An Ocean of Minutes: Thea Lim Interview
and Responsive Essay
by Mikaela Lucido
An Interview With Thea Lim
Published Friday July 12, 2019
Interview by Mikaela Lucido for Savant-Garde
Photo from Penguin Random House
Thea Lim at the 2018 Giller Prize Gala Ceremony
Photo from Twitter (@thea_lim)
It is Tuesday afternoon, and the weather is somewhere between “just another snow day” and “time to bring out the shorts, it’s above zero!” In other words, it is a good day (as much as it can be) for a college student in late February. My professor, Thea Lim, sits across from me. She is the author of An Ocean of Minutes, which was shortlisted for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize and longlisted for this year’s Canada Reads.
Mikaela Lucido: What was it like finding out your novel was nominated for the Giller Prize?
Thea Lim: The thing about the Giller is that they make it dramatic. Writers aren’t informed of who’s on the list before the general public, so it’s kind of like the Oscars. When you’re a debut writer, it’s hard to gauge whether things are going well. The other thing about publishing a book that’s weird is that it’s this big thing. For years you work on it, and then, it’s months and months and months before the book comes out—it comes out, and there’s two weeks of fanfare, and that’s it. (pauses) And it’s just like, silence, because generally books don’t get much publicity after being out for about two weeks. So, it was shocking, but I was happy because [the nomination] gave my book a second life.
M.L.: Describe the moment you found out about it.
T.L.: I made the mistake of mentioning to my spouse that the [longlist] announcement was coming out that day. My intention was not to watch it or listen to it or anything. But he was like, (does either a very poor, yet funny imitation or a very accurate voice) “Oh! Let’s watch it together!” So, we did. He was in the other room on a conference call. They announced my name, and I started screaming. His coworkers heard me—but he didn’t tell them what happened. It just sounded like he was married to some weirdo that screams at nine in the morning for no reason. [For the shortlist announcement], I was invited, but my editors told me, “Don’t go.” And I was like, “Why? I know that I might not be on it.” A part of me thought, “Maybe if I’m not, I can create a viral moment by breaking something.” (Laughs) But [my editors] were really set on me not going, so I watched it from home. The funny thing about it is they announce it alphabetically. There was an odd number of people with last names early in the alphabet this year. I was very sure I was not on the list. It seemed mathematically impossible when they got to the last name, and then it was one of those moments where you see your life splitting in two directions—like, everything changes from here.
M.L.: You mentioned that you found about the longlist on a live Facebook feed. What do you think of social media, and its role in the book industry?
T.L.: I think about [this] constantly. Especially if you’re a debut writer trying to gain attention for your book, [social media] almost feels like an obligation because it’s free advertising. It is a good networking tool—I’ve managed to meet a lot of great writers that I really wouldn’t otherwise have connected with. The problem with it in general is that it’s very emotionally and mentally draining. It’s work, to constantly think up cute things to say to build up your persona. Because the nature of the market is that writers are in competition with each other, you find out that you didn’t get something, because someone you know—that you probably like and want good things for—did get it, so it’s very complex. I always joke that my ambition is to become successful enough that I don’t have to be on Twitter anymore. [But] this last weekend, I went to Philadelphia for an event. I don’t know if they would have invited me if they hadn’t been able to find me on social media. At the same time, the psychological costs, more than anything else, are high—for me in particular, I’ll admit that—so I’m always split about it. I was not on social media when I was writing my novel. I don’t think I would have finished it if I was. I only got on it to promote the novel. So, there’s also this strange thing, where it seems like the creation of art—for some people like me—(laughs) might be at odds with the noise of social media, like you’re next to a construction site. But part of the creation of art is trying to help it find its way in the world, and that does require social media for promotion. It’s an imperfect thing I haven’t found an answer for. My literary agent says that it doesn’t make a difference one way or another. She says, “If you like being on social media, be on it. And if you don’t, you’re probably not losing out on anything.” I’m always trying to take that to heart, but I’m afraid to pull the plug, so we’ll see. I think the trick is to “make it.” There are some writers who have great Twitter and Instagram accounts, mostly poets like Hanif Abdurraqib, and they manage to make an art out of it somehow. I haven’t figured out that skill. I’m curious if that does take away from their creation of the published art they make, or if it feeds it, or if it takes away their energy—I don’t know, if I ever meet any of them, I’ll have to ask them.
M.L.: In contrast with writers who’ve “made it,” what would you say to emerging writers struggling to let go of a first draft?
T.L.: I’d tell them how many drafts it took to write my novel. Depending on how you count, that’s either four or twenty-six. It took me fifteen tries to get past page forty, and when I finally finished that draft, I probably rewrote it four or five times. Despite what media has led us to believe about writing, very little of it is glamorous. It’s about getting up every day and doing the work. Ultimately, you’re trying to serve the story. What the story needs is what you do. In some ways, being unable to let go of a first draft, whether that means being unable to move past it, or to show it to people, or to change anything in it, is just harming the story.
