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Centre for Stories

Lau Siew Mei

"It is possible that writing has to be something in you like breathing because that may be what it takes for you to keep doing it and to persevere in sending out your work for publication."

Singapore Hot Takes is an interview series with contemporary writers from Singapore looking at issues like craft, reading, influence, community, and ethics.Lau Siew Mei was born and raised in Singapore, has lived in Australia half her life and is an Australian citizen. She is the author of three novels, The Last Immigrant, The Dispeller of Worries and Playing Madame Mao, as well as a children’s illustrated chapterbook, Yin’s Magic Dragon, published variously in Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Greece and the UK. Her short stories have been broadcast on the BBC World Service and ABC Radio National, and published in Australia, USA, Canada, Malaysia, Singapore and the UK. She has been shortlisted for the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and Best Emerging Queensland Author in the QLD Premier’s Literary Awards, commended in the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, awarded Australia Council and Arts Queensland literary grants, a Varuna Residential Writers’ Fellowship and an Asialink Literature Residency in Malaysia. She now lives in Prague in the Czech Republic, where she works as a lawyer.

Portrait of a woman with black hair tied in a pony tail standing against a green fence.
Photo: Chun Pang

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

I read a great deal as a child, anything that caught my interest. In my early years, I read a lot of classics or semi-classics – Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Robert Louis Stevenson, the Brontes, some Shakespeare, Enid Blyton, E.Nesbit, Agatha Christie, the Tarzan series, the Three Investigators series by Alfred Hitchcock, the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, the Willard Price wildlife adventure series, Dostoevsky, Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, and so on. I remember one day realizing that most or all of the authors I was then reading were dead, so I made an effort to read someone still alive. Most of the books and authors made an impact on me, leaving deep impressions, painting the landscape in my mind, sometimes like fragments of dreams. I was usually left in the bookshop with my dad while my mother and sister went shopping. I have fond memories of sitting on the floor to read. I think I read quite a bit of The Neverending Story by Michael Ende that way.

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

I was making up and telling stories to anyone who was interested in listening from the time I was a child. There was no single moment. Writing was a by-product of my imaginary tales, so I started writing as a child as well. I think the oral story making and telling gift I had influenced my writing because in the early days my habit after writing a story would be to call up a friend to read it to her over the phone. My very first story acceptance came from the BBC World Service, which is radio broadcast.

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

The Last Immigrant published by Epigram Books traces some months in the life of a Muslim immigrant in Australia, Ismael, who works as an Immigration Officer at Fortress Australia. He is asked to communicate with an asylum seeker, who is the last one caught after a number of them landed and melted into the community. Most of the setting of the story is in Ismael’s suburban Brisbane neighbourhood, where the lives of the neighbours intertwine uneasily. I saw the novel as the story not only of one individual but also his surrounds, his neighbourhood, his workplace – the seeping in of ‘foreign’ elements and the reactions.

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

The issue of migration is relevant to most societies and countries at this time. The original inhabitants of Singapore were orang laut or pirates of indigenous or Malay heritage, who came from the surrounding countries. Modern Singapore’s creation and growth depended not only on the local inhabitants but also on immigrants from the UK, China, India, and elsewhere. People are now questioning whether it is possible for those of different cultures, languages, races and backgrounds to become a nation – well, look at Singapore. It may have some underlying issues and those belonging to the minority races have complained of discrimination, but overall, I am grateful I grew up in a classroom of people who were of diverse races, cultures, religious backgrounds and second languages, and as a child, you think it is natural and simply accept others, and you like or dislike them based on other criteria. Fortunately, this is how the children in Australia are now growing up.

I think Singapore is unique in celebrating with public holidays the major religious festivals of the Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Buddhists. Australia has yet to do so but then modern Singapore was built on the basis of diversity – Singapore has four national languages – English, Malay, Tamil and Mandarin. Everyone speaks at least two languages, usually a hotchpotch of several. English is the first language in all schools and government. Students learn a second language for at least 12 years and may speak one or several of the languages at home.

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

It is possible that writing has to be something in you like breathing because that may be what it takes for you to keep doing it and to persevere in sending out your work for publication. Stay true to your vision of your work, know what is important to you, and enjoy the journey.

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

I’ll be revising a draft of a novel, which I haven’t looked at in a while, on weekends or in snatches of time as I work full-time and study part-time in 2019. I’m looking forward to it. The UK edition of The Last Immigrant will be published in London in September 2019.

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