Amanda Lee Koe
In 1928, at a press ball in Berlin, a serendipitous thing happened. A photographer, Alfred Eisenstaedt, took a photo of three young actresses: Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong and Leni Riefenstahl.
This was before Germany-born Dietrich’s meteoric rise to the ranks of Hollywood’s screen sirens; before Riefenstahl, also a German, picked up a camera and became the darling of Adolf Hitler for her Nazi propaganda films. Arguably the most famous when the photo was taken was Wong, a pioneer Chinese-American actress whose career would end in obscurity.
Nearly a century later, another moment of serendipity. Singaporean writer Amanda Lee Koe, new in New York and wandering the aisles of the Strand bookstore, chanced upon a book on Eisenstaedt, who went on to take iconic photos such as V-J Day In Times Square, of an American sailor kissing a nurse at the close of World War II.
Among the photos in the book was the one of Dietrich, Wong and Riefenstahl, a coincidental confluence of cinematic celebrity which so captivated Lee Koe that five years on, it would open her debut novel, Delayed Rays Of A Star.
The book is out today from major publishers Bloomsbury and Nan A. Talese, the literary imprint of Doubleday. It has already been anticipated on the summer reading lists of media such as Elle, USA Today and Thrillist.
Lee Koe won the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize for her collection of short stories, Ministry Of Moral Panic. At 27, she was the youngest winner at the time.
It took 4½ years to research and write Delayed Rays Of A Star, says the 31-year-old, who lives in New York with her partner, a Singaporean film-maker.
“I wrote like a nun,” she says. “I had to work uninterrupted for many hours on end. I had no instant messaging apps on my phone, I was uncontactable.”
Outside of commercial writing projects she took on to fund her lifestyle, she entered a state she compares to that of storybook character Rip Van Winkle, who falls asleep and awakens decades later.
“I keep thinking I’m still the age at which I started the book. I don’t really know what’s happened in the world.”
There were days, she recalls, when she would write for 10 hours straight.
“Then I would lie down and tears would come out of my eyes. It wasn’t an emotional cry. I would just feel there was nothing else left in me and I needed some kind of release.
“I don’t know if it is a healthy way to work,” she adds ruefully. “I hope it won’t be like that for my second novel.”
She is sitting cross-legged on a rubber floor mat in the children’s play area of The Salvation Army’s Tanglin store, where she used to scour for vintage clothing when she was young.
While waiting for this reporter to arrive, she has already filled a wire basket with second-hand raiment.
“Growing up, I didn’t understand why the things in malls all look the same and all look very ‘now’,” she says. “What if you were not a person of the now?
“Everything in a mall is calculated to speak to you, nothing is left to chance. In a thrift store, a used bookstore, even the way I came upon the Eisenstaedt photo book, chance is involved – and what draws me to things is that element of chance.”
Lee Koe is the daughter of a pilot, who would take her travelling with him when she was a little girl, and an air stewardess-turned-housewife, who read her fairy tales.
As a teenager, she fell in love with all things vintage and found a form of escapism in old movies. The transgressively glamorous Dietrich was one of her idols.
Dietrich renounced her German citizenship and campaigned for the Allied forces in WWII – setting her up in contrast with Riefenstahl, who directed Nazi propaganda films Triumph Of The Will (1935) and Olympia (1938), which were simultaneously critically acclaimed and ethically decried. Throughout her life, Riefenstahl denied having known about the Holocaust.
In Hollywood, Wong starred alongside Dietrich in the film Shanghai Express (1932). Wong, the Los Angeles-born daughter of a laundryman broke ground as a Chinese-American movie star, but was hamstrung by racial stereotypes, whitewashing and the banning of on-screen inter-racial romance in American films, meaning leading roles were out of her reach.
Each of these women was both pioneering and problematic and their complexities fascinated Lee Koe, who says: “The most important thing was to see them as human.”
Alongside the three movie stars, Delayed Rays Of A Star follows fictional characters on the sidelines of their lives, such as a Chinese immigrant maid in Paris and a German soldier-turned-film assistant.
“I’m interested in gaps in history and why certain stories are told and why certain stories aren’t,” says Lee Koe.
She wanted to work on a story that was “capacious enough to allow me to flex my aesthetic imagination in a way that wouldn’t be curtailed by any sort of outward markers of identity”.
“I felt people assumed I would work on something post-colonial,” she adds. “When I started talking about my novel, somebody from Singapore said, ‘That sounds great, but where are we going to shelve you?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know, in literature?’
“I think what this person was saying was, why haven’t you leveraged on certain canons to which you naturally belong?
“But the part of Singaporean-ness I connect to best is the part where I am a city person and the cosmopolitan is the influx of different elements, cultures and times – you can shape what you want to be.”
Balli Kaur Jaswal
Many classic road-trip stories are written from the point of view of men – think Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (1957) or Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974).
Singaporean writer Balli Kaur Jaswal wanted to try something different. Her latest novel, The Unlikely Adventures Of The Shergill Sisters, follows three bickering British-Punjabi sisters who, despite being at odds, must make a pilgrimage to India to honour their mother’s dying wishes.
“I wanted to make this story about the challenges that female travellers face and make it a starting point for other inequalities that women face simply going about their lives,” says the 35-year-old.