M.L.: With An Ocean of Minutes, how did you know that its story was served or finished?
T.L.: Well, I didn’t! I’d rewritten it so many times, and then I got to the end of a draft, rewrote it, and thought, “It’s done!” Then, I let a bunch of people that I trust read it, and they had a bunch of questions, and I was like (dramatic pause), “It is not done!” I can’t understate the importance of having a community of readers—beta readers—who you trust, who you understand, and who you know, because the answer is most writers don’t really know when something is done. All writers have tics, and one of mine is minimalism. I’m not the best judge of whether something is clear. A lot of it is not only having those readers but also knowing what your tics are and knowing what your readers’ tics are. You should know which readers are good at finding what and how to sift through all these lenses.
M.L.: Your book explores displacement and the power of love to overcome adversity. How did that develop?
T.L.: I don’t know if my story is about love overcoming all. That’s an interesting read of it. I wanted to write a story about how life is terrible, and everyone you love will leave you, one way or another, but you still keep loving each other. “Love is pain,” as Ja Rule says. I had previously written a lot of work that was much more capital A—About something, crafted by my political worldview. It didn’t work out very well, so I thought, “Why don’t I just start with an emotional situation?” I make it sound so easy. It took years to get from feeling the need to write something overly political to being more comfortable writing stuff that was more philosophical. Maybe as a writer of colour, maybe as a woman, I felt like I had to justify my work. It didn’t feel like it was okay to just write a story. [But] once I came to terms with that, I wanted to write something that was about getting by. Life is painful, so how do we get by it? Specifically, I was thinking of loss—how people get over it. When someone can’t get over something, they’re stuck in time, which led me to write about time travel. [That] led me to write about immigration, which was a surprise, but it made sense because there’s been so much migration and immigration within my life. I had writing teachers who said to me, “You worry so much about writing a story that means something—that has something to say about culture, has an important political worldview—stop worrying about that. Just find a story and write it. And because you are who you are, your stories will wind up being about what matters to you. And they were totally right—that’s always annoying, when your instructors are, like, so right. (laughs)
M.L.: As an instructor yourself, how does teaching influence your writing?
T.L.: It’s more [like] the writing influences the teaching in that the things that I wind up harping on with my students are things that were breakthroughs for me. What the teaching really helps with is conceptual, which oddly, in the middle of writing, you can’t be too conceptual—you have to let things come out organically in the work. And all the time, my students will say interesting things about how a word works—things that I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. Just this morning, I was teaching Reading Like a Writer. My students were wondering: what do long lines do that short lines can’t do in a poem? Is there more room for nuance in a longer line than in a short one? It’s a funny way to think about something—it’s so technical, but then how is that imported over to prose? Are sentences that are long more emotionally complex? I don’t … think so. (laughs) So yeah, I’ll go home, and I’ll think about that for a while.
M.L.: What is your writing process like? What’s your writing space like?
T.L.: Two weeks after I sold my book to my agent, my daughter was born. So, the answer to this question has changed vastly and now, I have another one on the way. (pause) Another child, that is. When I was writing my novel, I had a bedroom in my apartment I used as office space. The first thing I did in the morning wasn’t checking my e-mail, talking on the phone, or eating breakfast and staring out the window—I would sit down at my desk and write, for as long as I could, until I had to go to work. If you’re starting a project, and you don’t already have a contract, an editor, or an agent—you don’t have someone who’s interested in seeing what’s going to come out of you—having a routine is really important. I’m lucky now to have this book behind me, so my editors are interested in what I do next, but my life is radically different. That room became my daughter’s, and I do have another office, but that’s about to be converted into a bedroom for the next child. (laughs) It’s something I have to figure out. That’s not to say that if you have children, you can’t write. Plenty of geniuses have lots of children, right? I’ll have to be creative and not as rigid as I was, which is weird, because rigidity helped me to finish the book. This time around, I have to be a bit more flexible.
M.L.: How would you define a good writing day for yourself?
T.L.: That I kept going. A bad writing day is when you succumb to the temptation to check your e-mail or you get to the middle of a sentence that’s hard, and you go on Twitter. Being willing to push through when things aren’t going well and to keep producing for a solid chunk of time, for three or four hours—that’s a good writing day. Being willing to sit there and do the work is a big deal, even if at the end of that writing day, you only wrote a paragraph.
M.L.: On the flipside, how do you tackle writer’s block?
