Tearing Through Novels With Kirstin Chen

You may know Kirstin Chen from her award-winning books, Bury What We Cannot Take and Soy Sauce for Beginners. You may even know what inspired her to write Bury What We Cannot Take. But do you know what part of reading excites her? Or how different her first novel might have been if she had written it in a different setting? Read on to find out more about this renowned Singaporean author.

People often mention that a good author is also a good reader. How true is this sentence to you?

100% true. I’m around a lot of writers, and every one of them has a different approach. Some are militant about writing daily; others write in bursts and then take long breaks. Some write thousands of words a day; others write painstakingly slowly because they’re editing in their heads. The one thing they have in common is that they all love to read. I’ve never met a successful author who wasn’t a reader first and foremost.

Source: Giphy

You’ve mentioned in this interview what your favourite part of writing is. Would you mind sharing what your favourite part of reading is then?

I love that moment of recognition — when I can see myself in a character, or when a book gives words to an experience or feeling I’ve never verbalised before. And I love that true recognition has little to do with whether a character is objectively similar to me and far more to do with the writing itself.

So… we also came across this interview where you shared that you loved reading so much, you rushed through your exams just so you could return to your book. Could you share with us the last time you got so engrossed with a book that it left you unaware of your surroundings?

Probably when I was tearing through the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante a couple years ago.

Europa Editions, 2012

I never stay up past my bedtime, but these books kept me up late into the night. This was also the first time that I felt compelled to buy the next book in the series on my Kindle the instant it was released because I couldn’t wait to go to the store.

We understand that Soy Sauce for Beginners was written when you were a graduate student. How different do you think the book would turn out if you were in a different setting when you wrote it? (No deadlines etc)

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014

I think the biggest difference would be the audience of the book. As you mentioned, I started working on Soy Sauce for Beginners when I was in graduate school in 2007. My MFA program was almost 100% American and majority white, and because all my feedback came from my professors and peers, I ended up writing the book, more or less, to them. If I had written the book outside of the program, I think I would have thought much more deeply about the audience. Perhaps, I would have written the book for myself, and for others like me — Singaporeans who have spent a lot of time abroad in the U.S, for instance.

Incorporating Singlish into a novel can sometimes be a balancing act between retaining authenticity and keeping the attention of the international audiences. How did you go about doing so?

Singlish was always going to be a part of this novel — it seems impossible to write about Singapore without it! I wanted the Singlish to feel very natural and, most importantly, to not feel like a joke. In the west, foreign accents are often used for cheap or lazy humour, and I wanted to avoid that at all costs. Instead, I wanted to capture how Singaporeans code-switch from American or British English to Singlish to their mother tongues. And, look, if a reader gets annoyed because I haven’t translated every single word, well, then, this book simply isn’t for them.

You mentioned that Bury What We Cannot Take was inspired by your friend’s story about his family. Are there other stories like this in your head just waiting to be written?

Little A, 2018

I honestly wish there were. I’m the kind of writer who only ever has one idea at a time. When I start a novel, I have complete tunnel vision. I work on that one project until it’s done, years and years later. I envy my writer friends who work on novels and short stories and poems at the same time.

You’ve also expressed that you had to constantly grapple with the fear that you weren’t “Chinese enough” to tell the story of Bury What We Cannot Take. Do you still feel that way now that the book has been published?

I think I’ve gotten over my imposter syndrome to some extent — partly because I did so much research for this novel and now have a good understanding of the time period; partly because the book was well-received by reviewers who are much more knowledgeable than I.

Here’s a tough one: If you had to pick a favourite character from any of your books, who would it be and why?

San San, the nine-year-old main character of Bury What We Cannot Take. The novel is set in China in 1957 and is centered on a blacklisted family who has to flee to Hong Kong, but when they go to get the necessary exit permits, they’re told to leave one child behind as proof of their intention to return. When I first started working on the book, I was anxious about draping such a heavy and intense story on San San’s shoulders. But as I dug into the research and the writing, she surprised me again and again with her resourcefulness and resilience. Writing San San was one of the true joys of the whole process.

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Text by
National Reading Movement
National Library Board

Public Libraries Singapore

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