Travelling back to the past is the stuff of movies and myths, unless the mind permits an eclipse of time. In 2014, Amanda Lee Koe stumbled upon a photograph at the Strand Book Store in New York City. It depicts a costume ball in 1928 Berlin, where an unlikely trio of women — actress Marlene Dietrich, film director Leni Riefenstahl and actress Anna May Wong — were captured by photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, beaming into his camera. In Koe’s hands, the picture is a doorway in time. The 31-year-old Singapore-born writer set foot into a year-long exploration of these three women, in their own right mavericks of 20th century film, but whose journeys weren’t always smooth sailing, and tales not necessarily golden.
Earlier this year and after four years in the making, Koe has emerged with her own snapshot on the lives and times of Dietrich, Riefenstahl and Wong — in the form of her debut novel Delayed Rays of a Star. On occasion, we enlisted renowned Singapore novelist, the 71-year-old Suchen Christine Lim, for a cross-generational discussion with Koe. From woman to woman, writer to writer, and one perspective to another, the duo’s conversation that took place over the phone spans Koe’s new book, its characters, and in tandem, society’s issues at-large such as racial typecasting, gender equality and political correctness.
Amanda Lee Koe
Writer, time traveller, imaginator. Singapore-born and New York-based Amanda Lee Koe first made ripples in local and international waters with an award-winning collection of short stories, Ministry of Moral Panic, making her the youngest winner of the Singapore Literature Prize. Her second book and debut novel, Delayed Rays of a Star, is the cornerstone of the following conversation.
Suchen Christine Lim
A doyen amongst Singapore writers, Suchen Christine Lim is known for her hard-hitting storytelling and has published numerous books that uncover the layers of Singapore and Malaysia through unplumbed perspectives. Lim is the very first winner of the Singapore Literature Prize, and Koe’s interviewer in this feature.
German actress Marlene Dietrich wields influence beyond the silver screens. While she was an iconic face of 20th century cinema, Dietrich’s androgynous image has also inspired the lexicons of style and gender fluidity. Dietrich was Koe’s queer role model growing up.
Anna May Wong
Actress Anna May Wong is widely known as Hollywood’s first Chinese-American film star. Despite a prolific repertoire, Wong was largely typecast due to her race. As a result, Koe wonders if Wong knew the impact she’s had on cinema.
Germany’s pioneering female film director Leni Riefenstahl’s body of work includes propaganda films for the Nazi Party, which sparked accusations that she aided and abetted the holocaust. Riefenstahl has always denied knowing of Adolf Hitler’s true plans, but Koe thinks she was never honest with herself.
Suchen Christine Lim (SCL): Hello Amanda, I enjoyed your book! It’s very cosmopolitan.
Amanda Lee Koe (ALK): Thank you! I’m so glad you think so. What I was going for was something a little bit more post-colonial, but that wasn’t something that I could do at that point in time.
SCL: The photograph is a very lucky find. If I had found it, I wouldn’t know what to do with it.
ALK: I’m very much a lover of happenstance, so I think it’s really nice that it kind of first began with a photograph.
SCL: Something reaches out to you, right? That’s what happened to me for Fistful of Colours too. This woman appeared out of nowhere — inside my head — and it had nothing to do with whatever I was doing. How did that photograph speak to you?
ALK: I think it allowed me to have an entry point into a reimagining of history, and to think more about what narratives get told, what don’t, and who gets remembered.
SCL: Did you know something of the background of either the photographer, or these three women?
ALK: I knew all of them. There’s a very famous picture of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square by Alfred Eisenstaedt. He’s the photographer. I had known his work in a more generic sense, and I didn’t know that he had taken this particular picture. To see him doing this sort of portraiture was new for me. Marlene Dietrich was actually my queer role model. I know Anna May Wong because she appeared in a movie with Marlene where there were rumours they had an affair on that movie. As for Leni Riefenstahl, everyone just knows her generically as the person who made propaganda films for the Nazi parties. The funny thing is that one would imagine that I would have a lot to say to these three women [if I could meet them], but in a way, I feel that words are also really limited. I would rather go out dancing with them.
Marlene was really a notorious party animal, so I think we would probably have a lot of fun. Out of the three, Anna May might’ve been the one who was most likely to have died thinking that her legacy would be forgotten in time. She passed on in 1961, in her 50s, and the last role that she played was a housemaid called Tawny, so I think she probably died not knowing whether her performance would’ve stood the test of time. I’d want to tell her that film history hasn’t forgotten her, and that she’s more than good enough to play a leading role in a Hollywood movie. For Leni Riefenstahl, one would think that I would certainly have questions for her about being complicit with the National Socialist Party, but to be honest, I really don’t think she would be truthful with me because I think she wasn’t even truthful to herself.
