Rowena Leong Singer was the Grand Prize Winner of the Literary category in the 2021 Book Pipeline Unpublished season with her novel, All Manner of Beasts.
I consider myself a pretty well-versed WWII history buff—my grandfather was a bomber pilot who only survived through the bravery of French Resistance workers—so the period has a special place in my family’s heart. But to be completely honest, when I first came across All Manner of Beasts, I realized that there was a huge gap in my knowledge with regards to Japan’s occupation of Manila (where the novel is set). And I would imagine that I’m not alone in that. That in mind, besides just being an incredibly well-written piece of fiction, Beasts will undoubtedly be a vital educational tool for every single person who reads it. So, first and foremost: thank you for writing this. You’re doing the world an incredible service.
Can you talk a little about the genesis of Beasts? What pulled you towards telling this narrative in particular?
Thank you for your kind words. This book started out as my attempt to understand the mystery of my grandmother’s past. Growing up, I noticed that my grandmother became anxious whenever someone knocked on the front door or when the phone rang, and she would get this hunted look in her eyes if someone asked what she considered too many questions about her or our family. I didn’t understand what drove this behavior until one day I learned that my grandparents had survived the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during WWII, but no one in my family talked about it. This family secret came out when I tried to introduce my high school boyfriend to my grandmother. She would not look at him or acknowledge his presence. At one point, she turned her head away. She wouldn’t even respond when I asked what was wrong. Later on, my mother told me about my grandparents and the Japanese occupation. My then-boyfriend was of Japanese descent.
No matter how often I asked my grandmother about WWII, she refused to answer my questions. When she died, I lost my last surviving link to this part of my family’s history, so I researched what I could about the Pacific Theater of WWII, which was fought in Southeast and East Asia and spanned from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean, even reaching northern Australia. This was a part of history not taught in school, at least not in my experience growing up in the United States.
I pieced together a narrative of what my grandparents might have experienced and what my grandmother might have endured as a young woman. At first, I wrote a couple of chapters, with alternate points of view between a husband and wife, initially to illustrate the war from my grandparents’ perspectives. Even as this story evolved into one about humanity and identity and resilience, always in the back of my mind, I wanted to rewrite a fictional account of my grandmother’s story so that by the end of the war, she might come through with less trauma.
As someone who writes period material myself (and is the son of a NYT bestselling historical fiction author), I know more than most about the intensive research process that goes into crafting such a piece. It can feel a bit overwhelming at times—but if you let it, I’ve found that it’s actually an incredibly fun process! Did you find that to be the case for Beasts? If so, at what point did you determine that you had enough information in your head to be able to start drafting?
I was nodding my head regarding your comments on research, while appreciating your proud son alert.
When I first realized how much I didn’t know about this aspect of WWII, I found the task daunting. But in a moment of kismet during the start of the novel, a guest lecturer at the Bennington Writing Seminars gave a talk about how to approach research for a novel, particularly for historical fiction. One of the key takeaways is to research just enough to write the story. As a fiction writer, I’m trying to create a story set in a particular time period and circumstances, not to write a historical text. This gave me permission jump into the story earlier with the basic facts—ones that provided sufficient critical information of key events, timelines, and players—rather than waiting until I had all the information I thought I needed before crafting the novel. This, in turn, created a continuous research approach in writing this story, where I would research a specific question as the novel progressed, rather than taking in a lot of general information up front.
Along the way, I grew comfortable looking for information in library stacks, meeting with librarians, talking to experts in different fields, and searching the internet. I’ve learned the most random facts from the mating habits of kingfishers to the quirks of hand grenades used by Japanese soldiers. Research has led me down this path of exploration that I didn’t know could be so eye-opening and exciting, awakening me to the vast array of knowledge contained not only in books and the internet, but also in the people around us, and reminding me how much there is to learn about the world in which we live.
I preach, time and time again, about the vitalness of an attention-grabbing opening scene. And, goodness gracious, does Beasts have that in spades (no spoilers here, though). It immaculately sets the tone for the rest of the read. At what point in your outlining/prewriting process did you realize that you needed to start the story in the fashion that you did?
