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Do we count as real writers, too? (aka that thing about Clarion. that. thing.)

Do we count as real writers, too? (aka that thing about Clarion. that. thing.)

Before I begin, I must preface that these are entirely my personal reflections based on my very specific personal circumstances and are not quite meant to be a well-reasoned commentary on larger things, yet–

Here I am, dipping my toes into an ocean full of very large fish with equally large teeth to bite me with.

I want to talk a bit about Neil Gaiman’s tweet.

You know, that one.

Neil posted this a couple of days ago, and within hours of the tweet hitting the surface of the Internet the SFF patch of the pond was boiling over. The implication that attending Clarion, or a similar workshop, is a mandatory step on the path to successful writerhood, predictably went down like a lead balloon.

Many people rightfully pointed out that attending the Clarions, with their six-week, four-figure dollar commitment, is not one many can afford. Or are physically able to, due to health and disability access issues. I pointed out that this goes doubly hard for international applicants, who have to work in (often four-figure) plane tickets in addition to terrible exchange rates, deal with international travel, being in a different time zone, culture etc in order to attend.

Neil has since clarified that his tweet was meant, obviously, to be hyperbolic, and obviously you don’t need Clarion to become a writer! And lots of people had come on to Twitter to exhort their credentials (publications, awards, best-ofs), all achieved without the help of the workshops.

I fully agree. Said as someone who applied to Clarion West because Neil Gaiman was teaching that year. (I’d never heard of it before that. You’d be surprised by how few outside the pro/semipro SFF writing community know what it is.) “Attend Clarion/Clarion West/Odyssey etc. workshops!” is not even a feasible piece of advice I’d give anyone asking “how do I become a writer like you” because  it’s neither a helpful nor practical tip. I’d rather give them a list of markets to submit stories to and suggest they follow a ton of writers or writing blogs and also, read a fuckton of stuff and learn from it.

Yet.

Completely honestly? I know I would not be the writer I am today, if not for Clarion West.

This is not exaggeration.

I know what Clarion West did for me. Here: Before I attended, I had barely completed any short stories. I had no idea about submitting to venues outside of Singapore’s tiny writing community. I didn’t have beta readers I could send stories to for critique, or other SFF writers to talk to to bounce ideas off. None of my friends was in the business of regularly writing or submitting short SFF to anyplace. It was just me, alone, no idea what I was doing, no idea that it was even a sort of lifestyle that other people might do on the regular.

But because I attended Clarion West, I found a community of friends to talk to about writing. I joined a neo-pro forum (Codex) which taught me about submitting, about rejectomancy, helped me create new stories (some of my best-received stories started off life as Codex contest stories). Having a support group, a group of excellent beta readers, kept me writing and submitting enough that I began to sell stories. And then started being asked to write them.

Getting to know people in the community meant that I actually had reason to attend conventions, and it also meant I was asked to be on the programming at conventions when it came out that I was attending them.

Getting to know people in the community meant getting to know editors and agents. And that’s important if you want to be a writer.

Without having attended Clarion West,  would I have been able to break into this SFF community that I’m part of right now?

I’m really, really not so sure. No question I’d still be writing, but I’m quite sure I wouldn’t be writing as often. Opportunities to have stories published in Singapore are a lot fewer, and they tend to be for very very small print runs. We don’t really have much in the way of online zines.

What would people see when they looked at me? “I’ve never heard of any of these things you’ve been published in. Are they even any good?”

Would they consider me “a writer”? Eh. What do you think?

So. Million-dollar question. Am I saying Neil’s hyperbole was actually right?

I want, desperately, to say no. Of course not! That’s such a terrible idea!

But I feel that saying that would be lying to myself. That for somebody like me– living and working outside of the UK or US– different culture, different continent, different context–  breaking into the SFF publishing scene, getting people to actually sit up and notice you, even getting better at your craft, is extremely. fucking. difficult. Selling one story, or two, or even five, is not enough (see my previous whiny post on this topic).

For somebody like me, attending a major workshop like Clarion is an instant way to break down that giant, looming, daunting barrier. And that helps. That helps so much.

But, as I said, I’d never give that advice to anyone who asked me for advice, because IT IS TERRIBLE ADVICE. Even if you could get the funds (and the Singapore government is good with disbursing grants, especially if you can convince them of how prestigious the workshop is), it’s six fucking weeks, and who can take six fucking weeks off work and family and life??

I wouldn’t say that. I would say– Go. Write. Submit. And then pray. Pray that the Nameless Deities of the realms of publishing smile upon you. Then I would send the young hero-to-be on their way, and try not to think of the long, merciless desert roads ahead of them, and hope that they would not come to hate me.

