What was your early reading life like, what did you read and what books left an impact on you?
According to my mum I was an early reader and as a toddler would always go for the books instead of the toys in what little I had by way of toddler entertainment. I don’t remember this phase, of course, but the only photograph my family from this time was of me riffling through a picture book of ABCs with a doll abandoned in a container behind me. I think I grew up on the standard children’s fare of the time: I was reading a lot of Enid Blyton at around age eight to nine (my parents thought that because the books were “thick” with few pictures, they must therefore be good). Then that progressed to the Hardy Boys series. I read a Malay language translation of Nancy Drew, or a Malay version of Nancy Drew (I am not quite sure which). As a “tween” girl, I was also reading the Babysitters’ Club and Sweet Valley Twins, which were introduced to me by the girls in school, as well as horror fiction by R. L. Stine, Christopher Pike and Russell Lee, introduced by the boys in the school. These I would sometimes read in the dark bathroom at home, by the light of a handheld torch. I think this was because my dad, being a religious man, was really against horror as a genre. He did not want my brothers and I believing in and being frightened by things that didn’t exist.
However, the books that really stuck with me were some of the classics that I read in this period of growing up. There was a bookshop called the “Big Bookshop” (yes, that was legit, as the kids these days would say, its name) in my childhood neighbourhood, and whenever I did well in school, and there was money to spare from either my mum’s bonus or a bursary that I had won for good performance in school, my parents would take me there and I would be allowed to buy a book under a certain price—that maximum price was never a lot. The popular books with the attractive covers were always $3.90 and above. My spending limit usually $3. So, the only options open to me were from the pile of classics that cost between $1.50 to $1.90 each. I had two books from this selection: Heidi by Johanna Spyri and Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery. I cherished these books immensely. I read them over and over, most of the time while on the toilet or during my meals, to the point that the spines were all bent and there were food stains on the pages. They were lost in the process of moving and the bookshop had since closed down and turned into a ballet school, so all hopes of ever acquiring the exact copies are now lost to me. My parents were quite particular about us not forgetting our cultural roots as Malays, first, and Asians second. So, we were exposed to Malay and Asian folklore. As Muslims, we were encouraged to read fables and morality tales from religious children’s literature. As such, I read quite a lot of folktales from different Asian cultures as well as my own and I enjoyed these too, though there were so many and many tended to be short, and I was only able to read them when I borrow them from the library that they were not as well-thumbed as the two books I mentioned above.
In my teenage years, I started reading romances, fantasy and my first few smatterings of literary works that I was frankly very confused by at that time. (My background was simple, and I didn’t have the privilege of a good literary education as my school prioritised science and math over the humanities. Literature was completely cut out from the school syllabus by the time I enrolled.) From this era, books that really stuck with me were those from The Last T’en Trilogy by Cory Daniells. I was also starting to really be into video games by this time, and one of the games I played at lot as a teenager was Rainbow Six. So, Tom Clancey became an author that I would frequently pick up during my weekly visits to the library. My favourite book by him from that time was…Rainbow Six.
I would say that all the books I read in my earlier days would have an impact on me in their own ways. But if I had to choose a few that I would say definitely had an impact on me, especially in the context of influencing and shaping my writing during that time, it would have to be Rainbow Six and The Last T’en Trilogy. A lot of my juvenilia was made up of a mish-mash of elements from both. Of books that impacted me as a person—made me feel comfortable with who I am—it would have to be Heidi and Anne of Green Gables.
How did you come to writing? Was there a pivotal moment when a lightbulb went off? Or, was it a gradual process?
It was a gradual process, I think. I started writing early for as much as I loved to read, I loved telling stories as well. I would say that my parents had a huge hand in putting me on a writing journey. Back then when my parents were not able to afford a book, they would get me a nature study book, with blank pages on one side and lined pages on the other. And they would encourage me to write my own stories in them. Which I did, though a lot of them were re-visions of fairy tales that I didn’t quite agree with. I re-wrote The Little Mermaid a lot. I really hated the original ending in the Hans Andersen Christensen collection. I thought it was really unfair and annoying. So, in my versions, the prince dies too. I didn’t see the Disney version until my school screened it, and by then, my lifelong hatred for the prince in the story had been properly cemented.
Secondary school was the time when I started to feel like I may have a knack for writing. I started writing a lot of short stories and a number of novels in secondary school, going on into my junior college years—overall between the ages of thirteen to eighteen. These works were inspired by the books I read as well as the video games I played—so you can imagine my writing involved a lot of romance slash fantasy slash secret agent slash action mash-ups. As I got older, my writing started to explore more of the new theoretical concepts that I was learning in English studies in university. I was particularly wowed by postmodernist fiction at that time. And I think while I have gotten out of that trap of trying to make my writing mimic those of prominent authors such as James Joyce and Flann O’Brien, with their distinctive, unconventional, convention-breaking styles, a part of that—the philosophy behind their writing and what they do with writing still remained with me to this day. Over time, I began to return to my cultural roots and my writing evolved to be a way to explore and critically examine my immediate social realities: growing up in a low income family, dealing with the challenges of intergenerational transference from growing up in such a financial situation, and also of being a woman and a racial and religious minority in Singapore today. So, long story short, yeah, I would say it is a gradual process.
