We had the good fortune of connecting with Jemimah Wei and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Jemimah, why did you pursue a creative career?
I’ve always identified as a writer since I was a child — because I saw writing as a verb, as something you do. Not necessarily something you got paid for. I didn’t think it was possible to be a writer, professionally, but I’d always done things that were writing adjacent — I freelanced as a copywriter and a presenter for years, did some screenwriting for local productions in Singapore, worked on passion projects that had to do with promoting reading and writing locally and regionally, all the while scribbling in private. I applied to the Columbia MFA on the recommendation of a mentor, thinking it was a long shot… and when I was offered a place, it was literally a dream come true. Writing for me is the most important thing, there was no option for me not to accept it. Ever since, I’ve been between New York and Singapore, writing and studying fiction, and now I’m based in the Bay Area as a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, where I write fiction full time.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I am very much still in-progress, but that I’m able to make a life of writing is something that I guard fiercely and treasure deeply. It took almost a decade in the workforce to feel financially secure enough to relocate across the world in pursuit of my MFA and a writing life. I knew early on that it would be hard for me to write and work at the same time — I worked in advertising for three years, and at the end of each day I was completely creatively drained. Following that I freelanced for eight years, which I thought would give me more control over how I’d divide my time. But when your time can be directly quantified in monetary terms, I found that I couldn’t justify not working every free minute. I was still writing whenever I could, but it was difficult — in ways that weren’t just to do with carving out actual writing time. The anxiety that comes with not knowing if you’re financially secure, and having the apparent solution be within reach, made it very hard, personally, to productively write. Moving to the States in 2019 was a hard pivot for me, but one I’d been working towards for a long time, and I was hungry for every second of conferencing with other writers, reading, writing. At present I’m a working writer at Stanford as a Stegner Fellow, which is really a dream come true. Every day I’m thankful that I get to wake up and have my only true obligation be to my words. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
I just moved to the Bay a hot second ago, so I know next to nothing about the area. I’m the one who needs recommendations! But realistically, if my best friend were visiting, we would automatically have the best time ever no matter what we were doing — we’d be talking our heads off twelve hours a day!
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
Mentorship and community to me have been immensely important and affecting. I met Tash Aw, the Malaysian writer, when he conducted a masterclass in Singapore. He was the first person to recognize how serious I was about writing, and his mentorship was crucial in the way I conceived of a writing life. Later, when I moved to New York, I found my own literary tribe, a group of Southeast Asian and Asian American writers — Grace Liew, Vanessa Chan, Gina Chung — and their commitment to supporting and uplifting other Asian writers online even as they grow and achieve is something I have immense respect for. I love that I can look to my peers as inspirations and companions in the long writing journey.