“Men have a lot more freedom of mobility in many places, while women always have to consider their safety when walking around alone or going to an unfamiliar place. Travelling amplifies those vulnerabilities, especially in cities where street harassment is rife.”
Unlikely Adventures, released in April, is the second part of her book deal with publishing giant HarperCollins. The first was Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, a saucy 2017 bestseller that Hollywood star Reese Witherspoon featured in her Hello Sunshine Book Club.
It has also been picked up for a screen adaptation by English filmmaker Ridley Scott’s production company, Scott Free Productions, and British production company Film4. Jaswal says she has seen a draft of the screenplay and it is “very promising”.
In Unlikely Adventures, she returns to the experiences of first-generation immigrant families.
“I was interested in exploring the connection that people – women in particular – of the global Indian diaspora have with the motherland,” says Jaswal, who is married with a son, born while she was writing the novel. “To the sisters, home is Britain, but as first-generation migrants, some aspects of their cultural soul belong in India.”
She plans to set her next book in Singapore – and for the first time, it will not be about the Punjabi community, which also inspired her earlier books, Inheritance (2013) and Sugarbread (2016).
“It’s a dark comedy about three Filipino domestic workers who band together to prove the innocence of another domestic worker who has been accused of murdering her employer.”
When writer Lee Jing-Jing, 34, was finishing her novel How We Disappeared, she returned to Singapore for a visit during Chinese New Year.
“I was at the temple,” her father told her, “and I saw somebody who looked exactly like your grandmother.”
Lee’s grandmother had died more than 20 years ago.
Her father began to tell her a story which, she says, she must have heard as a child and subconsciously squirrelled away in her brain because it was already in her book.
During World War II, the Japanese had massacred the villagers of her great-grandfather’s kampung in Bukit Timah. Her great-grandfather, left for dead, was one of the few survivors.
As he came to, he heard a baby’s cry – he thought it might have been his youngest child, but when he got up, she was gone. The rest of his family, besides his daughters who had married out of the village, had been killed.
Lee thinks the woman her father saw could have been the missing child, his aunt.
“They tried to look for her, but during the war, it was impossible to find anyone.”
In How We Disappeared, a boy discovers that his father is not his grandmother’s biological son and goes on a quest to find his missing family. His path intersects with that of an elderly widow who was a “comfort woman” or sex slave during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore.
“When people talk about the war,” says Lee, “it is usually about how they suffered because of the food shortages and how little they had. But there is so much more that people were not able to give voice to, maybe because it was too much to bear or they didn’t have the language for it.”
It has been a busy year for Lee, who wrote a book and became a mother. She lives in Amsterdam with her Dutch husband, a political scientist, and their six-month-old son.
How We Disappeared, her first international novel, was brought out in May by Oneworld, the publishing house behind Man Booker Prize-winning novels A Brief History Of Seven Killings (2014) and The Sellout (2016).
It is “virtually impossible” to find first-hand accounts of local women forced into sexual slavery during WWII, says Lee, but that does not mean there were none. She listened to archived audio recordings in which people recounted seeing a female friend or neighbour taken away by the Japanese.
“It wasn’t the easiest thing to write,” she says of the book.
“You don’t want to come across as being exploitative and re-traumatise people. It was very important to me that this not be a book about rape, but about surviving trauma.
“It is about surviving your memories and the past, more than anything else. I told as much truth as I could afford to tell.”
Orphaned, left with a limp from a childhood bout with polio and considered “bad luck” by her family, young Peranakan sleuth Chen Su Lin is an unwanted presence in 1930s Singapore.
But people cannot seem to get enough of the books she is featured in – the Crown Colony mysteries by veteran Singaporean writer Ovidia Yu.
The Paper Bark Tree Mystery, released on June 27 in Britain and Singapore and next month in the United States, was meant to be the final volume in a trilogy of mystery novels set in 1930s colonial Singapore. But Yu’s British publisher, Little, Brown, has asked for another set of stories narrated by Su Lin, which has been dubbed the Syonan-To Trilogy and will continue into World War II.
“I’ve had more people writing (to me) about what they felt they had in common with Su Lin than what they found different… who focus on Su Lin’s humour and wry practicality,” says Yu, 58, who is married.
“I guess we’re all treated like outsiders at times and Su Lin’s ability to see that as an advantage is encouraging.”
In Singapore, about 2,500 copies from the series have been sold.
In the course of the trilogy, Su Lin, an aspiring journalist, has become the assistant of British chief inspector Thomas Le Froy and helps him solve murders, although in Paper Bark Tree, she loses her job to a less qualified white woman.
Yu, a playwright who got established abroad with her best-selling Aunty Lee murder mysteries about a nosy Peranakan cook, is now working on The Mimosa Tree Mystery, the first book in the Syonan-To trilogy.
All the books in this series revolve around Su Lin and are named after trees that have been around since the colonial era because her grandmother and mother – who partly inspired Su Lin’s personality – loved trees.
“What surprised me most (about researching colonial Singapore) is how many of the situations and problems we think of as unique to present-day Singapore were already around then,” she says. “Migrants here to look for work were exploited, abused and cheated; the casual elitism of the privileged classes blinded them to the struggle for survival of all others; the emphasis on the rule of law; open economy, town planning, anticorruption which could be tweaked in favour of those in power.
“We’ve just changed places. Now, local-born Singaporeans are the privileged class and we’ve taken over from the colonial Brits.”