The point of this post– if it were to have a point, and not merely be a rambling collection of thoughts– is not that workshops are necessary to become a serious writer. The point is that for people who don’t have easy access to a support system, it feels like it’s necessary in order to break into the global SFF scene. And it shouldn’t be.

The question is, then,  how committed are we to diversity if we rest so much of a person’s legitimacy as a writer on the same old systems that are skewed, if everything that we consider SFF is still largely tied to the Western, Anglophone publishing sphere. Where do writers from backgrounds like mine belong, unless we break into that system?

Do I have good answers to this? Fuck no. I’m just some schlub who has no idea what she’s doing. But I’d like people to think about this, at least. Because we are here. We exist. And I’d like to think we count as real writers too.

 

 

The National Library Board

The National Library Board

If I were a cleverer and more eloquent writer this blogpost would be coherent, it would have a beginning and a middle and an end, it would have a point and it would stick to that. But I am not that writer, and my feelings over the past few days have oscillated from annoyance to anger to disbelief and back again so many times that that pendulum has broken and rolled a death spiral onto the floor coming to rest somewhere near “tired”.

I’m tired.

I could tell you what it’s like. It’s having someone you thought was a friend – somebody whom you thought loved you and supported you and would welcome you no matter what – having that somebody stand in the harsh light and turn into this stony, unreachable figure, expression unreadable. You root for them and you root for them until the truth hits you in the face and you can’t deny anymore that your trust was misplaced.

It’s scrolling through your Facebook feed and seeing one person after another after another after another get in on the bandwagon, and then ministers are listening and political newsmakers are getting involved, so all of a sudden you’re hoping that something might change and a happy ending might come out of this, but it doesn’t, it doesn’t, and it all comes crumbling down in a media circus and empty rumbles of “””community norms.”””

I want to say intelligent things. I want to argue that fixating on the pulping of the books is a pointless exercise because whether the books would be destroyed or kept in a locked box in the basement is immaterial and we’re turning an issue of bigots exploiting state apparatuses for their own means into a paean to the sacred physicality of books. I want to shout at every person insisting this is not just about gay rights but really about the all-encompassing and universal right to read because no the whole thing is SPECIFICALLY about gay rights and it was SPECIFICALLY gay-themed titles that were targeted by a specifically anti-GLBTQ group out of the thousands and thousands of books that the library carries so to pretend otherwise is massively erasing of context and telling gay folk that their struggles aren’t important enough to warrant their attention unless it affects you also.

But I’m tired.

I see more and more reports cropping up on my newsfeed: From BBC and BoingBoing and WashPo and the like. I see boycotts and calls to arms and guerilla read-along sessions. I see the writing community I hang around more worked up than I’ve ever seen them. There is a fine frothing anger being worked up and spilling over the rims of the bucket they’ve tried to put us in.

But through this all I just can’t shake the feeling that there’s no happy ending in this. Even if the library recants after all this pressure, puts the books back on the shelves, it feels like too little, too late. Things have been said. Boxes opened and bridges burned. We’ve seen where priorities lie. And we don’t know if the bigots will strike again–and maybe this time they won’t make the mistake of crowing about their achievements.

It feels like the world is telling me, over and over again this year, that no matter how much progress we make there’s always people committed to rolling that progress back, people who openly compare queer folk to cancers and oppressive state apparatuses too afraid of change that are always willing to give them the time of day. There’s no happy ending in this.

And I’m tired.

 ETA: A convenient news tab that collects a smörgåsbord of news articles pertaining to the NLB’s pulling of the books off the shelf. Background, development, ministerial comments, letters to the editor…

A plug for BooksActually!

A plug for BooksActually!

BoAk 1

Breaking my blogging hiatus to stump for my actual favorite bookstore in Singapore, BooksActually!

Now BooksActually are a fabulous indie bookstore, here, almost an institution in the local lit scene now. They, however, have been hit by rent woes in the past, because you know, Singapore.

So their ambitious new goal this year is to own their own space. No more renting, no more worrying about landlords jacking up prices once the lease is up– peace of mind to focus more on the business of book-selling and book-publishing!

To this end BooksActually are running a storewide fundraising sale – 25% off everything! – until the end of April. A FEW DAYS MORE! When I visited the place on Saturday I found it positively crammed with folk– a brilliant sign.

Here are some reasons why you should support BooksActually and support their sale.

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1) Because they’re a fantastic space for local lit events.

Here is a picture of my face courtesy of my friend Fikri. This was from the latest reading I did at BooksActually, as part of the 24-Hour Bookstore event on the 18th of April. Here, I am reading an excerpt from my story that’s in From The Belly Of The Cat. I also read a second story that night, from the excellent anthology of feminist writing, Body Boundaries.

Over the years I’ve attended many of such book launches are other literary events, sometimes as an author, sometimes as a reader. BooksActually is a great space for lit-minded people to meet up.

