Centre for Stories

Yeoh Jo-Ann

"Singaporean literature has finally come out of its consciously postcolonial shell, and I love that."

Singapore Hot Takes is an interview series with contemporary writers from Singapore looking at issues like craft, reading, influence, community, and ethics.Yeoh Jo-Ann drinks far too much coffee and doesn’t eat vegetables. Her first novel, Impractical Uses of Cake, won the Epigram Books Fiction Prize 2018, and her short stories have been published in Singaporean anthologies such as Best Singaporean Short Stories: Volume Two.Photo of Yeoh Jo-Ann

What was your early reading life like, what did you read and what books left an impact on you?
Hah! I was a terribly homely, unathletic child and reading was a great excuse not to spend any time outdoors. It got compulsive quite quickly – I read everything, including the labels on jam jars and detergent bottles, but mostly books my mother, who had zero idea what a child should read, picked out at the bookstore. My favourite was The Count of Monte Cristo – it had everything a seven-year-old with an overactive imagination needed in a book, and I reread it until it fell apart and then glued it back together. I still have it.

How did you come to writing? Was there a pivotal moment when a lightbulb went off? Or, was it a gradual process?
I went through books too quickly as a child, and my parents went through a period of trying to dissuade me from reading. They suggested that I write my own (which would also be cheaper!) and that’s how I started making up things and writing them down. All the stuff I wrote as a child was mostly rubbish, and I never finished any of the convoluted epics I started writing when I was a teenager. But I found it all very entertaining – and it really helped me appreciate the effort that went into all the books I loved to read and reread.

Tell us about your latest work. What are its themes and techniques?
My first novel, Impractical Uses of Cake, is about a discontented, near-misanthropic man whose well-ordered life gets thrown into chaos when he meets someone from his past who’s chosen a very different path from his own. It’s about struggling with the mundane, with the desire for more. I wouldn’t say I have a technique per se, but because I’m a rambler in real life and in fiction, I should probably warn potential readers that the novel never takes the short route from A to B and doesn’t, plot-wise, do anything “Hollywood” at all. No explosions, no well-timed climax, no walks into the sunset – sorry.

Where does your work fit in contemporary Singaporean literature? Here, I am wondering about the work of peers that you like, and the broader ecosystem in which you write?
Singaporean literature has finally come out of its consciously postcolonial shell, and I love that. I love that local writers and poets are tackling whatever topics they feel like tackling, and that no one needs to be political or politically correct or moralistic or clever. That’s the space I work in, and I’m grateful.

And, finally, can you explain your future literary plans? Is there anything specific readers should know about?
I’m working on my second novel now, and I hope to be done early next year, or sooner. It’s driving me crazy.