frugality

EXCLUSIVE: 5 TOP TIPS on How to Write Asian or Non-White Characters and Smash the Stereotypes!

Without risk of cultural appropriation or misrepresentation or just being plain offensive.

Diversity is a buzzword we all may at some point encounter. I have written from white, mixed and Asian people’s viewpoints and can say I am fairly comfortable now. My published stories or novels have a mixture of different cultures and it is something that I grew up and am familiar with because I was born and raised trilingual in an urban environment in Johor Bahru, the industrial southern city of Malaysia. To me it is more normal and natural that everybody is unique and different than everybody looking and acting the same, eating the same food, going to the same places, speaking the same language. Writers, if you have not had the privilege of a diverse upbringing, I will give you the secret now on how to absolutely crack the code of writing your diverse characters.

1. Switch off your spell check.

This is very important. Do not proceed until you have done this. Do yourself a big favor and free yourself of all Judeo-Christian terminology, grammar, language, spelling. You will enter foreign now. Food, words, culture, syntax and they will not be underlined in red wavy lines and they will not be removed or changed by auto correct. Train yourself to always listen to real conversations, on the bus, in restaurants, on the streets, and write them down phonetically. I had listened to probably hundreds of Aunties (who are just women older than you by at least 16 years and not really aunts) which made writing the character of Auntie in my novel Heart of Glass a breeze.

‘Siu-cheh, if you wan’ lunch, I fix now.’
I stared at her. Threw my hands in the air. She knew everything.
‘What you wan’ eat?’
‘Anything.’

2. ALL culture is appropriation

We all learned it, right? Our families and our communities gave us our culture and traditions. Now find out what culture means to YOU as a writer and you do this by working with BIG themes. Jot down the themes in each culture that you know. The themes in Asian families, for example, are the 4 Fs: family, food, frugality, freedom. When you realize that many cultures including white cultures (eg Jewish, Italian, Arabic, African etc) have these very same themes, you will realize what we know and are close to is infinitely what is called the human condition, why we are here. It’s the cliched phrase which comforts writers that we are not as different as you think and that we should find the similarities in each other not the differences. Books bring people of the world together. Our job as writers is to bring the ideas which bring books together.

3. Embrace, don’t avoid stereotypes

It is the only way to challenge and smash them. For example, in Heart, I’m writing from the viewpoint of an American girl of Chinese origin, Li-an. At some point she was bound to eat Chicago hot dog, especially when Paolo suggests it to her.

‘Gimme a dog wid everythin’,’ he said. ‘Make dat two.’

At some point also, Li-an was bound to eat Chinese food. She was in Asia and she’s Asian, right? So why would that be a stereotype?

I hung up and put my feet back up again. I had jasmine rice, peppers
and fried monkfish with a coriander sauce for lunch. I played
guitar all afternoon. I wrote down melody lines and chord changes.
I wanted to be happy here, but I struggled to imagine just playing
the piano and living in a gilt cage called the pavilion.

Your reader is not interested in something ordinary or bland but the context of the detail, even if it’s a poor man’s meal like burger and chips or rice with soy sauce, it has to glitter. I especially like Crazy Poor and not Crazy Rich characters because the poor have so many more things to crave and die for. What keeps them craving for something? Your reader is interested in the finer detail of what it it means to be white, mixed, Asian or whatever, and what it means to be alive. All details will add to authenticity of the character and the voice. You can show they are poor or rich or mean or kind by the detail in the stereotype that you are challenging.

4. Practice writing a few characters

Some may work, some may not, and some may come to you easier than others. In Heart I had three main characters, Ben Mizrai, a Jewish DJ from NY, Paolo, an Italian businessman from Chicago (Chi-town, Windy City etc) and Li-an, the main character who is half Irish and half Singaporean Chinese. All have their own quirks and language. I made sure that I practiced a few times to make sure that everything that they said or did or ate was in character and not just because they were Jewish, Italian or Chinese. For your practicing, you could try a young Japanese soldier or an elderly Chinese lady. Or a pretty Chinese girl student looking for fun. These are all characters which you may find easy or hard to get into, depending on how it comes out in when you figure out what they say or do. Try on a few hats. It is just like being in a costume shop in front of a mirror.

5. Ready, SET, go

Use settings and movement between settings to inspire and arouse your imagination for the depth of your characters. For example, try a huge modern Japanese city, a tiny rural village in China, or in my case, Chicago’s Chinatown and Macau’s seedy casinos and Docklands area. Already you have a sense of the characters needs, conflicts and culture. This is because of the hybrid element in the cultures of diverse characters. As Li-an says, she is living in her fifth culture. Her first and second are Irish and Chinese as she is of mixed parentage, she has never been either countries of her parentage. She was born in Singapore – that would be her third culture, moved to Chicago – that would be her fourth, moved to Macau – that would be her fifth.

We as writers are all these places and all these things, we just turn them into stories. What all humans crave are stories, stories to inspire, to move, to teach, to entertain. If your stories work, you would also know that it would not matter what ethnicity the characters are. Bring them to life. Writing diverse Asian characters is just another way of writing an aspect of yourself, whoever you are.

