Interview: Sophia Marie Lee

by Michael Jude Tumamac

Sophia Marie Lee, Winner of the Scholastic Asian Book Award

Sophia Marie Lee, Winner of the Scholastic Asian Book Award

Sophia Marie Lee, a Creative Writing student at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, won this year’s Scholastic Asian Book Award (SABA) for her young adult novel What Things Mean.

SABA, a joint project of Scholastic Asia and the National Book Development Council of Singapore, recognizes excellent stories for children written in English every two years. The award grants the winner a cash prize of S$10,000 and a publication contract with Scholastic Asia. Lee received the award on May 30, 2014 during the Asian Festival of Children’s Content held in Singapore.

Lee bested four other authors, including runner-up Catherine Torres (with her manuscript Sula’s Voyage) also from the Philippines. Other finalists are India’s Aditi Krishnakumar (Ergo Sum) and Vivek Bhanot (Robin and the Case of the Summer Camp Kidnapping), and Singapore’s Thia Shi Min (Dragonhearted: The Fine Spell of Words Alone).

KALATAS touched base with Lee recently, and she gladly answered some of our questions about her winning novel.

Kalatas: Can you briefly describe your winning entry What Things Mean? How was the novel conceived?

Lee: What Things Mean is a story about a teenage girl named Olive, who looks and acts so differently from her family. She is obsessed with words and what they mean, and is constantly looking for answers to all her questions in the things she encounters. The story deals with Olive’s search for the father she never knew, and her search for her own identity as well.

The story came to be because like Olive, I too am a bit obsessed with words. Growing up, the dictionary was one of my favorite books because I liked learning about what words meant, how they came to mean that – that kind of thing. I liked how some words could mean many different things, and I wanted to bring that idea into a book for young adults. So many young people go by these identifiers – words that other people or they themselves assign, like geek, jock, pretty, ugly – and sometimes, they forget that they don’t have to be limited to just those things. People are complex. You are more than what people call you, and you can choose to define yourself, to give meaning to your life however way you want. That was something my teenage self needed to hear, and so I wanted to write about that.

Kalatas: What do you think was the edge of What Things Mean over the other entries?

Lee: Honestly, I wouldn’t know! I was able to hear about the other stories (the ones that got shortlisted, at the very least) and they sounded really fun and interesting too!

If I had to guess, I would tell you that my story is different because of the form – it is told partly through dictionary definitions and short blurbs that help move the plot forward. Apart from this, I just hope that I was able to write a story that resonates with readers, that helps them understand a part of themselves too, by reading about Olive’s journey.

Kalatas: Aside from writing a novel for young adults, what are your current literary endeavors?

Lee: There are so many things I want to write! Right now, I’m researching about food and travel, and thinking about how I can turn the things I’m learning into a good story.

I am in the process of completing an MA in Creative Writing at the University of the Philippines. I am beginning work on my thesis, which will either be a novel or a collection of short stories for young adults. I am also a part of a children’s writing group called KUTING (Kuwentista ng mga Tsikiting).

I also do writing work for various causes, writing features and creating events for NGOs and social enterprises in order to increase awareness about important issues.

Kalatas: How did you prepare for the 2014 Scholastic Asian Book Award? What did you feel when you found out that you had won?

Lee: I didn’t really begin writing this thinking that I would enter it into the competition. While my preparation wasn’t deliberate, I can tell you that I read and wrote a lot. I am taking a Creative Writing MA at the University of the Philippines, and there, I try to enroll in as many literature and creative writing classes as I can. I love taking these classes! Apart from having wonderful mentors, it is there that we are taught how to set good writing apart from bad, and what we can do to improve our writing.

I also was very fortunate to have had wonderful mentors and support from a great community of writers during my experience as a fellow of the 52nd Silliman National Writers Workshop last year. Being around writers, listening to how they appreciate stories, seeing how they get their writing projects done was both inspiring and challenging for me.

As a writer who’s just starting out, I am really uncertain and a bit insecure about my writing – getting feedback from all these wonderful writers pushed me to be brave enough to submit my manuscript. Special mention has to be given to Professor Heidi Eusebio-Abad, in whose young adult fiction class I wrote What Things Mean. I learned so much from her – not just about writing, but about life. She was also the one who told me about the competition and encouraged me to join.

When it was announced that I had won, I was literally shaking! I was already so overwhelmed from making it to the shortlist – I wasn’t expecting to win at all. I hadn’t even prepared a speech. Actually, that’s why I was shaking, I was nervous that they would ask me to talk at a time when all words escaped me. I’m glad that they didn’t! But winning is just wonderful. I hope that my winning inspires more writers to write their own stories, and to enter these competitions too, or to submit them for publication. Dreams can come true! I am living proof of that.

Kalatas: What is your advice for aspiring Filipino authors?

Lee: Just write! Back it up with a lot of reading too. For me, it is only by reading that you get a sense of the kind of stories you want to tell. Study what the great authors before you have done, and try to understand what makes them great. I was very lucky to have discovered great writers through my MA, but you don’t really need an MA to do these. Just set aside time to read and write – focus on telling your story first, and from there, you can work on making it better. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback too.

Kalatas: When is What Things Mean going to be published? What can we expect from you after this?

Lee: The manuscript still has to go through the editing process under Scholastic Asia’s editors. It will most likely come out next year. I am very excited for all of you to read it!

I just arrived from the Asian Festival of Children’s Content, which is an annual conference where writers, illustrators, and other producers of content for young people come together to discuss industry trends and tips on how make better material for children. I learned so much from the sessions there. For now, I am looking forward to channeling all that I’ve learned from this amazing journey into more stories for children and young adults. I hope to finish my MA soon too, and from there, maybe pursue a PhD and try my hand at teaching English. But no matter what happens, I will continue to keep writing!


Michael Jude Tumamac is a member of Kuwentista ng mga Tsikiting (KUTING) and Linangan sa Imahen, Retorika, at Anyo (LIRA). Visit his blog or Facebook page Xi Zuq’s Nook for book reviews on children’s literature.


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