But you can also tell that this store needs more space. Anything above ten folk in the store and moving around the narrow corridors left by the TOWERING SELECTION OF BOOKS turns into this intricate, weaving dance which we are more familiar with on our morning commutes. “SORRY OUR BUTTS HAVE TO TOUCH AS I SQUEEZE BY BUT I WOULD REALLY LIKE TO GET TO THE OTHER SIDE OK THANKS”

BooksActually needs a bigger and better space so these awesome literary events can comfortably hold more people. And you can help them do so.


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2) Support local lit!

BooksActually supports a great deal of Singapore writing via Math Paper Press, which consistently puts out risk-taking and thoughtful local writing.

If you want to buy stuff that has specifically has my writing in it, you can find it in these collections: Ceriph volumes 3 & 6, Fish Eats Lion, Ayam Curtain (which I also edited), and From The Belly Of The Cat.

But don’t stop there because there are a lot of excellent books you can pick up from them. I recommend all the Ceriph volumes, poetry by Tania De Rozario and Pooja Nansi, the Babette’s Feast chapbooks (they are little nuggets of delight), the Balik Kampung books.

There are also non MPP titles such as Body Boundaries (mentioned above). I once bought a Croatian edition of a collection of Alvin Pang’s poems because hrvatski man, I still understand chunks of it and it’s beautiful. They carry Epigram titles too, such as Jolene Tan’s freshly-debuted A Certain Exposure. Which I have been told is excellent– I haven’t read it because it was sold out at BooksActually! But Kenny assures me he will be bringing in more copies.

Seriously, there is a staggering amount of excellent Singapore writing available there. I’d be here all day if I tried listing them all. Go there and see for yourself. And go nuts. (p.s. they also have a webstore for international readers! 30% off all Math Paper Press books now!)

Larses

3) Support for other creatives in SG! 

Hi let me introduce you to my darling succulent plants. I love them very much and I keep them on my table next to me as I work and I have personally named each one of them Lars. Shut up, Lars is a perfectly reasonable name for succulent plants. All of them.

I bought the Larses from a Green Banana pop-up store that was at BooksActually for one weekend. It’s not the first time BA as done tie-ups with other creative enterprises in Singapore. If they had more space, I’m sure they’d do more. As it is stuff is relegated to the tiny bench outdoors right now.

(I might just have wanted an excuse to post a photo of the Larses.)


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4) They’re just generally awesome ok.

Because they are. I just found out this week that my AWARE membership will get me a 20% discount at the store, because they’ve got a partnership going on, and they’ve been more than supportive of local LGBT movements. It’s just a generally nice place to give your money, as far as commercial establishments go.

So get going!

Tender Cuts

Tender Cuts

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Here’s the funny thing about poetry. I hated it in school,  avoided it like the plague, and glowered at it from the other side of the room even while I took classes analysing poetry in college. Lost in the heavy words of the likes of Hughes and Heaney I was convinced I didn’t understand poetry and would never come to appreciate it.

It’s a strange thing. Sometimes the things that you never thought you would love come to find a way into your heart.

On Friday evening my sensitive lungs and I waded through the haze to attend BooksActually’s launch + reading of Tania de Rozario’s first poetry collection, Tender Delirium. It was one of the bounty of poetry collections being launched that day. What a delight. BooksActually was keeping its doors open until the dawn as it marked a global 24 Hour Bookshop event, sponsored by Red Bull, which gives it something in common with Sebastian Vettel. When it gets this busy, its narrow aisles develop clots, and you have to fight your way through human thromboses just to get anywhere. A great deal of fun.

I’ll be brief about the event itself. It was co-hosted by Tania and her mentor Cyril Wong. The reading was lovely and tinged with humour throughout. Tania said there was not a single happy poem in the book (and having read it, it’s true) – but you wouldn’t know it from the energy and joy that filled the room.

As a bonus, the Q&A session turned into a lively discussion of the arts, literature and censorship in Singapore, particularly with respect to queer literature. There’s a lot of it published here, but you’ll never see it get into the mainstream, or discussed in schools.

I had a good time. Good conversations, good books, which I’ve spent the past few days reading over and over. I picked up several other poetry books that day, but Tania’s really resonates with me, with its tales of loss and longing. If you can’t make it to the bookstore itself, BooksActually has a BigCartel webstore! And plenty of other lovely books on offer as well.

Right. Selected photos of the event under the cut, featuring cats, people, and a Shameless Selfie.

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A Novel Idea (Perhaps)

A Novel Idea (Perhaps)

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Two weekends ago I attended a novel writing masterclass organised by Writing The City (a project of the British Council), taught by Jean McNeil and Julia Bell. It was held at the Arts House (one of my favourite places in Singapore), and it’s the first time in a long while that I’ve sat down and given my fiction writing 100% of my attention without drifting off to check tumblr do other things.

