With the publication of my debut novel, The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds, by Amazon Crossing in 2016, I achieved a long-cherished dream. And when the book made a strong emotional connection with readers, I began to understand how affirming it was to realise an ambition that touched me to my core. Somehow it forced me to review my life.
When I looked back, I wondered why I had delayed pursuing a passion for so long.
No doubt my employment history contributed: the jobs I held were interesting and generally well-paid. Even if none of them fired me up.
You might have thought that a brain tumor would be a wake-up call. It was – to a point. The tumor was in an accessible spot and therefore operable. Because it was also benign, I was spared chemo and left the hospital after a week. The event was serious, yet somehow also not. In many ways, it felt like a blip, not a brush with death. I continued living the way I had, but swore that if I ever had another critical illness, I would alter my life.
The moment came 10 years later, in a consulting room in London, when I was told that the lump under my left breast was malignant. It would have to be removed – quickly. This time, there was no escaping radio and chemotherapy: I had cancer. My heart palpitated. There was a sinking feeling in my stomach, but the day also had a surreal quality, as if I were in someone else’s life.
Chemo took place over four months. For as long as it lasted, I had a medical routine in place. I knew where to go, whom to see, what to do. Once the sessions ended, the level of medical support dropped. I was surprised by how awful I felt. Photos from that period still make me cry.
Months passed. Little changed; the ground beneath me seemed to have collapsed; I could find no equilibrium. I saw a counsellor at the cancer charity, MacMillan, who suggested a bout of creative writing. Out of desperation I took her advice – and commenced a story about my grandfather’s favourite chair. I had no idea what I was doing, except that the act of putting words onto a page made me feel better. I showed the story to a friend who is a professional developmental editor, and she encouraged me to continue writing.
Not long afterward, I recalled a dream I’d once had – of writing a novel loosely inspired by my great-grandmother’s life. I never met her, though I grew up listening to stories about the formidable woman who stood up for herself and, despite being uneducated, raised a family – a true role model in my profoundly patriarchal culture. I started my research on the Internet, at the same time jotting down a story structure. I then planned a trip to Malaysia, where I ate copious amounts of the food that features in my novel and interviewed anyone who would talk to me about the old days. Spurred on by the country’s heat and its panoply of aromas, sounds and colour, I began the first draft. When I reached the third chapter an extraordinary thing happened: I found myself becoming immersed in the world of my characters. It was as if words had lain dormant inside me and could not wait to spill out. In my dreams words would tumble around like clothes in a wash; the next morning I would wake up with whole sentences in my head. The creative process lifted me in ways that nothing else had before.
Why did I wait so long to do this? I have no idea, really. Perhaps dreams are like fruit – they need time to mature. There may be such a thing as a right time for everything, including pursuing a dream. When the time comes, you’ll know. Then you’ll go for it, like I did.
Pursuing dreams takes courage, however. At the back of my mind is always a voice saying, “You could fail.”
In this – my third shot at life – I know I don’t have all the time in the world. Am I scared? You bet.
Of Malaysian-Chinese heritage, Selina Siak Chin Yoke grew up listening to family stories and ancient legends. She always knew that one day, she would write. After an eclectic life as a physicist, banker and trader in London, the heavens intervened. In 2009 Chin Yoke was diagnosed with cancer. While recovering, she decided not to delay her dream of writing any longer. Her first novel, “The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds” (The Malayan Series, #1), was published in 2016 and made an immediate emotional connection with readers. It debuted as an Amazon bestseller in historical fiction, was named by Goodreads as one of the six best books in the month of its release and has been favorably compared to the work of Pearl S. Buck and Amy Tan. “When the Future Comes Too Soon” is her latest novel.
Photo via VisualHunt