Prize-winning book sprung from mid-life crisis

Yeoh Jo-Ann's debut novel is about the relationship between a teacher and a homeless woman

Yeoh Jo-Ann hopes her novel will make people stop and think, and imagine something different.
Yeoh Jo-Ann hopes her novel will make people stop and think, and imagine something different.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Turning 35 years old jolted Yeoh Jo-Ann into completing her first novel.

The author, now 36, says it was "like having your life smack you in the face", a fortnight of feeling the lowest she had ever felt.

She could not shake off the idea that she might be halfway through her life or, even more than that, if she were to die at the same age as her father. He died of cancer, aged 60.

Yeoh, a client operations director with a digital marketing agency, emerged from the meltdown with two resolutions - one, put her family ahead of her career; and two, finish the novel she had been meaning to write.

That manuscript, Impractical Uses Of Cake, went on to win Singapore's richest literary award, the $25,000 Epigram Books Fiction Prize, last Thursday. It will be published next year, along with three others from the shortlist.

In the novel, a 35-year-old teacher meets a woman from his past who is now homeless and living out of a cardboard box. The relationship they form forces him to re-evaluate his well-ordered but empty life.

"This story is about having enough and wanting more, but not being able to express that because you are not able to articulate what you really want or need," Yeoh wrote in a description of her novel.

The former Singapore Press Holdings Magazines features editor, who is single, was once what you might call a material girl.

She says: "I bought so many handbags, clothes and superfluous luxury items. I feel ashamed of this now, but back then, I felt I needed them."

As dreams go, she adds, the Singapore dream is not a bad one. "It's perfectly normal and understandable to want the comfortable home, the partner, the kids and financial security," she adds.

"But we need to want more after we get it. People tend to stop pushing themselves to do more with what they've got."

Yeoh, the daughter of an engineer-turned-entrepreneur and a housewife, is Malaysian and a Singapore permanent resident.

The author has lived in Singapore since she was 15. She has a younger sister, who is in training to be a helicopter pilot.

A fan of Malaysian writer Tash Aw and Scottish mystery novelist Alexander McCall Smith, she began writing when she was 10 years old - "god-awful imitations of Enid Blyton novels", she recalls.

Her short stories have been published in local anthologies such as In Transit (2016) and The Epigram Books Collection Of Best New Singaporean Short Stories: Vol 3 (2017).

She studied English literature at the National University of Singapore. One of the people who inspired her was Professor Rajeev S. Patke, director of the humanities division at Yale-NUS College, who turned out to be one of the judges for the prize, which was judged blind.

He praised her novel for its "sensitivity and tact" and the way it "reveals a whole side of Singapore that many people here may not be aware of".

Over the years, Yeoh became interested in the problem of homelessness in Singapore. She was shocked to see people sleeping rough at Hougang Central.

When she tried to talk to friends about homelessness, she was troubled by how little it seemed to bother them.

She says: "People act like it doesn't exist. Problems like elitist schools get a lot more attention than something that should disturb you more."

She began to imagine how she would survive as a homeless person - where to shower, sleep, find food and get free stuff. She also asked friends what they would do and read articles on the homeless in Singapore.

She did not meet any actual homeless people to research the novel, however.

"I wish I had," she says. "But at the same time, I didn't want the novel to be just about homelessness."

She hopes her book will provide food for thought.

A friend once told her the books he enjoys are the opposite of page-turners - books that make him pause and ponder.

She adds: "I don't need to change someone's life, but I would like to make people stop and think, and imagine something different."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 27, 2018, with the headline 'Prize-winning book sprung from mid-life crisis'. Print Edition | Subscribe