Becoming an author is not an easy feat. But in 2013, literary wunderkind Amanda Lee Koe published Ministry of Moral Panic when she was 25. A year after, she won the Singapore Literature Prize for the collection of short stories.
Now the author has set her sights beyond Singapore. Amanda moved to New York five years ago, using her $10,000 prize money to rent an apartment in Brooklyn. She’s recently launched her debut novel, Delayed Rays of A Star, which is published under Doubleday’s literary imprint Nan A. Talese – the same name that’s represented literary geniuses like Margaret Atwood, Jennifer Egan, and Ian McEwan. It’s safe to say that she’s in good company.
At what age did you start writing?
I was never not writing. I’ve been writing as early as I can recall. They were tales of friendless dinosaurs and murder mysteries. I also remember writing travel brochures and an underwear catalogue as an eight-year-old.
How did growing up in Singapore influence your writing style?
Firstly I loathed school with a vengeance. Singaporean pedagogy will kill everything that is good and true and original about your brain if you don’t take care to filter what reaches inside of your head. I do this by wrapping it up in a bonnet of my own beliefs and influences. I remember saving up my pocket money to buy transparent earphones which I wore through the collar of my shirt so that I could block out what the teacher was saying.
But basic education system aside, to grow up in Singapore is also to be exposed to a wonderfully messy polyglossia of cultures, palettes and appetites. This makes you the arbiter of your own style across a broad range of possible influences, both Eastern and Western. You knew your Teresa Teng, but you also knew your Billie Holiday.
Congrats on the international book tour! Tell us a little about Delayed Rays of A Star, for the uninitiated.
Delayed Rays of A Star is about the interconnecting personal and political destinies of Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl, who were photographed together by Alfred Eisenstaedt at a 1928 party before any of them were famous for what each of them would very soon go on to be — at that point, they were simply three ingenues looking for their big break.
For some, Alfred Eisenstaedt may be a familiar name. Who is he?
Eisenstaedt was a prominent German-American photojournalist, who had a long and storied career at LIFE magazine. He was one of the first few serious photographers to start shooting with a light and nimble Leica, so as to be able to capture more candid photographs of his subjects. He has shot some of the most recognisable and captivating portraits and scenes throughout modern photographer, capturing individuals ranging from Albert Einstein to Marilyn Monroe. He was also the one who took the photograph that inspired my novel, when he was still a rookie photographer back in Berlin in 1928.
Who or what is the muse for your debut novel?
Marlene Dietrich, one of the protagonists in Delayed Rays of a Star, was my teenage queer icon. It felt to me like whatever she did, she never held back. I used to have a huge poster of her on my bedroom wall, which my best friend bought for me. Marlene did whatever she wanted and she didn’t care what anyone’s opinion of her was. That was how I wanted to live my life. I wanted to be free, and that wasn’t easy in conformist Singapore.
However, I think that my true muse for Delayed Rays of A Star was probably and simply cinema, and my love for films and filmmaking.
What do you do when you’re taking a break from writing?
Umm, I read. Yes, I’m a freak like that.
You are now based in New York. Which city, Singapore or New York, are you more fond of?
I love both Singapore and New York for the fact they are true cities. There is life in every pore of them at every hour of the day. In Singapore, at three in the morning, I can be at a Geylang coffee shop eating $2.50 prawn mee, watching soccer with gambling uncles cussing at the tops of their lungs. In New York, at three in the morning, I can be at a gritty Williamsburg bar and suddenly some shy guy with baby bangs is showing me the artwork he makes on napkins.
What are some cool, and underrated things to do in Singapore?
Eating vegetarian food cooked by aunties at Fortune Centre, going all-night dancing at Tamil live music pubs in Little India, exploring the lurid moral sculptures of Haw Par Villa, attending drag night film screenings at The Projector, thrifting at heartland neighborhood Salvation Amry family stores.
What's first on your bucket list?
I have multiple bucket lists but the top of my travel list is probably still the Trans-Siberian Railway.