Another expat has done it again – meaning, banging out a book on expat life that has captured the reading market here in Singapore.
Taiwanese-American Stephanie Suga Chen’s new book, Travails of Trailing Spouse, has made The Straits Times’ bestseller list for several weeks. The book, released in January, is available on Amazon and at Singapore book stores around the island. In fact, it’s in the front windows of some.
(images: K. Hong; www.stephaniechen.org)
The book tells the story of an expat woman who gave up her career to follow her husband, which is not such an unusual tale in this part of the world. It weaves many different expat scenarios that we’ve all heard of on social media, or directly from our own or our friends’ lives: infidelity, multicultural friend circles, money issues, strain on relationships, as well as the convenience and luxury of living in the Lion City with helpers, Ubers and tony private island vacations.
There’s even a bit of a crime drama, and Singapore’s tough laws make an appearance in the book, though I won’t spoil it for you here.
If you’re thinking, “Bring on the dirt!”, know that the book is not at all like that. It’s a well-written and comprehensive book that authentically documents our reality as expats. At points, you may even find yourself asking, “Is she talking about me???” This stuff is real and while some plot details are familiar, you’ll have enough distance to enjoy the story.
I’ve written before about expat women who’ve put their skills to work writing books during their downtime as trailing spouses. Stephanie herself gave up a power job in finance to raise her kids and support her husband whilst living in Singapore. Struggling to find her place here, she found writing to be a cathartic haven. Since then, she’s basically created a new career for herself.
I asked Stephanie a few pointed questions about how she managed to get all these relatable expat life experiences into one book – there’s a lot! And my main query is how one manages to not out any friends or acquaintances when detailing sordid life escapades. She admits she was a little nervous…
“It’s funny, more than a few readers have told me that they feel like they ‘know’ many of the characters – Chad is a husband’s colleague, Carys their son’s teacher, Sara from the building, etc. While many of the characters are loosely based on real people, the book is a work of fiction, so I wasn’t that worried about people ‘recognizing themselves’, if you know what I mean. Having said that, I did send a few nervous emails right before publication confessing to a few friends that a line or two may seem familiar! I think the issues that the main characters face are ones that are shared by many in the expat community (and indeed, non-expats as well), so hopefully the stories feel quite familiar and relatable.”
Closer to home, Stephanie had to grapple with potential fallout with her family and former work mates, as details in the story were not always so rosy:
“The marital strife between [the main couple] was definitely a subject that I worried about, particularly since I knew my parents and in-laws would eventually read the book! But I wanted the story to feel real and honest, so I admit that many of the fight scenes in the book are quite, shall we say, authentic. I did also worry about my ex-partners reading it and thinking, “She hated her job? This whole time?” When I signed their books, I reminded them in double-underline that the book is a work of fiction!”
At the end of the day, Stephanie has indeed found her place as someone who left one life behind and started a new one. That aspect is an ever-present reality for many women here and it’s great to see more examples of us making things happen for ourselves. She is looking forward to writing more books, maybe even a sequel with more “crazy expat stories.” And as far as I can see, it’s a topic that readers in Singapore – and beyond – love.
About Andrea McKenna Brankin
Andrea McKenna Brankin is journalist and author from the United States who lives a full life with bipolar disorder. Her book, Bipolar Phoenix, is awaiting a publishing contract. She is also currently a volunteer at the DaySpring Residential Treatment Centre for teen girls in Singapore, providing befriending-family support, therapeutic writing and rugby coaching.
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