Singaporean draws on experience studying in France to write a novel

Imran Hashim's sassy page-turner about a Catholic teacher who finds her world views upended made last year's Epigram Books Fiction Prize longlist

Chick lit with substance is how Singaporean author Imran Hashim describes his debut novel, the cheekily titled Annabelle Thong, which made last year's Epigram Books Fiction Prize longlist.

The 41-year-old drew on his years studying in France to spin a zippy page-turner set in the City of Lights that sparkles with sass and wit.

In the book, Annabelle Thong, a Catholic Chinese-Singaporean tea- cher, enrols in a master's programme at the Universite Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne and finds her world view upended by the people she meets.

Among them are Gula, the daughter of a Uzbekistani politician; Didi, a flamboyant gay Arab; Thierry, a communist plumber with fiery ideals; and the suave Patrick Dudoigt, a French professor she becomes enamoured with.

Imran tells The Sunday Times that some of the characters, such as Gula and Ursula, a svelte Scandinavian bombshell who is the perfect student and Annabelle's nemesis, are based on people he met while studying in France.


Annabelle Thong

The senior liaison manager at Warwick University in England says: "My book is about race, privilege and culture shock, with humour and romance wrapped around it.

"I wanted to explore what happens when Annabelle's privilege is stripped away and to see how she is thrown somewhere where her ideas of right and wrong, good and bad do not gel with the French majority, and how she deals with that."

Much of the book's comedy arises from Annabelle's cultural dislocation, especially when she encounters the French way of thinking.

At a dinner party, she unleashes an ill-timed tirade about illegal migrants, which is met with stunned silence from her peers.

"Is it my fault that French politics is so unnaturally skewed to the left that it makes anything I say sound like Mussolini?" she thinks to herself.

While Imran maintains he did not base Annabelle's character on himself, he did weave in observations of how different the French are from Singaporeans into his novel, like how the French do not collect public data on religion and race.

The bachelor says: "Everyone is just French - that's an egalitarian ideal that is very appealing, but racism still happens. My book is not a rose-tinted view of either country. I believe each society has its good and bad, and we can learn from each other."

You can't imagine how many times I fell asleep while writing the book. It was so draining and hard to write. It takes a lot of effort to be funny.

SINGAPOREAN AUTHOR IMRAN HASHIM, on writing Annabelle Thong

Imran first arrived in France in 1998, where he spent an immersion year at the prestigious Sciences Po Paris university, before doing two master's degrees in political science - one at the Pantheon- Sorbonne and another at Sciences Po later on.

He says: "I wanted to escape from Singapore to see if I could try and build a life somewhere else. So I decided to do a master's in France."

His friends back home, tickled by his e-mail updates on life in Paris, encouraged him to write a book about it - a suggestion he gamely took up.

He was also inspired by works such as Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice ("She turns a critical eye to social mores, in a funny way"), Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones series and Sophie Kinsella's Shopaholic books.

He recalls: "I tried cutting and pasting my e-mail together and got about a chapter and a half of material. Then I realised I had to put in real work to write the novel."

He started work on the book in late 2007 and paid about $1,000 to have it reviewed by a British literary consultancy. The positive feedback spurred him on and he finished editing the second draft in late 2013.

"You can't imagine how many times I fell asleep while writing the book. It was so draining and hard to write. It takes a lot of effort to be funny," he says.

He submitted it to Epigram Books to consider for publication early last year and did not get any response. He then re-submitted it for the prize when it was announced.

"I just wanted to know whether they would publish my novel. If I'd won the prize, that would have been a giant cherry on the cake. I didn't win, but I still got the cake. And that's pretty sweet."

  • Annabelle Thong is available at major bookstores at $26.64.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 11, 2016, with the headline 'Culture shock in Paris'. Print Edition | Subscribe