The Metropolitant Team speaks to Ms Lee Jing-Jing, a Singaporean author currently residing in Amsterdam. Jason from the Metropolitant team had a chat with Ms Lee, to find out more about her choice to be an author, and what keeps her going.
Someone famous once said, “Write what you know.” The quote has been attributed to Ernest Hemingway, Colson Whitehead, and Mark Twain (apparently Mark Twain says half the things that make it onto brainyquote.com) and it’s something I’ve heard time and again from different fiction tutors. I took this to heart when writing my first novel. A good portion of If I Could Tell You is based on my early experiences growing up in Singapore, on people you come across every day. There’s the next door neighbour you always hear screaming at her kid for not finishing his homework, the old auntie who wipes your table clean at the food court, the taxi driver who’s so exhausted he can drive straight anymore. “Why write about Singaporeans in HDB flat? It’s been done before,” they said. But I couldn’t let it go, not when the images and stories and sounds had been building up inside of me for years and years. It was a book I had to write. And I think this is what makes a writer: You write because you can’t not.
I am in the throes of finishing the last section of my novel-in-progress (three years in the making) and it is one of the most difficult things I have ever done. More difficult than the O and A levels, more difficult than PE in the hot sun. Every time I think about giving up, I remind myself that it’s only a matter of time before I feel the need to go back to it.
M: Writing is not a common profession in Singapore. What were you engaged in prior to exploring this endeavour or had you always wanted to be an author?
LJJ: I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but I never told anyone. Said out loud, the words sound audacious, childish, I thought, a little like saying “I want to be an astronaut when I grow up,” or “I want to play in the Champions League.” So I pushed myself into taking up something “proper” after graduating from junior college – a social science degree at SMU. Two years into it, I was doing so badly that I decided to drop out and apply instead to literature and writing courses in Europe. This dream only became a real when I got into the creative writing programme at Oxford. It gave me enough confidence to think, “Okay, I’m going to become an astronaut,” and to work my way towards publication in a practical, disciplined manner.
M: What are some of the struggles you faced in this largely uncharted territory?
LJJ: Actually, these waters have been mapped and charted by many admirable poets and authors such as Cyril Wong, Alfian Sa’at, Su-Chen Christine Lim, and Wena Poon.
Even with the support of a literary circle though, working on any piece of writing, be it a novel, a short story or a poem, is difficult because I am my own harshest critic. It can also be a little isolating being in your own head the whole of the working day. I don’t recommend the profession to people who dislike being alone!
M: Where are you based in currently? What draws you back to Singapore and write stories to publish locally?
LJJ: I currently live in Amsterdam, but I try to connect anyway I can with the literary community in Singapore, in particular with BooksActually/Math Paper Press; I believe they do a wonderful, important job in making sure that local writing is published and read. I will always write about Singapore because it is as much a part of me as an arm or a leg.
M: Your books centre around the Singaporean way of life. Do you have other topics that inspire you that you are exploring to write on in the future?
LJJ: I do! I’m interested in telling the stories of people from the lower rungs of society, people who are down and out, people who are not seen. I also draw inspiration from myths and historical events–in particular, war and disaster and the women who make it through them.
M: Also we see that you are an accomplished poet as well. Who is your favourite poet and why?
LJJ: I admire so many poets that it’s difficult to mention just one. Dylan Thomas, because he was the first to move me. Cyril Wong, Jackie Kay, Li-Young Lee and Carol Ann Duffy. Each of them, in their own way, has taught me the importance of surprising the reader.
M: Lastly, do you have any words of wisdom for our budding writers who may need that additional push to take the leap of faith into the writing profession?
LJJ: Read, write, and read some more. Read on buses and trains, write during lunch and when your maths professor is sending you to sleep with his lecture on statistics. When you have finished something you think you can show to the wide world, find a literary group, show your work to people you feel you can trust, and learn to take critique on the chin.
Ms Lee Jing-Jing’s latest poetry collections: www.booksactuallyshop.com/products/and-other-rivers
ED: Ms Lee, thank you for taking time off to speak to us and we wish you the best in your endeavours. Don’t forget to send us an autographed copy of your latest book!