Jinat Rehana Begum on the accessibility of Southeast Asian lit, and her thoughts on First Fires
by Jennifer Kwan
This March 2017, we're exploring #intersections and focusing discussion around women writers within the region! Join us as we interview each of our three featured women writers – Noelle Q. de Jesus, Krishna Udayasankar, and Jinat Rehana Begum – and learn a bit more about how their identities and beliefs shape their writing.
The second author we're featuring is Jinat, author of First Fires. Read on to find out what she feels is important for women's rights, the story behind the pop culture references in her novel, and what she wrote about as a teenager!
Jennifer: This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #BeBoldForChange. If you had to advocate one issue related to women's rights, what would it be?
Jinat: Last year AWARE called for a repeal of a law which makes attempting suicide a criminal offence in Singapore. I only discovered this a few years back while I was doing a bit of research for First Fires and I wonder how many people know that they could be arrested, jailed and fined for attempting suicide. There's all this talk of building a more compassionate society and yet we have laws that punish and traumatize the most vulnerable for expressing their pain. Teen suicides were at their highest last year so there's an urgent need to take a good hard look at this law and support AWARE as much as possible in their push for a gentler way to deal with the distressed.
I also admire the initiatives AWARE has put forward to end violence against women. It amazes me that there are people, men and women, who think some degree of violence against women is okay. There's still this latent belief that victims of violence have somehow provoked their attacker and I just can't understand this. The work AWARE is doing to promote awareness of what constitutes violence is so important, but more needs to be done to socialize men and boys so they don't see violence as a means of communicating their frustrations and exerting their authority over women.
(You can find out more about AWARE's ongoing and past initiatives here!)
Jen: Do you think female authors from the Southeast Asia region have gotten enough recognition for their works? Who is an underrated female author that we should be reading?
J: I'm completely stumped by this…I don’t think I've read enough to be able to list authors—male or female—from Southeast Asia just off the top of my head. I suppose we don’t get enough of these in our bookshops but also there's a problem with getting hold of good English translations. I've always been curious about Malaysian and Indonesian fiction but there aren't enough English translations out there. It's particularly important, I think, to read more Malaysian authors, just because historically, culturally and even linguistically, we have so much in common. I'm reading Dina Zaman's collection of short stories, King of the Sea, at the moment. It's such a wonderful read because there's so much there that's strangely familiar.
Jen: Do you have any words of wisdom for those aspiring to be writers?
J: Read everything, keep an open mind, and keep at it.
Jen: The story of First Fires unfolds through the different perspectives of a mother, brother, sister and daughter. The characters and relationships which inhabit the novel are incredibly believable and relatable – did you draw from your personal experiences while you were writing this? If so, how did your personal experiences inform your writing?
J: Thanks, that's really encouraging! The references to places, to food, and to pop-culture—a lot of these are drawn from personal experiences. But the rest is imaginary.
The question of how much of First Fires is personal or autobiographical comes up a lot, partly I think due to the confessional nature of its first person accounts—the four characters in the novel, Sal, Ma, Sarah and Adam, they pour their hearts out for everyone to see—I had to live with these characters for a long time, so I'm naturally very fond of them, but I couldn’t contain all of them inside me! What I discovered very quickly about writing four different first person points of view is that you can't 'take sides' by favouring one character over the other. Slipping in personal feelings and experiences into one character, that's a kind of favouritism.
Jen: There are surprising references to mountaineer Junko Tabei and the American TV show 'The Love Boat' in First Fires. Could you tell us how these references found their way into your story?
J: 'The Love Boat' and Larry Lai's 'Radio Show,' which is also mentioned, were extremely popular TV shows in the late 70s and 80s. The characters in First Fires reference pop culture quite a bit because, I think, we often have a tendency to remember a period in our lives, based on what we watched on television or heard on the radio.
But I guess there's something larger at stake with the Junko Tabei reference. Adam, who mentions her in the same breath as Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher, remembers these powerful women as his mother's, Ma's, inspirations. Ma is the only woman in First Fires who is confined to the home and who doesn’t have a career, but she's also the only female character with a clear idea of how she would like to live her life differently.
Jen: You started writing poetry when you were a teenager – could you share with us how much your writing and/or the topics you've chosen to write about has changed from then till now?
J: I wrote the kinds of poems teenagers write—about growing up, friends, relationships. I like to think I've grown up just a little and that I've started to think of the wider world a bit more.
Jen: First Fires gave us insight into the lives of an Indian Muslim family living in Singapore as well as one perspective of a Muslim woman's coming of age. Can you recommend any other books with a Muslim protagonist like (or unlike) Sal, and what you liked about that book?
J: There are a surprising number of books available to us now, written in English, of a Muslim girl's coming of age—although, to be honest, I don't see First Fires that way. I'm currently reading a fascinating memoir by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh that I think everyone should read because the book charts a young woman's attempt to find her voice through her faith while she negotiates diverse cultures and political mindsets. (You can find out more about her book, Muslim Girl, here)
Jinat Rehana Begum has taught Literature and English in primary, secondary and tertiary institutions in Singapore. She began scribbling poetry on the back of used envelopes as a teenager and started to experiment with prose when she bought her first computer. First Fires is her first novel. Inspired by Neighbourhood, a single by British indie rock band Space, her next project is a collection of stories about the residents of a high-rise apartment in Singapore.