Doing the Write Thing: Teo Xue Shen
For those of you who have been following news of the Epigram Books Fiction Prize closely, Teo Xue Shen wouldn't be a new face to you. The current undergraduate of environmental studies at the National University of Singapore has been longlisted twice for the Prize: the first in 2018 for 18 Walls, and the second in 2020 for his newest dystopian thriller, Children of the Ark.
The youngest author from the Prize to date, Xue Shen wrote both manuscripts during his time in National Service, where his experiences shaped the worlds and narratives of his novel.
From typing down any inspiration that strikes on his phone, to crafting and editing a fully fledged novel, Xue Shen reveals all readers can expect from his new book in this interview.
What is Children of the Ark about?
Children of the Ark is a speculative fiction novel featuring a main character Zan, who is sort of a rescue worker in an underground organisation known as ARK in Singapore, in a time when people are born with a red mark at the back of their hands. In particular, people who are born with a Pentagon marking—they are known as Pentagons—they are blessed, or you could say, cursed with superhuman strength. It’s this ability, which makes them the subject of hatred from everyone else.
The society that Zan lives in is further fractured by science-defying tunnels that lead into bizarre worlds, which hold a variety of creatures known as Wildbeasts. The story follows Zan and her gradually morphing perspectives on the Wildbeasts, the Pentagons and the society she lives in as she works for this underground organisation known as ARK to rescue these Pentagons and fight these Wildbeasts.
This books is somewhat of a thriller, an exciting adventurous type of novel where this whole bizarre world of Wildbeasts, superhuman strength in Pentagons are mixed in with the backdrop of a dystopia Singapore.
What was the inspiration behind your second novel?
I wrote this during my National Service. When I was in the army in 2018, I was deployed for this bilateral exercise in Australia. The inspiration for this story came from the fact that racism was a topic brought up during some of our pre-trip briefings.
At the end of every exercise, we would have a day or two for recreational activities where we could leave the military camp for a brief tour around the area. The pre-trip briefing included a section on racism in the locals towards Asians and how to deescalate such situations. Fortunately the people I met there were largely friendly.
Racism is often really complicated with many underlying issues and this got me thinking about how I could break this down—this whole concept about prejudice and hatred—into something easier to understand and write about. So this was where the idea of the Pentagons was born. The rest of the story actually came from there. And fun fact: The first Wildbeast I created was actually inspired by the emu, which is the national bird of Australia, because I wrote most of this manuscript when I was in Australia. Then I edited when I came back to Singapore.
Your book speaks out against racism. Tell us a little more about that, and what you hope it can bring to the discussion table about issues like these.
This is book is set in Singapore, because in our society, we always hear about this zero tolerance policy for racism, and yet over the years, there have still been various incidents here and there, while open discussions seem to be a little bit stifled. I mean, it’s not something that some of us might openly talk about at the dinner table.
I wrote Children of the Ark because I wanted to present this issue in a different light, in a different way that might seem friendlier than openly talking about it. And the thing is that I wrote it to be suitable for people of all ages. For children or young teenagers, I guess, it’s a good starting ground for them to learn about stuff like that, to read about stuff like that, which can be pretty important, in my opinion. Hopefully this can be a little step in that direction.
What can readers look forward to?
Readers can look forward to a fast-paced, thrilling kind of story, which can get a little bit dark at times, since it’s a form of dystopian fiction. I do hope they will enjoy themselves reading it, of course. And I do hope that it will inspire aspiring writers, like me, to keep on writing, no matter how busy they might be.
Get Teo Xue Shen's Children of the Ark here.