Award-winning author Marina Lewycka is fascinated by English as it is broken around the world

Marina Lewycka with her most recent novel, The Lubetkin Legacy. She is working on a book on the Brexit vote which could be set in Singapore.
Marina Lewycka with her most recent novel, The Lubetkin Legacy. She is working on a book on the Brexit vote which could be set in Singapore.PHOTO: NIVASH JOYVIN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

British author Marina Lewycka, who is here on a creative writing residency, is enamoured of Singapore and plans to write a novel inspired by the island

Triad crime, financial fraud, ivory smuggling, Islamic fundamentalism and avian flu. This curious melange comprises some of the unlikely ingredients of a future novel by British author Marina Lewycka, which could be set in Singapore.

The 70-year-old had intended for Singapore to play a small part in a different novel she is working on, about a married couple who find themselves on opposing sides of the Brexit vote.

But this was before she came to Singapore in January for a six- month creative writing residency with the National Arts Council and Nanyang Technological University and became fascinated with it.

After she finishes her Brexit novel, she hopes to return to Singapore again to do more research for another novel set in Singapore, or a fictitious island based on it, which she aims to bring out by 2019.

"What I love about Singapore is that it is the hub of the world," she said in a talk at The Arts House last Thursday. "Everything comes together here. This is a space in which all those things could happen."

Lewycka found literary fame in 2005, at the age of 58, with the bestselling A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian.

The comic novel is about two estranged sisters who are horrified when their elderly father marries a voluptuous Ukrainian immigrant nearly 50 years younger than him.

It was longlisted for the Man Booker prize and won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction, making Lewycka the first woman in its 16-year history to win.

She has since written four other novels, the most recent being The Lubetkin Legacy last year, in which an ageing actor in London, desperate not to lose his flat to the bedroom tax, moves an elderly Ukrainian immigrant in to impersonate his dead mother. It has been shortlisted for the Bollinger.

Lewycka made her name by finding laughter in otherwise bleak situations. "It's a dark humour characteristic of Eastern Europeans," she told The Arts House audience. "In dark times, you try to make light of things."

She came to Singapore hoping it would be a refuge from "things going pear-shaped" in Britain with Brexit, although she has since realised that Asia has problems of its own.

"We're all sort of locked into these ancient patterns of hatred," she went on. "The Scots and the Welsh hate the English. The English hate all foreigners. Everybody hates the Germans, but they hate the Russians even more.

"But after I came here, I realised this hatred is not such a big deal because over here, everybody hates everybody as well," she says, referring to competition between neighbouring countries in the region.

"It helps to put the hatred I grew up with into perspective because you can see people are stupid all over the world."

Lewycka was born in a German refugee camp after World War II and arrived in Britain before she was two years old. Her parents were Ukrainians who had been taken to Germany by the Nazis for forced labour.

Her earliest memory, she tells The Straits Times, is of holding her mother's hand and walking up to a house which she later realised was a refugee centre.

Adjusting was not easy. Her mother, who became a cleaner, could not speak English, and her schoolmates called her a "Gerry" (German) or "Rusky" (Russian), neither of which she was.

But Lewycka, who speaks with a crisp English accent, says it is even harder to be an immigrant in Britain now than it was back then.

In the aftermath of Brexit, she has witnessed "terribly upsetting" abuse hurled at those around her, including her young neighbour from the Republic of Ireland, which is part of the European Union.

Lewycka has a partner in London, a daughter who works as an epidemiologist in Vietnam, and three grandchildren.

She spent most of her life as an unpublished writer until Tractors, which she admits is partly autobiographical.

Her father, an engineer, did try to write a short history of tractors in Ukrainian and married a much younger woman after his wife's death - although the gold-digging Valentina of the novel is based more on American celebrity Anna Nicole Smith than Lewycka's stepmother, who later split up with her father and vanished.

The novel had a rocky start, with Amazon initially filing it under agricultural history instead of fiction. Its first Amazon review read: "Be warned! This book has nothing to do with tractors. The author should be ashamed of herself."

It has since sold more than a million copies and efforts to turn it into a three-part BBC show are under way. Lewycka received the latest script for the show in February.

The novel also earned her the ire of many Ukrainians because the country was represented by "a very sleazy woman with enormous breasts" who speaks broken English.

Lewycka, for her own part, professes a fascination with broken English of all kinds, which she often mines for humour in her work. "I love listening to what people do to grammar."

Asked about the ongoing debate about whether Singlish should be encouraged or suppressed, she says: "I would urge people to learn both proper English and Singlish. English opens doors, but Singlish is fast and expressive and there is value in it too."

•A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian (2006, Penguin Books, US$11.86 or S$16.67) is available from Amazon.com and The Lubetkin Legacy (2017, Penguin Books, $19.80) is available at Books Kinokuniya.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 11, 2017, with the headline 'Fascinated by broken English'. Print Edition | Subscribe