Category Archives: Inspiration

Three cheers for Emma Watson

I am furious, as a woman and on behalf of Emma Watson, actor and UN Goodwill Ambassador, at the threat to publish nude pictures of her and trolls posting under the hashtag RIP Emma Watson, following her impassioned speech on gender equality. It turns out that the threat was empty, but that makes it no less hateful. Seriously, dudes, where are your brains?

She gave a wonderful, heartfelt speech to the UN at the launch of the HeForShe campaign. I honestly don’t understand how anyone can listen to that speech and not agree with it. She’s right that gender inequality has an adverse effect on men too. And for the sakes of our sons, our brothers and our husbands, as well as our daughters, we should all be pulling towards the goal of equal rights for men and women.

Emma Watson totally reflected my views on feminism. I don’t get why some men fear or ridicule it  or why some women want to distance themselves from it. For me, the question ‘Are you a feminist?’ is the same as, ‘Do you value yourself as a woman?’ It’s not about man-hating. It’s not about having a high-flying career. It is about having the opportunity to go for that career, if you want to. A woman who chooses to be a housewife or a stay-at-home mum is still a feminist if she believes in having the choice, the opportunity, the right to live her life as she sees fit.

Both sexes should have the right to an education, to have equal pay for equal work, to have a say in the policies of their country, to be able to parent their children without that impacting adversely on their career, to express the full range of emotions and for that not to be considered feminine and, therefore, ‘weak’.

I agree with Emma Watson that ‘It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum instead of two opposing sets of ideals.’

I see it every day. Men who have lost touch with their feelings, who have been brought up not to cry and who therefore suppress feelings of sadness, fear, inadequacy or vulnerability and consider it ‘being strong’. The feelings, of course, come out somehow, usually as anger or withdrawal. It can kill marriages. I see fathers that want to be around more for their children but, like working mothers, find it tricky in the office to convince people that they still take their careers seriously. I, too, know men who have been made fragile because ‘of a distorted sense of what constitutes male success’.

I know many feminist men that want strong, confident daughters and want equality of opportunity for them. I know men that are stay-at-home dads. I know men that have moved country to support their wife’s career. I know women that are breadwinners and their partners are ok with that. And it is good that these people have been able to make the choices they want. But as Emma Watson said: ‘No country in the world can yet say they have achieved gender equality.’

I am writing a Young Adult book about a teenage girl who meets a former incarnation of herself. In a past life she was the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, who was killed under the King’s Horse in the 1913 Derby, trying to pin the suffragette colours to the bridle. It’s about a sexual awakening and a feminist awakening.

And so I was interested to hear about Emma Watson’s feminist awakening. She says: ‘When I was eight, I was confused at being called ‘bossy’ because I wanted to direct the plays we would put of for our parents, but the boys were not. When at 14 I started to be sexualised by certain elements of the press. When at 15 my girlfriends started dropping out of their beloved sports teams because they didn’t want to appear ‘muscly’. When at 18 my male friends were unable to express their feelings. I decided I was a feminist and this seemed uncomplicated to me.’

It is the pressures I see on girls and young women today, to be pretty, skinny, sexy, to be good, to be perfect, that inspired me to write my book. There’s also the pressure to have a great career, to have children, to have it all, and then, goddammit, to look ever youthful. Because it is youth and beauty that is valued in women and the women’s magazines, perversely, promote that. Where is the space to just be yourself? Because it is in that space that you achieve your full potential.

It distressed me to see Emma Watson, who I saw grow up on screen as Hermione Granger in Harry Potter, being attacked for launching this inclusive campaign. Harry Potter was written by another wonderful woman, JK Rowling, who was advised not to go by the name Joanne because publishers thought that boys wouldn’t read a fantasy book written by a woman.

But this gender-stereotyping shouldn’t surprise us. After all, we live in a world where a campaign to put a Jane Austen on the British ten pound note, saw Caroline Criado-Perez subjected to rape and death threats on twitter. Why should the thought of a female literary icon on a ten pound note provoke violence?

And so we come full circle and Emma Watson grows up and makes a speech that expresses nothing but love, respect and affection for men, a speech that is all about freedom and humanity, that asks men to join the campaign and these idiots, these online thugs try to tear her down.

