I have recently returned from a three-week tour of Australia to promote my first book. I was at the Perth Writer’s Festival talking with Man Booker prize finalist Madeleine Thien about China’s Cultural Revolution; Adelaide’s Writer’s Week, on the roster with idols like Jane Smiley, whose novel A Thousand Acres is a fantastic feminist re-telling of King Lear. I also appeared at the historic Sydney Opera House in a festival to celebrate International Women’s Day, along with people such as Oscar-winning actress Geena Davis. How cool is that?
I just started in the book-writing business after over a decade working as a reporter. My first book, on China’s one-child policy, that Orwellian piece of social policy that has governed the world’s most populous nation for over three decades, came after years spent reporting on China for the Wall Street Journal, one of the world’s biggest newspapers.
In short, I’m doing what I always wanted to do, which is to have a life in letters, and while I’m not JK Rowling, I make a decent income (so far!) and have a lot of fun and satisfaction doing this. Nothing beats the rigthness that comes from doing what you have trained hard to do, have a talent for, and can make a living with.
This didn’t happen by design. I trained for this, in a sense, from a childhood steeped in reading. Malaysia wasn’t rich in public libraries, and I remember buying secondhand books –musty romance novels mostly—for a dollar a book—coming home triumphantly with an armload. I read incessantly, starting from Enid Blyton to Laura Ingalls Wilder and Anne of Green Gables to Narnia and Tolkien and Frank Herbert. Mixed in with that was vast quantities of trash--Flowers in the Attic, Mills & Boon and so forth. All was grist to the mill.
From reading came writing, as I essayed to produce works in admiration of what I liked. Most of this was trash, and I knew it, but I also knew I could produce better writing, with practice. At 16, I won a prize in the Commonwealth Essay Competition [ed. now The Queen's Commonwealth Essay Competition], which unexpectedly resulted in an invitation to meet HM Queen Elizabeth at a reception. (She was in Malaysia for a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.)
My parents—whom I was allowed to bring along—were thrilled. How we fussed! I had a new dress made, a pink shiny horror with puffy sleeves, and even splurged $20 on a student perm. (In my defense, it was the 1980s. We didn’t know any better.)
I remember very little of meeting Her Majesty—she wore yellow, she spoke to me, I bobbed a curtsey and oh my my horrible, horrible poodle hair!—but in the blur one thing remained. It was the beginnings of a conviction that perhaps I could, with my pen, open the door to the world.
And it did.
To all aspiring young writers...
Perhaps you’re wondering if it’s even worth trying. Perhaps you didn’t get such great marks in composition, and your teacher or your classmates would laugh if they knew of your aspirations. Perhaps you’re afraid.
I can’t guarantee you’ll win a prize. But if you don’t put pen to paper and try, you’ll never know, will you? You have to try. It’s the first starting block. It puts you in the room. It gets you in the running. The greatest line in Great Gatsby is about boats beating on against the current, and it’s not because we all love boats or navigation or sailing on the ocean, it’s because we celebrate the human condition of striving against the odds, of laboring for that one shining moment even when it seems futile or unlikely. The rest is just craven inertia.
So, write. Think. Try. Beat on against the current.
The Queen's Commonwealth Essay Competition 2017 closes on Monday 1 May.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Commonwealth Society.