Working Lunch, Boat Quay (Feb 2019)
Almost a year ago, I wrote this poem as part of a submission:
what do you make? they asked
I made two children
bright eyed and dimpled
a home, suitably located and priced
in the mornings I make up
all professional and wise
blouse and wrap skirt, appropriate heels
directing people on the phone
making numbers look nice
it’s a rush to make dinner
storytime, clean up, goodnight
the husband needs feeding
I need to entice
as he lays snoring the words come unbidden
my self stirs to life
For a long time, I fit my writing hours into the end of the day, when everyone was asleep and the house quiet. I would write till the wee hours, then head to work the next morning. Whenever I could, I ordered take-out and sat on the steps of Boat Quay opposite my office, scribbling on pen and paper. But it was unsustainable. I was constantly tired, I did not feel fulfilled at work, and I would never be a good enough mom for my mother, who devoted most of her life to raising me and my sisters.
In October 2018, I went to Toji, where I spent time as artist-in-residence at the Toji Cultural Centre in Wonju, South Korea. I didn’t realise it then, but as I’ve told my close friends since, I was on the verge of a breakdown, trying to balance my professional career, manage the household, keep my marriage going, and raise two young kids—and on top of all that, trying to write. At Toji, I went on many walks in the Gangwon mountains. Sitting on the bench at Yonsei University one afternoon, I stared at the sky. Above me, tree branches interlocked and overlapped, like brain synapses reaching out to touch each other. Far from home, it hit me:
I can’t continue like this. Something has got to change.
2019, was for me, that year of change. It took me several more months to do something about it, but once I did it was as if a door had opened in my heart and the pieces began to fall into place. I realised I had gotten it all wrong. I was afraid to call myself a writer because for years I had struggled to get anything published, only to realise I was trying to put the cart before the horse.
A writer is not someone who publishes, although that is not to say publishing is unimportant. A writer is someone who writes. That’s it. Publication is a form of recognition, but it is also transient and does nothing for your next work. Instead of chasing publication, I started to ask myself: how could I become a better writer? Go deeper into the thoughts and feelings I was trying to convey? Make my words more precise and true?
I began sharing my words on Twitter, and unexpectedly found a wide new audience, including support from moms around the world, all juggling multiple responsibilities while trying to write. On the morning of June 4th, I sat down and wrote a personal essay on Tiananmen, which unexpectedly caught fire, receiving thousands of views. I heard back from so many readers, including several who shared very personal stories with me. In writing the essay I found something I thought I had lost—the ability to use my words to connect with others.
That is the true joy of being a writer: the ability to move hearts across time and space. And somewhere along the way, I thought I had lost that. But it was there all along, inside me. I pushed myself to blog more regularly (and built this website! woohoo), submit more than once or twice a year (I made at least 50 submissions this year! Not quite enough!), and above all to write whenever, wherever I found the time. To my surprise, I started to receive more and more personal rejections (“beautifully written, just not for us”). After years of seeing only blue, then grey “rejection” buttons on Submittable, I finally found out the colour of acceptance: green.
I also summoned the courage to pitch editors (and weather the inevitable flood of rejections), with acceptances at Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and Electric Literature, both online journals I have long respected. For Cha I reviewed Teo Youyenn’s This is What Inequality Looks like, writing an essay on inequality I long wanted to write. I also contributed an essay on East Asian Literature, inspired by the East Asian Literature Forum which I attended in Seoul last year, forthcoming in Cha next year.
Inspired by the same forum (and also Tiffany Tsao’s essay on Indonesian Literature), I published an essay in Electric Literature on literary translation , East Asian literature, and how that shapes our worldviews. I was surprised how far and wide my little piece traveled. Many readers, writers and translators reached out to me: from Brazil to the US to Italy to Indonesia, identifying with the sentiments expressed in my essay. It gives me a little hope that I am not just one sampan swimming in the ocean, but there are many thousands of us in our little boats, swimming against the current, just like the trees I saw at Yonsei University reaching towards each other.
And sometime in September, I wrote the last word in a 10,000 word sprint to the end of my first draft. It is not, to be honest, my first draft. Somewhere in the recesses of my computer lie the carcasses of two abandoned 50,000 word drafts. It’s been said that the first novel takes a million words—the first 900,000 odd discarded by the wayside. If I count everything written so far, I’m probably halfway there.
Somewhere in Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel there’s a line that goes something like ‘the process of writing a first novel is basically finding out what you care enough about to write a book about.’ Or as another writer friend puts it, “how do you learn how to write a novel? You write a novel.” For three months I lived in my head, avoided almost all social contact, and then one very late night I wrote, with great satisfaction: The End
The novel is of course, far from done. And if you have any writer friends or know me personally, please know: never ask a writer when their book is done/published/out in the world. Let them tell you instead. But I was thrilled to receive an acceptance from Tin House’s Winter Workshop based on a draft of my novel, and even more honoured to receive a travel stipend from the National Arts Council to travel to Portland in February. Partly to raise funds for my travel to Tin House, I started a Ko-Fi crowdfunding page for readers, followers and friends who wanted to support my writing. When I started my Ko-Fi, I expected to raise a hundred bucks (my husband expected even less). I am truly heartened by everyone’s generosity, and after all the nasty things we hear about social media and its evils it was wonderful to hear on the same day, from two separate friends: I’m very glad to support your dream.
Thank you 2019, for surprising me over and over again. And to all my readers, followers and friends, connecting with you has truly been the highlight of my year.
Happy New Year!
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