The Art of Short Stories: An Interview with Dr Yeo Wei Wei

By Sean Tan

DrYeo Wei Wei is a natural storyteller. Chatty yet poised, she painted vividly in my mind, the salty seas and swaying palm trees of her childhood years by the beach, tales of catching centipedes and millipedes and sailing the creepy-crawlies around in folded paper boats whenever the school floods, and then stories from the distant land of York, of the surprising number of times she got into the cabs of old Ang Moh taxi drivers who had served in Singapore before and during WWII.

“You can’t be a writer if you are not a reader,” Dr Yeo Wei Wei mentioned at one point during her speech. She had meant an avid reader of texts (she is one, to the point that she is now a “fan of dead people”), but it could have also meant a reader of life. Because she is one such reader, with the “sensory impressions” from her youth flowing at once like a reservoir for her to tap into. “Writers need to stone! The handphones get in the way of stoning! ” she says, breaking into a hearty laughter, noting that writers need to observe the world more.

Shortly after her speech, under the cool shade of the swaying trees at a rooftop garden, I asked her about her inspirations. Yeo was incredibly affable, and gave off the air of someone who was born to write. In vivid detail, she shared even more anecdotes from her life, and with refreshing candor, pointed out exactly the inspirations for different short stories from her collection “These Foolish Things”.

A Chat at the Rooftop Garden with Dr Yeo Wei Wei

“In ‘The Art of Being Naked’, there is this scene where the children go around the neighbourhood during the Mid-Autumn Festival carrying lanterns made from wax paper. So that is one of my most vivid childhood memories. I love the Mid-Autumn Festival, because we all got to play with fire. At the end of the lantern-toting thing, we burnt our lanterns, and I loved that,” Dr Yeo explains, with a glint in her eyes.

For Yeo, story inspiration can strike from anywhere, even songs like Paul McCartney’s ‘Blackbird’. Or can even come from external challenges. One of her stories from the collection started out because a friend from Hong Kong was editing a collection of writings for a journal, and had really liked her titular story, “These Foolish Things”. He told her he would very much like her to contribute her stories to his new journal, on the one condition that her story has to be crafted from a game. In that game, he and his co-editor were going to give her an object, and she had to think of another object to pair up with this object the editors have chosen. Both objects must appear in her story. Knowing that she was working at an art museum at that time, they chose a painting titled the ‘Great Malaysian Landscape’ as the object.

Dr Yeo Wei Wei  on the Magic of Tarantino

With her inspirations coming from all kinds of places, it is perhaps not a surprise that Dr Yeo is a huge fan of Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Tarantino films, shows that have received widespread critical acclaim for their excellent writing and dialogue. I told her that it is indeed the golden age of television.

“Yeah….nowadays writing is happening in many different spheres...There are so many things I want to watch but as I said earlier on we have to really watch ourselves,” she replied, noting the need to focus as a writer. 

She thus tries to clock in 1000 words a day, and sometimes not leave the house until she has done so, stopping for short breaks and “just keep going back and continue writing”. And during those moments, she switches off the wifi, and does not look at her phone nor her emails in order to dive deep into the story. 

Recently, Dr Yeo was invited to contribute to a panel happening at NTU. The panel will be centered on gardens. She used that as an example to point out, how like virtually all human beings, she also has procrastination tendencies at some points. “When the professor invited me to contribute a story for it I was very happy like ‘Yaya I’ll do it!’, but at the back of my mind I’m just freaking out everyday. Even as I’m talking about it right now there’s this light flashing like ‘the garden story is not written… the garden story is not written’. It’s just going like that. And when I try to work on it, this annoying voice goes ‘you’ll never get through it… you’ll never finish it…you’re no good…’ So you have to shut it down, y’know? Because it’s always there,” Dr Yeo explains with a slight grin.

Besides being a writer, Dr Yeo is also a translator, with her interest in translation beginning during her days at Cambridge, when she was pursuing her PhD. Later on, when I asked her what advice she would give when writers get ‘stuck’, she immediately mentioned translation, which was something she learnt from Alfian Sa’at.

 “What he does is he translates. Just for fun. Just to free it up. That’s a very good piece of advice. So whenever you feel a bit stuck, like it’s a warm-up exercise like I’m going to do something now but ohh what time is it it’s 9am maybe I need a second cup of coffee or something. No. You do not need a second cup of coffee. Take something, a Chinese poem, anything - and translate it. What happens is that your language machine wakes up… and you can go straight into the story. That’s the warm-up for you.”

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Sean Tan is a student from Victoria Junior College, and is a member of the Victoria Press.