The Importance of Being Authentic: Writer and Host Jemimah Wei Says It Like It Is
Choosing to become a writer is simply not the most feasible nor practical profession in Singapore – something which Jemimah Wei acknowledged candidly. It doesn’t pay much, it can be very challenging, and it certainly isn’t the most secured career path. Well aware of such pragmatic concerns, Jemimah still gravitated towards being a writer, a calling that she finds most fulfilling and meaningful.
And now, not only is she a National Arts Council Scholarship and a Columbia Writing Scholarship recipient, but she has also bagged numerous literary awards and nominations, and even a literary fellowship with Columbia University. From being an avid blogger to a copywriter, a host, and finally an up-and-coming writer, Jemimah is definitely a woman of many talents and achievements.
Clad entirely in local fashion – a dress designed by fashion label Dear Samfu, and earrings designed by illustrator Tee Tee Hee Hee – Jemimah eagerly shared with host Nicholas Chee her life journey, her growth as a writer thus far, and her insights into the literary industry in the last instalment of Say it like it is.
This four-part series is made possible with the support from Our Singapore Fund, featuring figures from Singapore’s creative and cultural industries in hopes of inspiring fellow creatives with frank conversations about their climb to success. All of the videos are still up for viewing on the Facebook group SG COVID-19 Creative/Cultural Professionals & Freelancers Support Group.
Jemimah’s love and passion for writing first began with what was one of the trendiest activities during her secondary school days: blogging. It was – and still is – so important to her that she “credited a lot of [her] life to it.” She fondly remembered how she blogged about the most personal, mundane things, even when there might be nobody reading. Her parents tried to stop her out of concern, but she kept going back to it out of the sheer desire to write.
In hindsight, the blogging routine helped her in several ways that are productive to her literary endeavours now. She explained that blogging has developed a double consciousness in her when writing – writing can be an intensely personal affair, yet she is also aware that people may be reading her content, so she has to set boundaries.
More importantly, it gave her space to tinker with sentences and words and understand their nuances: “What [blogging] does is that it cultivates in you a relationship with words… This is a kind of writing that is alive in a way that writing in a book cannot have.”
As it turned out, her blog was read by people, and this provided her an opportunity to become a copywriter and social media strategist at Havas Media. This job would become one of the many jobs that she juggled with while getting her degree in Nanyang Technological University. In 2013, her second year of university, she decided on a whim to send ClickNetwork video content that she had made with her then-roommate. This risk-taking paid off, and she was pleasantly surprised when ClickNetwork responded positively and eventually hired her to be their host.
Her job as a host, however, did not start out smoothly. She faced a lot of resistance and criticism from the viewers for the first series she did. It was very discouraging and terrifying for 21-year-old Jemimah, but she refused to concede: “I [could have] either give up [then]…and people are forever going to remember me as some lousy girl who showed up and talked rubbish, or I could just continue until I get better. Because if you keep doing something, you will get better.”
Jemimah did recognise that being a host came with perks that may be hard to attain elsewhere. She explained: “[Becoming a host] definitely opened a lot of opportunities for me. I am very aware that when I go in to pitch my ideas to clients, about initiatives that have not been done before in Singapore, a lot of that is riding on the fact that they have a certain idea about the kind of cultural capital I carry from having been raised as a host.”
Besides, things weren’t always bleak that year for Jemimah. Her first publication, a short story called “George”, was accepted by Math Paper Press’ anthology, From the Belly of the Cat, edited by Stephanie Ye. The story resurfaced again in 2015, having received honourable mention in Best New Singaporean Short Stories.
But it would only be in 2020, seven years later, that Jemimah published another piece. Saddled with university, ghost-writing gigs, and her jobs at Havas Media and ClickNetwork, she did not have time to write. She had also just begun dating her current fiancé. As she said: “I’m not from the kind of family that can afford for me to just dabble in things. I’m the oldest of three children. We were born with no money, so money is always at the forefront of my mind.”
Even so, she never gave up on writing, and she certainly didn’t give up on reading. Her love for reading, and her desire to spread this love with other Singaporeans, were clearly felt when she shared about #JemmaRecommends with pride. The initiative kicked off in 2017 with Changi Airport in order to encourage Singaporeans to read books, especially books that they might enjoy and make them want to continue reading. The airport bookstore would shelf books that she considered entertaining and thought-provoking, curated for either short- or long-haul flights.
Jemimah only started reconsidering writing as a career when Tash Aw, an informal writing mentor whom she credited as one of her biggest influences, “made it seem possible” to her that “[she] could make a career out of writing.” With that in mind, she explored where a writing career could go in Singapore. She ventured into screenwriting and script consultancy, and she took publishing internships in London for two months.