SCL: That’s very interesting that you thought she wasn’t truthful to herself. I felt she was being exploited in some ways by the forces.
ALK: Yes, and I didn’t want to paint her one way or another too clearly, but I do think that she was both exploiting, and also being exploited.
SCL: You chose certain periods of their lives to focus on. How did you decide which?
ALK: I think the book actually jumps across time and space, so we eventually do get a good snapshot of the three women at varying ages and in different places. I did want something that could take a more lateral, kaleidoscopic approach. After reading all the research, I chose specific periods of time that I felt was a formative period for each of them, but I also wanted to make sure that these windows of time that I selected wasn’t just going to be them at their most glamorous, as that would just feel like an HBO biopic. I think it would’ve been much simpler for me to have done a linear story. What I went for was actually much harder not only for me, but it also makes it harder on the reader, but I hope that it’s also more rewarding and less limiting.
SCL: I don’t think it’s harder on the reader because by now, most accomplished readers would be used to this jump in time and focus. When I gave talks on writing history, people always ask, “How do you not allow all this research to overwhelm you when you are writing?” You took several years to do this book, so how did you fight that?
ALK: I worked on this novel for four years, and I was quite paralysed and mesmerised by the research the whole of the first year. After that, I just felt that if I didn’t free myself from the archive, then I was going to go down with it. I think there just comes a point where you have to decide for yourself that you are familiar enough with the historical facts and it’s time for you to come on with your voice and tackle the material in a way that can make it all come together.
SCL: And you decided on a particular narrative tone, didn’t you?
ALK: I did decide on the tone and the structure, but I didn’t actually make a plan for the plot. Do you plan out your plots?
SCL: Oh that’s good, like a butterfly. No I don’t, and I remember comparing it with a guy who writes novels and he told me all the plans he had. He pasted them on the wall.
ALK: That sounds scary.
SCL: When I tried it his way, it almost killed me, so I decided to chuck all that and go back to my butterfly way.
ALK: I like that you characterised it as a butterfly, because for me, sometimes the process feels so haphazard. But when you say that, it makes me feel more graceful (laughs).
Role Models, Empathy and A Larger Power
ALK: I identify most with Marlene as she was my teenage queer icon. I actually used to have this huge poster of her in my bedroom while I was in Singapore, which is really unlikely for a 15-year-old growing up on our island. She did whatever she wanted, and she didn’t care what anybody’s opinion of her was, and that was really how I wanted to live my life as well. I wanted to be free, and that wasn’t easy in a more conformist Singapore. I really identified with her strong-headedness, wilfulness and her audacity.
But then of course I also identified with Anna May, as a Chinese woman trying to circumvent systemic racism in Hollywood. I was very aware that I may be a minority in New York, but I’m also from the majority in Singapore as a Chinese person. So although I can identify with Anna May, I don’t carry the same sort of historical baggage — an embodied trauma — that a person that has grown up as a member of a minority race in New York or Singapore would’ve experienced. Beyond skin colour, she kind of feels like an introvert who can perform well socially. Someone who can be the life of the party, but also needs a lot of alone time. I think that’s quite me.
SCL: Does that mean you created this Anna May? Or did you read her biography?
ALK: I read her biography, and other people’s anecdotes on her.
SCL: I read your book with an interest and a curiosity, and because of the way Marlene was first portrayed, I see her as an old lady struggling with her infirmities. I can understand that — it’s universal especially for readers like me in their 70s.
ALK: I’m sure you’re very healthy.
SCL: I am a very attractive 70, of course (laughs). You portray Anna May at what I call the laundry period of Chinese migration, which I had written about in a non-fiction book, and also dealt with in The River’s Song, so I could understand that. It was the third woman, Leni, that was entirely new for me, because I’ve never heard of her and her propaganda. But it suddenly dawned on me that that’s not so different from all those movies produced during the Mao Zedong period — the cultural revolution.
ALK: Yes, exactly! I’m so glad you brought it up because unsurprisingly, Leni was also the hardest character for me to get into. It was important to me not to make a simplistic judgement on any of my characters in spite of how they had gone down in history; the dubious choices they had made, all the moral conundrums they had found themselves in… With Leni, how I eventually tried to identify with her was actually by thinking of the relationship between political systems, and cultural soft power. So, state sanctioned art isn’t at all unique to the Nazi party. You look at Mao Zedong, or you look at the Soviet regime and the composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Closer to home, and although I’m sure local artists are grateful for government grants, I mean one has to ask, do these things come at a price, ultimately?
SCL: I was just about to say that (laughs). Someone described you as “voraciously intelligent”, and you have to be an intelligent person to really suss that out.
