Debut novelist Jolene Tan exposes a darker side of schooling in Singapore in A Certain Exposure, published by Epigram Books this month.
The novel begins with the funeral of a government scholar, who commits suicide after being bullied, and follows the effect of his death on family and friends.
Though names of persons and places are changed, many of the incidents of petty cruelty and student violence in the novel are inspired by real life, says the 31-year-old.
“There was a boy in school, everybody knew the rugby players had taken him into a toilet and p***ed on him. Or this girl who everybody knew had had sex on a pool table, but it never occurred to me to think about what went on behind that knowledge,” says Tan, who studied at Raffles Girls’ Secondary School and Raffles Junior College before reading law at Cambridge and Harvard.
“It never occurred to me to ask, did they want this to happen? Why is it that we all knew about it? Who made this knowledge public and how voluntary was that act?”
Tan is programmes and communications senior manager of gender equality advocacy group, the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware). She is also one of the founders of the No To Rape campaign to repeal part of the Penal Code, which does not consider non-consensual sex within a marriage to be rape.
She has written several non-fiction articles on rights issues for The Straits Times, worked for the Prisons Reform Trust in the United Kingdom and was a freelance editor in Germany.
She returned to Singapore just last year after 12 years away, with her husband, a researcher in developmental biology. They have a two-year-old daughter.
A Certain Exposure is both eye-opening and entertaining. It runs the emotional gamut from pathos to black comedy, as Tan paints a portrait of racism and class barriers which still exist in Singapore.
“I want readers to enjoy reading the book. For me, reading is primarily for pleasure,” says the author, who began her literary career at age six.
“I used to carry these notebooks around with me and write stories about my dolls,” she says, recalling her first effort: Blinky And Rachel Go To The Beach.
The younger of two children and the only girl, Tan has always been an avid reader, enjoying science-fiction and fantasy writers such as Anne McCaffrey and literary authors such as A.S. Byatt.
Her mother taught at a primary school and her father, now retired, worked in an oil company.
In secondary school, Tan and a friend wrote a fan letter to well-known Singapore novelist Catherine Lim, asking for advice on how to get published.