Women writers are increasingly recognised as the dominant force in the contemporary literary landscape, and now Singapore can boast a couple of their own who are thriving on the global stage.
WATCH THIS VIDEO TOO:
Meet The Wonder Women Of Singapore
As the Singapore Writers Festival rolls around, we asked 10 up-and-coming female authors to share what they hope their work will achieve.
Read on as we take a look at who they are, what their tomes are about and what inspired them to put pen to paper:
Job Hunting? 7 Surefire Ways To Stand Out From The Crowd
10 Local Businesses You Didn’t Know Were Started By Singapore Celebs
This Is How You Should Be Spending Your Last 15 Minutes At Work
With a diminutive figure that belies her larger-than-life presence, Amanda could never see herself in a nine-to-five deskbound job, saying she is a “feral sort of person who has to be free”. She found that freedom in storytelling and put out her first short story collection, Ministry of Moral Panic, in 2013.
“Writing is a way to be in control of your own fantasy in reality, a weapon that allows you to shape a boring environment or less-than-ideal circumstance around you into an idealised form,” explains the 31-year-old.
“On the page, I am completely free. No one can tell me what to do or what not to do. Being a writer was more of an inevitability, and a risk I had to figure out how to take.”
Amanda’s claim to fame these days is her dazzling debut novel, Delayed Rays Of A Star, released in July.
“I can’t control how people will relate to my work – all I can do is to write in the only ways I know how – but it is mindboggling and touching that it actually happens,” says Amanda, when asked about the the impact of her writing.
“Readers have told me that I have helped them come back to creativity after dry spurts, or that I’ve pushed them to live more authentically. They thank me for this, but I feel thankful to them too, for being curious and remaining open-hearted as we wade through the constant current of figuring out what it means to live in this world.”
Comparing her life to a soap opera or Netflix series, it’s safe to say that Christine Chia experiences life in full colour. Mentored by another Singaporean poet, Cyril Wong, who encouraged her to write a whopping 40 poems of her own, Christine says choosing her favourite author is a nearly impossible feat.
“There are so many good writers out there that it’s hard to pick just one. The first book I remember falling headlong into is Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. When you read a book that tells you things about yourself that you’ve forgotten or suppressed, it’s like falling in love,” explains the author.
“The works of Cyril Wong, Haresh Sharma, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Jericho Brown, Andre Aciman, Jenny Offill, Ted Chiang, RF Kuang, Shaun Tan, and Garth Greenwell don’t need my love but they have it nonetheless.”
As for the impact she hopes to make on readers?
“I hope my books will make someone feel less lonely and give them hope that things do get better as long as they keep going, even though the downs can outnumber the ups in the short or medium term. It can be a long wait of 10 years or more, but as long as you don’t give up, good times will come,” says Christine.
“Some of the happiest moments in my writing are inspired by the time spent with my friends. I hope my writing will comfort people who know we cannot choose our family but that we can choose our friends, and must choose them wisely.”
“If I could not write I would be a very broken person,” declares Diana Rahim, who helms Beyond The Hijab as its Editor.
“I found a lot of comfort in words, and the act of trying to externalise whatever is besetting your interiority. Writing provided me with a kind of therapeutic clarity and it still does even if I am writing an essay, a piece of fiction, or a poem.”
As someone who has always found writing to be an enjoyable process, Diana only realised around the time she was in JC that literature was not just something to be studied in classrooms, “but the very expression of individual lives that surrounded me”.
In all honesty, she explains that while writing has certainly changed her life she does not have any expectations beyond that but does hope that her work makes readers love themselves just that little bit more.
Writing is second nature to Grace who describes herself as a full-time mother and part-time everything else. While she laments the fact that she didn’t have the opportunity to pick up a musical instrument when she was younger, Grace then turned to the pen as her instrument of choice.
“For as long as I can remember, writing has been my source of comfort when I needed an outlet to release tension or a medium to express myself. No one told me to write or not to write,” explains Grace, who has authored nine books, including her first novel, The Wanderlusters.
“My mother ran a hair salon and my father was an office administrator who worked in the British civil service; both were not inclined to literature so I just kept on writing with absolute freedom until the opportunities to publish came along.”
She says there are too many books to count that influenced her growing up but each – from fictional epics to philosophical musings – brought with it valuable lessons about craft. “The diet of a writer will, I guess, influence the taste of what a writer likes or dislikes,” shares Grace.
“From Sylvia Plath, I learn how to juxtapose mixed metaphors for an effective, disconcerting effect. From Judy Blume, how to write simply and honestly for the most powerful and emotionally relatable prose. From Enid Blyton, how magical realism is necessary for ordinary life to give us hope away from dreariness.
“From Milan Kundera, how to balance the philosophical within storytelling. From Maxine Hong Kingston, how to write about Asian characters in a contemporary setting. And from playwrights like William Shakespeare, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, and Henrik Ibsen, how to structure plots to create dramatic tension and use absurdist elements effectively to drive home a point.”
Growing up, Jo-Ann dreamt of becoming a cat or a rock star. Thankfully, she discovered writing instead, and her fiction has been anthologised in We R Family, In Transit, and Best New Singaporean Short Stories. Her first novel, Impractical Uses of Cake, won the Epigram Books Fiction Prize 2018.
“I’ve always been a bookworm. My favourite thing to do is read, preferably over a nice cup of coffee. So it felt natural for me to think up my own stories and write them from the age of about nine or 10,” she recalls.