Thank you so much! There were a number of factors and realizations that led to this opening scene. The first chapter scene used to be in the second, third, and at times parts of the fourth chapters of the original draft. I thought I needed an opening that eased the reader into this aspect of WWII. But when I finished the first draft of the novel, what I initially had intended as a recreation of my grandparents’ histories, became a story about people who faced Japanese soldiers with courage and resilience, weaknesses and flaws, while grappling with their all too human responses to limited resources and the need to survive.
I had also been reading a number of war novels, some during WWII and others set in different wars in different parts of the world. War novels and stories often center on politicians and military commanders and soldiers, but it is often the civilians whose lives undergo the greatest upheaval. Also, whenever women are included in a war novel, they’re often portrayed as the victims or the ones who are left behind.
In the third rewrite of the novel, I wanted to thrust the reader into the occupation in the Philippines from the first page, unprepared to deal with the lack of any sense of normalcy, as my grandparents had been. At the same time, I also wanted to establish the two main characters, a husband and wife, and how each would play an equal and active role in this novel, while planting the seeds of how their lives could change beyond even societal and gender roles. It was at this point that I took a step back, pulled out what I was most excited about, deleted or compressed everything else and turned this into the opening chapter, and then I applied this approach to the rest of the novel.
In a funny twist of fate, just like the 2020 Unpublished Literary category winner (Vimi Bajaj), you are a graduate of the Bennington Writing Program. How did your time there shape you as an author, and what do you think is the most valuable craft lesson that you learned?
I loved my experience at the Bennington Writing Seminars. The program, with its focus on reading and writing craft—combined with the mentorship from rotating faculty, who each played a key role in my novel—has fundamentally shaped the writer I am today. I’ve come to appreciate how much reading and reading often from a diverse array of books—in different genres, by authors from different countries, and even stories written during different time periods—can teach me about writing. I’ve also learned the importance of writing consistently—kind of like exercising—in helping me hone my craft. I suppose all I’m doing is reiterating the updated Bennington motto, which is “Read. Write. Be read.”
As for the novel, I would not have gotten to this point if not for my experience at Bennington, where I started and completed the first draft. I had the opportunity to work with different faculty members at just the right inflection points in the novel’s development. I didn’t realize how much of a mental hurdle it would be to finish a novel, even if it was a rough first draft, but knowing that I could was a valuable lesson on its own.
Finally, if you could change one thing about the publishing industry, what would it be and why?
This was a hard question to answer. I’m more familiar with the business world, for which I’ve studied to receive an MBA and where I planned to remain, until I was compelled to write this novel and reclaim my love of writing. The publishing industry is still new to me, so my perspective is based on personal experience. As someone shifting from writing to the business of writing and initiating an agent search, I’ve noticed a lack of ethnic diversity in literary agents. Coming from the business world, where I’ve worked with a relatively more diverse group of people, I was surprised to find this was not the case in the publishing world, at least at the agent level. While I appreciate the industry focus on diversity regarding authors, characters, and the stories in the books published, I’d like to see a more diverse group of agents as well. It’s one thing to talk about wanting diversity in stories and authors, but it’s another to see it represented in the people who represent authors.
Rowena Leong Singer
Rowena Leong Singer is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars, where she was awarded the Barry Hannah Merit Scholarship in Fiction. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Narrative Magazine, and KQED’s Perspectives. She has also received an honorable mention in the Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers. In addition, she has been accepted into select workshops and conferences including the Sewanee Writers’ Conference; Tin House Summer Workshop; Hedgebrook Master Class; Community of Writers; ZYZZYVA Writers’ Workshop; and Rooted & Written, a workshop for writers of color, co-sponsored by the Writers Grotto. Rowena is also a graduate of the Kellogg Graduate School of Business and UC Berkeley. She divides her time between literary pursuits and work as a marketing consultant.
Her debut novel, All Manner of Beasts, is a historical fiction set in Japanese-occupied Philippines during WWII. Ten hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese troops invade Manila, where a young Chinese couple, Grace and Deming, await the new year with a baby on the way. In this story, told in alternating points of view, a wife becomes the hero to the husband who had imagined her as the helpless one in their marriage, while soldiers hunt for guerrillas and their supporters, making this couple their target. From the city of Manila to the jungle of Mount Arayat, Grace and Deming discover that in a world where survival is the only rule, the choices they make could irrevocably change who they consider friend or foe—even when it comes to each other. Filled with complex characters and moral complications, this book grapples with identity, questions of humanity, and courage amid overwhelming odds.