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Revealing ‘A Certain Exposure’—10 Questions for Jolene Tan

“Brian organised for the body to be flown back”, Jolene Tan’s debut novel A Certain Exposure begins. From this unsettling start—tragedy met by administration—the story only grows in disquietude, encompassing within its cool grasp a suicide, burgeoning sexualities, fledgling romances and myriad forms of unfeeling as its cast of characters seek an answer to resounding grief.

Revolving around the adolescent years of twin brothers Brian and Andrew, A Certain Exposure alternates between their coming of age in Singapore and Cambridge, UK; the waning years of the LKY-led 1980s and the softer “heartware” of the 1990s. Newly published, Jolene Tan’s novel has already been hailed by author Sandi Tan (The Black Isle) as possessing “the feel of an essential Singapore classic”.

You may recognise Jolene’s name from her letters to the press. Educated at Cambridge University and Harvard Law School, she works for the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), Singapore’s leading gender equality advocacy group. Some issues Jolene has addressed as part of her job include the need for regulation against workplace sexual harassment, abortion rights and in regard to the recent hijab question, “the right of every woman to choose what she wears”. A Certain Exposure marks the first time she has published her fiction writing.

In this email interview, we unravel the many layers of A Certain Exposure with her.

1. What drove you to write A Certain Exposure?
I’d always wanted to write fiction, but wasn’t confident that I could craft a good story. But then I read Still Life by A.S. Byatt, and it was one of the most pleasurable experiences of my life, somehow without featuring a story as I then understood the term: more a working through of dynamics, relationships and ideas. And I thought, right, this was well worth reading, and something like that would be well worth writing—so why not give it a shot.

So A Certain Exposure was me working through longstanding preoccupations about how much of ourselves we can afford to reveal or conceal, when prejudice and hierarchy can make opening ourselves up risky, but the apparent refuge offered by conformity is also more dangerous than it seems.

2. With this being your first book, what was the writing process like?
I wrote the first draft between the summer of 2009, when I was living in London, and the spring of 2012, when I was living in Heidelberg, Germany. Everything else—chatty emails, angry letters—I write pretty quickly, but with fiction I am agonisingly slow. I can’t bring myself to churn out words in a messy draft and come back later; I have to continually polish as I go along, like some kind of pedantic cowrie. A sentence can take an hour to happen, and then ultimately unhappen. I also get obsessive about researching certain points, or repetitively acting out movements, gestures and speech descriptors to check that they make sense. These things then become single lines or even two words of background detail. So basically I’m really slow.

3. So what did it feel like, in three words, when you finally saw A Certain Exposure in print?
A friend said she would have pissed herself in my position, so I guess my three words are “Remarkably continent, considering.”

4. Like the protagonist Andrew, you studied at Cambridge University. How much of A Certain Exposure is based on your real-life experiences, and/or the people you know?
I was very conscious of not wanting to write an autobiographical first novel. The book is resolutely fiction and nobody in it maps easily onto anyone I know. But I see something of me in all the characters, including the more unsympathetic ones, and many of the petty and not-so-petty cruelties in the book are based on things I have seen or heard.

5. You chose a pretty evocative title. How did it come about?
“Exposure” is a word which encompasses many of the themes that I had in mind: in particular, the danger that comes with revealing oneself in a hostile world, but also the notion of a risk that could carry a reward, such as connection or understanding or support. A lot of the book is about people trying to manage these tensions—to decide on just how much they can bring themselves to reveal or conceal—and the notion of a search for certainty is ironically reflected in the title. It’s obviously also a photographic pun, referring to a particular picture which plays a pivotal role in the plot. (How many more ‘p’s can I get into that sentence?)

6. You’ve written plenty about books on your website. What are your literary sources of inspiration?
I can’t say ‘inspiration’ is something I feel very much, but I guess writers who have achieved things that especially awe and resonate with me include: A.S. Byatt, Alison Bechdel, Yiyun Li, Greg Egan, Edward St Aubyn and China Miéville. (A very white list, I know; I’m working on broadening my reading habits.)

7. Speaking of, what do you miss most about living in England, and why?
The countryside. I’m sure this is partly or entirely a function of being a brainwashed postcolonial child, but the British countryside has a comforting human scale—in size, temperature, colours, walkability and textures—that nothing else in my experience matches.

8. Closer to home, what issues in Singapore concern you the most?
I’m professionally obliged to be mostly preoccupied by women’s rights, but fortunately that covers a lot of territory. Otherwise, the disempowerment of children bugs me a lot, and I have a long-standing interest in penal reform—I used to work for a prisoners’ rights organisation.

9. Do you have a favourite work of Singapore literature?
I don’t have strong opinions about a favourite, but of what I’ve read recently, I’ve really enjoyed Tania de Rozario’s Tender Delirium. I’m also a fan of the poetry I’ve heard from members of the spoken word troupe Sekaliwags.

10. It might be too early to tell, but do you already have a second book in mind? And if so, have you started writing it?
I’ve had too much going on in my life lately to have the bandwidth! I have, however, been working on a short story for two years (see the bit where I’m really slow). It helps that my husband is incredibly supportive and goes out of his way to create time for me. I would love to write a second novel; it’s just going to take a bit of time.

Experience A Certain Exposure with a reading by Jolene Tan and a Q&A hosted by Teng Qian Xi.

BooksActually, 17 April 2014, 7.30pm.

April 09, 2014 by Epigram Books Admin