“Writing has been my full-time job for the past year. I do school workshops and talks as well, but the main focus is writing. Telling stories is a form of discovery, and I find the process of unraveling a character, particularly one who is marginalized and voiceless, quite empowering. I always had the instinct to tell stories, so whenever I had the opportunity (usually at school), I’d put a lot of care into writing. I think I committed to making writing more than a side hobby when I studied Creative Writing as an undergraduate at Hollins University, an all-women’s liberal arts college in the United States, Virginia. Writing occupied most of my time, and I spent those years learning everything I could about the craft so I could continue developing my skills and ideas later on.
Fiction writing is about exposing conflicts and resolving them. I like to also think of it as a way to repair injustices in an imagined reality, where those injustices are not always addressed in real life – sort of like rewriting the present to elevate the underdog. People want to discuss issues revolving around race and gender in Singapore because they are recognizing inequalities and beginning to acknowledge their own role in allowing these problems to continue. To discuss these things in terms of our own experience can be difficult and confronting though, so fiction allows a bit of distance while reflecting reality accurately. The biggest challenge is getting the right words down, and shaping a narrative while balancing all the other things that make a story convincing – the characters, the setting, the language, etc. Every completed novel or story feels like a milestone.
I’ve also always been interested in writing non-fiction but was too intimidated because I didn’t know where to start. This year, I decided to try my hand at writing a few opinion and memoir pieces. They were accepted for publication in the New York Times, Cosmo and Harper’s Bazaar, which was pretty validating.
I think writer’s block is a form of stagnation, which can encroach on your entire sense of self if you allow it to. You need to distract yourself and remind yourself that you’re not completely frozen. Go for a walk, complete another little task on the to-do list (paying a bill, tidying up the living room – basically anything that makes you feel like you’re moving forward with something). Make a little bit of progress every day and don’t be too hard on yourself if you read what you’ve written and you can’t stop cringing. Every good work of fiction began with a terrible first draft!
I’ve got a pretty stringent diet, although I think it only works as well as it does because I allow myself to cheat once in a while. For the past decade or so, I’ve eaten at least one meal a day containing fish (grilled salmon, cod, tilapia, or any fresh fish) – usually for dinner – with a salad or roasted veggies. For lunch, sardines or tuna with rice, millet, or quinoa and some stir-fried veggies. I do eat other meat as well but mostly when my husband cooks, because I’m just not into meat enough to buy and prepare it. That said, there will always, always be space in my belly for Beef Rendang, Hainanese Chicken Rice and Xiao Long Bao.
I tend to eat lots of fresh veggies, brown rice, millet and quinoa. I’m trying to get better at eating green leafy vegetables because I really don’t like the texture, and although I always feel good after eating a salad, I don’t ever crave them unless they’re filled with other very caloric goodies!
I love very dark chocolate, although since getting pregnant, I’ve been a bit put off by chocolate. I don’t eat as much fruit as I probably should but I do like having a midday snack of papaya or a banana. I had an early pregnancy craving for oranges and plums in the first trimester – couldn’t get enough of them.
I’m also quite sad I’ve developed an aversion to green tea, because I loved drinking a freshly brewed pot of green tea through my writing/working day, but I can’t stand it now. In fact, I only like the artificial stuff they make bubble tea with, and it contains so much sugar! I have boxes and boxes of my favorite jasmine and pear green tea from this company called Madame Flavour in Australia, that I bought in bulk when I was in Melbourne last Christmas, and now they’re just sitting in my pantry, making me nauseous every time I walk past. Talk about the things we sacrifice to have children… I take a probiotic, Solaray Multidophilus, with my meals, and a pregnancy multivitamin, Ganilia Pre-Natal Multi-Vitamin. I used to take CoEnzyme Q10 as well but I’m wary of taking too many supplements while pregnant.
Combination probably describes my skin best. I don’t know how to survive Singapore’s humidity without having an oily chin and forehead, but the area around my nose can get quite dry.
I cleanse, tone and moisturize once in the morning and once at night. The skincare routine helps to bookend my day. My skincare routine is pretty simple. If I find a product that works, I tend to stick with it. For me, the first rule when selecting products is to avoid cleansers and creams with too much fragrance. I really just like the “soapy clean smell” after washing my face – for that, Aveeno products are perfect. I use the Aveeno Clear Complexion Foaming Cleanser in the morning and at night because it’s gentle, but if I want something a bit more rigorous (when I’ve noticed a bit of build-up and my pores are getting clogged), I use the Aveeno Skin Brightening Daily Scrub. The scrub ends up being a once or twice week thing, although it’s gentle enough to use every day. I also like Sukin Foaming Facial Cleanser and Sukin Pore Refining Facial Scrub – sometimes I alternate these when I run out of Aveeno products, just to give my skin a break from one brand.
After cleansing, I usually tone with an astringent. I got into the habit of using astringent years ago when I used the Clinique 3-Step System. The toning part of the routine really helped to exfoliate and get rid of excess dirt the cleanser hadn’t caught. I’ve found the Clinique 3-Step System stopped working as I got older; while it really made my skin glow in my mid-twenties, it’s less effective now. I’m sure it’s not the product’s fault; I think our skin just changes as we get older and we need to pay attention to what works. I use either Thayers Alcohol-free Rose Petal Witch Hazel Toner or Dabur Gulabari Rose Water that can be found in shops in Little India.
For moisturizing, I usually use whatever moisturizer corresponds with the facial cleanser I’m using. For Aveeno, that’s usually the Positively Radiant Daily Moisturizer with SPF 15 in the daytime, but at night, I’ll use Body Shop Vitamin E Moisturizing Night Cream because it’s lightweight but still does the job. For Sukin, my daytime moisturizer is the Sukin Facial Moisturizer and at night, the Sukin Moisture Restoring Face Cream.
