Noelle Q. de Jesus on underrated female Asian writers and the taboo of writing about sex
by Jennifer Kwan and Katrina Yeow
This March 2017, we're exploring #intersections and focusing discussion around women writers within the Asian region! Join us as we interview our three featured women writers – Noelle Q. de Jesus, Krishna Udayasankar, and Jinat Rehana Begum – to learn a bit more about how their identities and beliefs shape their writing.
First up, we managed to sit down with Noelle to get her thoughts about International Women's Day, learn how she put together her first short story collection, Blood Collected Stories, and why she thinks it's important to write about sex.
Jennifer: If you had to recommend a book based on this month’s theme, #intersections, what would it be and why?
Noelle: The two books I've read in the last couple of months coincidentally fit right into that theme. The first is Roxane Gay's debut novel An Untamed State which is about a Haitian American woman who returns to the land of her birth to visit her parents with her husband and her new baby, and she is abducted by kidnappers out to get a ransom for her from her wealthy political father. The other book is Vietnamese writer Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer which won the Pulitzer Prize for literature, about a communist double agent at the end of the Vietnam War. Both deal in intersections where the protagonist must grapple with two cultures, two countries and both characters are each points of intersection.
I am drawn to novels where characters are torn and moved by two countries they love, because that is something I know in my own life, although in my case, it's actually three countries.
J: Which Filipino author would you recommend to someone who has not had experience reading Filipino literature before?
N: When you study world history in high school, you learn that there are novels that emerge out of specific historical times that influence or give rise to movements. Charles Dickens' novel Hard Times and even Oliver Twist reflected the hardships of the Industrial Revolution. In the US, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was about slavery, and it sparked the flames of the American Civil War.
The Philippines has two novels like that too. National Hero Jose Rizal's Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. Rizal wrote these in Spanish, but there are English translations now, and I'd highly recommend those two. Reading Rizal would definitely give any non-Filipino reader a great background to Philippines' history.
J: How important is International Women's Day to you?
N: It's always good to recognise the problems and situations of women in our region and across the world, especially for women who don't have the rights which women in developed countries do. But even the women in the first world will say that they're not there yet. In a way it's like Valentine's Day: You're only going to give me flowers during Valentine's Day? On one hand it's a good reminder, good recognition, but on the other hand it also means we can forget about it on the other days. There are problems with it and there are good things about it, and you just have to take both.
I think that celebrating women and the strides that we've made is always important but at the same time we can also feel a false sense of reassurance because it's hardly perfect and so … Is it important? Yes. But it is important to look at the reasons why it's there. Why is there no International Men's Day? And I'm sure men will say that also, you know, the way some women treat men, et cetera.
As always, when you have a formal recognition and a day, it becomes a platform, and that's good. It's good to celebrate the advances but it shouldn't be an excuse to be complacent.
J: This year's theme for women's day is #beboldforchange. If you had to advocate for one issue related to women's rights, which issue is pressing or important to you?
N: Well, here's a good thing: a law was just passed in the Philippines for an extended maternity leave, 120 days. So that's something to celebrate, that is important to me as a mother. 120 days paid leave with an option to extend another 30 days without pay. That's great, and hopefully all the companies will step in line. I will always advocate for equal pay. There's no reason why men should be making more and women less, but it continues to be an issue.
J: Do you think female authors from Asia have gotten enough recognition for their works?
N: No, I don't.
J: Who do you think is an underrated female author that we should know more about and we should read?
N: You know, that's a good question because I am guilty of not knowing Southeast Asian writers too. As a writer you try to read everything that you can and personally I know many writers who are excellent, but just don’t get the eyeballs. I can't name just one, and that's precisely the reason why it's a problem. The other problem, I think, is we are all blighted with colonial mentality. We read Western writers—British, American, European. We're drawn to them because that's what we were raised on, I think.
The problem with this question is that it's not even knowing that they're underrated, it's just knowing them! So I can't say. Do the women writers in Malaysia know the women writers in the Philippines, or the women writers in Singapore? Well, I live in Singapore so I know. I know Krishna, I know Jinat, I've met them—but I can't really say that I've read them.