T.L.: Hm. I wouldn’t say I believe in writer’s block, which sounds bad and cruel—but you know how sometimes people experience anxiety because there’s something upsetting that they can’t really face, so instead, they have this nameless despair that hangs around them? I would say that writer’s block is a cousin to that anxiety, and of course, there’s generalized anxiety disorder, which is something different, but often we can’t get through our work because there’s something in our life we can’t confront. It’s something we tell ourselves about our writing or what writing should do. My writer’s block was that feeling that telling the story wasn’t enough. I never wrote anything self-initiated. I would write because I was in graduate school, and I had a story due in workshop. But I always needed other people, spotters, to get me to write. It was only when I got over that block—that was really about not respecting stories and myself—that I was able to write. One exercise I make my students do every semester is to answer [this]: what is it about you, specifically, that leads you to write, specifically, as opposed to dance or anything like that? It’s simple, but it can be very transformative because it can completely change how you think about your project. What comes up first is kind of platitudinous, you know, like, “Oh, I write because I have things to teach people about the world,” like really noble, cool stuff, but when you really start to drill down, there’s something else in there. It’s often a wound. It’s not a bad thing to write from a wound, but the more you understand that wound, the less you’ll be blocked.
M.L.: So then, why do you, specifically, write?
T.L.: That’s a good question. (laughs) The goalpost has changed. I moved around a lot as a child and felt—like a lot of writers as children—kind of out of step with everyone else, a little bit isolated. When I read books, I didn’t feel that way. I often came across people who had similar experiences. Writing was just a natural way to continue to be in the stream of connection. The actual act of publishing sort of froze that impulse of connection into confusion, because there are lots of ways in which creating a work for the public ends up being commodified. It can feel slightly more combative than connective because you’re presenting something that no one is required to like, right? No one is required to think it’s good, no one is required to give it any prizes. More than that, no one is even required to respect the effort that it took you to put into it. Sometimes, people can be very callous about writing … which really is kind of their right. Why do I write? You’ll have to ask me in a year. (laughs) At this point, I think one of the best reasons to write is because it brings you joy, which sounds silly, but one thing I’ve learned about publication, especially about those two weeks of fanfare and then silence, is that the only thing you’re ever going to know, that you’re going to get, for sure, from writing, is the experience of doing it yourself. This happens every year: people write beautiful, amazing works and nobody notices. They don’t get good reviews, they don’t get good sales. It’s not that the work wasn’t good, it’s just the market’s weird. The only thing that is for sure, if you’re writing something, is that you wrote something. In that sense, the best reason to write, is because it brought you joy.
M.L.: Thank you so much for your time! Any final words?
T.L.: Oh no. I have to say something inspirational. (laughs) I can’t think of anything—maybe that in itself is inspirational.
Keep on reading for Mikaela Lucido's essay, A Few Funny Flawed Confessions!
Published Friday July 12, 2019
Written by Mikaela Lucido for Savant-Garde
Okay, this is no confession, as it is no secret, but “making it” in the literary world is a funny, flawed thing. No matter how many wrinkles you earn on your forehead from writing your wishes and woes away, success, that is, success as recognition, is never a surety. That is success in awards, or success in having the sort of name parents ask about in confusion only for their children to roll their eyes, take a deep breath, and ramble for a minute or so about your mark on their lives. As you can already tell, I don’t really have that kind of name.
Confession #1: I have not written my name in years. I don’t mean the name you’re reading now, with vowels stretched out, like dollar-store putty. I mean my real name. The unadulterated, unfiltered, and unwhitened version, with my mother’s Filipina accent.
Confession #2: Honestly, my name is not even inherently Filipino. But really, what does “inherently Filipino” even mean, when we are a people with claims to Asian, Polynesian, and Hispanic heritage? What influence could my being Filipina have on me, or my writing, when I have no idea what being Filipina even means half of the time? It seems too simplistic to confine us—to confine me—to a joke about strict parents, nurses, sinigang or adobo, and yet, I feel too simplistic myself to explain my ethnicity when my identity has been a neon, gaudy question mark for all my life.
Confession #3: The immigrant experience is often just that—a neon question mark. Question marks hang over our heads every day, and it is much like having a personal cartoon raincloud or arrow following you around, only perhaps a dash more traumatic.
Listen. The confusing, sometimes topsy-turvy nature of our upbringing doesn’t undermine the significance of our experiences. If anything, the complexity of our stories is enriching. In her 2003 book Where I Come From, Vijay Agnew, a professor at York University, writes that “an account … of [her] life would still be sufficiently multilayered to reveal the complex ways in which race, class, and gender intersect in an immigrant woman’s life” (Agnew 276). Using the wise words of the light of my life, Lin-Manuel Miranda, while, if not due to how “immigrants get the job done,” their stories, layered with labour, love, and loss, must be learned from (Hamilton). However, it’s important to note yet another funny, flawed thing: while Canada prides itself in celebrating cultures, for decades there has been an overwhelming lack of culture in its literary realm. In diversity’s stead was a thrilling palette of white, white, and—you guessed it—white. This is something that novelist Madeleine Thien acknowledged back in 2013:
“I truly believe that for a strong literature to emerge, writers [of colour] need opportunities. They need doors to open, support in the form of grants and nominations, which translate into visibility. And if not, writers will lose the opportunity to perfect their craft, because literature is a craft. And it requires time, commitment, a paycheque, publishers' support, and intelligent critical response” (Smith).