It is great to see men as well as women coming out in support of HeFor She and rallying around Emma Watson. I am heartened there has been a tremendous backlash against the online trolls.

I applaud Emma Watson and rise to her call of ‘ If not me, who? If not now, when?’

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Aung San Suu Kyi and the hero in us all

I’ve seen a real, live heroine. Aung San Suu Kyi was speaking at the the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Mandalay and I was there. Unfortunately, I only listened to her on the video screen because of the huge crush to get in the room in which she was speaking. But, by luck, I saw her through the open window of her car as she left, looking serene with a red flower in her hair. Aung San Suu Kyi, chairperson for the National League for Democracy and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Now that is a woman with story. And man, is it epic?

Her father, the de facto Prime Minister who negotiated independence from Britain, was assassinated when she was two. Her mother was Ambassador to India in 1960. After a childhood spent in Burma and India, Suu Kyi went to Oxford University.

At the literary festival, in conversation with Dame Joan Bakewell, she said: ‘I had never voted in a free election and would explain to Oxford intellectuals how precious that is. If you don’t vote, you start to lose your democratic right. Rights entail responsibilities.’

I imagine any apathetic students, cynical about politics and politicians, would have taken note. I can’t imagine anyone not paying attention to Suu Kyi, such is her poise, grace and intellect.

She graduated from Oxford University in 1969 and married fellow student Michael Aris three years later. Before she married, she told her husband-to-be that if her people ever needed her, she would return to Burma. He was, she said, ‘a remarkable man’, because he accepted that. They had two children and the family spent the 70s and 80s in the UK, India and the USA.

In 1988, she went back to Burma to look after her dying mother and found that protestors against the dictator U We Nin were being killed. She started speaking out against him and began a peaceful movement for democratic reform. She spent 15 of the next 21 years under house arrest.

She said that, during those times, she kept up a discipline of rising at 4.30am to ‘meditate then listen to the BBC news’. She spent time brushing up on languages, reading philosophy, politics and biographies, and playing the piano. ‘I was conscious of not wanting to waste time,’ she said.

Between being placed under house arrest in 1989 and the death of her husband in 1999, she only saw him five times. When he was diagnosed with cancer, the government denied him a visa. She was free to go and see him but feared she would not be allowed to return to Burma. She said the decision not to see her husband one last time was made easier because it ‘had already been decided’ before they were married. He knew she wouldn’t go back to see him.

Suu Kyi, now 68, has been free from house arrest since 2010. She won a by-election in 2012 in a landslide and became a member of parliament for the NLD. There is a general election next year but the junta added a clause to Myanmar’s constitution in 2008, which says that the presidency can’t be held by anyone whose spouse or children are foreign nationals, deliberately thwarting Suu Kyi. Her story continues.

I suppose what sets her story apart is that she followed a higher calling to lead a pro-democracy movement and dedicated herself to it. She put her sense of duty to her nation above that of her family. That’s hard!

She said she has ‘personal regrets’ at not being able to be with her family and would have liked to see her children grow up but, at the same time, she ‘had no doubts’ that she had to stay with the Burmese people.

So, given her own epic story, I was interested to hear, in a session about literary heroes,  that her literary heroine was Elizabeth Bennett from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Suu Kyi said: ‘Elizabeth was courageous, wouldn’t stand any nonsense and was not intimidated by rank or money.’ She was not held back by what other people think, ‘that was part of her courage,’ she said.

Ok, so Suu Kyi’s favourite book is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. No surprise there. But Elizabeth Bennett? Don’t get me wrong, I love the book and I love the character but somehow Elizabeth Bennett’s courage seems nothing compared to that of Suu Kyi.

Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans, did point out that ‘we have a heroine in our midst’ and paid tribute to Suu Kyi’s ‘courage and dedication’. Her own literary hero was the little boy in Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes who, while everyone else played along pretending the emperor was dressed, said ‘but he isn’t wearing anything at all’. For Chang, the person who states the truth when others won’t is heroic.

Chang has lived through hard times. Another of her literary heroines is Madame Bovary, a copy of which she had when they were burning books during the cultural revolution in China. ‘I felt so much for her. I shared her sense of frustration and claustrophobia.’ It wasn’t the frustration of a bourgeois life, she said, but life under a totalitarian regime.

