Superstars of Singapore Fiction

Last Thursday evening, Lingyu and Alice attended the literary-star-studded ‘Superstars of Singapore Fiction’ event at Asia House, which is a part of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival 2019, to learn about the words, stories and ideas from Asia and the diaspora.

The evening kicked off with brief readings from three rising stars of Singapore novelists, Sharlene Teo, Jing-Jing Lee and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tian, followed by a panel discussion and a Q&A session with the audience. Three brilliantly talented authors shared their thoughts and ideas with regard to their identities as Singaporeans, as women, and as writers.

                                                            

For Sharlene, Jing-Jing and Cheryl, their inspirations come from daily live and people they know in Singapore. With Sharlene, she always thinks of the mouldy Singapore from back in the 90s, when the air smelt of ‘fishcakes and bubble tea’. “Singapore is endlessly fascinating,” Cheryl said, “I enjoy explaining Singapore to others, as it’s so distinct, casual and funny, which lots of people don’t always see.” One of the most characteristic traits in the writings of them is the use of colloquial Singapore English, as known as ‘Singlish’, in contrast with the common English known by their English-speaking readers. For Singapore writers, Singlish brings their stories a realist touch, as well as being a reflection of their Singaporean identity.

Growing up in a Mandarin-speaking family, Jing-Jing hears a different voice and sees her writing almost like ‘a translating from Chinese Mandarin or Hokkien to English’. Jing-Jing’s debut novel, How We Disappeared, tells the story of a struggling woman in Singapore. “(When writing,) I always listen to a voice, somebody’s voice. Lots of research I’ve done is painful – they’re stories of women.” Indeed, portraits of women from different times and backgrounds is a highlight in the three novels brought by our star writers. How We Disappeared captures a time when “women were seen as nothing but dirt” and tells the story of what life was like for that generation of women in the 50s Singapore. Whilst in Cheryl’s Sarong Party Girls, the modern girls are ‘strong, fierce women – do or die’. Sharlene bravely addressed the sexual politics implied with female Asian writers: “There are cultural conceptions of Singapore people, like assuming we’re very organised… And women are always seen as ‘delicate’. But I want to discuss something fierce.”

Lots of female writers who write about female stories might find themselves getting asked the same question: How much of the book is about you? “This question is mostly asked to female writers.” Sharlene (Ponti) said, “I write about angry, hungry teenagers…who wasn’t (such a teenager)?” “I feel I always need to explain this to a random guy at some talk… No, none of them is me.” Cheryl joked. “I wrote about a woman trying to fight herself, trying to free her friends… Ultimately, it is about the complexity of being a woman.” Jing-Jing explained.

Then, what about writing in a male voice? “I could do.” Jing-Jing said, “It’s about finding the right character.” Cheryl agreed that, it is about ‘who’s the best storyteller’. Sharlene also expressed that despite the norms around genders, male and female could be similar.

Finally, what are the challenges for Singapore writers to get into the international market? Our three writers said they felt quite lucky about being published all over the world. “There is a cultural appetite for writers from different cultures at the moment.” Sharlene admitted honestly. For writers living overseas, it is also a challenge to see their positions ‘without betraying where you’re from’. The perspective of an ‘in-betweener’ makes their works special. But also, some would say it is exactly when one’s away, that they realise what they have left behind. There was huge applause for our superstars of Singapore fiction today, and we hope to hear more diverse voices in tomorrow’s publishing.