Local author Amanda Lee Koe’s debut novel Delayed Rays of A Star has garnered quite a buzz since being revealed that it was picked up by a major American publisher. Its been recognised by international media for being one of the most anticipated reads this summer and it has not disappointed. She has topped The Straits Times national bestseller list and is still number one on Kinokuniya’s bestseller list, which is seen as an amazing debut for a local fiction writer.
Now based in New York, Koe was the youngest winner of the Singapore Literature Prize for the short story collection Ministry of Moral Panic. Her debut, Delayed Rays Of A Star, is set in cities such as Berlin, Beijing, Los Angeles and Paris. It follows the occasionally interconnecting lives of three actresses, Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong and Leni Riefenstahl across the 20th century.
Harper’s BAZAAR Singapore has previously collaborated with Koe on a six-part short story series exploring key themes in Coco Chanel’s life. The series explored the fashion icon’s style, her loves, her friendships, her beauty and her obsession with the mystical. Catch up with all the exclusive short stories here.
Koe is back in Singapore to launch Delayed Rays of A Star on home ground, where she will be doing a book tour across various venues. She speaks with BAZAAR upon her return, as she tells us what we can expect from her anticipated upcoming book tour and more about her highly successful book.
Welcome back! What excites you when returning to Singapore?
Transient spontaneity excites me. Many little things about Singapore are precious to me. Just last week, I chanced upon a puppet show in Chinatown, and was admiring the intricacy of the stage tapestries, the craft of the Hokkien opera singers, when I was invited to stay and have a beer. An uncle explained that the puppet show was for the hungry ghosts out roaming during the Chinese seventh month. I sat there drinking with a bunch of uncles and aunties for a good few hours. I felt incredibly happy. This is the sort of metropolitan micro-miracle that gets to me.
You just finished a book tour of your debut novel in New York. How are your Singaporean readers different from the readers you have elsewhere?
With Singaporean readers, intimacy is easy. There’s an element of homecoming, even if I don’t necessarily know where or what home really is—I tend to locate home more in situations and people than in countries or nationalities.
How do you think Singaporeans will react to Delayed Rays Of A Star?
I truly had no expectations whatsoever, especially because this is a novel that has nothing to do with Singapore, Asia, or the postcolonial. And it isn’t a quippy, contemporary pageturner either—instead, it is a rather old-fashioned and non-linear tome that’s eludes categorization. So imagine my surprise when we miraculously managed to hit #1 on the Straits Times national bestseller list. It’s a list that’s typically populated by commercial genre fiction—your John Grisham thrillers, your Sophie Kinsella chicklit—and Singaporean readers actually managed to put a debut novel of literary fiction onto that list! We’ve also remained #1 on Kinokuniya’s bestseller list for the 5th week running, pipping stalwarts like Neil Gaiman and George Orwell. I’m bashful and thankful; I take none of these things for granted.
Shanghai Express is seen as an iconic cinematic experience, right down to the fashion. The film features prominently in your book. What about it captured your attention?
Shanghai Express is wry, baroque, proto-film noir. The fashion in the film is indeed impeccable, moody and romantic. Josef von Sternberg’s art direction, costumes and set design always add so much more to his films than meets the eye. They’re part of an entire heightened cinematic language and atmosphere. I’m a bit of a classic film buff and I had seen Shanghai Express a long time ago, when I was a Dietrich-obsessed teenager who went around in oversized vintage dresses. It was inevitable that Shanghai Express appeared in my novel since it stars two of my three protagonists, Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong. Their onscreen chemistry led to widespread industry rumours that they were having an offscreen affair, and they also apparently fell out after the film was released, because many reviewers sidestepped Marlene to gush about Anna May’s performance. As a minority actress in Hollywood, Anna May had been relegated once again to playing the side character in Shanghai Express—she had far fewer scenes and lines than Marlene, but was still evidently able to steal the scene.
Delayed Rays Of A Stars is about the intertwining life trajectories of three groundbreaking women — Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl. Till today, Dietrich and Wong are still a huge style inspiration for many. What is it about these three iconic women that drew you in?
For those who don’t know them, I’ll give a brief low down: Marlene Dietrich was a bisexual German-American actress and one of the highest-paid Hollywood stars in her day, Anna May Wong was the first Chinese American actress in Hollywood, and Leni Riefenstahl was a German “nature film” actress who would later go on to be the Nazi party’s favorite film director. Putting aside the differences in the decisions they made in their lives and careers, all three women were deeply ambitious and very talented. Ultimately, the decisions they made were shaped and curtailed by the times, systems and prejudices they were living and working within. I was drawn to a question that seemed to link all three of their destinies—what does one have to give up to realize one’s dreams?
How do you keep a balance between having an international flair with your work while still keeping true to your Singaporean roots?
I understand what you’re asking, but this isn’t a thought I should entertain, because I don’t wish for external factors from further afield to affect the parameters within which I decide to work. My responsibility, as an author, is to the novel I am writing, nothing more and nothing less. How that novel comes about to me is a mysterious thing that then becomes a rigorous process, and the balances that I do worry about keeping are narrative, aesthetic, or technical. I’m not willing or able to see myself as any one nationality or ethnicity or gender or sexuality or species when I write, I am just an amorphous storyteller whose personal biography is moot. Of course, all the things that make me me do anonymously and inherently seep into and inform the work, but I don’t seek to control how and when and where and why they do that.
You have a whole slew of upcoming events in Singapore. What can we expect from you, and what are you looking forward to?
I was chatting with a more experienced author in New York, and he said that he does the same thing at every event. That would be impossible for me, I operate based on mood, so it’s hard for me to tell you what one might expect at my events because, frankly, I can’t be sure either!
I’m looking forward to all the events I’ll be doing here, because they each have a distinctly different vibe. Tash Aw is a dear friend, so I’m sure we’ll have a great conversation at the Kinokuniya event, which is actually a double-feature: Tash will moderate the conversation with me for the launch of Delayed Rays of A Star, then we will flip around for a second event, where I will moderate the conversation with Tash for the launch of his latest book, We The Survivors. Aesop will be fabulous because all their products smell heavenly and they are ardent supporters of literature. The mixologists at Straits Clan are creating a special cocktail based on a drink that Marlene Dietrich orders for Anna May Wong in a party scene in my novel, I can’t wait to sample it. Booksactually is everyone’s beloved indie bookshop and it always makes me feel like I’m in a cocoon to be there in their cosy space. And my final event back in Singapore will actually be a film screening of Shanghai Express at the Projector—I’m really looking forward to seeing Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong on the big screen.
Save the date! Meet Amanda Lee Koe and hear what she has to say during her exclusive book tour in Singapore:
Saturday, 24th August, 2pm
In conversation with Tash Aw
AESOP ION ORCHARD
Sunday, 25th August, 2pm
In conversation with Anita Kapoor
Wednesday, 28th August, 7pm
In conversation with Huzir Sulaiman
Saturday, 31st August, 2pm
In conversation with Olivia Ho
Thursday, 5th September, 8pm
In conversation with Kirsten Tan
(Special film screening of Shanghai Express feat Wu Song Slays The Seductress. Tickets available from TheProjector.sg)