“Honestly, they were quite awful but the writing was about creating a little world of my own that I could go into and do whatever I liked with, and that’s still a big reason why I write today.”
Revealing that writers she’s read and loved like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Tash Aw and Alexander McCall Smith have shaped her psyche and the way she writes, Jo-Ann is keen to pursue writing full time one day.
“I haven’t given up my day job as a digital marketer so I’m not a full-time writer – well, not yet! So for now, I can just say that writing is something I do want to do for the rest of my life, and I hope I’ll keep finding ways to do it,” says the 36-year-old.
“I’m not vain enough to think my writing will change lives but I hope my novel entertains anyone who reads it because I am told that it’s funny. I also hope that maybe it will make people pause for a tiny while in their day and think about things they’ve never bothered with before. That will be enough for me.”
As a child, books were a gateway into another world for children’s books author, Jumaine Ariff.
“I was convinced very early on that authors were incredible beings for being able to do what they did! I was bewitched! I became a ferocious reader and everyone’s available library card was ‘automatically’ mine to borrow with. Seeing my name on a cover of a book became one of my dream ever since then,” she explains.
Citing Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys series as a life-changing literary discovery, reading also provided an escape for the now 40-year-old.
“I wrote a book that holds deep meaning for me titled ‘P.S. Grandpa, I Love You’. It was written to help children and families better deal with bereavement. The book was based on my family’s own experience of losing my father to cancer,” says Jumaini.
“I hope to touch lives of readers and let them believe that they, too, have so much to offer in their lifetime. The power of a story should never be underestimated, even in a children’s book. I have a quote that I stand by as an author and also as a storyteller and that is ‘No Story is Too Simple to be Told’.”
Encouraged to draw by her mum, Maureen discovered that while her drawings were not that great, she was a pretty good writer.
“When I was a kid my mum gave me sketchbooks. She would write a title at the top of the page like ‘A Picnic’ and I was supposed to draw a scene and write about it, inspired by our real outings. I was rubbish at drawing but I guess because I loved reading, I wasn’t too bad at writing,” she remembers.
Her book, Make Animals Great Again And Other Creature Campaigns, and its sequel, The Great Singapore Poo Sale, tackles themes of leadership through characters like crabs, crocodiles and kingfishers.
“I write to make people feel things. I think all worthwhile art, including stories, help people feel like they are not alone in the world,” she explains. ”
I hope these two books, in particular, will put a smile on your face!”
Described as a precocious child by a teacher, Nessa Anwar was spurred to learn new words and discover how she could use them precisely because she didn’t know what precocious meant.
“This might seem self-serving but my interest in writing probably started the day my Primary 1 school form teacher wrote in my year-end report card that I was a ‘precocious’ child,” says Nessa. “I didn’t know what it meant so my dad bought me my first dictionary and told me to find out.
Starting out as a screen and stage actor, Nessa dabbled in playwriting, screenwriting, and creative writing classes during her university days. She was inspired to write her own plays from her conversations with friends, which led to her desire to create world for her characters to live in.
“I don’t know if my writing will change anyone’s life,” she confesses. “That’s always a hope that we cannot control as writers. I just think I write to hopefully represent certain subsets of the local Malay community – including the mats and minahs.
“If I, a Malay woman living in Singapore, can find some way to relate to or root for a character in Sherlock Holmes novels or a Hollywood flick, I have to give any audience of mine some trust to experience a different perspective.”
“I started writing because I loved reading and I loved the characters I read about so much that I didn’t want to lose them at the end of the book,” recalls Ovidia.
“I loved The Bell Jar and Catcher in the Rye and The Orton Diaries while growing up, but the moods these sent me into weren’t very conducive to writing! The books that I believe most influenced me towards becoming a writer were not written by writers but the people close to them; The Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, Monsieur Proust by Celeste Albaret and The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon.”
All, in one way or another, served to influence and shape Ovidia’s latest book The Paper Bark Tree Mystery – a murder mystery set in colonial Singapore between two wars.
“I hope the stories will open them up to all the wonderful options in their lives; seeing ordinary people doing extraordinary things and seeing the humble, routine details that make up the lives of extraordinary achievers,” says the author.
“Also, how much we have in common with those we’ve been programmed to think of as different and how we can be surprised when we examine in detail what’s most familiar to us. But best of all, if someone reading this or one of my books decides to start putting down their own stories? That would be the best thing of all!”
The boredom of invigilating a three-hour exam prompted Suchen to pick up the pen and start writing, despite having no intention whatsoever to become a writer.
“Beware of boredom,” she warns cheekily. “It could lead you down roads you never dreamt of travelling before.”
Inspired by many writers, she says authors like Noel Streatfeild, Han Suyin, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf amongst others, were all great novelists who opened the door for her into different worlds. But she herself does not set out to do so for her own readers.
“When I set out to write, I do not hope to change people’s lives. That would be manipulative. I explore. If through my exploration and writing, readers laugh a little, cry a little, see a little more and feel a little more for humanity then I am happy,” she explains.
“I was surprised when my novel, The River’s Song, was widely reviewed in academic journals and studied in universities here and overseas. It was ‘Book of the Month’ in The Sunday Times and was selected in the US as one of ‘The Best 100 Books Of 2015’ by Kirkus Reviews.”