Are you writing Asian characters and did you find it pretty easy or tough? As usual I would love to hear from you. All feedback and questions are welcome.

Ivy Ngeow was born and raised in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. She is of Malaysian Chinese origin and the author of two novels. Cry of the Flying Rhino (Proverse Hong Kong), winner of 2016 International Proverse Prize, is her debut set in Malaysia and Borneo. Her second novel Heart of Glass (Unbound UK) was set in Chicago and Macau. She is fond of margaritas, seafood tacos, Americana and all things vintage. She lives in London and is in her ‘third culture’.

#heartofglass #cryoftheflyingrhino Tweet me: @ivyngeow

 

 

 

 

Why do I Write or Feel I Must Write?

Because it is very stupid. I could be doing a million other things, enjoyable things, non enjoyable things, things which could even make money.

As I am approaching 41K WC of my FD WIP*, I begin question my own sanity again. I do not know what it is that makes me write. I really hate it. Like Dorothy Parker says, I hate writing but I like having written. I did not choose writing. Writing chose me. (why, or why didn’t banking or dentistry choose me???) When I first started doing it at age 8, I thought that this is what everybody did in their spare time and later on, as a youth and as an adult, I did it secretly, like it is drug, or self-harm. I knew it was bad but I carried on.

Why I am trudging along, still another half to go of this new novel:

Because

a) I need more practice

b) I want to meet a community of writers, fellow-sufferers, cheerleaders, like-minded mentally ill people, deluded with same goal but different delusion people. I want to ‘join the club’,

c) I wrote two books and several short stories. My first novel and one of my short stories have won international awards. Other short stories were published. Now only I can see people value what I’m doing (“I think she can write”) therefore it is worth continuing. Readers I do not know in person tell me they like it or they hate it. But I have readers! 

d) I need to improve my confidence because each day I wake up I have to start again vis a vis Groundhog Day effect. Ultimately goal is: to write everyday (making it a habit). Doesn’t matter good or bad.

e) it appeals to my vintage and frugal lifestyle. I am not a photographer or painter or classic car collector. You don’t need anything but a brain and a computer to write, so its saves space and expenses.

Yesterday (what wedding? You mean there was a wedding yesterday?) I wrote 821 words of my WIP. Woof! So here you have it. The reasons.

 

 

Carefully compiled footnote:

K= thousand                     WC = Word count                        FD = First draft                                 WIP = Work in Progress

 

READ Cry of the Flying Rhino FOR FREE: Now at Southfields Library, South London

Calling SOUTHFIELDS or WANDSWORTH residents/library members/mums/friends/neighbours! What are you waiting for?!!! READ MY BOOK FOR FREE!!! Support local libraries and read for free. If you don’t, they will shut down. We don’t know how lucky we are. When I was growing up I had to read really torn, vandalised or simply extremely old and falling apart books in the Sultan Ismail Public Library in my home town of Johor Bahru. I frequently did not know the ending, the beginning or the middle because of the damage done to them. I moment I could read, I read, and I could not stop. I treasured each book more than anything in the world.
I am next to Helen Dunmore. That is all. My book is in #southfields #library. This is a little local library I have been going to for about 20 years or something like that. #wandsworth #wandsworthlibraries #southlondon #macabre #dark and #literary #crime #fiction #bookstagram. #tattoos#borneo #tribal #story #diy #author #writer #novel #plottwist #cryoftheflyingrhino #ivyngeow #writersofinstagram #onlocation #helendunmore @ Southfields Librarysouthfieldlibrary2Southfieldlibrary1

My first Prize-winning Story was Typed on this Typewriter

royal240_ephant1

The first story which I wrote and submitted was for the 1984 New Straits Times Short Story Competition. It was called Miel and the Honey Bunch or something pretentious-sounding like that. The exact story and wording are all gone now. Success came to me early as a writer, to my detriment, as I since then I always thought I would be a professional and successful writer without much effort. I developed a complacency towards the creative act of writing.

I was then 14 years old and the youngest entrant. There was no such thing as YA genre at the time. You were either an adult or a child. I didn’t get a mention and didn’t win anything.  I competed as an adult but any competition was as tough then as it is now. Out of hundreds and maybe thousands of entries, there can only be one winner and the rest runners up or in the commended list. I was fine. I remember thinking that I just wanted to send it out, no matter what.

In 1986 I entered the same competition again. I was now 16. As per two years before, I wrote the story by hand and dictated it to my mother who typed the story up in triplicate on this typewriter pictured, the Royal 240. My dad bought it in the Johor Bahru NAAFI in 1970*. It was attractively wood-panelled. It had red and black ribbons. I remember that distinctive strong fresh chemical smell of the typewriter ink. It had two discoloured or stained keys, I am not sure why. Graphic designers? Anybody? When I saw this photo (which is the same model but it is not the actual typewriter that was used) I noticed that it also had two discoloured keys! Imagine my excitement at the discovery. I could not type and neither could she. She used two fingers and typed out 1,500 to 2,000 words. I sat next to her and read out a paragraph first, where we would edit manually, orally or aurally, then a second reading word by word for it to be typed. It took some time but in those days you have time! Everybody had time! We used and re-used the carbon paper for the triplicate copies until it was transparent, until you could put it against a window and see the view beyond the window, until an abstract pattern was made by layers and lines of juxtaposed and superimposed text which no longer made sense, which no longer could be read legibly.

