Some in the literary circle have hailed her as an exciting young talent to watch out for. INTAN MAIZURA AHMAD KAMAL finds out more about Wena Poon in an e-mail interview
AT THE AGE OF 10, Wena Poon was among the first group of children enrolled in Singapore’s Gifted Education Programme. Today, the 33-year-old Singaporean, who divides her time between San Francisco and Austin in Texas, is hailed as one of the most gifted young writers in the literary circle.
Her fiction, poetry and nonfiction works have been widely anthologised and published in Asia, Europe and her adopted country, the U.S. But it is her debut outing, Lions In Winter
—a collection of 11 wonderfully insightful stories that examine the lives of displaced Singaporeans living abroad and those in Singapore who are torn between two worlds in their search for an imaginary homeland—that has excited some of her more illustrious contemporaries.
Poon’s love for writing and literature began very early. By the time she was 14, she’d already completed the first of many series of novels. At 16, she graduated top of her class in Literature at Raffles Girls’ School and was subsequently awarded a Humanities Scholarship to Raffles Junior College. The History-loving Capricornian went to the U.S. in 1991 to study English Literature at Harvard University. She went on to graduate with Honours before moving on to complete a law degree at Harvard Law School. It was here, with her professors’ support that Poon started to publish film reviews in the U.S.
In 2002, Poon, daughter of a businessman and a schoolteacher mother, began publishing stories and poems about Singapore. Her work has appeared in The Merlion and The Hibiscus
by Penguin Books, From Boys to Men
by Landmark Books, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore
, Silverfish New Writing, Yuan Yang
and many other literary journals in Asia and Australia. In 2005, Milanese publisher Il Saggiatore selected her work for Italian translation in an anthology called Singapore
, showcasing new writers from around the world. In 2006, her short fiction was featured in Island Voices
, a Singapore literature textbook for Secondary 3 and 4 literature students.
Poon, a corporate lawyer specialising in international mergers and acquisitions and capital markets, and a member of the New York and California State Bars, also produces work in other genres alongside her literary efforts.
In 2005, she completed a science fiction action adventure novel, Biophilia
. Its sequel, Cryptic Tonic
, followed suit two years later. Targeted primarily at the American youth market, Poon, who’s been married for the last eight years to Bailey Korell, designed and retailed these books herself on amazon.com and featured them at Alternative Press Expo in California.
She keeps herself busy and has freelanced as a journalist, editor and film reviewer for various newspapers and magazines. Her interest in film and languages led her to interpret and write the English/Mandarin subtitles for the recent Hollywood film, Nanking
, produced by an Oscar-winning director. This is the transcript from an e-mail interview with the writer: Q. What inspires you?
Asian women of my generation who are amazing. I recently saw the Filipino-born Broadway star Lea Salonga in concert. She’s pretty close to my age. Her talent and the work she has put into her artistic career has inspired me and about five million Asian girls worldwide.Q. Where do you get your ideas?
Like many writers or film directors, I observe people. Something poignant would occur in my daily life—I would notice a stranger on the street and think, “There is a great story behind this person.” I love the dramatic possibilities of ordinary life. I spend a lot of time writing down interesting monologues that ordinary people deliver in my presence, unconscious of the fact that they are actors on a stage of their own design. For example, I think cab drivers, when they go on a rant, are absolutely hilarious.Q. Who is your literary hero?
E.M. Forster. He didn’t write many novels, but they were all elegant and sympathetic observations of the human condition. He’s also easy to read.Q. What was your first novel about (when you were 14)?
A boy sorcerer who goes off to defeat a demon, aided by his sorceress girlfriend and her wizard father. This was way before Harry Potter. Over three years, I completed an entire fantasy trilogy (about 120,000 words) with these characters. This was in the 80s, before I had a computer. I typed it manually and used up reams of paper. When I ran out of paper, I would type on the backs of photocopied documents, on lined paper, on whatever I could find. I was like Jack Kerouac and I hadn’t even heard of Jack Kerouac! When I asked local publishers to publish the manuscripts, they thought I was insane because I was just a kid.Q. What do you enjoy most about what you do?
The opportunity to connect with people and hear their stories. Finding kindred spirits.Q. What do you consider to be your biggest challenge with what you do (with writing)?
It’s easy to have lots of ideas. It’s hard to make them coherent and understandable to your audience. You have to constantly self-edit.Q. What kind of writing do you enjoy most?
Easily readable, beautiful sentences, stories that have universal themes. Like Shakespeare. Maybe it’s because by day I’m a corporate lawyer in a fast-paced environment, but whenever I come across a ponderous piece of fiction with all these long, droning sentences and complex structures, I throw up my hands and go, “WHAT is he trying to say! Good God! Next!”Q. How would you describe your style?
I shoot straight from the hip. I try to communicate simply, effectively and elegantly. I don’t mix metaphors, I don’t try to strive for effect. I write exactly the way I think. As Keats said, “poetry should come as naturally as leaves to a tree.” If you push yourself too hard, you’re doing it wrong.Q. How much has your writing changed? How much has living abroad contributed to your process as a writer?
