Each year, the Writing University conducts interviews with writers while they are in Iowa City participating in the International Writing Program's fall residency. We sit down with authors to ask about their work, their process and their descriptions of home. Today we are talking with Noelle Q. De Jesus, a fiction writer, copywriter and editor from Singapore, who also translates literary fiction
Noelle Q. De Jesus (fiction, editor, translator; Singapore) is the author of the collections Cursed and Other Stories (2019) and Blood Collected Stories (2015), which won a 2016 Next Gen Indie Book Award and was translated into French, as well as of other fiction. She has edited anthologies of flash- and micro-fiction, translated from the Tagalog, and participated in literary festivals in the Philippines, Singapore, and the U.S. Her work has appeared in Witness, Puerto del Sol, Fiction Attic Press and The Art and Craft of Asian Stories, among other places. Her participation is funded by the National Arts Council Singapore.
1. Do you have a plan or project in mind for your time at the residency?
In fact, I do! It's admittedly ambitious, but my plan is to complete a final draft of my first novel, and should I finish that as I ought, I hope to also generate the rough draft of another novel notion. (In 2008, I wrote a "chicklit" novel, Mrs MisMarriage under my married name, but there are many days I don't really consider it my first novel). To this end, I carried a 427-page print-out in my suitcase here, and because 400-plus pages is too long for a novel these days, I deleted the word file—how crazy is that—and will revise using the printout as a guide. Honestly, this book has been gestating since 2009. I finally started writing it in 2018, but in 2019, was stalled by a Filipino novel translation project, filmwriter Ricky Lee's first novel, For B (Tagalog to English), the pandemic and sad family circumstances. Since we've arrived, Iowa City has been incredibly stimulating and inspiring. I've been writing poetry, but honestly, I think that's my brain's way of procrastinating. Writing flash fiction is also a persistent distraction and amounts to more procrastination about the novel.
2. What does your daily practice look like for your writing? Do you have a certain time when you write? Any specific routine?
My practice is a work-in-progress and largely chaotic, because for the most part, writing fiction has only ever been a wherever and whenever situation. It's what I did on the side of school, a job, being a wife, mother and all the rest of it. Whenever I have a pocket of free time—a half-hour, fifteen minutes waiting in the doctor's office—I write fiction, by hand. I suspect I'm a little ADD, because it suits me to have multiple things going in various stages of completion. Also I can only write with some kind of background noise, possibly but not necessarily music, more often than not, tennis or some TV show I've already seen. I carry around a graphed notebook and a pen with me and, it will be a mess of thoughts, doodles, drafts, story beginnings, novel sections, ideas for how something should go, lines, recordings of dreams, letters, even my freelance work, and lists of things to do. Fortunately, I'm able to make sense of my own mess most of the time. I'll write half a short story by hand and when I have to stop, I'll make a note to myself: and then x will happen, y will happen, and the end will be z. I'm 55. I forget things and often worry I'll lose something valuable that way, which I have. Of course, sometimes, I'll think I have something good but will be forced to conclude, oh, this is crap. I frequently get gifts from my dreams, and will reach to jot down anything I received—a plot or a story opening. Writing in the notebook wherever, whenever; that's my routine. But here, I plan to have that iconic daily four to six hours that everybody talks about.
3. What are you currently reading right now?
No surprise, I'm also a little crazy in my reading. I like to re-read, because of the aforementioned forgetting problem, and will have as many as three or four books going at any given time. Before I left, I'd just finished Herman Wouk's Marjorie Morningstar. I've now started on Elizabeth Strout's latest Lucy By The Sea, which I just took out of the library. I brought along Yiyun Li's Must I Go, which I'm two chapters into. I brought Ewan McEwan's On Chesil Beach (reread) and James Woods' How Fiction Works. I also borrowed Ha Jin's The Boat Rocker, Edwidge Danticat's Create Dangerously, and Jane Smiley's Ordinary Love and Good Will (re-read). The other day, I bought Robin Hemley's Oblivion at Prairie Lights.
3b. Are you reading for research or pleasure?
At my age, all reading is simultaneously both.
4. What is something the readers and writers of Iowa City should know about you and/or your work?
I was born in New Haven, Connecticut to Filipino parents, I am American, but I grew up in Manila, until the age of 22 when I returned to the US for an MFA in Creative Writing at Bowling Green University. Since 2000, we've been based in Singapore where we raised our daughter and son. As such, I have real ties to all three countries, and hopefully that makes my work global in nature. Because writing has always been a sideline, I'm a big flash fiction enthusiast and have published my flash/microfiction and have edited three Southeast Asia based flash fiction anthologies to date. In my own work, I strive to tell stories about people and their relationships, those who are most transformed by history or circumstances. Rightly or wrongly, I feel free to inhabit a variety of characters of different backgrounds, especially people who are less frequently seen, known and understood. My two short story collections are Filipino books, although Blood has a few "Singapore" stories. My second novel will be a Singapore book. Mrs Mismarriage, my chicklit novel, is a truly Singapore book and almost all the characters are Singaporean, except the best friend who is Filipino and the other minor characters who are non-Asian. It would be nice not to have to label everything I write this way, and just say my fiction is global. Ultimately, I like to write stories that feature characters of different races and cultures, because that's how my life is. That's what the real world is.
5. Tell us a bit about where you are from -- what are some favorite details you would like to share about your home?
As a permanent resident of the clean and green Singapore, I count myself fortunate to be part of the lively literary community there, and credit that to my being here now. Singapore is enviably modern, multi-racial, multi-cultural, with great healthcare, public transportation system, and amazing food—it's the Southeast Asian melting pot of all melting pots. Of course, it is also a melting pot in the sense of heat and humidity. While it is small with limited land and space vis-a-vis its nearly 6M population, the rate of home ownership is very high. It's constantly evolving, striving to improve and devise solutions to whatever problems arise. I live by a canal system that leads to the reservoirs, and connects the entire island. I've been here ten days, and I like to get up early to walk by the river, see the critters, just like I do at home. If you walk the canal in Singapore, you'll see egrets, a variety of herons, monitor lizards and occasionally, even snakes and otters! Here, I've seen ducks, carp in the water, squirrels and chipmunks, but I hope to see a beaver or a rabbit real soon.
Thank you Noelle!