit as being very interested in asking what it means to be Singaporean. For my part, I like thinking about how national narratives intersect with ordinary people’s daily lives. I have a story titled “Lee Kuan Yew Is Not Always the Answer,” in which Cheryl, a primary school social studies teacher, tries to figure out what to do when her students insist on answering every question on their exams with “Lee Kuan Yew.” The political implications are there, but I’m also exploring how Cheryl relates to the loving but overbearing expectations of authority figures (her mother), and the role humor plays in subverting the narratives other people try to fit you in.

Some contemporary Singaporean books I love are If It Were Up to Mrs Dada, a destabilizing retelling of Mrs Dalloway in a Singaporean context through the eyes of an ageing woman with Alzheimer’s, The Resident Tourist series by Troy Chin, which does such a great job of portraying what it’s like to feel out of place in a place that’s familiar to you, and Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.

What would you like to share with emerging writers? Do you have any advice on what it takes to publish and become a writer?

Read what you want to read next. Fight the feeling that there are books you ‘should’ be reading – trust your taste and your vision, and feed your writing whatever it needs.

Write what you want to read next. I’ll admit I found that too daunting at times when I was working on my first book, so instead I thought about writing stories a slightly younger version of myself would have liked.

It’s okay to be stuck for a while – that’s part of the writing life. Once when I’d been feeling blocked for months, I asked Singaporean poet Cyril Wong what he did when he was stuck, and he said, “That voice that says you’re not a writer, you have to tell it to shut up.” That was a good reminder for me. You can wait out the dry spells when it seems like nothing is happening if this is really what you want to do. Just keep reading, and keep trying. Often, growth as a person is growth as a writer, too.

Finally, have the highest esteem for the reader you hope to have, and be that reader for lots of other people. Buy books, go to readings, and if you loved someone’s book, tell them so.

And, finally, can you explain your future literary plans? Are you working on anything specific at the moment?

I’m finishing my Masters of Fine Arts in poetry writing at the University of California Irvine, and sending poems out for publication. I’m really grateful that Hyphen, a magazine of Asian American culture, just published one of my poems, which is all about wondering where home. Hopefully you’ll see more poems from me soon.

Besides writing a little, I’m also refuelling creatively. The poet Thomas Lux says writing is 80% reading, which I find incredibly reassuring. Right now I’m reading the poetry of Jack Gilbert, Spencer Reece’s recent essays, The Gift of Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, and the Low graphic novels by Rick Remender. If you’d like to follow what I’m reading, I often post excerpts on my Tumblr. I’m also online at Facebook, Instagram, and ineztan.com.