One for reality

One for reality

talking point

One for reality

Born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 44-year-old Mei Fong has a Masters in International Affairs from the Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

She began her career as a journalist with The New Paper in Singapore, and later joined The Wall Street Journal as their China correspondent. Her nose for news and eye for details took her to great heights in her chosen career path, where she even won a shared Pulitzer for her stories on China’s transformative process ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She enjoys the distinction of being the first Malaysian to win a Pulitzer. She is also the recipient of several awards, including the Human Rights Press Award from Amnesty International, and the Hong Kong Correspondents Club, for her stories on China’s migrant workers.

A full-time author now, her book, One Child: The Past and Future of China’s Most Radical Experiment, which is a moving account of the impact of China’s single-child policy on China and the world, has been garnering rave reviews.

Currently a Fellow at New America Foundation, this mother of two boys is married to journalism professor Andrew Lih, and lives in Greater Washington DC.
Excerpts from an interview:

What describes you best — writer or journalist?

I feel like I’ve been a writer all my life, but my professional life has been as a journalist. I think they complement one another. Having been a working journalist most of my adult life, I can’t get too indulgent about things like writer’s block. You learn to get on and push on because of your deadlines. But of course, the flip side of that is journalism trains you to write in a nasty, brutish and short fashion. You have to unlearn that. I feel like I’m now at a stage where I’m trying to meld the best of these two worlds.

When did you realise your passion for writing?

My passion for writing was born out of my passion for reading, which came late in life. I was the 5th child, and as such, left to my own devices, as my parents were too busy. So I came to reading quite late. I distinctly remember the title of the very first book I read. It was Enid Blyton’s The Green Story Book, when I was about six or seven. I remember reading it through, the revelation of a whole new world opening up for me that was my very own. From there came the desire to create the world for myself. I scribbled little stories on my exercise books, and then, when I was 16, I  won a prize in the Commonwealth Essay writing competition.

It so happened that year Malaysia was hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) and on the strength of my essay win, I was invited to meet the Queen of England. Truth be told, I wasn’t so excited about meeting the Queen — I would’ve preferred Prince Andrew, who was in his ‘Randy Andy’ phase then — but my parents, who were also invited, were thrilled. They were still products of the colonial era, where the Royal Family was very revered. And suddenly, I went from the neglected 5th daughter to a child who had done something they could brag about. So I realised that writing wasn’t just a tool to open doors in my mind, it could literally open doors and be my ticket to the world.

What book do you wish you had written?

Anything by Saki. Midnight’s Children. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Cold Comfort Farm. East of Eden. The God of Small Things. The list goes on. I remember reading an obituary on Sidney Sheldon, whose potboilers were described as ‘making the plane go faster.’ That’s a good goal to aim for.

Do you have a regular writing routine?

One of the best primers on the craft of writing is Stephen King’s On Writing, where he says you have to put in a solid four to five hours at the desk a day writing if you are to call yourself a professional writer. I subscribe to that. I don’t always succeed, because I have two small kids. I remember a line in one of Ian Fleming’s books, where M tells Bond not to have serious girlfriends, ‘they hang on to your gun arm.’ Sadly, kids — they hang on to your writing arm.

Your literary influences?

Orwell, Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers... I am an omnivorous reader and I devour almost every genre, except perhaps manga.

Your current read...

I just finished Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain, which I enjoyed. It’s set in Penang during World War II and deals with a young martial arts apprentice who becomes friends with his Japanese sensei, only to deal with issues of betrayal and trust. I enjoyed it immensely because it deals with an area of the world I know very well. I also recently finished Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, where a doctor recounts in aching
details his fight with cancer. It’s a breathtaking meditation on life. I’m lost in admiration for these doctors of Indian descent who’ve written beautifully about disease, and dying. Atul Gawande, Paul Kalanithi, and I’ve just started Siddartha Mukerjee’s Gene. These guys can save lives and write deathless prose... I’m torn between awe and jealousy.

As a child, which book was your best?

Once, my mother sent me down to the stores to buy some groceries. As was my habit, I wandered into the bookstore first, and happened to pick up a copy of Anne of Green Gables. Next thing you know, I had spent the grocery money on Anne. I was so hooked on the book I was convinced my mother would somehow welcome a book over dinner vegetables. I was sent scuttling back to the store. But my mother later relented, and I did get my copy of Anne, which is about how a child’s world can be transformed through imagination. That’s a powerful message.

The best place to sit and write...

Anyplace where my children can’t reach me.

If not a writer, what would you be?

Working someplace surrounded by books. Maybe a librarian or running a book store, someplace that plays jazz and is filled with the smell of coffee, buttery scones and cracked leather binding. I’d probably never make any money, but that’s my idea of heaven.

What do awards and accolades mean to you?

I try to do a job well for the sake of doing it at all, but I’m not going to lie to you,
affirmation matters.

Your fave person in the world?

My husband, Andrew. Except when he leaves his clothes on the floor.

You idolise...

Nobody. I admire a lot of people, but there’s always the cynical journalist in me that reminds me of their feet of clay.

Your chosen cuisine?

I’m fortunate in being born in Malaysia, so I’ve been raised with a mélange of
Chinese and Indian food — mostly South Indian — plus Malay food.

A cause dear to your heart...

Freedom of speech. Freedom of the press.

What do you do to unwind?

Read.

Ideal place to holiday...

Scuba diving some fantastic coral reef.

What would you change about yourself?

I’m aggressive, and impatient, qualities which stood me well as a reporter, but not so much as a parent.

The music you like most...

I was raised in Asia in the 1980s, which is to say, I have an incredibly bad taste in music. I’m the sort of person who’ll happily sing along to Air Supply and Bee Gees and Chicago. Anything pulpy that you’d play in a prom.

Your most cherished dream...

Not being woken up at 6 am on weekends by my children.

Your worst nightmare...

On a long haul flight with my children with no Internet or  movies and nothing to read except the inflight magazine.

Your life in two words...

Not over.

Your impression of India...

Vast, chaotic, exciting, with some of the best food and literature in the world.

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