So, you’ve decided to dedicate your life to the delicate craft of literature, the dignified duty of piecing words together. You’ve committed yourself to a precarious profession that allows you the pretentious honour of smacking the term, “wordsmith”, in front of your name on the business cards you hand out generously during networking parties. To do so, one has to first be legitimate, which usually means caving in to formulaic demands and getting published.
But all jokes aside, the pursuit of a writing career is often an arduous journey that leaves your hopeful spirit battered and broken until it’s incapable of being reduced any further – and more so if you’re an ethnic minority (in terms of a Western context). There’s no escaping the discriminatory reality that aspiring Asian authors are at a disadvantage when it comes to publishing written works, or worse, convincing book publishers that yours is one that captures the global audience.
British Chinese author of The Life of a Banana and editor-in-chief of Banana Writers, the Singapore-based PP Wong dispenses five tips to combat rejection and racism in the industry. PP, as she’s mysteriously known, was longlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), alongside luminaries as Britain’s Ali Smith, Pakistan’s Kamila Shamsie and America’s Anne Tyler.
PP Wong: When I wrote The Life of a Banana, I did not want to hold back on the hard-to-stomach reality of the terrible racism in society. I’ve always found that my best writing comes from a place of compulsion. I like to write stories and tackle issues that keep me up at night.
But when you write, you can’t please everyone. There will be people who will love your writing and others who will hate it. Sometimes, you have to be fearless in your writing. Don’t hold back! Stellar writing often comes from being raw and honest.
I know Asian writers who create stories that reinforce negative stereotypes about Asian people. Apparently, that is what sells in the West. You read books about Asians doing mystical witchcraft and funny rituals and you think, “No Chinese person I know acts that way!”
I once attended a publishing workshop in Singapore where the teacher said that unless Asians write books that suit the tastes of white readers, they wouldn’t get published. The teacher went on to say that new writers have to bear this in mind if they want their book to “make it” globally.
As an author, you have to be very sure about why you are writing your novel. Is it because you have a compelling story to tell or is it to please the masses? Is your novel something you are proud of or is it a watered down version of the novel you have on your heart? At the end of the day, you have to live with the book you have created.
I was talking to a publisher in Singapore and he said, “Asian writers are always trying so hard to write the big, epic novel that will find global fame. I would love to see a novel that’s set in an HDB block of flats.” I think this is so true! Asian writers may sometimes overthink things when writing a novel. They ask questions such as, “Will this book sell globally?”, “Is my story the sort of story that sells in America or the UK?”, “Should I write the dialogue in a way that westerners understand?” There is so much noise and overthinking that they lose the heart of what their story is about.
A good story is a good story.
It doesn’t matter where it is set or what country their accent is from. I’ve read books where normal Singaporeans sound as though they are posh, white, upper-class men who studied at private schools in the UK. In other words, the characters lack authenticity. I have also read books about places or cultures that I have absolutely no knowledge of, yet the writing pulls me in and stays with me for years.
The Life of a Banana is about a British Singaporean family living in London and for many reviewers, the culture is alien to them. However, the vast majority of positive reviews I receive from newspapers and bloggers are from non-Chinese people. In the midst of British slang and Singlish, my novel has still somehow touched all kinds of people from many different cultures.
When I write, I always have a beginning, middle and end in mind. I create bullet points about what is going to happen in each chapter. This keeps me grounded as I’m unraveling the story. The characters may develop or I may manipulate plot twists as I’m going along, but I find it really helpful to know where the story is going.
I’m the editor-in-chief of an online magazine called Banana Writers. The literary editor often receives submissions of stories that start well, but are lacklustre in the middle or end abruptly. More often than not, it is because people don’t know where they are going with the story. There are countless people who start novels or short stories and never finish them.
I am sure there are writers who have a very different approach to writing but I find having a plan really helps.
The publishing industry moves at a glacial pace, so you really need to be patient. It took around two years to complete my novel and get published. Apparently, that is quick! After I wrote The Life of a Banana, I faced a lot of rejection. Since it’s always hard to find UK literary agents accepting submissions – first were the rejections from literary agents and then the publishers.
If I had given up after the 10th rejection, I would not have a novel. The book industry is highly subjective in the sense that one editor may love a book while another may hate it. It’s very much about finding the right “home” for your novel and having the stamina and resilience to take the rejections.
Recently launched at the Singapore Writers Festival 2014, The Life of a Banana is PP’s debut effort, which follows British-born Singaporean Xing Li as she struggles to find a place in a world of relentless stereotypes and racial assaults. Get your copy here.
For more information, visit www.ppwongauthor.com.
Images of PP Wong (Straits Times) and her novel cover courtesy of Guo Sheng.