Her publishing internship with 4th Estate Books and literary agency Aitken Associates in London had especially allowed her to glean the practical side of a writing career beyond the aesthetic aspects: “I got to look through author contracts and understand a bit more about the pragmatics, about the business side of writing.”
When she returned to Singapore at the end of 2018, under Tash Aw’s encouragement, she decided to apply to Columbia University for a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Fiction. Needless to say, she was utterly thrilled when she received a call from Columbia University in March 2019 to tell her that she got into the programme. She shared that she was especially excited and grateful to have the time to work on improving her craft, and to be part of a literary community.
However, even though her literary prospects were looking up, things weren’t that smooth sailing for Jemimah. Other than a small but traumatic housing hiccup when she first moved to New York, the biggest obstacle proved to be the pandemic that hit the United States early 2020. Because of that, she was forced to come back to Singapore mid-semester. And now, with her school term started again, she is straddling between New York and Singapore time zones in order to attend her virtual classes.
Despite all of the setbacks that could have crippled her motivation and productivity, Jemimah still thrived. Her first international publication, Waiting, was also a finalist for SmokeLong Quarterly Award, a magazine dedicated to publishing flash fiction. Two of her pieces, The Life Cycle of Temporal Biomatter Attachments and Everything is Fine, were nominated for Pushcart Prize, a prize that honours literary pieces published by small presses. Just a week ago, she received news that she got an honorary mention for the Francine Ringold Awards for New Writers for her short story, Bleach.
Yet, even with all of these achievements, Jemimah still suffers from imposter syndrome. She shared that one thing she is most afraid of is that she’s not being audacious enough in writing: “There’s a lot of fear that comes with writing. Also, because writing is so personal, and so it renders you in a state that is very vulnerable. Because of that, it’s easy to resort to things you’re already good at.”
Rejection is also one of her main fears in writing. But after getting rejected by so many magazines, she regards rejection as a significant process of being a writer now, since it meant that she “gave it her shot.”
As she put it: “It still stinks when you get rejected. You can’t help but take it personally. I think people who say they don’t care are just lying, or maybe they’re just stronger than me […] It is something you will take personally. I think learning to be okay with being hurt, and learning to understand objectively that [rejection] is probably not personal, and learning how to manage all those emotions is way better than shutting yourself off from those emotions.”
With such maturity and humility in her outlook in her life and career, Jemimah Wei is definitely a writer to look out for. She believes wholeheartedly that “it is so important to be authentic” in her writing, and that translated to how she came across throughout the whole episode.
Besides working on her debut novel, she is working with ClickNetwork on two projects: she wrote an episode of an anthology series called Dear Internet that is coming out in 2021, and she has hosted another documentary series called Public Investigator that is up for watching now. She is especially looking forward to a commissioned play that she wrote for a school that will most likely be showing next year.
All these and many more, about Jemimah’s favourite piece of her own work, her reason for pursuing master’s, her literary influences, her book recommendations for Nicholas, on this episode of Say it like it is. Follow Jemimah @jemmawei on both Instagram and Twitter.
(1:46) Start of episode
(4:12) On how 2020 has been like for Jemimah
(7:56) On Jemimah’s honourable mention for Francine Ringold Award for New Writers
(10:54) On how writing is like a job
(13:56) On how Jemimah got into blogging
(21:42) On how Jemimah became a strategist and social media manager in Havas
(25:11) On how Jemimah became a host
(33:19) On Jemimah’s first piece of published work
(34:19) On Jemimah’s hiatus from publishing works
(38:05) On Jemimah’s master’s in Singapore
(39:15) On Singapore’s publishing scene
(40:03) On whether Singapore needs literary agents
(42:14) On Jemimah’s application to Columbia University’s MFA
(43:38) On Jemimah’s New York housing experience
(49:05) On Jemimah’s first international publication
(52:03) On Jemimah’s favourite personal piece of work
(54:20) On Jemimah’s #JemmaRecommends
(59:50) On what Jemimah decided to pursue a master’s degree.
(1:01:27) On publishing flash fiction
(1:02:27) On whether Jemimah prefers writing flash fiction over short stories
(1:04:00) On what Jemimah is most afraid of
(1:07:13) On Jemimah’s biggest regrets at this point in her career
(1:08:10) On whether social media presence is important for writers
(1:14:19) On Jemimah’s book recommendations for Nicholas
(1:18:48) On whether the business aspect affects Jemimah’s writing
(1:23:50) On being rejected many times
(1:28:06) On Jemimah’s literary influences
(1:32:46) On Jemimah’s advice for her sixteen-year-old self
(1:35:20) On Jemimah’s upcoming projects