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From Tin House to Singapore

I remember the first time I held a copy of Tin House in my hands: six or seven years ago, in the basement of the Central Library at Bugis. I turned the pages with starry-eyed wonder, marveling at the beautiful fonts and colourful drawings, thinking: so this is a literary journal. Even if the stories I read inside had nothing to do with people who looked like me or where I came from. Seeing my name printed on the front of this magazine, I thought then, was what it meant to be a writer.

Seven years on, Tin House no longer publishes its print journal, instead choosing to focus on its publishing business and biannual writing conferences. I’ve come to realise that chasing publication leads a writer nowhere. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, a writer writes, and it’s as simple as that. You can’t control all the other variables; getting picked for a journal is so often a matter of personal taste, and therefore also a numbers game. The only thing you can control is the quantity and quality of your writing. After running aground with two half-completed novels, I finally finished the draft of my novel in 2019. While trying to figure out how to take it to the next level, I saw a post on Twitter about the Tin House Winter Workshop. I took a gamble and applied—and to my surprise, was accepted two months later.

Most of the writing world knows about Tin House, but in Singapore, I can guarantee if you did a street survey, more than nine out of ten people would not have heard of it. Any celebratory feelings I might have felt were dampened by the knowledge that in my immediate world, it wouldn’t have mattered if it were a Tin or Wooden House that had expressed approval of my manuscript. “Did you know your father’s middle name is ‘tin’?” my mother offered helpfully, in her own way trying to understand my world. (The middle character 锡 or ‘xi’ is his generation’s family name, shared with his brothers).

But even if no one in my world understood what getting into Tin House meant, even if I had not figured out how I would pay for the trip (and the cost can be prohibitive for many), I knew I had to go. In more spiritual terms, it was a pilgrimage, a rare opportunity to spend time with outstanding writers at one of America’s leading literary institutions. 

I have written in the past, that we may leave a place, but in many ways the place never leaves us. Although I left America fifteen years ago—was there maybe also a piece of America still in my writing? My feelings towards the US have changed over the years: from the blissful innocence and freedom of my college years in the Bay Area before the Iraq War, to coming to understand, as an adult, the long history of American influence and intervention in the Asia Pacific. But as much as I have criticised America, it also comes from a place of sorrow, not spite. I have many dear friends in the US, and I can’t deny how it has shaped who I am (all ripe thoughts for a future essay!). These were just some of the complicated things I was trying to think through as I boarded my flight to America.

I have always envied the huge writing communities in publishing centres like London, New York, even San Francisco. “You have to spend some time in London one day,” a writer friend in Singapore once told me. “Just the sheer size of the writing community there: it’s enough to sustain all these workshops, readings, classes. And the standard of writing there is at a completely different level.”

But in my first evening of the Tin House workshop at the Sylvia Beach Hotel, jet lagged and trying to find my way into the table conversation, I began to ask myself the question: what was I even doing there? There’s a term often bandied about these writing conferences, ‘imposter  syndrome’. I wasn’t exactly feeling like an imposter. I just couldn’t identify with all the books and films everyone was talking about. I am not unfamiliar with American literature and pop culture, but as was fairly clear that night, my cultural points of reference are extremely different. No one would have heard of the last three films I had just watched, or the last book I read, and it made me sad.

Perhaps it was the jet lag, but as the night wore on I grew tired of making conversation. I recalled something a Japanese librarian at Berkeley told me years ago about living in America versus living in Japan. “In America I feel like I have to keep putting myself out there,” I remember her telling me. “In Japan I feel like a leaf, falling from a tree on an autumn day.” After so many years away from the US, I had kind of forgotten…how good Americans are at talking? And at the same time, how accustomed I had grown, living in Singapore, to keeping my thoughts to myself. The funny thing is if you know me at all, you’ll know that by local standards I’m considered opinionated.

Americans only like to talk about America, I texted my mentor in Singapore that night. Most of the world is like that, he comforted me. Singapore isn’t! Or at least, I’m not. His reply was droll. Singapore isn’t a country. We’re an airport. A traffic junction.

A literary agent who gave me feedback on my work last year told me my writing had a very ‘international sensibility’. That first night at Tin House, I finally understood what she meant. I began to feel very foolish. What was I doing thousands of miles from home, in a place that had no interest in who I was or where I came from? Was it wishful thinking, hoping to find an audience for my work in the US? What I came to realise was that Tin House may mean the world to a writer from Singapore, but a writer from Singapore may not necessarily mean anything at all to Tin House.

And yet, over the next few days (and weeks), I came to gain some invaluable insights. The size of America’s publishing market is enough to sustain expensive MFA programs, writing summer camps, writing courses, writing teachers, writers who make it—and the many thousands more still aspiring to get there. Simply put, the writing scene in the US is huge. The scene also comes replete with idiosyncracies: a hierarchy where only a very small number at the top make their livelihood from writing, with a very large, thick mid-tier of published authors all struggling to survive—or concealing their trust funds/parental/spousal backing. It was also odd to hear other writers discussing or comparing literary agents (and to learn that in the US, the market was large enough that agents often signed promising writers before they had written a book—the opposite of what I was told by UK agents), the size of their or their friends’ advances—to realise that the size of the scene bred hierarchy and unspoken competitiveness.

All of a sudden, I felt very happy to be an unknown writer in Singapore. It made me realise there is value in anonymity: away from the centre, very much on the fringes of the publishing world, I was able to write my novel without much external pressure or anxiety (any anxiety I did feel was me trying to live up to my own expectations of myself). And because there are so few of us even trying to write fiction, we discover each other’s existence with joy, like finding another kindred soul who understands the weight of holding a precious secret no one else arounds us understands, rather than circling each other like hawks.

Unexpectedly, I came to find great camaraderie and connection with my workshop group and our instructor—the same table I had found it so difficult to make conversation with the first night, the seemingly impassable differences bridged by the resonance we found in our work. To their credit: thank you Lance, India, and the rest of the selection committee for curating each group with such thought and care. And watching everyone’s rapt faces as I read from my book for the first time ever, gave me the confidence that I have written something that connects with not only American, but audiences around the world.

That was probably Tin House’s greatest gift to me: realising I no longer needed its validation. It’s been a long road since that first encounter with Tin House in the Central Library, but I think I’ve come to develop an inner sense for whether a piece works or not—and at the Tin House workshop, I learnt to trust that instinct. For that precious gift alone, it was worth the journey.

Photo: With my workshop group at the Sylvia Beach Hotel, and our instructor, Lydia Kiesling

Feature Photo: Sunrise on Newport Beach from the Sylvia Beach Hotel

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