Amanda Lee Koe is one of my favourite homegrown authors and has been for years, so when I heard that she was gonna promote her first novel in SG, I resolved to attend at least ONE of the events!! I ended up going to her last one on the 31st of August at BooksActually.
I took some notes from the mini panel as well as the little Q&A afterwards as I thought people might be interested to hear what she had to say!
First off. this photo. Amanda Lee Koe saw Marlene Dietrich as her personal icon as a teen. She was a fabulous queer woman living on her own terms, and this photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt of Marlene, Anna May Wong and Leni Riefenstahl, before the height of their fame, just opened up a world of ideas for her.
As a teen she always felt like she was born in the wrong era, but more in the sense of sexual identity and being misunderstood. She was always looking for ways to express herself – which isn’t something that comes easily, especially if you’re not willing to perform. Which is why she felt like she was born in the wrong time and space.
Delayed Rays of a Star is set partially in Weimar Berlin, which is a period that is personal to her as it represents how she feels as a human – finding your way through the world. But also as there are so many societal and political issues to explore, and that transition between eras, the glamour slowly morphing into something darker, is something that fascinates her.
As for writing, she’s not really interested in things like The Hero’s Journey, and the various structures she encountered when doing her MFA. She’s more interested in finding ways to disrupt the plot, which she likened to serendipity.
The analogy Amanda used was that when you buy vintage clothes or go to thrift stores, there’s an element of chance, a one in a billion chance of finding the perfect thing that speaks to you and you have to be looking for it. It’s a way of making life more magical than the daily life we regularly encounter. So for her, she prefers having serendipity help her form the plot instead of planning it entirely. “I couldn’t continue to be excited by a road map for a book.” That being said, now that she’s written a detour-ish novel she’d be interested to write one with a set trajectory one day!!
One question that I appreciated that was asked was how Amanda felt being seen or labelled as a Singaporean author or that her work is Singaporean. She replied that even though she doesn’t mind labels, she feels they can put us in smaller and smaller boxes, she would prefer to collect these labels and mix and match when she feels like it.
And as for Delayed Rays of a Star, she’s happy for it to been as a Singaporean work, but again, she doesn’t want the label to stick on it as like, the only label. The characters in the novel are trying to find a space to exist in the ways that they want to exist, living their truth, and that’s probably why it has struck a chord with Singaporeans. Amanda wanted to give her characters a large enough canvas to express the diverse ways of being human, to succeed and fail, and to have that breadth of experience.
I didn’t actually note down each question so I’m summarizing her answers in a question. If that makes sense…
Are you a fan of historical fiction?
Amanda said she was not a huge fan of historical fiction per se… which she guessed was strange as she wanted to find a way to make historical fiction her own. To find ways to make it more personal. With historical fiction, you go through an intense period of research and might not look for motivations of the people involved.
And if you’re being truthful to them and yourself, you should be able to give the background characters the same empathy and space as the main characters. She also feels like side characters have more agency than main characters, as the main ones have already made their choices in that time (at least in historical fiction), so the side characters can still exist in the time frame without being tied down by their choices.
What do you see your relationship with writing is? You have such a strong personal voice and use words in a non-conventional way. Basically, HOW AND WHAT ARE THE WORDS YOU USE?!
There is this post on her Instagram where she wrote about un-explainable feelings, and her partner told her to just go for it!! Amanda reckons she’s an obsessive writer, so the weight of her words are important. Figuring out how to get that artistic perfection everyday can make you go mad. She used to work long hours and her wrists would chafe from being at the keyboard like 10 hours a day and even had to get wrist guards!! You have to find that balance of being mad enough to have that artistic process but also be sane enough to stay in space.
What does it mean to be a woman for you, because the novel was kinda like ‘what does it mean to be a woman?’ And also, because that photo was your inspiration, would you do a cinematic script or a visual novel?
As for the first question, she doesn’t really feel ‘human’ so it’s hard to say. She feels a bit like an alien trying to make sense of time and space, which is basically what it feels like to be human. How to reconcile your fantasy self with reality. “We all have our fantasies of what life can be, but we feel like life beats us down. And then you’re left with only reality… Being a woman is up to you.”
As for a visual novel, Delayed Rays of a Star starts and ends with a photo. The second photo is more casual and was taken a couple seconds after the first, and it somewhat feels like making an exhibition. She liked that it made her pay attention to how to arrange space and time in a narrative. Amanda did say that she’s not sure if she would delve into other mediums, especially now that she needs to decompress and sleep a shit ton each day lol… But never say never as these narratives can cross pollinate each other.
What was the ethos behind Ministry of Moral Panic and Delayed Rays of a Star?
“It’s just being me. I wasn’t trying to elicit a certain response, I was just projecting what I see, coloured by how I see the world.” Ministry of Moral Panic was deeply personal but also political as the title invited readers to a bureaucratic space that could be deconstructed and widened into facets of life and heightened into a surreal sociopolitical world.
The Delayed Rays of a Star title was taken by something Susan Sontag once said, something about the time it takes for the sun to get to you. That when you take a photo you have captured the delayed rays of a human being. She thought it was poetic beauty and that’s all she wants to stick to the title. The stars are women, but the stars are also a decaying photo and the passage of time.
(If you look at the very end pages of the book, there is a full quote from Barthes in Camera Lucida along with the statement by Sontag, just an FYI…)
After the Q&A I waited for ages to meet her because she was so very sweet and spoke to EVERYONE that wanted to meet her and there was a LOT. Taking photos and signing things, she was so very nice.
ANYWAY. I finally got to meet her and found out that she and her partner refer to me as their purple daughter after a silly instagram comment I made a while back. Which made me feel silly but in a good way ehehehehe…
SOCIAL MEDIA CAN BE GOOD AND FUN!!!!!!