American-born, but Singapore-based, author Alison Jean Lester has just published Lillian on Life, a wonderful novel, one that I urge you to read. It is a funny, wise, honest, and moving exploration of one woman’s life, her loves and losses, and her thoughts on everything from sex, to English as a foreign language – indeed, the whole novel is constructed out of short reflections, On Getting To Sex, On English As A Foreign Language, etc.
Alison Jean Lester came to Singapore from Tokyo in 1999 as a trailing spouse, with two little children in tow. When she and her husband separated two years later, and then divorced, neither of them wanted to leave. Alison says: “Singapore proved to be a very good place for us. We could pursue our working goals and raise our children in a supportive environment without many of the stresses we would have experienced in other major cities. There were certainly times when I would have liked to leave, but it made the best sense to stay, and I was rewarded by meeting my second husband here.”
So: questions and answers with Alison Jean Lester
If you want to set up shop as a professional writer, writing in English, do you think it is a disadvantage to live far from the international centres of English language publishing in New York, London, and Sydney? If so, why? If not, why not?
When I started regularly sending my writing out to editors in the US from my home in Japan, I did feel the disadvantage because everything was done by surface mail then. Not only did it take a long time for my work to reach the publication, to be read, and for the (usually) rejection letter to come back, I couldn’t send a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) because I didn’t have any American stamps, so I also had to buy vouchers for the editors to use at the US Post Office to pay for the stamps they needed.
It’s interesting that some literary magazine and contest editors still require submissions to be printed and sent by mail with a SASE. I don’t think this is a bad thing, and writers needn’t feel that it slows things down too much. Email has given us the idea that the process should be much more rapid now. It isn’t. You can email a submission from just outside New York and you can email a submission from 10,000 miles away, and they’ll get to it when they get to it, and it will usually take around three months either way. I think you need to live where you are able and stimulated to write, and not worry about the distance or the time zones.
Do you feel professionally isolated in Asia? Do you regret not having a large pool of fellow writers on hand, or not?
Not at all, but that’s because I wouldn’t necessarily have sought out a pool of writers to talk to even if I’d lived in New York. As it turned out, one of the people who was most helpful to me at the beginning of my more successful fiction-writing endeavours lived in New York. We communicated by phone and email, and sent stories back and forth in the mail with writing all over them. It’s very important to show your work to people, but they have to be the right people, and now it’s easier to find them in the world. You don't have to be able to touch them.
You wrote about the experience of expats in Asia in your first collection of short stories, Locked Out: Stories far from Home, and Lillian too was an expat, although in Europe. What interests you about expats?
I’m sure it will be a long time before I don’t write about rolling stones. I’ve lived in so many places, and have now been in Asia for half my life. My mother was conceived in Barbados, born in the UK, and returned to Barbados and then Jamaica, until she was ten years old. She left the UK for Canada and then the US when she was 21. My father taught psychology in Munich when he was in his late 20s. My brother has lived in France, Arab East Jerusalem, and Yemen. It’s interesting to think about how I’ve dealt with living in different places, and to observe how others react. Beyond that, I think that just about everything we do is an effort to see if the roots we poke into the soil can thrive there, be it in a new country, a new city, a new job, or a new marriage. In any relationship, we start out foreign. I wonder so often what makes a home, what makes a root.
Do you think other expats writing in English in Asia have a better chance of international publication if they set their novels and stories in the West? Is it sensible to ignore the fact you live in Asia if you are an expat here, and you want to be published in the West?
I don’t think it’s sensible at all to turn your back on Asia if you live here and want to be published in the West. I also don’t think it’s sensible not to set your stories in the West if that’s where you feel inclined to set them. Write what you feel compelled to write. Write what you feel you can best write, or what you want to get better at writing.
If expats living here do set their stories here, do you think they should for any reason restrict themselves to writing from the points of view of other expats, and not of Asians? If so, why? If not, why not?
I do think a certain amount of time needs to pass before we dare to write in an Asian voice or point of view, but I don’t think we have to restrict ourselves to our own voices. We allow ourselves to write from the points of view of old characters when we’re not old, heterosexual characters if we’re not heterosexual, so if we feel we’ve gained an understanding of at least one person in the foreign culture, of course we must allow ourselves to give them a voice. As a beautiful example of this I would point to Robert Olen Butler’s book of short stories called A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. All the stories are in the voices of Vietnamese people. I read it when it was lent to me by a Vietnamese friend who said when she handed it to me: “When I read this, I hear my father.” It can be done. Just don’t do it too early.
Have you written from the point of view of an Asian character?
I have. One of the stories in Locked Out: Stories far from Home is in the voice of a young Japanese woman dying of cancer. The story was inspired by the fact that one of my best Japanese friends died soon after I arrived in Singapore (after eight years in Japan), and I wanted to honour her with a story. We had been friends for many years, and I felt I’d absorbed enough of her point of view to be able to imagine what the end of life was like for the character I created in her memory. I wouldn’t shy away from creating an Asian character that was unlike anyone I’d ever met, though. It’s fiction. It’s okay to give it a go.
Have you faced any practical difficulties dealing with international publishers from Singapore? If so, can you give details? If not, what has made the process smooth and easy?
Given that all my communication with international publishers has taken place from abroad, I can’t really compare it with what it’s like to be in the same country. The 13-hour time difference between here and New York makes for a lot of waiting. I wake up to emails I’d like to address right away, but even if I write back immediately, I won’t have a response from them until nearly bedtime. That’s a little bit difficult, but it hasn’t been an impediment.
What about publicity? Has it been hard to promote Lillian from here? Did you travel to the US / UK for publication? If so, do you think you could have got away without going? If not, do you wish you could have gone?
Publishing houses don’t often fork out for a debut author to do any sort of promotional tour at publication time. You’re an unknown. Who would show up? The publicity departments have focused on getting the book reviewed and mentioned, and that hasn’t required anything from me. Social media offer the chance to develop a Facebook or Twitter following and promote the book from afar, so you can really do as much self-directed publicity as you like. As a result, I haven’t worried about not being there, and am glad to have avoided the jet lag.
Do you mind saying a little bit about what you are working on now?
The novel I’m working on now concerns a much younger woman than Lillian, and looks more closely at family dynamics and what is ‘normal’ between parents and between parents and children. The first part of the book takes place in the early 1980s in Massachusetts, and the second part in the early 1990s in Japan (unless I reorganize it again!).
Do you have any message for other English-language writers in Asia, whether expat or Asian?
Yes. Find helpful readers. My experience is that I’ve thought my work has been ready before it’s actually been ready, and other people often know that better than we do ourselves. If you have contact with writers you admire, ask them to read for you. If you have friends who admire the writers you admire, ask them to read for you. Sift through their feedback and take it seriously, but not as gospel. Strive to improve.
Do you have any message for your readers in Asia?
Yes! Hello! And thank you!
I read Lillian on Life in the American edition, published by Putnam, in hardback, but depending where you live, you may also come across the UK edition, published by John Murray. Both editions priced in local currencies.
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