Impractical Uses of Cake
We all know that old axiom about how everyone says they’ve always wanted “to be a writer”. The only difference between people who spout that tired line and actual writers is that writers write. Which is what Jo-Ann Yeoh did. Her manuscript, Impractical Uses of Cake, won the Epigram Books Fiction Prize (2018) – and it was the competition’s submission deadline that was the catalyst she needed to propel her childhood dream to take ﬂight.
“It was one of those things I never quite made time for. I’d always dreamt of being a novelist as a child, but what I didn’t know was how life gets in the way. And the thing is, we actually have a very ﬁnite amount of time,” the 37-year-old client operations director says.
The manuscript tells the tale of Sukhin, a lonely 35-year-old teacher who reads, works and visits his parents’ house, and has only one friend. But one day in Chinatown (you’ll love her description of the place), Sukhin meets someone from his past who’s living a life so drastically different from his, it turns his own life upside down and forces him to question his choices as they bond over cake. “It’s a book about all the things we don’t ask ourselves. It questions all these expectations we have for ourselves because of societal norms,” Jo-Ann says.
But starting the writing process wasn’t effortless. Jo-Ann cites Netﬂix as the “bane of her existence”. We understand – we’ve all succumbed to its bingeability. All she needed to start on her ﬁrst draft was discipline and time, which she found when she had to take time off work to attend to family matters. Whenever there were pockets of time, even at odd hours, she worked on her book: “I gave myself a target of writing 1,000 words every day. As long as I write something, even if it’s not great, I can work on it the next morning. When you know where your focus is, you can write quality stuff .”
And Jo-Ann is her own greatest critic. As a former magazine editor, editing on the go was almost innate to her. But drawing the balance between obsessing over her work and enjoying the journey was important. She didn’t ﬁxate on the book’s ending because, to her, book characters are alive. “I didn’t know how to end it at the beginning, so I let my characters transform on their own.” And she shared her preliminary work only with one friend, whom she describes as her “personal cheerleader”.
“He would say things like ‘I can’t wait to see what happens to this character’ or ‘I’m very excited to know what happens in the next chapter’. Without him, I’m not sure if I would’ve ﬁnished my book in time,” she says.
But ﬁnished it is, and Jo-Ann got to have her cake and you get to eat it. Impractical Uses of Cake launches on May 11 at Kinokuniya.
"THE BOOK QUESTIONS ALL THESE EXPECTATIONS WE HAVE FOR OURSELVES BECAUSE OF SOCIETAL NORMS."
TEXT HAYLEY TAI PHOTOGRAPHY FRENCHESCAR LIM ART DIRECTION SHAN DIGITAL IMAGING SEBASTIAN LEE STYLING VIOLET FOO, ASSISTED BY PRAVEENA RAVIN HAIR & MAKEUP ZOEL TEE, USING HANZ DE FUKO & 3INA TOP LIE/SOCIETY A PANTS PEGGY HARTANTO/ SOCIETY A
Melissa De Silva
“Others” Is Not a Race
Melissa De Silva, who is of mixed ancestry (Portuguese, Indian, Malay, Chinese, and a smidgen of Dutch and Italian), struggled with identifying herself through her race during her formative years. Through the writing of her novel, “Others” Is Not a Race, she ﬁnally came to terms with her heritage. In the process, she also reclaimed some of her Eurasian culture. The novel was the winner of the creative nonﬁction category in the 2018 Singapore Literature Prize, organised by the Singapore Book Council.
Published by Math Paper Press, the thoughtprovoking collection of short stories and essays reﬂects on being a Eurasian in Singapore, explores the Eurasian identity and culture, and questions the concept of race as a social construct. “As Eurasians, we don’t have cultural markers that are as tangible as those of other races in Singapore. Subconsciously, I tried to search for them to bolster what I felt I didn’t have.”
The ﬁrst short story she wrote was The Gift, inspired by the passing of her maternal grandmother, Patsy Pinto, who spoke Kristang, a creole of Portuguese and Malay. “I had no interest in the language before, but when she passed away, my chance to learn it was gone,” she rues. In the ﬁctional world, though, her heroine ﬁnds resolution by learning her mother tongue.
The Gift was ﬁrst published in the Spring 2014 edition of Wilderness House Literary Review, a US quarterly online literary journal. Reviews were positive, and readers responded with similar experiences of their own. After that, Melissa decided to publish a collection of short stories on the theme of identity and cultural attrition.
Melissa is no stranger to expressing herself through words, with more than 10 years of experience as a magazine journalist and editor, including a nomination for Journalist of the Year at the Mediacorp News Awards in 2006. Writing the book, though, was an introspective challenge.
Singaporeans don’t think too much about race issues. A positive spin you can put on that is that as a people, we are much more integrated than in many other countries. But race relations are out there in the void decks, in our kopitiams, and on TV. As U2 sang so plaintively on One, “We’re one, but we’re not the same.”
She’s already working on her second book, a historical novel set in 1906 Malaya that explores further the dynamics of class, ethnicity and power – as experienced by Eurasians in the British colonial era. “Awareness,” she adds, “is the ﬁrst step to reclaiming our culture.”
Aside from her literary work, Melissa is also a member of the Eurasian Association, which celebrates its centennial this year.
“THERE’S A HUGE AMOUNT OF CULTURAL ATTRITION GOING ON THESE DAYS.”
TEXT JOYCE CHUA PHOTOGRAPHY VERONICA TAY ART DIRECTION SHAN DIGITAL IMAGING SEBASTIAN LEE STYLING VIOLET FOO HAIR & MAKEUP BENEDICT CHOO DRESS H&M
Find Books in Slightly More Interesting Places
Cook & Tras Social Library (2 Cook Street)
This library-themed bar inside the Six Senses Maxwell hotel isn’t playing around: It has 3,000 tomes, mostly on architecture, art, design, history and photography – a true browsing paradise. So order that Boulevardier cocktail and settle in.
They’re invisible and communicate with us through Instagram. Books are left around Singapore by these “fairies”, who update the latest locations via Instagram posts (@bookfairies_singapore). You can be a fairy too: Find ’em, read ’em and pay it forward.
Looksee Looksee (267 Beach Road)
Another interesting space by the Lo & Behold group, this is a reading room-cumtea salon filled with coffeetable books produced by our local creatives. Local speciality tea company A.muse Projects oversees the menu, which changes every month. Curl up with a book in hand and piping hot tea on the side – bliss.
Huggs-Epigram Coffee Bookshop (#01-01, 45 Maxwell Road)
Here’s one for Singlit lovers: an entire collection of works in a bricks-andmortar bookstore, thanks to publisher Epigram. Local authors will also be hanging around the store for readings – great if you’re an autograph hunter.