PP Wong, in a few of her own words
Author, editor and anthropological fly on the wall.
Education in different cities
I was born and brought up in the UK. First in Surrey, then London – with short periods of time in Singapore in between. I probably could write a whole book about my schooling experiences as I’ve attended ten schools and spent my school years moving back and forth between London and Singapore.
My fondest memories of school were in Surrey. I remember my school was so tiny the headmistress was able to take the register for the entire school. It was also in this particular school that I began my lifelong passion of looking after animals. My classmate introduced me to pet snails and I remember being heartbroken when my Dad accidentally stepped on my favourite snail. I also have fond recollections of tobogganing down the hill. One of my earliest memories is trudging through the snow – I must have been about two or three because the snow was almost as high as my shoulders.
I don’t recall having any problems with adapting to the different environments. Perhaps being nomadic became a normal part of my existence (due to changing schools and moving multiple times). I suppose the main difference between studying in Singapore and the UK was I had to attend after-school lessons for Mandarin with a small group of classmates because we received 70% or below in a test when the rest of the class scored more than 80%. I was around six years old. Additionally, all my classmates in Singapore were Asian. But to be honest, racial difference wasn’t something I was very aware of until I was older. All in all, my early childhood in the UK and Singapore were both very positive experiences.
A curious eye for peoples
I’m an observer of life and of people. Sometimes I sit quietly on the train or a park and watch people or silently nose my way into their conversations. London is a hugely diverse city and my friends have always been a multicultural mix of people. I’m really interested in learning about and reading books about other cultures. Perhaps it is my deeply curious nature that drew me to learning more about unknown microcosmic societies different from my own.
I thoroughly enjoyed the learning process at University. In my first year, I completed an entire unit on the Anthropology of Eating. What and how people eat is a great indicator of how a society runs as a whole. In my first lecture, I was shown a picture of three men in India during their lunch break at work. One was eating at a table, another was sitting in a group in the corner and two others were squatting on the floor. The lecturer Professor Maurice Bloch showed us how even something as simple as where one sat for lunch could determine one’s status in a society. It’s the little strange nuances within cultures that intrigue me.
I did consider becoming a full-time Anthropologist. But in order to fulfil that I would have needed to complete a PhD and probably spend many years staying in a tribe in the middle of nowhere. I did not fancy doing either.
“The Wittle Wed Hen” and other favourites
I’ve been reading and writing stories for as long as I can remember. As a child, my mother would bring me to my local library and I would max out my library card every week. She also encouraged me to read out loud into a tape recorder. My favourite book was The Little Red Hen or as I pronounced it, “The wittle wed hen.” I recently read somewhere that this book was actually written as an allegory for communism in Russia.
It was always my dream to write a novel. But it was only many years later that I decided to take the plunge into the unstable, risky, icy waters of publishing. I was working in a comfortable office job when I thought, “Here I am writing what other people want me to write. Why don’t I write what I want to write? Why don’t I write the book that’s in my heart?” I ended up quitting my job and gave myself a year to complete my novel. In the meantime, I juggled two freelance jobs while finally creating characters that had been in my mind for many years.
In terms of favourite books – there would be too many authors to share. But a few of my favourites are:
PP Wong’s ‘The Life of A Banana’
After I quit my job, it took me nine months to complete The Life of a Banana. I wrote every day on a small green metal table from Ikea that faced the gardens of the flats opposite from me. I wrote with free abandonment not knowing if the book would ever be published. I wrote without any real expectation of success – telling myself that I would be content in the knowledge that, if anything, I had achieved my lifelong goal of completing a novel.
The book is a work of fiction. But I suppose in order for emotions and characters to be realistic a writer needs to draw on their own experiences and channel them into the characters. For example, unlike Xing Li*, my mother is still very much alive and well. But I have experienced loss in my life. Also, I generally had very positive experiences in school and was not bullied in the horrific way Xing Li was but I was bullied in one of my schools. So, I know what it is like to feel isolated. Additionally, Lai Ker*’s humour is similar to my own. I find the tortuous writing process much easier when you are making yourself laugh.
*Xing Li is the protagonist character in the book ‘The Life of A Banana‘.
**Lai Ker is Xing Li’s brother.
PP Wong and acting
My first ‘role’ was as a screaming Vietnamese girl in a James Bond movie and I attained my debut theatrical role when I was seventeen. After university, I worked as an actor for six years. Acting was something that had been part of my life for so long and I was passionate about it. But something in me always believed I was a square peg in a round hole. Also, the industry and auditioning process was very brutal. I remember talking to older actors in the industry who shared that they were still actors not out of passion because they did not know how to do anything else. They felt stuck. One actor confided about how they desperately wished they had pursued other skills when they were younger but felt that it was too late. They told me that I should get out before I became “stuck.”
Being an actor is very similar to being an author in the sense that it can be an all-consuming passion. From my experiences, I believe you have to be all in, if not it is very difficult to make acting work. You need to be ready to drop everything for an audition. I did almost 30 different part-time jobs in order to enable me to go for auditions. I enjoyed acting and I was getting roles. However, I realised I did not love it enough to stay and make it the centre of my life. I did not love it in the deep way I feel towards writing and reading.
I think my acting background has assisted me in my writing because I am able to “act” the characters out as I write. This helps me greatly when I am writing dialogue. So, instead of doing method acting now I do method writing.
Writing and introversion
I’m an introvert. Most of the authors (but not all) I’ve met are deep introverts. To write a novel takes copious hours of sitting alone and living in an imaginary world. That means shutting yourself off from other people – at least for a while. This also could mean sacrificing a vivacious social life and being a bit more anti-social. Writers are weird creatures because we are completely satisfied with sitting quietly for hours (or sometimes days) staring into space, not saying a word.
PP Wong’s advice on writing
Just start the novel. Don’t give yourself a hundred excuses about timing or finances or fear of failure. Just start the novel and force yourself to finish. You can spend one hour in the day watching TV, why not spend that hour writing? Many people start novels, but it takes sacrifice to complete a book. But when you finally hold the book in your hand and breathe in the smell of new pages printed with your words – it is definitely one of the most satisfying, joyful experiences in the whole world.
Thank you P.P. Wong for sharing so generously. I am a huge fan of her writing, and definitely of her book. Please share PP Wong’s book ‘The Life of A Banana‘ and story with your peers if it had interested, moved or encouraged you in anyway, …and drop me a note too – tell me how it did!