Issue 35, Final Fringe

The Story That Led Me Home

by Kirstin Chen 06.19.2013

Fringe published its last issue on Monday, June 24. As part of the goodbye, we asked former contributors and staff to write about their experiences with the magazine.

My short story, “Word Perfect,” appeared in Fringe in February 2007, marking a series of firsts—my first publication, my first short story set in Singapore, my first short story featuring an Asian female protagonist. This particular female protagonist was not only Singaporean, but was also close to my age, shared my educational background, and had grown up in a neighborhood similar to the one of my childhood.

It wasn’t as if my previous stories weren’t rooted in my own life. The first story I ever wrote, in a college creative writing class, essentially captured the long, tortured break-up my college boyfriend and I had gone through—except that the fictional couple were two yuppies in their twenties, and the girl was white.  I wrote stories about white girls who’d gone to the same schools I had, or taken the same jobs, or lived in the American cities I’d lived in; I wrote one particularly terrible story about an Asian boy at a New England boarding school, loosely based on the one I’d attended. But somehow, until “Word Perfect,” I’d never felt the urge to write about Singapore, or perhaps, more accurately, I never felt I had the right.

Although I was born and raised in Singapore, my parents were immigrants who had spent a decade in America prior to my birth. In their new home, my parents socialized with other expatriate Americans or locals who had been educated abroad. My mother spoke to my brother and me in American English and warned us against adopting Singlish, the sing-songy, grammatically flexible, local creole. Physically, with our black hair and yellow skin and small builds, my family resembled others in Singapore, but I knew we were different. In fact, we reveled in our differences. Now, years later, who was I to mine my pseudo heritage for the sake of my stories?

And yet, when I wrote “Word Perfect,” it felt truer (in the Tim O’Brien sense of the word) and more emotionally resonant than anything I’d ever written before. Encouraged, I set a few more stories in my homeland, which, along with “Word Perfect,” grew, in a loose, meandering way, into my debut novel, Soy Sauce for Beginners, forthcoming in November.

Still, writing about Singapore continued to be a struggle. I couldn’t set aside my insecurities about my ability to accurately capture the city-state in which I’d spent the first fifteen years of my life. I found myself looking up neighborhoods, streets, various aspects of local cuisine in guidebooks and in Wikipedia—something I never did when writing about Boston, or San Francisco, or even Paris. I simply couldn’t quiet the rowdy, chattering Singaporean readership that existed solely in my head.

With time—my novel took me four years to write— and countless rounds of revision, I’ve learned to trust my authority over the world of my novel, which, in turn, has taught me to trust my memories and my knowledge of my homeland. Yes, there are numerous quintessentially local activities that my family has never practiced: dining at hawker centers, bai-nian visits to relatives and friends at Chinese New Year. But that just means there’s so much left for me to discover on my trips back home, as an adult. Now, when I research Singapore, I do so with the goal of shaping my recollections or inspiring my imagination, as opposed to plugging the holes.

Fourteen years ago, while I was in school in America, my parents rented out my childhood home and moved first to Hong Kong, and then to Chicago, and then to Tokyo. During that time, my trips back to Singapore grew less and less frequent, and when the whole family did manage to get out there, we stayed in hotels. Recently, however, my parents returned to Singapore, moving into a condo on Orchard Road. I’ve only been back to visit them once, but already I miss Singapore in a way I haven’t since I was fifteen years old, surrounded by snow for the first time. Suddenly, the prospect of moving home someday isn’t as remote as it once seemed. Part of this shift has to do with wanting to be near my parents. The other part of it, I think, must have to do with all the years I’ve spent at my desk in America, writing about Singapore, rediscovering my homeland through my fiction.

Kirstin Chen

Kirstin Chen

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Then: A graduate of Stanford University, Kirstin recently moved to Boston where she is pursuing an MFA degree at Emerson College.

Now: Kirstin Chen’s debut novel Soy Sauce for Beginners is forthcoming in November. A former Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing, she currently resides in San Francisco.

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