My writing style has evolved to become simpler and clearer. In my teens I thought being literary-sounding was cool but now I think it’s cooler to be sharp, focused and easy to read. Less is more. Living abroad has been critical in my development as a writer. It gave me material to write about, but more importantly, it gave me confidence. In Singapore, I was taught, “children should be seen and not heard”. In America, children are told that they can change the world, and that they better start now. I arrived in the U.S. at 17 and realised that my peers were way ahead of me and that I had better look sharp.Q. What does Singapore mean to you?
It’s a question of the heart. I’m pretty sentimental about Singapore as I grew up there for the first 17 years. I want more people to know about Singapore, that it’s not just a tropical touristy place, that it’s not just about the chewing gum ban and caning, but that it is a unique, diverse, complex and amazing place. But we can’t do that until we believe in it ourselves first. Ironically, many Asians think Americans do not have moral values, but it was the Americans who taught me to be proud of my roots. They taught me patriotism, to treasure what I have instead of saying it’s not good enough.Q. Tell us about Lions In Winter. How long did it take you to put it together?
And what inspired you to write this book? Was it tough? The stories were written over five years. I wrote many short stories and a couple of novels during that time, and the published short stories drew the attention of Silverfish and MPH Publishing. It’s never tough for me to write. But I admit, for most writers, it is very tough to be published. I’m incredibly lucky that MPH Publishing appreciated my material and its editors have been marvellous about putting the book together.Q. It says that your book “… examines the lives of displaced Singaporean living abroad and those in Singapore torn between two worlds in their search for an imaginary homeland”. Do you feel displaced? Are you torn between two worlds?
From time to time, I do feel caught between two worlds but it’s not a bad feeling. It’s not depressing or anything. I think it’s challenging and interesting. The Singaporean diaspora is only going to grow. Nowadays Singaporeans go to China, Hong Kong. They say it’s tough to make it in Singapore so they export themselves, sometimes leaving family behind. This makes for very interesting literature.Q. When did you have your work published by Silverfish New Writing? How did that come about?
I published quite a few stories with Silverfish between 2003 and 2007. The Singapore community of writers and poets is very small and generally very supportive of each other. They told me about Silverfish in Kuala Lumpur. Though my stories were about Singaporean Chinese people, the Kuala Lumpur-based publisher took them. I was living in Hong Kong and the U.S. then and submitted my stories via e-mail, with a brief e-mail hello. I let the work speak for itself. It’s easy to submit for anthologies. Everyone who has written something should try it. The worst that can happen is that you get rejected.Q. What is your proudest achievement?
I discovered that Lions In Winter
was No. 6 on The Straits Times
Top 10 Bestseller List for fiction on February 3. To me, that is a bigger achievement than making The New York Times
Bestseller List. It was the only book on that list that is by an Asian Press and a local writer. I ranked above Stephen King! My American friends got a real kick out of that.Q. Tell me about your childhood and what kind of environment did you grow up in? What was your childhood aspiration? How much of an influence were your parents? How did you grow to love writing and books? Did anybody guide you when you first started?
Because I got into the Gifted Program when I was 10, I went to school with well-off kids whose parents were lawyers, bankers, and professors. But I wasn’t one of them. Before me, nobody in my extended family had even gone to university. I didn’t have any mentors or role models, except those in books and films. I was discouraged from pursuing the arts, writing or literature because “it doesn’t make money”. Did this stop me from applying to Harvard? No. Did this stop me from writing? No. So for all those self-doubting teens out, I hope they’re reading this and changing their minds. In America, I was taught that if you persist in doing what you love, regardless of whether you would become rich doing it; you will eventually get somewhere, even if it takes years. Whereas in Singapore, you tend to hear the opposite, that you shouldn’t engage in something that doesn’t make money. I believe there are a lot of frustrated people out there who are limited by this sentiment and never got to pursue their true passion.Q. Where is home for you?
After living in Singapore, Boston, New York, Hong Kong, I now live in San Francisco. I chose to live here because of its natural scenery. Some parts up north look like Wales or Ireland or what you would think C.S. Lewis’s Narnia looks like. As one of my American friends says, “It’s God’s country.”Q. What’s your ultimate dream?
You’re going to laugh, but since it’s too late for me to be a teenage model, I guess it would be to have one of my novels made into a film that would win an Oscar. Something like Michael Cunningham’s The Hours
which I thought was fabulous. My husband knows this. I already have an Oscar gown picked out. Very important, you know! You don’t want to be caught not having anything to wear at the last minute!
Interview courtesy of New Sunday Times
Photography by Kim of Avenue8 Photographers, Singapore MEET WENA POON IN KUALA LUMPURLions In Winter
is available at all major bookstores in Malaysia and Singapore. Poon will be making store appearances on:Saturday, March 22 11.00a.m.-12.30p.m.:
MPH Breakfast Club, MPH Bangsar Village II, Bangsar, Kuala LumpurSaturday, March 22, 3.30p.m.:
Readings@Seksan’s, Bangsar, Kuala LumpurSaturday, March 22, 5.00p.m.:
Borders at The Curve, Petaling JayaSunday, March 23, 1.00p.m.:
MPH Mid Valley MegaMall, Kuala Lumpur