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Stories About Stories ... with Lau Siew Mei

Here at Stories About Stories, authors talk about what goes on behind their latest creation.

This week, we're talking to Lau Siew Mei, whose new book The Last Immigrant is finally out!

In The Last Immigrant, Ismael, a transplanted Singaporean, lives on a bucolic suburban Brisbane street. His job is to decide whether asylum-seekers get to stay in the country, a dilemma that never fails to remind him of his own immigrant status.

But then his life begins to take on the hue of a nightmare: his neighbour inexplicably commits suicide, his wife dies of cancer, his daughter abandons him to live in the United States, and his Siamese cat goes missing. 

As cultural and societal fragmentations lead to alienation, Ismael finds himself the target of threatening letters and finger-pointing, and terrified that his own neighbours are all prey to the malevolent tribalism inherent to human nature.

Lau Siew Mei was born and raised in Singapore. She previously wrote two other novels, Playing Madame Mao — which Time magazine called “one of the best novels ever written about Singapore” — and The Dispeller of Worries.

She also wrote a children’s illustrated middle-grade book, Yin’s Magic Dragon, as well as several short stories, which have been broadcast on the BBC World Service and ABC Radio National, and published in Australia, Canada, Malaysia, Singapore and the UK.

She has been shortlisted for the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and Best Emerging Queensland Author in the QLD Premier’s Literary Awards. She was awarded a Varuna Residential Writers’ Fellowship and an Asialink Literature Residency in Malaysia.

Has writing always been your ambition since you were young? Yes, I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was young — I was making up stories, telling stories to others, imagining stories for myself or writing stuff down as a child. But I thought fiction writers were magical people and I didn’t know if I could be one of those magical people.

So, while one part of me knew I could write, another part of me tried to escape being a writer many times because there were always those two obstructive questions: Do you think you can write a bestseller? Do you think you can write like Shakespeare? And I didn’t know how I could answer either question.

What was the inspiration for The Last Immigrant? Is the character, Ismael, based on anybody in real life? Ismael was initially based on someone I knew in Brisbane, who is Muslim with an Iranian heritage. He was quite a special person and I enjoyed talking to him. I’ve lost touch with him and suspect he may have passed on. Ismael in the novel, however, has developed into his own character.

The subject of immigration is quite topical right now, was it a conscious decision to frame the story around this and why? I get affected by events taking place around me. It’s like having invisible antennas so I don’t think it was a conscious decision but one that has been building inside.

How long did it take for you to write the novel? I did an initial draft of the novel about eight years ago. It came as a gift because it was the easiest first draft I’ve ever done. The rewriting and delving into the characters, stories and the neighbourhood took much longer. I wrote the draft of another novel in-between.

And what was the biggest challenge when it came to writing The Last Immigrant? I think the biggest challenge to writing The Last Immigrant was plumbing into depths I did not want to feel, which were painful. The process made me feel vulnerable. Which is what writing a novel usually does to me, but I was resisting this process. The emotions behind the book were ones I didn’t particularly want to go through.

You have been writing for quite a while and The Last Immigrant is your third novel. What kind of advice would you give aspiring writers? There will be periods of time when, as a writer or an artist, you will want to quit. You will wonder if you are being self-indulgent and what is the point of creating and whether anyone cares.

I’ve gone through several such periods, particularly when you have to juggle a number of different things, then one day I read something that made a difference to the way I viewed what I was doing. The person said that what writers and artists did brought people to the deepest parts of themselves, made them feel or think and that was a service they did for humankind because most people do not go there or want to go there.

What I hope all aspiring writers will hold onto is the sense that only in writing will they touch ‘the real’ and what they do is of immense value and service to the universe, even if it’s for themselves or a few people.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt all these years? That writing is an act of courage and the process can leave you stripped bare and exhausted, but you will hopefully create something meaningful or beautiful and you will recover and realise you have lived more fully in and through that experience.

What is the one takeaway you hope readers will get from The Last Immigrant? That the pain of rejection in whatever form can be transformative, that being "different" or "other" or "unwanted by others" isn’t going to destroy you. The only thing that destroys you is when you start internalising it and reject yourself.


You can get a copy of the book here.

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