Singapore Hot Takes is an interview series with contemporary writers from Singapore looking at issues like craft, reading, influence, community, and ethics.

Jolene Tan is a writer and human rights activist who lives in Singapore. She has also lived in Cambridge (England), Cambridge (Massachusetts, USA) and Heidelberg (Germany). Her published writing includes one novel A Certain Exposure (Epigram Books, 2014), short fiction in Manchester Review and numerous opinion pieces in the Singapore media. She also dabbles in the visual arts.

Photo of Jolene Tan
Credit: Dan Yeo of White Room Studio

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

Growing up, I read mostly a mix of Anglo-American science fiction and 19th-century English novels. I particularly adored Robert Heinlein, Greg Egan, Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy, and to this day, my greatest fondness is still for elegantly crafted stories which are simultaneously ethical argument, analysis, philosophy. I liked genre otherworlds which were heavier on emotional logic than detail, such as the Dragonriders of Pern or the Chronicles of Narnia. As a privileged child in a country that shied away from discussing class, I was also drawn to what I read as a hidden truth in works by authors like S.E. Hinton and Roddy Doyle.

Reading for me was very private, the most real of realities but impossible to truly discuss with people around me; and in those pre-internet days, reliant on teacherly reading lists or the recommendations printed at the backs of books, I read very little that was contemporary. My early reading was very male and almost entirely white; in adulthood, coming to greater political consciousness, I have realised how much I missed out as a result.

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

When I was six, my mother suggested that I write a story. She is not much of a reader, so this was almost certainly a bid to find something vaguely academic to occupy my time without parental supervision. The result was the Blinky and Rachel stories, a series in which two of my toys—a girl doll and a duck, but inexplicably sisters—went to the beach, moved house, went to the moon etc. I decided right away that I wanted to be a writer, and continued to fill notebooks with my (largely plagiaristic) efforts throughout my childhood.

This dream began to seem impossible when I considered universities and careers. For about ten years I put the dream aside and pursued only functional writing—essays, arguments, opinion pieces. For some time I formed a view of myself as a decent wordsmith but incapable of story; and as I became more politically aware, fiction also came to seem potentially uselessly self-indulgent. Yet on some level I never lost the sense that to write fiction, a good novel, was the only real thing to be doing.

Then in 2009 I read Still Life by A.S. Byatt. It told a story in a different way from what I had thought of, before, as necessary. It was also one of the most intensely pleasurable experiences of my life. On finishing it, I decided that if I could write something even a fraction as enjoyable for someone else, that was something worth doing. I began my first novel, A Certain Exposure, right away.

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

I am not a fast writer. My most recently published piece of fiction is a short story called ‘A Good Visit’, which appeared in the February 2017 issue of the Manchester Review. It is a story told by a young woman who believes she has only won freedom by destroying her family. It is a study of feelings of culpability. One key element in it which recurs elsewhere in my work is the interweaving of a very formal, literary narrative voice with the reality of how Singaporeans speak Singlish.

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?

I suspect others can better say how my work fits in, or doesn’t. I have especially enjoyed the fiction of Balli Kaur Jaswal and Jeremy Tiang.

The broader ecosystem is one I think of encouraging growth, thanks to the efforts and sacrifices of publishers who believe in literature as a mission. When I was fourteen, a friend and I wrote to novelist Catherine Lim to ask her how she had found a publisher. Her reply was very kind, but gave very little idea of how we might go about doing the same. Sixteen years later I had my novel taken up by Epigram Books by following a cold submission, and now we regularly see new writers hitting the bookshelves and even best-seller lists. I feel grateful that such opportunities now exist.

And, finally, can you explain your future literary plans? Is there anything specific readers should know about?

I am about a third of the way through my second novel, which takes quite a different form from my previous work: a civil servant is meant to report on an incident, but the document goes off-piste. I have also signed a contract for a children’s picture book, which will hopefully be out next year.

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