I don’t go for facials, although I’d like to get into the routine of doing them because they feel like a fresh start! For an at-home facial, I like to use Queen Helene Mint Julep Masque and follow up with a moisturizing mask, like The Body Shop Vitamin E Sink-In Moisture Sleeping Mask. It’s really good for restoring moisture levels [in the skin] because the Mint Julep mask is meant to suck out all the impurities, and can have a drying effect on the skin. I’m a big fan of clay-based masks because they really feel like they’re getting into the pores and cleaning everything out, so I’m also a fan of the Body Shop Seaweed Oil-Balancing Clay Mask, which has little grains and is an exfoliating mask.
I love this Australian brand, Coast to Coast. The ingredients are all Australian and natural, so I’ve been told, and very gentle on the skin. I use the Revitalizing Leg Balm, Foot Treatment, and Foot Exfoliant. The leg balm is especially soothing for sore muscles. When I used to run (before pregnancy), I would massage my calves with it after a shower. Other Coast to Coast products in rotation are these moisturizers: Nourishing Body Balm in Desert Lime & Sweet Orange, and Revitalizing Body Souffle in Vanilla & Lavender. There’s a Macadamia Lip Butter by them as well that I love, especially when travelling Seems a bit weird to have a savoury rather than sweet-flavoured lip balm, but once I got used to it, I became addicted.
As with skincare, I’ve managed to find products that work for me and I’ve stuck to them. I use M.A.C products because I had a make-over at a M.A.C counter years ago, and I ended up buying most of what was used on me. During the day, I tend to use a powder foundation, M.A.C Mineralize Skin Finish in Medium Deep, some M.A.C bronzing powder in Bronze, highlight with M.A.C Mineralize Skin Finish in Gold Deposit, and a dab of M.A.C Sheertone Shimmer Powder Blush in Ambering Rose. Less is more, and I prefer that whatever I put on feels and looks as natural as possible. I brush on a bit of M.A.C Eye Shadow in Amber Lights, the frosty bronze-gold shade does a good job of brightening up my eyes while still looking natural. Then I line my eyes with M.A.C Powerpoint Eye Pencil in Navy Stain [Ed Note: Discontinued] or M.A.C Technakohl Liner in Raisinette [Ed Note: Discontinued], and use either M.A.C Cremesheen Glass in Double Dare or a lip pencil with a matching lipstick – usually something warm; plum or mocha. I like the M.A.C Lip Pencil in Hover, M.A.C Lustre in Sophisto [ed note: discontinued], M.A.C Viva Glam V Lustre Lipstick and M.A.C Satin Lipstick in Mocha.
For a bigger day out or for evening, I start with M.A.C Prep + Prime Skin. It keeps my make up looking fresh and bright all day. It really makes a noticeable difference. Then I put on the Mineralize Moisture SPF 15 Foundation in NC42, and Pro Longwear Concealer in NW30 under my eyes and on blemishes, before dabbing on the same M.A.C powder to set the foundation properly. For eyes, I use the same face primer on my eyelids. Then I brush on some M.A.C Eye Shadow; Amber Lights (bronze-gold), Expensive Pink (shimmery pink), and Embark (plum shade). I usually wear these together in some combination, doing a smoky outline around the top of the lid with the plum, and then filling in with the lighter colors. I also dip a pointy brush into Embark sometimes and apply eyeliner that way – very subtle and smoky.
I have a few too many make-up brushes for the eyes – realistically, you only need one or two, but when I was learning how to do make-up for my wedding a few years ago, I went ahead and got a whole set of brushes, each for a different eye make-up function. I figured I’d rather invest in learning how to DIY and getting brushes I could use for other functions beyond the wedding, than hiring a professional to do my make-up. I think it was a good decision; I was really happy with my wedding make-up and it was one less person to coordinate/deal with on the big day!
For evenings, I pretty much follow the same routine as the daytime for lip liner, lipstick and all the rest. I do have more shimmery and darker lipstick for evenings but I often end up wearing the same things. I also do a lot of combining of lipsticks to get just the right shade. I think starting with the darker shade and then brightening it up with something lighter makes the combination more successful – otherwise you risk overpowering the light with dark if you do it the other way. I also tend to start with a matte lipstick and then finish with a glossier one. I’m never sure what exact shade will look good until I see how it looks with my outfit though, especially with the color of my top, so I’d recommend doing your lipstick after you’ve decided on your outfit.
I take time to brush it and I minimize the use of products and chemicals. I do like Moroccanoil Treatment for the tips and roots, and sometimes I do a deep conditioning treatment which involves heating the oil and massaging it into my scalp, then leaving it in overnight and washing it out the next morning. I also change my shampoo and conditioner brand every month or so because once my hair gets used to a certain brand, it becomes a bit limp – almost like it starts taking the shampoo for granted! At the moment, I’m just using Herbal Essences because I love the tropical smell. I find the Redken All Soft range and Paul Mitchell products always reliable for my type of hair. There was a Redken leave-in conditioner I really liked at one point, but I’m struggling to find the brand online now for some reason. Schwarzkopf Straight and Glossy shampoo also works very well for me when I don’t want to deal with my curls and just want to do a straight blow-dry, although in this humidity, that mission always backfires!
I’m not a big fragrance girl but I do prefer light, floral scented fragrances (I have a Nina Ricci perfume that was a gift, and I really like it). Anything too musky can feel too stifling – floral fragrances have the effect of making me feel refreshed and clean. I also like the British Rose Eau de Toilette Spray from The Body Shop, which I usually spritz on quickly before leaving the house if I’m just meeting a friend for coffee or going shopping.”
— as told to Charmaine Lee at Balli’s home in Singapore on 23 Aug 2017