Tag Archives: political commentary

Debut Authors of ’18 Interviews: YZ Chin

Hello and welcome to my blog series dedicated to author interviews for 2018 debut authors! This has been started as a way to support some of my fellow ‘debutantes’ of 2018. Some of the genres may be a little outside while I usually write/talk about here, but each of these I share struck my interest in one way or another.

(See past author interviews at the end of this post!)

Alright, so reading through the inspiration and motivation behind this book gave me shivers. It looks incredibly poignant and thoughtful, and I’m seriously looking forward to sitting down and reading it.

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GENERAL

– Author Name: YZ Chin

– Book Title: Though I Get Home

– Book Genre: Literary Fiction

– Release Date: April 10, 2018

– Publisher: Feminist Press

THE BOOK

Though I Get Home is a collection of interconnected stories that spiral inward to paint a picture of current-day Malaysia. The book is tied together by Isabella Sin, a young woman thrown in jail without trial for writing “controversial” political poems. Other characters include Isa’s grandfather, an immigrant to Malaya who becomes a butler of sorts under colonial masters.

Share a teaser:

            Hunger pinned her to the bunk. Starvation impaled her through the stomach, keeping her down on the thin mattress, resisting the momentum of her feebly raised head. Her neck strained to bring her vision to the requisite level such that she could observe the movement of sun against her prison walls. The sun was her way of telling time and estimating the next delivery of food.
– Where did you get the idea?

  • My great fear as a writer is self-imposed censorship. When I first started writing fiction seriously, it was pointed out to me that I was really holding back from writing about “taboo” topics like sex. I spent a lot of time exploring the roots of this self-repression, and I realized that I had been conditioned by a lifelong atmosphere of state censorship. That realization formed the seeds for Though I Get Home.

– What’s the story behind the title? 

  • The title is from an Emily Dickinson poem (#199 Franklin; #207 Johnson). The poem is complex and full of turns, succeeding in being both emotionally heightened and ambiguous at the same time – which mirrors how I feel about the idea of “home.”

– No spoiler, but tell us something we won’t find out just by reading the book jacket.

  • There is a surprising development in the main character Isa’s story arc (Kirkus called it an “unexpected twist” in a starred review). There are also explorations of Isa’s relationships with her grandfather, her mother, her father and her best friend.

– Tell us about your favourite character.

  • Isabella Sin, the young woman who is thrown in jail without trial for writing “controversial” poems. Her grandfather immigrated to Malaya and served under colonial masters, and her relationship with her parents are strained because of their separation and her preference for dating women. She is dealt a poor hand by fate, but she does her best to add a personal touch to the roles she is given to play.

– Are your character based on real people, or do they come from your imaginations?

  • Government censorship of the arts is a very real threat. In recent years, dancer Bilqis Hijjas was arrested and charged for releasing yellow balloons bearing the words “Free media,” “Democracy,” and “Justice” during an arts festival opening. Cartoonist Zunar has previously been arrested, and is still under travel ban for his political drawings.

 

WRITING PROCESS

– How long did you take to write this book? (You can share about the timeline from drafting to publication)

  • The book took about five years and at least four drafts. I worked full-time as a software engineer (partly to maintain legal status to remain in America), so I could write only on the weekends and in the seams of workdays. Drafts took so long to write that by the time I reached the end of the book, I was already a subtly different writer than the one who wrote the beginning of the draft, and I would have to throw out the beginning to start all over.

 

– What kind of research did you do for this book?

  • Two books by unjustly imprisoned men especially informed my work: Universiti Kedua (“The Second University”) by Kassim Ahmad and Sengsara Kem Kamunting: Kisah Hidup dalam Penjara ISA (“The Tortures of Camp Kamunting: Life Behind Bars in the ISA Prison”) by Saari Sungib. And of course, the daily news coming out of not just Malaysia, but also the U.S. and beyond.

– Are you a plotter or a pantser?

  • I sometimes pretend to be a plotter, but the stories and characters inevitably bring me down endless unexpected paths. I follow them willingly.

– What is your favorite part of your writing process, and why?

  • Oddly enough, my favourite part of writing does not always take place when my fingers are on a keyboard or holding a pen. It can be in the shower, or while I am taking a long walk to clear my head – the magical moments when a beautiful sentence assembles on my tongue, or when an unassailable truth about a character makes itself known in my head, and my heart knows it to be real.

– What is the most challenging part of your writing process, and why?

  • Honestly, the most challenging part is finding enough uninterrupted time to write while working full-time in an office.

– Can you share your writing routine?

  • I write in dribbles before work and on the weekends. If I am feeling particularly inspired, I squeeze in bits of writing time during lunch breaks and after work, even though I am usually drained by then.

– Have you ever gotten writer’s block? If yes, how do you overcome it?

  • Explore another (short) project. Expand a dream into a scene. Flesh out a “what if” idea into a plot or a flash fiction piece. Flip through a notebook I keep of scattered thoughts, half-formed musings, and sentence fragments.

 

THE WRITER

– Tell us about yourself. 

  • I work as a software engineer coding in C, which is a programming language invented in the early seventies. My husband and I have the world’s most beautiful and softest cat named Meursault (after Camus’ The Stranger). I was born and raised in small-town Malaysia, and I left at 19 for an engineering education in the U.S.

– How did you get into writing?

  • I was a fat kid with a skin condition who was bullied at school (and Buddhist camp). For a while I had no friends. Books were my connection to the world. I want to extend that connection. Books also saved my life, and my hope is that someday my words can do the same for another lonely person.

– What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

  • Reading, of course. Exercise-wise I used to do a lot of weightlifting, and then I started doing more rock climbing. But I dislocated my elbow last year when I fell 15 feet during rock climbing, so I suppose I shouldn’t say it’s something I like to do anymore?

