The well-composed and intelligent Wena Poon belies a fire within. She reveals how she transformed from a shy little girl into the go-getting lawyer and writer she is today.
Text by Shanti Ganesan
WHILE OTHER 14-YEAR-OLDS were out engaging in the latest fads, Singapore-born writer-lawyer Wena Poon was at home diligently working on a sci-fi novel. It appeared her being accepted in Singapore’s Gifted Programme was already bearing its fruit of success. “Less than 10 of us were selected from my school,” she says. “We were too young to know what it was all about. But then, looking back as an adult, I realise that that was one of the great things to happen to you as a nine-year-old because you’re put on a special track.”
Today, 34-year-old Wena is a corporate lawyer specialising in international mergers and acquisitions and capital markets, and a member of the New York and California State Bars. She is also a writer and produces work in other genres alongside her literary efforts. But until Wena was about 10 years old, she was very shy, timid and a bit fearful. An only child till she was 11, she was shielded by protective parents. The prodigy wasn’t able to truly explore her talents until much later and Wena’s meekness offered her nothing but the ability to fade into the background.
“When I was about 14, I started having a voice of my own,” she says. “The same group of girls were kept together and we were all very bright. We were very competitive and I think we had a bit more aggression and ambition than most girls our age. We just became more demanding of what we expected from life,” she notes. “I was 14 when I wrote my first novel. There was really nothing we couldn’t do. We always had a vision ahead of our time,” she adds.
She eventually went to the U.S. in 1991 where she read English Literature at Harvard University, graduating with honours before moving on to complete a law degree at Harvard Law School.
“I think living in the U.S. is very different. Even today, if you take a 17-year-old out of Singapore and put her in the U.S., even with the Internet and everything, there will be a difference. It’s obviously an immersion into another culture. The biggest thing that hit me and still hits me today is how we treat our children. In Singapore we tend to be very protective, there are certain things that girls can’t do. The standards are different. But I think in the U.S., they really teach children to do whatever they set their hearts on. And again, there’s nothing you cannot do. No child is too small. They are taught to dream big. They’re only limited by their own talents and not their society,” she says.
That is perhaps why in her début short-story collection, Lions In Winter (MPH Publishing, 2008), Wena shares 11 stories about displaced Singaporeans living abroad. Wena tries to keep them diverse in terms of age, gender and social class and even gets under the skin of all her characters.
“As a writer, you invariably bleed every part of yourself because you empathise with your character. It’s almost like being an actor playing different roles. If you don’t play the role yourself, you cannot possibly write empathetically about that one character. So, even in the character of a man who was afraid of ATMs, I felt I was inhabiting his personality and seeing his point of view,” says Wena.
When asked about her experiences when she went to the U.S., Wena explains how miserable she was in her first year.
“When the snow started falling … that’s when I really felt like I knew I was not in Asia. I just felt it was all weird. I felt nostalgic and in fact I just recently saw the movie, The Namesake, and the first scene was when a woman got married and flew to New York. She was wearing a saree in the winter and she was just so cold and miserable. The director, Meera Nair, said in an interview that she was just trying to capture how she felt herself … When I saw that movie I knew that horrible alienating feeling being in that bitter cold and not having the right clothes,” she recalls.
In her many years living abroad, Wena has of course learnt to not only get used to the cold, but blend in with her surroundings. In all that, there is still a part of her that will always remain true to her roots.
Wena was raised by her grandmother in her formative years and a lot of the paths she’s taken today stem from her teachings. Values taught to her by her grandmother are still firmly embedded in her soul. Her grandmother may have been an illiterate who never went to school, never had a job and was always at home, but Wena always found that her lessons were almost Western and very progressive.
One of the things she instilled in her grandchildren was never to be racist, prejudiced and to always have an open mind. “For someone who was in an arranged marriage, who grew up in a kampung (village) in Singapore, she actually had a very large embrace of the world. Maybe it’s because she practised Buddhism but she loved people no matter what colour they were,” she says. “So, that’s something she’s taught me and she’s always been a good source of support. She would always tell me to go for anything I wanted to pursue and that life was just too short,” Wena adds.
Armed with such a great outlook on life and people, Wena bloomed into the person she is today and has managed to find her true calling.
“It should have been sooner but it wasn’t till I was about 25 years old. Sometimes I feel if you discover yourself earlier in life, you could have a longer runway to develop. I know people in their late 30s who have a lot of family obligations and they’re still fulfilling them … unable to meet their own priorities. That’s sad because I feel like you’re inhibited from developing as a human being.”
Wena’s high energy has allowed her to produce a lot of work. “I’m constantly writing, I don’t stop, but my work as a lawyer is another 110% as well. So, I’m pretty high energy. I don’t know how I do it. It gets worse with age, too. The older I get, the shorter the time span I have, so I expect more in an hour of myself and in other people. I was just talking to my husband’s mum about it and she was saying how hummingbirds don’t experience time the way other animals do because they have thousands of beats per second and they have relatively short life spans. She then told me how I’m like a hummingbird and warned me that I may burn out. But I know myself too well. I tried to explain to her it has something to do with being a lawyer, because we bill our time. My firm bills my time US$550 an hour. So, clients don’t like to pay for nothing. Somehow I think that has influenced me psychologically over the years. I think that has something to do with the frenetic energy,” she laughs.
By the end of this year, Wena plans to finish two books. The first is about the friendship between two women. They met in kindergarten and the book follows them to their deaths. “The idea came to me during a recent trip to Singapore when I was talking to some of my friends back home and they were telling me what happened to some of our friends from high school and how people have different paths,” she says. “The other book I’m working on is the third book to my sci-fi trilogy that I self-published on the web.”
No doubt, Wena’s roar will be heard, loud and proud in the coming years. The world is waiting for it.
Reproduced from the July 2008 issue of the Malaysian edition of Marie Claire