New Blood at the Singapore Writers’ Fest

Born out of wedlock, Jolene Goh was sexually abused by her stepfather when she was just 11. She sought love from bad company and ended up in Girl’s Home at one point.

But her trying home circumstances didn’t stop the 22-year-old from chasing her childhood dream of becoming a writer. Her memoir, Jolene’s Story, chronicling her abuse by her stepfather, experience with bad company and substance abuse which was published in Oct 2012 by Marshall Cavendish was launched at the Singapore’s Writer’s Festival (SWF) on Nov 2.

This year’s 9-day long festival boasted “a mix of fresh faces, seasoned authors and industry experts, ”says Lawrence Wong, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth at the opening ceremony on Nov 2.

Says Goh, “I felt very alone when I went through all that. There are other people going through the same thing but dare not speak up… I hope [my] book will allow them to speak up.”

Jolene was one of 2 young authors who found their starting points or Origins, as the theme of SWF (now in its 16th year) goes, in a promising career. The other was 18-year-old Theophilus Kwek.

For the most part, being young means inexperience, says Kwek of himself, when he compares his style of writing when he first started at 11 and now.

“Age matters because when you’re young, you have a different perspective than someone writing 20 years down the road. I like this perspective; I won’t have it for very much longer,” the Raffles Institution student says with a laugh.

He published his first full poetry collection, They Speak Only Our Mother Tongue, in 2011. His previous works were featured in Mascara Literary Review, Ceriph and Reflecting on the Merlion and Words: Poems Singapore and Beyond.

Kwek, who visited his publisher secretly so his parents wouldn’t realize how much time he spends writing, was lucky to have 2 mentors. Singapore Youth Award winners and published poets Aaron Maniam and Alvin Pang could offer the teenager an insider’s take on the local publishing scene.

Munirah Jaafar, who goes by the pseudonym, Nirrosette, may not be a newbie like Goh and Kwek, but she’s a young writer too, being only 19.

With 2 novels to her name, Ikhlas A.K! and Nah, Untuk Awak!, and having sold over 17,000 copies of both her books in Malaysia and Singapore, she was lucky to have found a publisher she could work well with from the start.

She’d simply responded to an ad requesting for manuscripts and sent hers in, unsure of the outcome. Just 9 months after submitting her manuscript, she emerged with her first published book Ikhlas A.K! in 2011.

She attributes the death of her father in 2010 for pushing her to publish her novels. “I had to find something to get my mind off that incident,” she admits, “So I started writing.”

Her love and flair for writing, however, began much earlier, when she was just 10 and began submitting stories to a local Malay newspaper. She tells UrbanWire that she also picked her pen name because she didn’t want to be judged for lacking maturity given her age. She finally revealed her identity when many readers demanded the publisher for it.

Readers can continue to trace her thoughts in either Malay or English by following her blog, Nirrosette’s Fairytale, which is updated regularly.

On writing habits, all 3 have specific rituals: Kwek goes for long walks to derive inspiration, Nirrosette can’t be listening to music while writing, and Goh writes best at night.

Kwek advises budding writers not to write with an end product in mind—“If we expect these things from ourselves, then it becomes a barrier to what we can produce.”

It’s advice that author Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, a former fashion journalist for Wall Street Journal and Style magazine, endorses.

“Writing is already hard enough as it is; you don’t want to have all that [thinking about book sales] at the back of your head, trying to get the words to come out right,” she adds.

Tan, who was in the same Up and Coming panel as Nirrosette at the Writers’ Fest, also compares finding an agent or publisher to dating.

“You really have to find the right person for the longest lasting relationship,” she quips.

Nirrosette suggests jotting down ideas as they come.

“When ideas start to come, you can’t just tell yourself, ‘Ok, I’ll continue later.’ If you stop, you may forget,” she says.

If there’s one thing all 4 writers agree on, it’s this: Don’t hold yourself back and just write. We couldn’t agree more.

About Shahidah Sayadi

Gulliver’s Travels to unknown lands and Sinbad’s voyages across the seas intrigued Shahidah Sayadi, who became interested in writing stories after many nights of such bedtime tales read to her by her mum. Reading and writing allow her to take a break from reality, even if only for a while. She’s awed by how mere words can illustrate with unbelievable clarity such extraordinary tales of woe, romance, tragedy and humour when strung together. She believes that one should never stifle his/her creativity just to stick to the status quo. Aside from writing, she’s also quite the TV serial junkie and watches The Vampire Diaries and The Big Bang Theory among many others. In her spare time, Shahidah enjoys a caffeine fix and cooking up a storm in the kitchen. She hopes to travel far and wide one day, visiting the Seven Wonders of the World and some lesser known landmarks which, to her, are no less wondrous.