– Apart from novel writing, do you do any other kind(s) of writing?

  • I am also a poet. I have two poetry chapbooks published or forthcoming: In Passing (Anomalous Press, 2019) and deter (dancing girl press, 2013). And my very first longform personal essay will be appearing soon in a magazine!

– Share something about you most people probably don’t know.

  • I used to do weightlifting as a form of exercise. I once deadlifted 245 pounds, which was 2.5 times my body weight. Ah, the glory days.

– Which book influenced you the most?

  • Toni Morrison’s Beloved changed what I thought was possible in writing. It is a masterpiece that depicts extreme brutality with intelligence and utmost tenderness.

 

WHAT’S NEXT

– What are you working on right now?

  • I’m working (for some reason) on two very different novels. One is about intimacy and the tough choices so-called “skilled worker” immigrants have to make, especially when facing health issues. The other I’m not quite ready to talk about yet.

TELL US…

– The book you’re currently reading

  • Jeremy Tiang’s State of Emergency. It’s a tightly woven story about the leftist movement in the immediate aftermath of colonialism in Malaysia and Singapore, told from multiple angles.

    PITCH

Though I Get Home is an intimate exploration of what it means to be an individual and a citizen within a state that wishes to control the narrative, which is a description that fits more countries than we would like to admit in today’s world.

FAVORITE BLURBS

“YZ Chin’s tender and furious debut, Though I Get Home, is a long gaze into a black sky; her characters are defiant enough to find light.” —Catherine Lacey, author of The Answers

“Sharp as an old wound that never heals, these linked stories remind us afresh of what it takes to survive in a brutal, racially fraught society.” —Shirley Geok-lin Lim, author of Among the White Moon Faces

BUY LINKS

 

BIO

YZChin.jpg

YZ Chin’s debut book of fiction Though I Get Home (Feminist Press, 2018) is the premier winner of the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize. She is also the author of poetry chapbooks In Passing (Anomalous Press, 2019) and deter (dancing girl press, 2013).

Born and raised in Taiping, Malaysia, she now lives in New York. She works by day as a software engineer, and writes by night.

SOCIAL MEDIA

Website: https://www.yzchin.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/yzxyz/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/yz_chin
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/36393578-though-i-get-home

Previous author interviews:

Pamela Kopfler – BETTER DEAD

Anna Quinn – THE NIGHT CHILD

Clarissa Harwood — IMPOSSIBLE SAINTS

Negeen Papehn — FORBIDDEN BY FAITH

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Social Commentary and the Kindle App

I’ve always been fascinated by social and political commentary. Right now I’m (finally) starting up Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, after staring at it on my shelf for much too long while thinking that “I really should read that.”

I blame college. I mean, really – why must it be so difficult to actually read a good book? Okay, sure, going to college full time and working 25 – 35 hours a week really sucks up the time. But trying so hard not to start reading books often resulted in me breaking down at 11 at night in a moment of weakness and buying the $1.99 book excitedly advertised by Amazon or an author I follow on Facebook. This was often coupled with the “just one chapter” promise to myself that was thrown out the window by chapter three. Instead of stumbling into work or class the next day sleep deprived and hung over, I would stumble into work or class the next day sleep deprived and emotionally traumatized from whatever I’d read last night.

Seriously, the Kindle app for Android was the worst thing that ever happened to me. Damn you innovation for successfully catering to my desires and getting me to buy stuff even when I shouldn’t.

(Sometimes my behavior reminded me of an addict’s. Oops.)

The point of this little rabbit trail of thought here is that I’m finally getting around to reading all those touted classics and dark social commentaries that I’ve been wanting to read since forever. In my moments of buying weakness, I can’t really say that a majority of the books I bought really required a high degree of, er, mental engagement. Good for me in that I could whip through them really fast and then actually get a few hours of sleep, bad in that it wasn’t exactly improving my writing.

Here I am starting to sound like a book snob.

Truth is, I probably am – not that you could tell that from my bookshelf and Amazon account. But I also want to mention something else: the Jungian idea that all literature in some way has a part of society it’s commenting on. This perspective basically believes that literature is society as a whole trying to work out its problems or issues that it’s struggling with. This idea completely fascinates me. If you pay attention, it becomes obvious that particular ideas or themes will seize the consciousness of the contemporary world of literature and own it for a while. Basically all this means that fiction is just a reflection of the “real world,” morphing as we as a culture morph, influencing and in return being influenced.

So, in essence, maybe all of us writers are really social commentators in some way or another. Or just a giant mob of disjointed thought trying to work out our issues. Either way.

Maybe not always, but I’ve almost always wanted to write novels with the aim of teaching people something. I can’t help but be frustrated and discouraged by the lack of intelligence and knowledge displayed by most of my generation (and even others not of my generation). Not only because it’s irritating, but there’s definitely something to the whole idea that democracy only works when you have a well-informed public.

My eventual solution to this was to teach people something in a way that they would want to hear it – through entertainment. Coupled with the fact that I couldn’t stop writing, it seemed the perfect plan.

(This idea is probably backfiring on me now since apparently no one reads anymore.)

It’s pretty easy to piss people off even when discussing the “classic” social commentary issues – feminism, racism, class hierarchy, etc. But perhaps that’s the whole point: literature doesn’t need to be perfect or completely correct, it’s how we struggle with ideas and issues and spark debate and mull over complicated subjects and build some sort of idea of what’s right, wrong, up, down, and sideways. Is there a “right” way to comment on society when there is some truth or lesson to be found in almost anything?

What are your thoughts on social commentary in literature? Is there a thread of thought what we as a society are working out, conscious or unconscious as it may be? Or is most (fiction) writing out there primarily for entertainment?