Today, I’m thrilled to welcome on this blog Suchen Christine Lim, one of Singapore’s best known authors and also a kind, cheerful personality when it comes to teaching creative writing.
In October this year Suchen’s latest novel, The River’s Song was launched in Singapore (click here to watch Suchen read dramatic excerpts from her novel at the launch and answer audience questions). As part of the ongoing writer’s guest post series in this blog, she talks us today about the beginning of her writing journey (all emphasis below are mine).
Thank you to Damyanti for inviting me onto Daily (W)rite.
I didn’t start writing till I was in my mid 30s. As a child, I’d wanted to be a hawker selling chicken rice porridge or be an astronaut flying to the moon. My writing adventure began one hot afternoon with a mindless doodle. I was a college teacher invigilating a 3-hour literature exam when I found myself doodling. The doodles turned into words and the words into sentences. I wrote one page that afternoon. After that, I continued to write, usually an hour or so stealthily before or after school. I didn’t want anyone to know what I was doing because I didn’t know what or why I was writing.
At first, I thought it was a story for young people, but the story grew and changed as I wrote. Finally I left teaching and returned to the university, not because I wanted another degree, but so that I could have more time to write. This was my secret motive.
Every morning I left home at 6 am with my Olivetti manual typewriter, and took the bus to Adam Road where I could walk past the Chinese cemetery and be alone with my thoughts before I took another bus to the university. By 7.30 am I was writing /typing in the students’ canteen until my first lecture of the day. I did this every day even though I didn’t know where my writing was going.
Looking back, I’d say that the start of my writing journey was like love at first sight. It’s like you’ve never met this stranger called the Muse before, yet you desperately wanted him/her. It’s crazy.
One day, a visiting professor who had observed me typing in the noisy canteen, offered me the use of her room. She was going away for 3 months. I was thrilled. For the first time in my life, I had a room of my own to write in. But my joy didn’t last. One evening the door of ‘my’ room banged open. ‘Clear out!’ the Head of the Sociology Department yelled. I had broken a rule. Students were not allowed to use a professor’s room. ‘Get out and clear out!’ he shouted.
On the bus home, tears streamed down my face. I was 36 years old, the mother of 2 sons and an only daughter. No one, not even my mother, had ever yelled at me like that before. At home, my tears turned to anger. My family urged me to ‘return the anger’ to the uncouth professor. So the next day, accompanied by my friend, the former editor of the Singapore University Press, I banged open the professor’s door! Just like what he did to me, but I didn’t shout. He demanded to know the purpose of my visit. I can’t remember exactly what I said to him. But I remember pacing up and down his office as I delivered my speech. ‘So? You want to complain to the Vice-Chancellor?’ he sneered. ‘Yes,’ I said and marched out of his office.
He rushed after me and came face to face with his former classmate. ‘Ros,’ he smiled at the editor of the Singapore University Press. ‘Your friend. So impulsive.’ he pointed to me. ‘Ros,’ I pointed to him. ‘Your friend. So rude.’ Then I told him that one day, I would write about this incident.
So thank you for giving me the chance to get it off my chest. I detest men who shout abuse at women and children.
I finished writing what turned out to be Rice Bowl, my first novel, in the storeroom of the Singapore University Press. You can say that I wrote my first novel surrounded by all the unsold books of the university’s professors. If that was not passion laced with madness, I don’t know what is.
About The River’s Song: Ping, the daughter of Chinatown’s Pipa Queen, loves Weng, the voice of the people, but family circumstances drive them apart. Ping is forced to leave suddenly for the USA, while Weng is sent to prison for his part in local protests. Many years later, Ping returns to a country transformed by prosperity. Gone are the boatmen and hawkers who once lived along the river. In their place, rise luminous glass and steel towers proclaiming the power of the city state. Can Ping face her former lover and reveal the secret that has separated them for over 30 years? A beautifully written exploration of identity, love and loss, set against the dramatic upheaval unleashed by the rise of Singapore, about which The Sunday Times Singapore wrote: ‘ – unashamedly details Singapore’s past and present in gripping stories – The River’s Song – is among the best prose to come out of Singapore.’
The River’s Song would be published by Aurora Metro Books, UK in spring 2014.
——Author Bio: Born in Malaysia but educated in Singapore, Suchen Christine Lim was awarded the Southeast Asia Write Award 2012. In 1992, her novel, Fistful Of Colours, won the Inaugural Singapore Literature Prize. Critics have described her first novel, Rice Bowl, as “a landmark publication on post-independence Singapore”, and A Bit Of Earth as “a literary masterwork as well as a historical document” that was “un-put-downable – a sure sign of a master storyteller.” A short story in The Lies That Build A Marriage, was made into a film for national television. Awarded a Fulbright grant, she is a Fellow of the International Writers’ Program in the University of Iowa, and its International Writer-in-Residence. In 2005, she was writer-in-residence in Scotland, and has returned to the UK several times as an Arvon Tutor to conduct writing workshops and read at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Her new novel, The River’s Song, will be launched in London and New York next spring.
(This is the first part of her interview. The next, in which Suchen Christine Lim talks about the various genres she’s written in, her take on a writer’s role in history and her views as a creative writing teacher will be published coming Thursday.)
So, to the writers amongst you: do You have interesting stories to share with us about your writing journey? Did You face challenges in your writing journey like Suchen Christine Lim?