An Interview with Shze-Hui Tjoa
Hailing from Singapore originally, Shze-Hui Tjoa now lives in London, where she works across nonfiction genres from memoir and lyric essays to cultural criticism. Her work has appeared in Southeast Review, So to Speak, the Oxford-Cambridge University anthology The Mays, and more. A list of her work and Shze-Hui’s blog can both be found on her website. She also holds several honors and awards, including a notable essay, “On Being in Love with a White Man,” in The Best American Essays 2021, which also won So to Speak’s nonfiction contest the year prior.
One of her newest pieces, “The Story of Body,” was published in the Spring 2022 issue of Colorado Review. Associate editor Megan Lear conducted an interview with Shze-Hui to discuss what she views as a pivotal piece of writing in her life.
Megan Lear: The reader sees body grow from daughter, to lover, to alive throughout your essay. We watch body navigate womanhood, reclaim her personhood, and begin to heal. Could you speak a little to the process behind writing “The Story of Body”?
Shze-Hui Tjoa: “The Story of Body” was the culmination of a yearslong process. At the end of 2018, I started writing what I thought would be a series of politically informed essays about various places and people that looked aspirational on the outside but were actually perilously close to rotten on the inside. But as the years went on, these essays became more self-reflective, and began to turn inward. And that was where “The Story of Body” came from.
When I first started working on it in 2021, I thought that it was going to be a part of this same political series—a serious, journalistic commentary about the ills of Singapore’s education system. But no matter how much I tried to produce this piece of writing, something inside me kept resisting. So eventually, after many months of trying, I gave up and decided that I would write whatever felt easiest and most natural for me—even if it was “only” the story of my own life and experiences. And that was when “The Story of Body” appeared. I basically wrote it in a single long draft over two or three nights, feeling shaken by all the sentences that kept pouring out of me. And then I sent it off immediately, without any edits.
So the text itself appeared very quickly on the page, but in effect it had taken me three full years of thinking to get there—to get to the point where I was able to stop looking for rot in the world outside me, and look honestly at what was happening inside myself instead.
You know, in some ways, I would say that “The Story of Body” is the essay that I have spent my whole life up to now trying to write. In fact, I suspect that I became a writer many years ago—back when I was a teenager—precisely because I hoped that I might one day be able to find the words for this story and tell it to myself and other people.
ML: We’re introduced to body as a nameless entity. I was struck by this choice—to strip the name and pronouns from a person, to relabel someone by de-labeling them—and was hoping you could speak more to the role identity plays in your essays.
ST: Thank you for picking up on this!
For me, this act of de-labeling myself was crucial to the success of the essay. I knew that I had to find some way to bend language, to convey what it felt like to be me at the time—ostensibly moving through the world like a whole and functioning person, while actually lacking in some essential qualities of selfhood. I felt that ordinary first-person pronoun, “I,” didn’t quite cut it. It obfuscated too much and suggested too much coherence in the speaking voice. So I spent a long time playing around with different alternatives, until I eventually read Lydia Davis’s poem, “Head, Heart,” and landed on this idea of the body as a self-directed character.
In all my writing I try very hard not to let linguistic convention smother away the complexities of personal identity. Identity is an incredibly messy and complicated thing! And I want my writing to be able to embrace this mess. The more I write, too, the more I understand that selfhood is a history of change and growth—you are an amalgamation of all the various personas that you have ever played. Increasingly, I am trying to integrate all that chaos into my writing voice, instead of eliding it to maintain an impression of consistency. I want there to be a space for all my past selves to speak without shame in my art.
ML: The reader follows mind almost as closely as they follow body; when body tires, “Mind wants to move on.” How do you view the connection between mind and body? Did this connection change as you wrote the piece?
ST: The connection actually changed for me after I’d finished writing the piece, not as I wrote it. I used to live almost exclusively in my head, as you know from “The Story of Body”! So with this essay, my mind got there first with its narrative, as it often does. And only then was my body able to catch up with its sensations and feelings.
I didn’t write anything new for almost half a year after I completed this essay in 2021. Instead, I went through a period of learning to live more fully and comfortably in my body. I started trampolining regularly for exercise, and eating well, and lying outside in the sun, and I spent a lot of time just looking at nature, feeling grateful to be alive and capable of feeling it all. The way I move through the world is so different now! Even the way I write has changed: I used to chain myself to my desk in this very strict and unhappy way, punishing myself into producing new texts on a schedule. But nowadays, I write, and dance, and play music on my guitar all at once, doing whatever makes my senses feel good. And it all feels like play, not like work—so the writing has that lightness as well.
Honestly, I think it’s not an exaggeration to say that writing “The Story of Body” gave me back the joy of being alive.
ML: There is a line from your essay I’d like to talk about: “Because body is the one who remembers what happened, mind is always trying to punish body.” What role does memory play in your writing?
ST: I am fascinated by the mechanics of memory! In fact, I work almost exclusively in nonfiction because I’m so curious about this interplay between life as it’s lived and life as it’s narrated in hindsight by people.
Specifically, I’m very interested in the excesses of memory—the parts of what a person experiences that they can’t fit neatly into the confines of a narrative. Maybe because what happened might have been too painful for language—like in my case with “The Story of Body.” But sometimes I think this excess can also have to do with a person’s environment—maybe the dominant culture that they grew up in simply has no words for their particular experiences. And that’s where it gets really fun for me as a writer because when there are no existing words that you can borrow to describe your memories adequately, you have to invent new ones! You have to try something radical; you have to play.
I love to see what can happen when a memoirist is brave enough to keep looking at the excess in their memories instead of looking away. And I often find that that’s where the really seismic innovation comes from in creative nonfiction—when you get a writer who remains staunch in their quest to honour the totality of what they remember, instead of settling for a narrative that’s sleeker, but doesn’t quite fit. One great example is this CNF piece from Colorado Review’s own Summer 2020 issue: “Susan: A Partial Dictionary,” by Yelizaveta P. Renfro. It’s such an amazing demonstration of what can happen when someone takes the time to generate new signifiers that fit their memories, instead of defaulting to available forms and clichés. That’s where the real healing comes from, I think, in memoir writing—when a writer persists in bringing new language to formlessness so that something that was previously unspeakable can start to sing.
ML: Finally, could you share a bit about your current project, a memoir-in-essays?
ST: I won’t say too much about the book, because it’s still in the process of being written (and telling me what exactly it wants to become)!
But in brief, it’s a memoir about the past three and a half years of my life—when I thought that I was telling all these politically charged stories about the world outside me, but was, in actual fact, moving closer and closer toward discovering my own forgotten traumas. It’s a book about how I used language as a guide to eventually figure out who I was, and remember the story of my own life.
The book has an unusual, experimental structure. It alternates between a series of essays and my reflections as the writer behind the desk, producing these essays. In this way, it’s perhaps similar to the work of an artist like Jeannie Vanasco—taking readers behind the scenes of the creative process so that they can see how the writer is changed by the act of writing.
Working on this manuscript fills me with so much excitement and energy! I can’t wait until it’s finished so that I can share it with other people.
Megan Lear is an MFA candidate at Colorado State University and an associate editor for Colorado Review.