There's a beautiful novel that is now getting good attention—attention it deserves—by F. H. Batacan, and she wrote a crime novel of literary quality called Smaller and Smaller Circles. It's about a serial killer in the slums of Manila, and it exposes the underbelly of politics and corruption. I think it's a great book and it was first published in the Philippines in this small book … not quite 120 pages. And then Jacaranda Agency sold it to a New York crime press called Soho Press, and so they published it and persuaded her to extend the novel, and now it's—what, almost 500 pages, I think. It made it to the Independent's best books of Southeast Asia. This year.
These lists help, but I don't know how many women will actually go out and find the book based on the list. Because I don't know if women are reading, I don't know if men are reading and I think that's another problem. You know, writers are reading each other, but people tell me they don't read anymore, they don't read fiction anymore. How are writers going to continue writing if nobody reads them? There's a gap.
J: Is there anyone who you look up to, or who inspires you?
My parents are a source of inspiration, always. And not because they are fiction writers. They are actual writers. My mother was a journalist but now she runs a non-government organisation that covers the way the Philippine media covers the news. My father worked in education and government, and now, he writes political commentary. They have spent their lives trying to make the Philippines better in terms of the way it is as a democracy. My mother was part of the alternative press that criticized the Marcos government when hardly any criticism was tolerated. Both are their 70s, and they're still doing it, doing their part for the country. They're still fighting for what's right ... pointing out corruption or injustice.
They are my inspiration and their lives and their work come into play in my work as sources for ideas. I can't do what they do, but I can tell stories about what they do.
J: Do you have any words of wisdom for those aspiring to be writers?
N: Keep reading. I mean I don't know that that's really wisdom as much as common sense. Keep reading and keep writing. And you can't write if you don't read. I mean, you can write, but if you haven't read, your writing will probably be crap.
Many people believe--and I am guilty of this as well—that they are writers. But think about this, if you're not writing, you're really not a writer. You need to put in time ideally daily, at least weekly, even if you're not writing you're thinking of ideas or you're jotting notes or you're doing something or you're writing in your journal, or you're writing in a blog. It doesn't matter.
Ask yourself whether you want to write or is it just the writing life you want, or the idea of being a writer. And recognise too that the writing life that you want is not real. Everybody who is interviewed in a magazine or for a blog or for a radio show ... it makes you picture a kind of false "writing life" where you get awards and do interviews, but that's not real. That's not the real writing life. People make it look like that and I'm making it look like that now—but it's not my life. I am a mom, a wife, a freelance copywriter and editor. I managed to be fortunate enough to publish a book of my short stories, I am fighting time to write another one and a novel, and I tell you, it's a daily fight.
The daily question that I ask: Am I a writer or not? And many days I'm not. A lot more days than I care to admit, I'm not a writer. So my question: are you really sure that you want to be a writer? Because sometimes you just want to be a reader. Hey sometimes, you just want to watch TV, right? I know I do. It's the easiest thing … and you look, no one is reading anyway? Right?
It's a sad reality, but at the same time if there's a story inside you and there are stories inside of me, you have to get them out somehow. And that's why I write, because I had to get these stories out somehow and I'm now collecting more my heart and brain, more stories, that I know even if I don't get them out this week, these next two weeks because I’m working here, I will get them out somehow. It may be slow, but that's the hope, that is the reason for writing another day.
J: This really ties into Blood Collected Stories, because it is a collection of stories you had written from 1989 to 2015.
N: Yeah, I'm actually embarrassed about that. That duration.
N: In a way, I can't believe the book has pieces I wrote in college, at the beginning of my writing career. Yes, there is work that was written after that and all the way up to 2015 right before I had to submit it, I was still adding. 25.
The last thing I wrote for the book was the story 'In the End'. It's about a boy whose grandfather dies and then his girlfriend comes during the wake, and he finds out that his grandfather was a womanizer and his father was a womanizer. Basically he realises that his father and he have something in common. That was the last and latest one. And everything is scattered throughout a horrifying amount of time from 1989 to 2015. It's embarrassing! 'Klein' was written in 1991, 'Blood' was written in 1989. 'The Day Before The Day Before Yesterday' was written in 1988.