She was strangely a perfectionist and I did not know it then, I just thought ‘Damn! Mummy’s fussy!’. We quarreled, I sulked, we came back to the typing, we snapped, we sent it off. Now I feel grateful now that my mother was so supportive and meticulous about it too. When the words looked messy or clumsy on the page, she would rip the paper out and crush it into a ball like those cartoon caricatures of writers. And then we would start again. As she typed I remember her correcting my grammar and turns of phrases. ‘Is’ or ‘was’, ‘would be’ or ‘would have been’, she would ask, sometimes to herself, sometimes to me, and we would discuss. The final decision was sometimes hers, sometimes mine and sometimes joint. Letter by letter, word by word, sentence by sentence, my story was typed out.

This time I won a prize of a weekend writing workshop at the New Straits Times headquarters: 31 Jalan Riong, 51000 Kuala Lumpur. I got to meet the amazingly kind and funny writer Robert Raymer, a poet called Jeya and a film critic called Kee Thuan Chye. You must remember that I was born and raised in Johor Bahru where nothing happens and most definitely, nothing exciting. It is like saying you are from Hull. The address and postcode of The New Straits Times office is etched in my memory forever. I referred to the letter until I memorised it. It went everywhere I went. It was more valuable than money or keys. I just had to have it with me. I held it in my hand, my school bag, my drawer until it tore at the creases where it once folded. I do not have it anymore. Sometimes I wish I still have it but maybe it was the right thing after all that it has perished over time. The letter had served its purpose which was to endorse me as a writer when I was still young.

Please pre-order my novel Heart of Glass here.

*The Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI /ˈnæfiː/) is an organisation created by the British government in 1921 to run recreational establishments needed by the British Armed Forces, and to sell goods to servicemen and their families.

Photo credit: The Royal 240 by Steve K of the White Elephant

 

Heart of Glass 24% funded! Week One crowdfunding with Unbound

 

crowds of children

Where to start? What nails? I have no more nails to bite. Come to think of it, no cuticles either. Where am I going to get my daily intake of protein from? I’m going to be eating a low carb humble pie from now to eternity. I can stomach this. There is no room for dignity.

It has been a crazy week. I have never done this before. I am learning myself each day. I learn from others. I am learning the ropes. I am learning to give what people want and need, which is this niche I seem to have created, a grave I have dug, back rod I have carved, for myself. The niche of international fiction, postcolonial writing, crime noir, etc. Exactly! What is the et cetera bit?

I have taught myself patience and humility. This is the opposite of vanity publishing. If anybody thinks this, it’s the total opposite. Don’t even go there! Being vain has sold nothing. Ask any cosmetic-peddling salesgirl in a brightly-lit luxury departmental store. Never in my life after three degrees would I think I would have a sales job. Yet now, I have a sales job. I could be selling makeup but I am not selling makeup. I am selling something that does not even exist yet. I am selling the idea of potential, of investment in writing, of myself, selling a dream.

This is me reading from near the beginning, but not the beginning, in my Unbound shed vlog.

 

Frugality, Imagination and the Vintage life: Roald Dahl’s village, Museum and Story Centre, Great Missenden

Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre is set in the tiny village of Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire where he lived for 36 years. He was also buried in the village. I took a train from Marylebone with the family on a bright October day in 2015. We enjoyed a surreal vision of a horse on the ceiling:

It was so poetic and befitting an intro to our outing, since we were going to the village of one of the most treasured children’s authors of all time.

The village of Great Missenden

After 45 minutes we arrived and walked through the pleasant and pretty village surrounded by hills.

railway sign

signs

sign2

We saw some interesting old buildings and antique shops. Some of these old shops were actually in his stories, such as the Red Pump Garage on Great Missenden High Street, which appeared in Danny, The Champion of the World (1975), the Post Office Great Missenden… and… Sukhothai Thai fine dining restaurant? Just kidding.

The Museum

was very inspiring for readers and writers.

There was so much information on how to generate plots and create characters.

More importantly, I actually visualised Roald Dahl in his shed working away.

Although he was a successful bestseller author and probably minted, he was so frugal and humble. His shed has no decoration or anything pretty to look at. He wanted no distractions. He made all these makeshift fittings himself out of scraps and what he had. His old armchair was threadbare, he made a suitcase filled with logs for his footrest, he rolled up corrugated cardboard for his wrist rest. Nothing was designery, trendy, handmade or even shop bought. When you see his carefully and meticulously reconstructed shed, you will realise that nothing matters but the writing itself.

The most luxurious place is in the mind, I think Mark Twain once said.