ALK: I’m not a fan of labels. Even if I don’t consciously think of myself as a feminist, at the same time, of course I am a feminist because how could I not be? Feminism is pretty straightforward to me. It is the simple fact that men are not any better than women. I think every individual is subjective, and no one should be discriminated against for belonging to any subset — be it gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or religion. In that sense, I do consider myself a feminist.
SCL: Men are never asked if they are masculinists. I write about women, but I also write about men in several of my novels and short fiction. I understand that commercially the label “feminist” helps to pack an author and sell books. At the same time, the label suggests the feminist woman writer is concerned with women issues, yet our female mind embraces far more than that. Mao Zedong said, “Women hold up half the sky”. While we are holding up half the sky, we are also concerned with the other half of the sky held up by men. I look at the state of the world, and the men who are prime ministers and presidents, and wonder, “How can you let half the sky fall?” I’m worried about our future. Whether you’re a banker or a king, in the writer’s imagination, you are centre stage. Even if you are a beggar or a murderer, there you are. We pay attention to the heart, and to what goes on.
ALK: Women who are creators today still get the shorter end of the stick, and I think it was the architect Zaha Hadid who said something along the lines of, “If I were a man, would they still say I was a diva?” I think the language that gets used on ambitious men versus ambitious women is very telling. Women would be pushy or opinionated, whereas men would be strong, visionary leaders. It makes me so mad, but I’ve also come around to just owning it, because I don’t think any of this is actually going away anytime soon. If someone’s going to call me a stubborn diva just because I know exactly what I want, then go for it. When I wrote this op-ed about preserving Singapore’s modernist architecture during the time Pearl Bank was at risk, someone called me a naive ingénue. Would they have said that to a male journalist? From stubborn diva to naive ingénue, it all amuses me, and I relish in all of it.
SCL: I was called an empress once (laughs). I responded, “No, I’m an empress dowager.”
ALK: That’s fantastic.
SCL: But I draw the line at “bitch”. No one wants that kind of word.
Political Correctness and Progression
ALK: I think political correctness is a double-edged sword. It has allowed for more representation, but I also don’t know what it means, and if and when that representation is kind of superficial. In relation to corporate culture, I’m super suspicious of political correctness and representation, because I feel that a lot of that is just for the social capital that leads to actual capital. I think companies just want to look good, and I understand that the wheels of late-stage capitalism still have to be oiled but I’m really not a fan of empowertisement — [a portmanteau of] empowerment and advertisement — because I think it’s really insidious to link empowerment to consumption.
It bothers me that female empowerment has become a big marketing impetus. Some people say at least the message is out there, but I think that this does little to nothing for true gender equality, because it just makes feminism something that you put on a hashtag — something that is pretty and monetisable. It looks good, it sounds good, and it smells good, but there is no real empathy or social unity, or political progressiveness that underpins it. I’m really waiting for a feminism that is more inclusive, more progressive, and more intersectional.
SCL: There is also a politeness in the way we speak up about things, as if we are bowing to some unknown force or authority. The truth then sounds a bit rude. In Singapore, a feminism that would take would be the women who drive buses, the women who wash clothes, and the women who clean people’s homes.
ALK: In terms of progression, I simply hope that women develop more ways of subverting stereotypes, and to have their cake and eat it too.
SCL: I am a realist. I look at the world and nothing much has changed except technology. The world order, the social hierarchy…The 21st century is only 19 years old so it’s not much different from the 20th century. Now in Donald Trump’s America, raising colour of one’s skin is still an issue, and worse still, he’s brought in religion. So if you are Muslim and you are not white, it’s terrible if you are living in America.
Well, Amanda, perhaps luckily you are a writer and not entering into the world of big metres and the microchip industry of Huawei, isn’t it? Otherwise you will definitely be side lined. If Anna May were an actress today, technically Hollywood will exploit her beauty; beauty still opens doors for women of the 21st century. But I think what has changed for me — and since the novel has a background of the film industry — is that there is a growing vanguard of women scriptwriters, directors and producers. I’m not sure about the financers though, who will eventually change the balance of power.
ALK: Suchen, you know my partner Kirsten Tan [the film director] right? Have you met her?
SCL: Yes, and I’ve seen her film! I’ve admired her boots too. I didn’t know she was your partner.
ALK: I feel very happy that I’m able to be writing a novel and that Kirsten is able to be making films, and we’re able to be women who are creating work. It’s fantastic that you mentioned this new vanguard of female creators.
SCL: I think this new vanguard of creators, like you, has probably come about because of your mother’s generation.
ALK: And yours too.
SCL: Definitely, and I’m so happy.
This article first appeared in ELLE Singapore’s September Issue.