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Trailblazers What Matters To Me: Award-Winning Author Amanda Lee Koe

What Matters To Me: Award-Winning Author Amanda Lee Koe

Amanda Lee Koe
Amanda Lee Koe
By Chong Seow Wei
By Chong Seow Wei
June 10, 2020
The Singapore Literature Prize recipient on the difference between her personal and public persona

In the What Matters To Me series, a Generation T honouree describes what they do, why they do it, and why it matters

A chance encounter with a monograph gave Amanda Lee Koe the idea for her debut novel, Delayed Rays of a Star. Something about the three women in photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt's 1928 picture resonated with Lee Koe, inspiring her to turn the women into the leads of her story.

The women photographed were German-American actress Marlene Dietrich, her idol as a teenager; Hollywood’s first Chinese-American movie star Anna May Wong; and German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who was known for her Nazi propaganda films. “I was struck by the curious and banal fact that this was a photo taken before any of them became famous for the things they would soon go on to do,” says the Gen.T honouree.

Lee Koe reconstructed their lives in her fictional masterpiece, which took four years to write. “When I’m working on a novel, I am prepared to have no human contact, eat the quickest and plainest meals, and sit down to write every day for 10 hours.” Since its release in 2019, the novel has garnered rave reviews from critics, including being named one of NPR's Favorite Books of 2019.

The New York‑based author, who won the Singapore Literature Prize in 2014 for her first short story collection, Ministry of Moral Panic, describes her early days as a writer and what her works reveal about herself.

I’m quite messy and mercurial as a person. But as a novelist, I’m much more coherent and controlled, there’s a method to the madness

Amanda Lee Koe

When I was nine, I started a hand-illustrated erotica magazine with my best friend. It even had a lingerie catalogue with a discount coupon at the back! We were in an all-girls school and I feel that we enjoyed more freedom to express ourselves. When we interacted among ourselves, we were less subjected to a gendered gaze and the accompanying tendency to shame.

Getting into the right headspace [to write] is quite unromantic and utilitarian. It is like clean eating and strength training, but for the brain. I don’t know how irrelevant information will distract or redirect my synapses, so I have to be careful about what I consume, even if it seems draconian or ridiculous. That’s for the more important part, the internal setting.

As for the external environment, it’s always nice to have a table close to a window with medium roast black coffee in a French press and classical music playing in the background. Perfectly clean and polite finger work doesn’t do it for me, I want to be shaken to the core by an expressive matador. I adore Glenn Gould’s take on Bach and Vladimir Horowitz’s on Lizst.

Lee Koe in New York, where she is currently based
Lee Koe in New York, where she is currently based

I’m quite messy and mercurial as a person. But as a novelist, I’m much more coherent and controlled. There’s a method to the madness. It’s not a choice I get to make. It’s what needs to happen, because of the technical, mental and emotional demands of what it takes to write a novel. Short stories are less draining, so I think that in my short stories, I’m in between these two modalities. When I’m a 70-year-old granny, I hope to turn to poetry, and produce messy and mercurial poems.

This will be an unpopular opinion, but my view about writer's block is that if you are being super honest with yourself, it is mostly a question of discipline and motivation. Are you willing to give up everything to be a writer? If the answer is no, or you’d love to but you’re not sure, then of course it’s convenient to refer to technical setbacks or mood lapses as writer’s block, so that you don’t have to actively deal with it.

I was prepared to be a writer or die trying, so I don’t think of writing as a fleeting opportunity that only comes when some muse happens to knock on my window. When I’m working on a novel, there’s nothing sexy about it. It’s not an escape and it’s not an accident. It’s a craft and it’s a life’s work.

That’s certainly not to say I’ve not encountered road bumps in my process. The road is long and winding and full of potholes. I’ve ugly-cried over story problems and perfectly good pages I had to throw out because it was weighing down the narrative, but I don’t think that’s really writer’s block. Not calling it writer’s block forces you to take responsibility over your own process.

All works of art offer readers or viewers a glimpse into the inner workings of their creators

Amanda Lee Koe

All works of art offer readers or viewers a glimpse into the inner workings of their creators. Slivers of myself inevitably exist in my stories; it just might not be where or what the reader imagines me to be. Also, a reader’s assumptions often reveal more about themselves than they do about me.

Lee Koe's latest book, Delayed Rays of a Star
Lee Koe's latest book, Delayed Rays of a Star

Women’s issues are not just women’s issues, but a wider human issue about equality. When we talk about feminism, we can’t just talk about feel-good, aspirational feminism. Those of us who are more privileged must also be willing to consider, with respect and empathy, how we can be allies to women less privileged than ourselves, across divisions like class and race.


See more honourees from The Arts category of the Gen.T List.

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Trailblazers What Matters To Me generation t award-winning author books gen.t list 2016 amanda lee koe

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