Tell us about your latest book. What are its themes and techniques?
Unfortunately, I only have the one to speak of, which is The Gatekeeper. And this is a hard question to answer, because the last time I was too aware of my themes and techniques, this book almost never got written. But I will do my best here. One of the themes of the book would be marginality, the processes—historical and political; the “trickle-down effect” of how groups are viewed and treated—before its manifestation and the ways in which marginalisation manifest on the structural, communal and personal levels. That is one part of it. I’m afraid that the reviews on the book do a far better job of highlighting its themes and going at them in greater depth. So, if it was up to me entirely to list the themes of the book without fear of judgement it would be: Non-nuclear families! Hardship! Displacement! Disenfranchisement! Social Inequality! All in a mythic package. (Hmm…I think talking about themes this way works really well. A note for next time.) As for techniques, I wrote it within the genre of speculative fiction, where I used the conventions of fictional world-building—in terms of coming up with the world’s social and political structures, the landscape, the history and the languages—and character-building as a means of examining and engaging with the above themes.
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?
Right now, the Singaporean literary scene is seeing an emergence of voices and works from the margins—fiction, collections, etc. As a Malay/Muslim (MM) woman, where I fit in, I think is in the growing body of works from the MM community both written in English and in the Malay language. We are seeing more publications of short story collections, of essays engaging in cultural and religious issues, and of novels. More works are also emerging from the other communities—from minority women, from the Indian and Eurasian communities, from the LGBTQ community—alongside programmes and initiatives to highlight and discuss various issues pertaining to diversity, privilege, history and erasure, silencing and recognition. So, this is the broader ecosystem that my work being nurtured in today, where the “status quo” is no longer considered an “accepted thing”, and more and more groups and individuals are questioning the Singaporean grand narratives especially on the political, historical and religious fronts.
What would you like to share with emerging writers? Do you have any advice on what it takes to publish and become a writer?
What I would share with emerging writers would not be anything new, as I learnt having been and still being an emerging writer: writing is work, and like with any work, you have to “show up” and you have to do the work, improve on skillsets as you go along, and be prepared for criticism, phone calls, discussions and meetings. All the while wholeheartedly believing in and loving what you are putting on the table. I do have a few rules that I keep to, especially as a writer with a full-time job and people to care for.
First: Make time for writing every day. Schedule it in as you would an important appointment, especially if you are working or studying full-time, if you have a world of obligations and responsibilities to see to, like parents to care for, a relationship to maintain etc. For me that would the first thing every morning—around 5 am—and at one time, I had to manage it by scheduling one in between classes and part-time jobs. The world can sometimes come rushing in and by the time you are done with seeing to your ailing parents or your child, engaging fully with your partner, or seeing to the day-to-day such as household chores, paying the bills, meetings, emails (lots and lots of emails) …most of the day would have gone. Then writing just might get postponed to tomorrow, and tomorrow becomes tomorrow and still more tomorrows. It is easy to lose track of plots in longer works and you are more prone to be editing your work as you read back. The lapses can make it harder to move forward. So, schedule it in.
Second: Put that damn phone away. This is really important. I am no angel in this regard. Some days I find myself scrolling mindlessly through Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest…Googling stuff I should just be actively doing in the first place, e.g. “How to write when you have a full-time job” and searching up “Cute Cats” on YouTube before falling into a deep YouTube wormhole into another dimension. So, during my writing block in the morning, I leave my phone charging in the bedroom.
Third: Read and learn to swim in another author’s words before you can start building a pool of your own. What it takes to be published? First, it would be putting the work through several rounds of editing, and next, that utterly terrifying first step of putting the work out no matter how imperfect you think it is—and it will always feel imperfect. I would also say that one needs to strike a balance between knowing fully what you want to see in your published work and also being open to hearing what changes need to be made in your writing. Also, you will also be expected to do a lot of things that, as writers used to working alone in the quietude of their rooms or desks, will require stepping out of one’s comfort zones. Especially for very introverted writers. This would include interviews, media appearances, panels discussions and talks. I feel like this is probably the hardest part of the writing life as it not only causes me a great deal of anxiety, but also shortens the amount of available time I have to work quietly at my writing. So, relaxation techniques and an exercise routine. Have those on hand to help you get through the really tough times.
And, finally, can you explain your future literary plans? Are you working on anything specific at the moment?
Yes, actually. I am working on a new novel. I am also putting together a collection of short stories and a novella. So, I am really excited for those.