The women in this book strike me the most. Perhaps it may be due to my identifying as a woman as well, but their portrayal and mannerisms speak volumes to me. That sense of longing, inner strength and desire made impressionable through words. The Woman Who Turned Into A Vending Machine is local writer Natalie Wang‘s debut poetry collection.
Unapologetic and honest in her exploration of women’s pleasure/pain, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Her voice deserving to be heard and add to the growing narratives of representation being published now. Sometimes writing about the personal makes the writing even more relatable. This is exactly what this collection has done – my own emotions and memories conjured up in my mind as my lips form her words while reading.
Popspoken kicks off the conversation with Natalie by asking about the peculiar book title.
Popspoken: The title is pretty peculiar. Why this choice?
Natalie: The title was actually taken from one of the poems in the book. I was stuck on the title of the collection for the longest time until I printed out the entire manuscript and realised the themes of transformation and change kept recurring; X keeps transforming into Y, so it seemed fitting.
The poem The Woman that turned into a Vending Machine was also a turning point in my writing where I started to write about lot more surreal subjects – Southeast Asian folklore is filled with bizarre ghosts, and I had also grown up reading a lot of strange urban legends.
Then I read Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, in which a woman gives up meat and grows quietly more insane throughout the book whilst her family, who cannot understand or tolerate her mental state deterioration, and in their own ways, treat her badly.
There’s a lot that can be unpacked from the book, which I highly recommend, but the image that remained with me for a long time was how at the end, the woman kept repeating that she wanted to become a tree. My takeaway from that was that women cannot change the structures that oppress them, so the only form of escape was to change into something else.
I thought of vending machines after that because they’re such a ubiquitous sight in our urban landscape. I’m really fascinated with how we keep coming up with increasingly diverse things to offer from vending machines; from cold soda to hot food, to the ones at Changi Airport that are stocked with the same amenities as a convenience store.
Vending machines are convenient, and they are also the most depersonalised form of service you can get. It was an easy jump to get from there and how nice someone people would imagine it to be to receive all the physical labour we take for granted from women, especially at home, but without having to deal with all the messiness of the flesh.
PS: What about womanhood fascinates you the most and inspires you to keep writing?
N: I did not set out to be a ‘woman writer’ or ‘feminist writer’, but as I wrote I realised I was always talking about fears and experiences that my male friends told me that they could not understand. It’s different, trying to understand feminism or women’s experiences from an academic perspective – few people would argue that equal pay and opportunities are important – and understanding exactly how oppression has warped and coloured a person’s experiences. Art is always a good way to communicate and unpack these nebulous things.
I’m also very aware that I write very much from a cis straight woman perspective. I do think that it is possible (and desirable) for writers to write in perspectives that are not theirs with empathy and respect, but I feel like I’m not quite at that stage yet.
PS: Is there a book that changed your life – for better or for worse?
N: There have been so many over the years that I can’t pick one. Stephen King’s On Writing is part memoir, part guide to writing and is simultaneously funny, moving, and educational for both writers and readers with no desire to write. His advice to write 2000 words a day is not one I can follow religiously but is extremely inspirational.
Wena Poon’s The Adventures of Snow Fox & Sword Girl is the first of a trilogy of novels that is essentially a love letter to all martial arts shows she grew up watching which reminded me that action books can be funny. Neil Gaiman’s short story collection Fragile Things taught me about embracing the surreal and the strange in writing. Ken Liu’s short story collection The Paper Menagerie is the first piece of Asian-inspired science fiction and is both wonderously strange and familiar.
PS: What is a tip you would share with closet writers hoping to get their work out there?
N: There are more events and opportunities out there than ever, thanks to the web, the many well-run festivals held annually in Singapore, and non-profit organisations like Sing Lit Station. Get a Submittable account and explore, read, and send your work to journals and anthologies.
Be rejected, and be shameless about asking for feedback. Keep writing, no matter how bad you think it is – you cannot edit or polish your work if it is non-existent. Be humble enough to keep accepting feedback from peers, editors, and your betters. Be arrogant enough to believe in your own work and that people would pay money to read it.
PS: One thing you cannot live without is…
N: My sight, which is not exactly a thing, but without which everything I know and love to do would not be possible.
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