Sumiko Tan's new book: About heartbreak, grief and finding love

Sumiko Tan's new book Sundays With Sumiko compiles some of the articles she has written for her personal column in The Sunday Times, which ran from 1994 to 2016.
Sumiko Tan's new book Sundays With Sumiko compiles some of the articles she has written for her personal column in The Sunday Times, which ran from 1994 to 2016.ST PHOTO: WANG HUI FEN
Sumiko and H's wedding in July 2010.
Sumiko and H's wedding in July 2010.PHOTO: COURTESY OF SUMIKO TAN
Sumiko Tan met her husband H at Anglo-Chinese Junior College in 1980. They went back there for their wedding photos.
Sumiko Tan met her husband H at Anglo-Chinese Junior College in 1980. They went back there for their wedding photos.PHOTO: COURTESY OF SUMIKO TAN
Sumiko Tan's parents on holiday in Cameron Highlands, sometime in 1962.
Sumiko Tan's parents on holiday in Cameron Highlands, sometime in 1962.PHOTO: COURTESY OF SUMIKO TAN

When I started writing a personal column back in 1994, blogging didn’t exist, Facebook didn’t exist, and neither did Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat.

Over 22 years, I used the privilege of the space given to me in The Sunday Times to write about the preoccupations of an ordinary life.

In my case, the life of an unmarried working woman in Singapore at the turn of the 21st century – that is, until I got married at the late age of 46 in 2010 and started talking about married life.

Every other Sunday – give and take Sundays in December when I took a break – I’d write about things like relationships, friendships, career, family and my dogs.

These are the commonplace things of life, but I’d hoped that there was a larger meaning to these personal musings. 

By sharing my experiences, I was also reflecting what some other women were going through in their lives, and just as I would come to a resolution about these issues, so might they by reading me – or at least that was my hope. 

And so when I was in my 30s, I wrote quite a bit about the tension between being happy that I was single, footloose and fancy-free, and sad at not being special enough for someone to want to marry me.

 
 

Many of my pieces were preoccupied with my relationship status because, as a woman in my 30s, I was preoccupied with that.

But there were more practical experiences, too, like what I’d learnt about looking after stroke patients after my father suffered from it, coming to terms with technology that was invading our lives, and what it was like to undergo Lasik in my 40s.

Over the years, I’ve had my share of people who liked what I wrote. To these readers, thank you. 

I’ve kept most of the snail mail and many of the e-mail I’ve received from readers.

Like my columns, they capture a certain slice of time.

Among them is a telefax message from a reader on March 31, 1998, who said she enjoyed a piece I did on exercise videotapes.

“Trouble is, ever since reading your article, I have been trying most unsuccessfully to find out where I could buy these tapes, especially the one called Callanetics!” she wrote.

In 1997, a postcard arrived from Beijing. Dated April 16, 1997, the reader said he had read my article on being 33 and feeling 17. “It reminded me also of a Bryan Adam’s song, 18 Till I Die,” he said. “I’m in the same shoes, sharing the same sentiments too.”

When I wrote about my first mobile phone in 1998, a Motorola GSM1800 StarTAC 70, the then market development manager of Motorola Singapore wrote to say he’d enjoyed the piece and “thank you for making an excellent choice for your first cellular phone”. 

He enclosed some “non-returnable marketing samples” – an NiMH StarTac battery and a charger base “for your convenience to have longer talk-time and easy charging”.

Over the years, snail mail turned to e-mail, and many of the readers’ letters made my day, like one on Jan 20, 2013.

“I have been an avid reader of your column over the past five years,” the reader said.

“From reading about your woes in singleness to being married to H, travelling, minor operation for your eye due to contact lenses, your dogs, dieting and even sharing about your craving and love for cornflake cookies (I love that too! and I bake my own cranberry cornflake cookies to sell for CNY...)

“I love the way you write and express yourself and your life. Somehow, I find myself identifying with you in many ways! Or perhaps, what you write sometimes seem to echo my current life!’’

I’ll always treasure these mail.

I’ve also had what in today’s parlance is known as “haters”, who slammed me for writing about what they saw as inane topics and being self-absorbed (but it is a personal column after all?)

I’m often asked if I’m bothered by my critics. My answer is that it comes with the territory of being in a job that puts your name out there. And if you’ve written for as many years as I have, you’re bound to find some people who don’t like you.

As a journalist, as in life, you take the good with the bad.

Another question I get a lot of is what my family feels about the columns. Over the years, my parents, niece and nephew have been grist for my column, and in the last seven years, my husband too.

I suppose they don’t mind too much because no one has strenuously made a case not to be featured.

Over 22 years, I have written more than 400 columns. Seventy-four have been chosen for this book with help from the book’s editor, Janice Heng. 

We divided them into three periods – the Nineties, Noughties and Now. They were selected based on how popular they were at the time, and how meaningful they were to me.

In the years since I began writing, social media has become the norm and we now live in a world awash in self-absorption.

Never before have people documented their lives as we do now, and anyone can do so on Facebook, blogs, forums, Twitter, Snapchat and the rest.

Is there still a role for the personal column in this Facebook-driven world of short attention spans where everyone is a chronicler of his own life? 

I like to think there is.

A personal column is more than stream of consciousness musings. You need an idea, an emotion, a desire to convey something, all fitted into a structure that has a beginning, middle and end.

Like a well-told short story, a well-crafted column has the ability to make you laugh, cry, nod your head in agreement, and break your heart. Of the 74 columns in the book, I hope a few have achieved that.

Read the excerpts here.

There is a meet-the-author session with Ms Sumiko Tan on Sunday (July 9) at 4pm at Popular Bookstore in Nex mall, Serangoon Central.