'Outstanding Malaysians' is a series of original articles where we honour and pay tribute to our fellow Malaysians who are making our country proud.
This edition, we spoke to Felicia Yap, a real-life wonder woman whose debut novel 'Yesterday' set off a war among some of the biggest publishing houses in the world.
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Malaysian authors Tash Aw and Tan Twan Eng are well-known names in the global literary scene but did you know one of the newest literary stars is also Malaysian-born?
That’s right! Felicia Yap
, whose debut novel, Yesterday
, was just released last month was born and raised in Cheras.
is set in a world where everyone has short-term memories. People are divided into two groups: Monos and Duos. Monos can only remember what happened yesterday whereas Duos are able to remember yesterday and the day before. People record their actions and the events of each day in iDiaries.
The story follows Mark, a Duo novelist who has political aspirations, and his wife, a frumpy Mono housewife. Everything seems wonderful until a dead woman surfaces in the river nearby. When the woman’s identity as Mark’s mistress is exposed, everything in Mark and Claire’s seemingly perfect lives is upended. And Hans, the detective on the case, has his secrets too. In a world where no one remembers anything, what is the truth? Who can you trust?
Sounds pretty interesting, no?
How It All Started
Not only is her book full of twists and turns, the 36-year-old’s debut author journey features many movie-like thrills.
A random Facebook friend request by a stranger a few years ago turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. It turned out that she had mistaken Felicia for one of her former classmates at the Faber Academy, a writing school which offers classes in creative writing and manuscript assessment services.
Felicia, who had always loved stories and telling them, thought she should become a student herself and signed up for a writing course at the academy.
The idea for the Yesterday
itself popped into her head when she was on her way to a ballroom dance practice one day.
“How do you solve a murder when you can only remember yesterday?” That single question gripped her throughout the practice. She worked out the early contours of the story on the dance floor, with the aid of her dance partner/fiancé.
After working on the novel for 15 months straight, the London-based novelist sent a copy of the manuscript to Jonny Geller, the joint CEO of Curtis Brown, one of the world’s leading literary and talent agencies.
She heard back from him the very next day. It’s super rare that an aspiring author gets a response from publishers and literary agents so quickly.
The action was heated. Eight agents fought to represent Yap. In the UK alone, three publishers fought for the rights to the novel. In the end, publishing house Headline won with a six-figure sum. In China, nine publishers bid for the rights.
will also be published in Taiwan, Italy, France, Russia, Spain, Germany, Serbia, and Poland. There will also be a Malay translation by Buku Fixi which will be launched in Malaysia in October.
The novel has been described as Before I Go to Sleep
set in the world of Minority Report
and compared to psychological thrillers such as Memento
, Gone Girl
and The Girl on the Train
. Amazon calls it the thriller of the summer. Newsweek called it a 2017 literary event.
Felicia has been featured in The Guardian, The Evening Standard, the Wall Street Journal, Publishers Weekly and so many other outlets we can hardly keep count!
Sounds like the plot of a movie alright!
It’s the Ultimate Underdog Story
Truth be told, Felicia’s own life sounds it could be a movie too!
Her family was not well off. Her father’s car was a dusty, brown Datsun.
“And back in those days, in the 80s, KL used to get flooded quite a bit. There were holes at the base of my dad’s car and water would come in whenever he drove through a puddle,” she told Rojak Daily
in a Skype call earlier this month.
In fact, they lived in a tiny house in Cheras. “I remember our fridge, our sofa, our dining table, our washing machine, the cooker, a few cupboards where you would store the cutlery and things like that. They were all right next to each other. It was that tiny.”
For 11 years, she would commute every day for 10 km between her house in Cheras to the Convent Peel Road primary and secondary schools in Pudu. She recalls a particularly hot day.
“I used to take pink minibuses home from school. These buses tended to stop where they pleased. I once had to wait for six hours to get onto a bus. Growing up in KL taught me a lot about patience.”
As a child, she’d always loved stories; reading them and telling them. Her dad would take her to MPH Bukit Bintang in Bukit Bintang Plaza once a week so she could read books for free.
“My parents said they taught me to read at the age of two. I grew up on a diet of Enid Blyton. Some of my favourite childhood books included The Magic Faraway Tree
and The Adventure Series
After taking her A-Levels at Hwa Chong Junior College in Singapore, she studied biochemistry at Imperial College London and went on to become a radioactive cell-biologist at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany.
“I soon realised that sterile, machine-centred lab environments didn’t exactly square with my personality and my dream to be a storyteller.” Yep, we absolutely know that feeling.
While she was working at the lab, she read The Railway Man
by Eric Lomax, a memoir of the author’s time working on the Death Railway at a Japanese labour camp during World War II. And it inspired her to pursue history. So, she applied for Cambridge and much to her surprise, they accepted her for a Masters of Philosophy leading to a PhD in history.
