1. Baby number two will be out and about in the world soon, what are your aspirations for her?
That’s a fun metaphor! Extending it, like any Asian parent, I have high hopes. But let’s be honest, hoping for prizes and bestseller status puts too much pressure on book-parent and book-child. (Especially when the first was such an over-achiever. Nimita’s Place, which you co-edited, was shortlisted for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize for unpublished manuscripts in 2017, then published and shortlisted for the 2019 Singapore Book Awards for best literary work. It was also adapted for the stage by the critically acclaimed theatre director Edith Podesta for iconic performing arts group TheatreWorks.)
My greatest hope for Beauty Queens Of Bishan is that people will read it, laugh at the obvious jokes and also think about the subtler humour. This is a book about people wanting to put their best face forward in public. The question is why we all want this, and what these desires say about us and our society.
2. Bringing women’s stories to the world is important, but how important is it that women write and tell these stories? And why?
It is vitally important that women, non-binary humans and other under-represented voices get more platforms to tell stories, especially own-voices stories. Stories frame the world and shape it for others according to the storyteller’s design. A lack of diversity in storytellers means that the default assumption is for heroes to be male, women to be strong mums and girlfriends and everyone else to be a villain, comic interlude or sidekick. We immediately gender words like ‘athlete’ and ‘beauty’ and refuse to believe that women’s stories are universal stories. That’s a limited understanding of reality and goes on to limit people’s choices.
3. In Nimita’s Place your protagonist is an intellectual scientist. Beauty Queens of Bishan shows the other end of the spectrum – women of fashion and beauty that is often skin deep. Was this a mere coincidence or do you actively strive to show a whole gamut of women characters through your personal lens?
Thank you for this question. Humans are delightful in their diversity and I’ve been wanting to write this book about beauty pageants and parlours for at least five years now. For one thing, beauty parlour operators are entrepreneurs and job creators but how often do we think of them in that light?
In my first and unrelated novel, Nimita’s Place, the scientist Nimita has a neighbour who is setting up a home beauty parlour. Nimita is unsettled by this neighbour’s friendliness for several reasons, including her belief that, as a scientist, she is superior to a housewife who plans to operate a beauty parlour from her home. Nimita represents the common assumptions that certain professions and behaviours are culturally and intellectually above others, that it is better to be a scientist than a housewife, that someone who ignores makeup is more intelligent than someone who delights in lipstick and sparkles. Behind the first assumption is the devaluation of domestic labour, ignoring its contribution to the economy as well as to human welfare. Behind the second assumption are our social structures today, which demean ‘girly’ interests even though men have also historically delighted in jewels and heels and ostentatious clothes and hair.
The irony of course is that women are especially valued for their outward presentation above other attributes. Even in the workforce, until very recently, many firms enforced high heels in the dress code, policing how female employees should appear and behave.
Those who believe beauty is skin deep have been taught to believe this and the teaching is reinforced by dress codes, by ‘item girls’ in Bollywood songs; by ‘get beach-body ready’ articles in magazines and cultural beliefs that blemishes on the skin make women less desirable and therefore less worthy.
Beauty Queens Of Bishan is a fun, light book about our obsession with looking good but it rests on a darker foundation.
4. As an Indian woman, living and writing in Singapore, through your two books you have walked a fine line by creating stories that belong to both countries. Do you feel torn between the two worlds or was this again a mere coincidence?
I should clarify that I’m Singaporean and have spent two-thirds of my life in Singapore. I have loving relatives and friends in both Singapore and India, and my family has always questioned assumptions that one particular culture or way of life is culturally superior to another.
I like to think that I write universal stories. My writing respects the diverse traits that make people unique and societies different, but is inspired by our common humanity and essential similarities.
5. Which women authors inspire you? Why?
So many! The creative memoirs of Maxine Hong Kingston (The Woman Warrior) and Dalip Kaur Tiwana (A Journey On Bare Feet) are inspiring to me as a post-colonial writer asserting non-white identity in English. Space opera novels by Lois McMaster Bujold (Cordelia’s Honour) and Mary Doria Russell (The Sparrow, Children Of God) showed me that page-turners could also be deeply spiritual and funny.
I aspire to the vigour of poets Carol Ann Duffy, Wanda Cope and Dorothy Parker.
I have learnt new ways of seeing the world – unapologetically and assertively – through the books of Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, NK Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor.
Seanan McGuire, Ann Leckie and Elizabeth Bear are my gurus when it comes to writing new mythology and long-running series where every plot point is coherent and foreshadowed.
6. Women writers are more empathetic, produce deeper insights and weave worlds that are more relatable to readers. Do you believe this is true?
Ha! No, I believe empathetic people create similar works. Just read the exquisite novels of Guy Gavriel Kay (Under Heaven) and John Connolly (Book Of Lost Things), Terry Pratchett (anything but especially Small Gods) or the manga of Ryotaro Iwanaga. His long-running series Pumpkin Scissors features a female protagonist and multiple characters who defy gender norms while attempting to rebuild a war-torn nation.
As an insightful author who has created very real worlds in both her books, what is your advice to new authors? How can they create that ‘sense of place and time’ when weaving fictional worlds?
Short answer: Attend my workshop.
Longer answer: read widely and around your themes and characters and spend a lot of time in that fictional world. Then figure out how you might be able to bring other people into it. I try to create sensory experiences in my text, but the writer Lois McMaster Bujold begins with describing an unusual world through the eyes of characters who consider it completely normal. Their sanity and humanity drags the reader into the fictional world. There are many techniques, find the one that works for you. This is also where a second reader and editor can help tremendously!
7. What women-centric themes do you hope to explore in your future books? Because we are hoping that there will be more!
Thank you! Right now I’m working on a book about how women occupy space and territory, partly as front-line soldiers and members of a new kind of military. Asian myths are redolent with female warriors and the female body is a battleground in so many ways. I’m hoping to bring all that together in an exciting narrative.
Beauty Queens Of Bishan is available via www.penguin.sg/book/fiction/beauty-queens-bishan
Nimita’s Place is available via https://shop.epigrambooks.sg/products/nimitas-place and also via Amazon, Amazon Kindle, Kobo, Apple books and Google Books.