Like the procrastinator I am, it’s taken me more than a week to get around to writing this, at which point I’ve mostly forgotten what I’ve wanted to say. (Whoops.) It was a fantastic three days, I have to say. We went over concepts that should be familiar to anybody who’s been writing for a stretch of time: Character, point of view, time and narrative… Yet as a developing writer you can never discuss and explore these topics enough. We had themed writing exercises every day, and we got to share our work with each other. It was a small class, about 14-15 people, so we all got several chances to read our own work. I even read them Google Car At The End Of The World. Although I didn’t read them the title, because spoilers. (At the end of the class, one of my classmates came up to me and said, “I liked your story about the car.” I had to ask, “…which one?” The tragedy of being me.)

Quite honestly, I think the most valuable lesson I learned from this is that I not as slow a writer as I’ve feared myself to be. Under conditions of duress, I am able to put my nose to the grind and churn out writing– and not just that, but writing which actually satisfies me.

Maybe, just maybe, I won’t die a terrifying death by writer’s tardiness during the course of Clarion West.

 

Writing exercise I: Observation

“Heavy-waisted and large-bottomed, she stood fixing her hair while her baby played at her feet with dusty hands and knees.” Something about fleshing out character with minute details.

Writing Exercise II: POV

“The car had belonged to the old man. It was a Nissan Sunny, bought back in a year when Nissan was content to be seen as that plain and reliable friend you had, the one who could be relied on to get enough sleep and file all their taxes on time.” Telling a story about a neighbour’s neighbour, from two different POVs.

Writing Exercise III: Time & Narrative

“She can’t find a dry bench to sit on and she isn’t wasting tissue to do the public service of wiping them dry, so she squats on one of them to eat breakfast.” Thinking of an event, and writing about it from one set of time points before/after.

Writing Exercise IV: Character, Event, Setting

“Before her shift starts Mary goes to the washroom and washes her hands twice: Once after she exits the cubicle, and once after she’s fixed her hair.” Like a party game, we got a random character, event and a setting. I wrote a short piece set in a story world I am currently inhabiting.

 

Well. All in all, I met great people, was introduced to great ideas, and wrung a few pieces of microfiction out of myself over the course of three days. It’s not a bad way to spend a weekend.

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Our instructors, Jean McNeil (left) and Julia Bell (right).
Join us for an afternoon of RANDOM SHIT

Join us for an afternoon of RANDOM SHIT

random shit

I live!

I return, ignominiously, to the world of blogging to announce, quite belatedly, that as a part of The Arts House’s 9th anniversary celebration, a group of writer friends and I are hosting an event this Saturday and we would like you all to come.

The short of it:

A SPECULATIVE FICTION TEA-PARTY (WITH LESS TEA AND MORE WRITING)

Date: 23 Mar 2013, Saturday

Time: 2pm-3pm

Venue: Earshot Cafe, The Arts House

 

 And a longer version:

What’s going to happen? It’s a one hour write-in where you get to invent stories about Random Shit. See that picture up there? That’s a selection of some of the Random Shit you might get.

You turn up, you draw a number, you get an item of Random Shit. You then sit down and write about said piece of Random Shit for the next hour. It can be anything: a poem, a Wikipedia entry about its history (entirely made up of course), a story in which it plays a crucial role. Make it fun, make it fantastic, make it a serious, sobworthy tragedy: It’s all up to you. Write about spacemen. Write about vampires. Write about dinosaurs. (Hell, some of the Random Shit IS dinosaurs.)

When the hour is up, we collect all the stories. Then we put them together into a chapbook and share it with the world.

So come along, meet other writers, indulge in a hour’s worth of delightful weirdness. Looking forward to seeing you guys there!

The Ayam Curtain – SWF Launch

The Ayam Curtain – SWF Launch

The editors & contributors for The Ayam Curtain and Fish Eats Lion at the signing session at the Singapore Writers’ Festival, 4 Nov 2012. Sorry Xiang Hao, we caught you while you were meditating…

When we came up with the idea of assembling an anthology of Singaporean speculative fiction, the dream was always to have it launched at the Singapore Writers’ Festival. Yesterday, that dream came true for Joyce and I as our baby, The Ayam Curtain, made its debut with two other marvellous books from Math Paper Press (Balik Kampung and Fish Eats Lion). We talked a bit about the book, had some contributors read their stories, and then had a short signing session. I’d call it “brilliant” but that doesn’t quite cover how great it was.

I’ll write about it in more detail when I’ve had the time to unpack my feelings, but in the meantime, here are some photos from the event. Thank you, THANK YOU to everyone who came down to the launch – you were truly marvellous.

(pictures behind the cut!)

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