Besides being a biologist and a historian, she also taught 20th century history at Cambridge and courses on ‘Crisis and Decision-making’ at the London School of Economics.
If you think that’s all she’s done, you’re mistaken. Did we mention that she was a flea-market trader and a catwalk model? And that she was a journalist for The Business Times in Singapore and The Economist too? Oh, and let’s not forget she’s an award-winning competitive ballroom dancer!
With the release of her debut novel, a brand new chapter of her life opened for her. Getting her novel published is the ultimate underdog story. And it’s a dream come true for Felicia.
It’s All About Memories And Mirrors
revolves around the mutable and transformative nature of memory.
“I wanted to explore how different people remember the same thing in different ways. What we prefer to remember and what we choose to forget, and how fallible our own memories can be,” she said.
So, does the possibility of losing her memory terrify her then?
“Oh yes, absolutely. I collect experiences. I’m scared to wake up one day without any memories of these experience. It’s tantamount to losing your identity, your sense of self.”
According to Felicia, Yesterday
is intended as a subversive mirror. “In our own world, people who suffer from dementia often end up in institutions. Yesterday inverts this – in a world where people don’t remember, the people who do remember suffer. They end up in institutions.”
The book also explores the relationship between reality and the digital sphere. “The iDiary acts as a metaphor for our desire to remember, to record important moments in our lives before they are gone forever. Yet there’s often a discrepancy between reality and what we put down on digital platforms, a disconnect between our private and public selves.”
Bringing The Characters To Life
Her experiences, eclectic and varied as they are, have proved to be immensely helpful in her writing.
“When you move through a lot of orbits, you see people in all sorts of different habitats or work environments. You acquire a more nuanced understanding of the different shades of humanity. Characters in novels should be motivated by something interesting. When you pass through different spheres, you discover what motivates people in different settings, in different contexts, what makes them tick. This is incredibly useful when you’re trying to construct unusual – and hopefully memorable – characters.”
As the book is told from the perspectives of four different individuals with distinct personalities and traits, we wondered if it was difficult for Felicia to write in the voices of people who are so different from her.
“The most difficult character was Hans, the detective. I do not naturally think like a male detective in his 40s, in the first person. I struggled with Hans, at first. But because I’d worked so hard on him, he eventually became the easiest character to write.”
Initially, the women’s voices came instinctively to her but as the novel progressed, writing the men’s voices paradoxically became easier. “It was often a challenge to disentangle my own voice from the female narratives. As I wrote more of the book, the male voices came more easily.”
Felicia cites Tender Is the Night
by F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Talented Mr. Riple
y as two of her influences.
“F. Scott Fitzgerald’s a genius at creating charismatic characters, characters who really leap off the page. Tender Is the Night is a story of a fractured marriage that persisted despite the odds. I drew a lot on Tender Is the Night
while writing my book. Yesterday
is essentially a love story at its core.”
“Patricia Highsmith creates an opportunistic murderer whom the reader empathises with, perhaps even roots for. I want the reader to be mesmerised by my villain Sophia, maybe even to empathise with her, the only person with full memory in a world of amnesiacs.”
She also found Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go
and The Remains of the Day
inspiring and helpful when building up Mark and Claire’s relationship in Yesterday
And What’s Next For Her?
Since the news about Yesterday
broke last December, there’s been talk about the story being adapted for TV or the big screen.
Is she afraid they’ll do a bad job with the adaptation?
“It depends on your expectations, I guess. In my case, as long as the adaptation is done well and tells a good story, that’s what’s most important.”
Besides the TV/movie adaptation buzz and working hard to publicise her novel, Felicia is also currently writing the second book in the series, a prequel called Today
. She also hopes that there will be a third book, a sequel to Yesterday
Despite her success, it seems she hasn’t let the fame and praise go to her head.
“It’s surreal, the whole process of having your book out in the wild, people responding to what you’ve written in all sorts of ways. It’s bewildering, at times. Yet when someone whom you’ve never met truly connects with what you’ve written, it makes all the sweat, blood and tears worthwhile.”
In honour of Malaysia Day, we asked her what she would say about Malaysia if she had to put a note into a time capsule.
And Felicia, ever humble and modest, responded, “I would never be the writer I am if I didn’t grow up in Malaysia
, because my childhood in Kuala Lumpur has taught me a lot about love and life.”
Malaysia loves you too, Felicia!
Oh, and here's a scoop: Felicia will be coming home to Malaysia in October for the launch of the Malay translation of Yesterday
, so if you want her to sign your book, remember to save the date.
Felicia Yap's debut novel, Yesterday, is now available in major bookstores throughout the country.