Well, five years later, with more and more non-white authors being acknowledged in the world of words, such as, of course, Thea Lim in Canada Reads this past year, the opportunities for those muted colours and voices continue to multiply. One such opportunity is the one I’m taking now, being a Creative Writing and Publishing student.
Confession #4: I’m somewhere between inept at Tagalog, my mother tongue, if it still counts as such, and intermediate. I can eavesdrop on a conversation between my titas and titos, but if you asked me to construct the simplest sentence, I’d end up foaming at the mouth. Nearly everything I think is in English, except for a few phrases, like “ay nako,” “ang batang ito,” or my personal favourite: “Kakain na!” Thinking in English is not in itself torturous, but if there have been question marks hanging over my head all my life, there’s also been this shame in my stomach when I can’t understand my lolo and he can’t understand me.
Confession #5: As a child, I tried to forget I was Filipina. I swelled with secret pride when mistaken for another ethnicity. And while I feel it now, like a scar of a scar, this loss of ability to speak in Tagalog with the certainty I had as a four-year-old, I revelled in English. I clung to its legs, this loopy language, and thought—declared, really—Tagalog to be a graceless cacophony.
I know this must come as a shock, but I love stories. I tried so hard to forget I was Filipina that in my stories, all the protagonists were white. And in mere games of pretend, on the schoolyard and even at home, I never, not once, imagined myself as I was: Filipina. I could be a princess or a caped hero because anything could happen in my imagination, so long as I was white, white, and—you guessed it—white.
Confession #6: These days, I often think of Alootook Ipellie’s poem, “Walking on Both Sides of an Invisible Border,” when I feel I am being torn in two, in threes, by all the warring “whats” of who I am. So, when asked what being Filipina has done for my writing, I can only tell you that the thing I was most proud of writing this past semester was a ten-minute play titled “Mahal Ka Mahal.” I could tell you that it was loosely based on an absurd night of my father’s childhood, centered on a wilting marriage in the late seventies, or that one of the characters is not what she seems, but really, it all stemmed from me plucking out a question mark from above my head, turning it over and over in my hands like a Rubik’s cube until it resembled a story. Until it was one. The question was one I’d been mulling over since childhood: why and how “mahal” meant both “love” and “expensive.” In writing it, I felt unashamed of the language I stuffed at the back of my mind as a child, and felt—truly, for the first time in my life—that Tagalog was maganda. In the literary world, there is no certified recipe to achieve success the exact same way another did, but an immigrant writer “making it” at all—whipping up words together, shaping stories—is pretty damn maganda in itself. More maganda than that are their words and stories being read and cherished.
Confession #7: As a writer, as an immigrant, there are things I do not have to share with the world, like how sisig will always taste better in the motherland. There are things I want to share with the world, like how mimosa pudica flowers are called makahiya in Tagalog, because as my lola told me one day when I was four, they are too shy to be touched. I would share how seconds after she told me that, I rolled down a hill of makahiya flowers and cried when their leaves would not open back up for me. And then there are the things I need to share, need to write, like my name. It is not inherently Filipino in its etymology, but it is inherently the name my immigrant parents chose for my immigrant self, with pronunciation I abandoned years ago to avoid being seen as an outsider or as different or as mali. Wrong.
Last confession, I promise: sometimes, I am the question mark, stumbling through life. But I would not choose to be anything else. I will spend the rest of my life not trying to define what it is to be “inherently Filipino” or “inherently immigrant,” but simply sharing what it is to be inherently me. And being inherently me is a funny, flawed thing worth writing—and reading—about. It’s kind of maganda. When I write, I look at an English word and see two more possible meanings in Tagalog. When I write, some words are better left in Tagalog, because English doesn’t measure up. When I write, I get to discover, rediscover, define, and redefine. When the “whats” in me stop warring, that’s when I know I’ll have made it. I don’t have to wait to be a household name to write my name the right way: Mikaela, pronounced mika, ela.
Agnew, Vijay. Where I Come From. Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2003. EBSCOhost,
Hamilton: An American Musical. Performances by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr.,
Phillipa Soo, and Jonathan Groff. Atlantic Records, 2015.
Smith, Charlie. “Author Madeleine Thien Reveals Canadian Literary Establishment's Bias
against Female Writers of Colour.” Georgia Straight Vancouver's News & Entertainment
Weekly, Vancouver Free Press, 25 Nov. 2013, 8:18am,