J: Do you see all the stories in Blood Collected Stories as having a common theme or are they standalone narratives?
Many of the stories share a coming of age factor … either because it is a young person coming to an epiphany, or generally they are young protagonists. There are characters who find themselves in a particular situation where they have a fixed belief and that belief is turned upside down.
A lot of people I knew were publishing books and I would feel envy and self-loathing. I'd chastise myself and say, why don't I have a book yet? I was embarrassed that every time I published something, I would submit a bio that said, "Noelle Q de Jesus is working on a collection of short stories" and it was like more than a decade.
Then I looked through all the things I'd written and published, and I found it—I had a book, in terms of the volume. What I did then was that I took out some things that I felt were mature in topic and I put in the earlier stories: stories with young protagonists and sort of put together the collection, but I did know that it was going to be 'Blood' as the title story, and that was sort of the theme. Because blood comes into country, it comes into culture and race, it comes into family, and it's a lot of family and domestic kinds of situations.
J: There are so many characters in Blood, do you have a particular character that you like?
N: They're sad aren't they? (Laughs) Yeah, they're sad. My favourite character is Therese, in the opening story 'A Small Consolation', because what she does takes courage. She just realises something and it's sad, but she does it. She walks out of her marriage. And I know if I were ever in that situation I wouldn't be able to do it that easily, but I admire her for it. And of course, I will always have a soft spot for that little girl in 'Blood' who is trying to fix her family.
J: Another theme that we found in your book is sex, which is still a taboo topic in Asia…
N: I love it. I mean, it always comes into play. In the beginning I sought it, writing about sex, but now ... it just happens. I have sex on the brain. It's because sex conveys a lot about people and about their situation. I think so anyway. Yes, people can say, it's just sex, it doesn't mean anything, I disagree. It can mean little, but it always means something. It always has implications.
J: Your characters express their sexuality boldly in your writing. Was there anything that inspired you to write about these characters and their relationships?
N: Yes. Because nobody talks about sex. They're talking about it more now than when I was a kid, but they still don't talk about it, and I feel like sex says a lot, a lot about people's lives. If you look at a marriage and they're not having sex, that’s a lie. And if they're having sex, it says okay there's still something there.
Basically, it's what you lie about, what you talk about, what you don't talk about. And those three always usually have to do with sex: what you lie about, what you tell the truth about, what you never talk about. And that for Asians especially, where even sex education stops with the egg and the sperm, and nobody goes into the mechanics of it or into the philosophy of it.
I actually think Singapore is better because you don't have the Catholic issue. I mean, there are Catholics and Christians here, but you don't have it like the Philippines has it. It's so deeply ingrained, that guilt. It is crazy, you have this double standard and you have perceptions. Every woman is either a virgin or a slut. Every guy has a Madonna Whore complex. There's that kind of façade for like an entire country, and then you have the squeamishness of the topic.
So, these are the stories I'm most interested in: the stories about sex that weren't told to me by older women. It satisfies the gossip in me.
Besides, sex says a lot about people. The way your parents had sex will influence the way you and your spouse have sex. I think it's primal and undiscussed, and it's interesting. That's why the show Sex And The City was such a hit, but there is a saturation point, no one wants to watch Masters of Sex ... except me. In general in Asia, I think people don't talk about it enough, they don't explain it, they don't try to relate it with what's going on in their lives and I think it has a lot to do with what's going on.
J: Is there a question, about your writing or your book, that you wish someone would ask you? If yes, do share with us both the question and your answer!
N: The usual question is whether my fiction is autobiographical or whether this or that character is me or whether this or that event really happened. The answer is yes and no. There are pieces of my real life embedded in all my fiction, some big, some small, but the stories, what happens — that's all invented. Or rather, that all comes from the new characters that come alive on the page. They tell me their story, and it's often far different from anything in my life or in what has happened to people I know.
Noelle Q. de Jesus was born in the US, grew up in Manila, and spent most of her adult life as a writer, wife and mother in Singapore. Her first book of short fiction, Blood Collected Stories, was published by Ethos Books Singapore in 2015 and it won the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book Award for the Short Story. At the moment, she is working simultaneously on a second collection of short fiction and her first novel.