That is the power of a book, to reach down the ages and for the human truth in it to touch someone in a different time and place.

Louis De Berniere, of Captain Corelli fame, said his favourite hero was D’Artagnan from The Three Musketeers, although at the end of the books it was Porthos who was the real hero as he gives his life for the others.

So Aung San Suu Kyi picked her hero for courage, Jung Chang for being truthful and Louis de Berniere for self-sacrifice.

De Berniere mentioned, in a separate session, that his father was always quoting poetry at the dinner table, usually Shakespeare, and Hamlet’s ‘To thine own self be true’ speech was a particular favourite. And it occurred to me that perhaps it is Elizabeth Bennett’s courage to be herself and defy the conventions of her time that resonates with Suu Kyi.

It does take great courage to listen to the inner voice, to reach for the truth and to be our own true selves. Sometimes you have to go against the grain, defy convention and sacrifice an ordinary life to do that. But it’s in living as our own true selves, and answering our calling that we become heroic.

The call of the wild

At a meeting of The Singapore Writer’s Group this week, I was reminded of the importance of playing and experimenting with language. When you’re busy learning the craft of writing a novel, as I am, there’s a tendency to focus on the mechanics – character development, dialogue, structuring a plot.

I think carefully about the words I use because I want to achieve an economy of language and capture exactly the right metaphor and so on. Mastering all this brings great satisfaction, but in this pursuit of writing a well-crafted book that will sell, have I forgotten to play? I mean really revel in words and let the imagination run wild.

Authors do play with language but then they tame it, discipline it, strap it down and, after a while, it comes out walking to heel. This is part of learning your craft. You learn to use language effectively to create story, suspense, subtext and to make your reader fully believe in your world.

Then a song-writer called Parijat Mishra read a short piece to our writers’ group that was like a wolf howl to my urban fox brain. He had wanted to write something like a dream, a piece of art, a painting with words. And so he read us Tough Syrup, (it’s the second story in his blog) which we decided was a ‘prose poem’. Me included. The automatic reflex to put it in a box. We loved it, were confused and impressed by it in equal measure and called for story, discipline. And that is what his work needs if his intention is to write a short story or a novel. But I don’t think this is his aim. Not with that piece, anyway. He’s an artist at play. He achieved what he wanted and created a piece of art. His imagery was disturbing, surreal and extraordinary. It was an outpouring of imagination, a dreamscape painted with words.

One writer saw it as a comment on the emasculated male in a female world, I saw it as a comment on living in Singapore where everything is made safe and how suffocating that can be. It provoked thought and we brought our own interpretations to it. And that, I think, makes it art. We recognised that it was raw and wild and ugly and beautiful.

I hope Parijat does develop and apply discipline to his writing because his work reminded me of Kurt Vonnegurt and that kind of talent should be recognised. And at the same time, I like that it’s wild. I like that it roams the boundaries. So thank you, Parijat, and thank you to The Singapore Writers’ Group and all who shared their work, for the inspiration.

Where do ideas come from?

The idea of this blog was to bring you on the journey with me as I wrote a book. And after about 20 posts about writer’s block and procrastination, I finally got writing but stopped blogging. So I feel I owe you a couple of retrospective posts.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start . When you read you begin with ABC, when you sing you begin with … Excuse me, no idea why I was suddenly chanelling Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. Actually, I do know. It started with the words: ‘Let’s start at the very beginning’ and the tune came into my head. It started with the WORDS…

So many ideas come as you write. It’s the magic, the very essence of creativity. So don’t sit there waiting for a great idea. Write and the ideas will follow and then you can shape them.

One idea I had stemmed from an image in Vogue magazine of a model on the Mongolian steppes with an eagle. Woman and bird were in profile, gazing into the distance. It was beautiful, striking. I decided to do an exercise with her as a character. I’d been playing around with a parallel world idea but as I started to write, the photo gave me a new beginning, actually a a whole new incarnation of the book, starting in the parallel world and having the character from our world fall into it.

The book I’m currently working on started because of news articles and TV programmes about the pressures on girls to be skinny, pretty and sexy. I was horrified that girls as  young as seven were worrying about their body image! In one programme girls were shown photos of themselves along with images photoshopped so they looked skinnier and fatter. In almost every case, the girls picked the skinniest version of themselves as being the best. I’d also read about teenagers aspiring to be models or wives of footballers, or just to be on the latest reality TV programme.

