One Small Voice: Josephine Chia

Published on 21 July 2015

Writing competitions are a two-edged sword, says Singapore Literature Prize winner Josephine Chia.

When I was writing Kampong Spirit Gotong Royong: Life in Potong Pasir 1955 to 1965, I wasn’t thinking about winning any prize. I’m from the last generation of Singaporeans who would have lived and known about the kampongs, so I felt it was my social responsibility to record it. I think the book won the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize (SLP) for Non-Fiction because that was a very crucial period in Singapore’s history and we’re celebrating SG50 this year.

Until then, the SLP didn’t have a category for Non-Fiction. It was also the first year I was eligible for consideration. I’m a British citizen, so I was never eligible for any Singapore literary award. But two years ago, I decided to return to Singapore and be a Permanent Resident. Timing-wise, I was really lucky!

Having said that, I always tell my students and mentees it’s important to get your work out there. For that reason, I see the merit of writing competitions. When I was about eight or nine, I overheard my English teacher telling another teacher about my composition. She said, “You know this child? There is a writer in her.” Gosh, that was my dream and someone was actually affirming it! To me, winning a writing competition is that: an affirmation you’re on the right track.

By the time I was first published, I was in my 20s, a dental nurse and a closet writer. One of my short stories was selected for publication in Singa, a Singapore literary journal. Although I still didn’t feel like I could make it as a writer, it served as a huge confidence-booster for me to see my words and name in print.

When I was living in England, I took part in writing competitions too. An interesting one, in 1992, was launched by the Irish novelist Ian St James. From thousands of entries, I ended up being one of 12 winners. This prize really opened doors for me. For a long time, I always felt very small as a writer in England. Suddenly, I didn’t feel like an outsider. I’m a British writer. I’m a writer.

Through it all, I’ve never felt the pressure of being judged because it’s not an ego trip. I absolutely love writing and setting new challenges for myself: can I write to that theme? For short stories — where you know the theme, length and target audience — it’s possible to write for a prize. But not for a novel, I don’t think.

A novel has a life of its own and deals with many layers of issues. For example, To Kill a Mockingbird is a simple story but it has universal resonance because it says something about the society at that time. It takes courage to have a social conscience and to write with depth. Maybe that’s why Singapore has not had a Booker Prize novel yet?

I think with awards, you must be careful. If it encourages you to write, that’s good. But if it’s your be-all-and-end-all, you will end up writing to please people instead of staying true to what you want to say. Fame is transient. So I always tell my students: be true to yourself, be authentic in your writing.

It’s a very fine line, having a firm belief in what you want to say and being humble and open to feedback. I see it as character-building. The question is, where is that line for you?

Josephine Chia is a Peranakan author whose book, Kampong Spirit Gotong Royong: Life in Potong Pasir 1955 to 1965, won the Singapore Literature Prize for Non-Fiction in 2014. That same year, she was awarded the inaugural National Arts Council (NAC)-Gardens by the Bay Writers’ Residency. Chia is also a mentor for the Ministry of Education’s Creative Arts Programme and the NAC’s Mentor Access Programme. She writes fiction and non-fiction, and is internationally published. Her short stories have been published in anthologies in the United Kingdom, United States, Malaysia and Singapore. Her latest novel is scheduled for a book launch at the Singapore Writers Festival 2015. 

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