Then I heard the crime author PD James talking on Radio 4. She’s in her nineties and that got me thinking about what she must have seen and experienced in her lifetime and how it couldn’t have been easy for a female crime writer early in her career, then, BAM, suffragettes popped into my head. What would the suffragettes make of the world today? What if a modern day teenager met one? That was the genesis of my book.

So the media seems to be a big source of inspiration for me. Looking at the obituaries might seem morbid but they feature interesting lives and that gets you thinking. Or a crime report might give you a plot idea. Overheard snippets of conversation on a bus can spark an idea or a character’s voice, people-watching in cafes is endlessly fascinating, making up lives for them. Putting down your phone so that you’re not picking up emails and posting on twitter but actually observing the world helps a lot. Just asking the question: What if…? Your dreams could give you an idea. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight came from a dream. According to wikipedia, it led to Meyer writing a draft of what became chapter 13 of the book.

Travelling is good. Anything that makes you an outsider, that gets you looking at the world differently can trigger creativity. I recently went to an amazing hot spring in Malaysia with a big pool of geothermic water  surrounded by towering verdant limestone karsts with caves beneath. I felt humbled and inspired by those great architects, nature and time. It could have been another world. It could have been Eden.

The magnificent cavern with stalagtites and stalagmites that had been turned into a wine bar, was quite spectacular. A brilliant setting for a book. Something gothic, perhaps. If Stephanie Meyer had been to this place, Edward Cullen would have taken Bella on a date there.

Your own lives and experiences will give you ideas  – you may not write about them directly but they will certainly inform your writing. And once you’re writing, you start to think like a writer and notice things that you didn’t before. I will hear someone’s name and I’ll think, that’s a great name for a character and off I go. In short, ideas are all around you and you shouldn’t worry about the idea, just the sitting on your bum to write.

Whether it’s a commercial idea is another matter. What publishers are looking for is a good concept that will sell. This often comes from two ideas coming together. Vampirates, for example. Suzanne Collins is reported to have got the idea for the Hunger Games  while channel surfing. On one station was a reality TV show and on another was the invasion of Iraq and the two began to blur in her mind and she ended up with the idea of a dysptopian world where there’s an annual, televised, gladiatorial fight to the death.

I find thinking too much about commerciality blocks my writing, so I’m not going to put too much emphasis on this. The most important thing is to have something that you are compelled to write. If you have something special you can bring to it, you are an immigrant writing about the immigrant experience for example, all the better. You become commercial. The publisher can market you and you will sell your book. My friend Liz Trenow wrote The Last Telegram, which is set in the second world war – always popular– but she had a unique selling point. She comes from a family of silk weavers and she set her novel in a silk factory making parachutes for the RAF with her heroine running the factory.  As well as going to book fairs she goes to textile fairs to give readings. She knows her stuff and the sensuality the silk weaves through her story made it something that no one else could have written.

Write for yourself first but have your reader in mind. Be aware of trends but don’t try to follow them or predict them. You can help a publisher if you can give them a way to market it, something to peg it on. But underneath all that, they need a strong voice, a brilliantly evoked world, great characters and a cracking story.

Kipling’s If… For Writers

So the green nail varnish has chipped and the birthday optimism is dissipating. Of course I want to be a great writer but first I have to summon the energy to write a sentence. And another and keep going. I’ve written three books. None are published. But I get better each time. My failures are improving, I am getting closer to publication with every book I write. So rationally I know that I have to keep going and I will get there. But emotionally, it ain’t so easy. I have to suppress doubts and fend off the feeling of futility. I get moments of flow and flashes of joy and I hope that can keep me going. And so, with the help of Mr Kipling, (the poet rather than cakes, although cake is darn good idea) I’m giving myself and any other struggling writer a little pep talk.

If you can keep your head when Fifty Shades of Grey

Gets published and your story does not,

If you believe in your writing, come what may,

When no one else cares a jot;

If you can be rejected by publishers and not tire of rejection,

But instead scour the Writers’ and Artists’ Year Book

And laugh despite dejection,

And in good spirits begin another book;

If you can ignore market trends and write from the heart,

And bare your soul to the page every day

Not knowing if you’ll win through, yet commit to your art

Your characters and your plot for no pay;

If you can dream of being published – and not make publication your master,

If you can kick those imposters fame and fortune up the arse

And write for the joy of it, despite the disaster

Of the doormat thump of a manuscript come home, and laugh at the farce;

If you can beat the neuroticism, procrastination and despair

And know, beyond all doubt, the word is mightier;

Then what the world thinks, you’ll not care

And what’s more, my friend, you’ll be a writer.

Apologies to Rudyard Kipling for riding roughshod over his great and inspirational poem. Apologies also to E.L. James for the cheap shot at Fifty Shades. No one can deny the supreme success of her books.

Green nail polish, new horizons.

Today I am 43. It’s the beginning of the rest of my life. It starts with green nail polish. Then I’m going to become the greatest writer of my time.

In small steps, of course. A word at a time, a book at a time. But the new reinvented 43-year-old me is thinking big. Somebody’s going to be remembered as a great 21st century writer. Why the heck shouldn’t it be me?

The green nail polish is a celebration of my quirkiness; it’s saying it’s ok to buck trends, to wade against the flow, to take risks. I am letting out my inner fabulousness.

Here’s how this surge of energy and statement of ambition came about:

Yesterday, I went to a creative part of town. I know Singapore is not the most creative place in the world, but there are pockets of creativity and new ideas. Tiong Bharu is one of them. I was in a cafe with my laptop, slowly and painfully writing. Starting a book is the most difficult bit. I have not yet hit ‘flow’, that magical point when the characters come alive and start doing unexpected things and you’re living the story with them. Anyway, in the scene I was writing I referred to Alice in Wonderland.

After I was done, I went to my favourite indie bookstore Books Actually. In the window was a copy of Alice in Wonderland, with artwork by the brilliantly bonkers Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. I bought it as a birthday treat to myself.

At the cash till, I flicked through a little book It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be by the advertising guru Paul Arden (click for inspirational quotes). I read it first thing this morning and it was the perfect hit of positivity. It’s about thinking big, having vision and laughing in the face of failure along the way. It’s about thinking differently, turning things on their head, taking risks, thinking beyond what’s fashionable or acceptable and making things happen. It’s about putting a new spin on things.

So I will no longer worry about the market or concern myself with whether it’s what agents or publishers are interested in. I will be the best writer I can in aiming to be the greatest. Past failures are my path to success.

As Winston Churchill said: ‘Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.’

Although, I admit, I did have a wobble on the enthusiasm front. To the extent that I gave up, threw my toys out of the pram and decided to do a course to teach English as a Foreign Language. (Turned out to be the creative equivalent of joining the Foreign Legion.) This was a good thing because it so clearly wasn’t me, it reaffirmed my belief in myself as a writer.

When I write, I am most myself. So I’m not so much reinventing myself, as my ambitions. Paul Arden says: ‘You need to aim beyond what you are capable of.’ At first, that seems like a contradiction. But, giving it more thought, it makes perfect sense. How else do we grow?

Then you have to make the vision of yourself reality. You learn to do this through experience and mistakes. Excellent. I’m on the right track then. Talent helps, of course, but it’s the desire to be the best that counts, he says. ‘Everybody wants to be good, but not many are prepared to make the sacrifices it takes to be great.’ (See YouTube link of Yayoi Kusama showing what it takes.)

He also talks about promoting yourself, putting yourself out there. This is more difficult for me. We, girls especially and English girls possibly more so, are taught not to show-off, gloat, crow, or otherwise talk ourselves up. We can quietly know we’re great, but it is not demure, lady like, or appropriate to sing about it. This attitude gets you absolutely nowhere. It may get you liked but it does not bring you success or wealth. So I need to cultivate this along with my writing. Ego. It’s not a bad thing.

Sparkly green nails

Green nails look great flashing across my keyboard.

So I’m here, me with the sparkly green nail polish that is part Wicked Witch of the East, part Absinthe fairy and a lot Cabaret. Me, failing extravagantly and learning from mistakes on the path to success. No more Mrs Nice Girl. This time I am, to coin Justine Musk’s  phrase, bad-ass. And I’m on my way to becoming the greatest writer of my time. (How am I doing on the ego front?)