Finding her place
Torn between poetry and fiction, Inez Tan earns an M.F.A. at UCI, with scholarship support, then stays on campus to teach creative writing
Inez Tan has journeyed far and wide, and her work as a poet and a writer of fiction is reflective of her travels.
She has moved frequently, living in many parts of the world, including Singapore (for most of her childhood) and eight different cities in the United States. Not surprisingly, her debut collection of short stories, This Is Where I Won’t Be Alone, follows disparate characters searching for their true home.
Having earned an M.F.A. in fiction at the University of Michigan, Tan began to craft short stories. But she missed writing poetry and decided to pursue an M.F.A. in that subject at UCI. One of her favorite authors, Aimee Bender, had an M.F.A. in fiction from UCI, and one of her favorite poets, Michael Ryan, was on the faculty.
Tan received an M.F.A. in English (poetry writing) from UCI in 2019 and has since found a home on the Irvine campus as a creative writing lecturer.
“Writing poetry makes my fiction better, and writing fiction helps my poems. It was a dream come true to get to pursue my M.F.A. in poetry here at UCI,” she says.
While studying poetry, Tan also found herself writing story after story set in Singapore. They told of different characters’ quests to find, in some capacity, their home. During the process, Tan questioned whether she could write so much about an entire country and its people after having spent such limited time there. But she came to the conclusion that she didn’t have to produce “the definitive book about Singapore.”
“I could just write the stories that I could write, and somebody else could write the ones I couldn’t,” Tan says. “I also realized that my Singaporean experience was universal, in a way: A lot of people in my generation have studied or traveled abroad, so feeling both at home and not at home in Singapore was something they could relate to.”
The title of her book, This Is Where I Won’t Be Alone, comes from a song she says every Singaporean knows – “Home,” by Kit Chan. The lyrics are “This is home, truly, where I know I must be. … This is where I won’t be alone, for this is where I know it’s home.”
“I wanted a title that everyone could understand but that would have special resonance with people familiar with Singapore. When I had the title, I knew I could finish the book,” Tan says.
Her itinerant lifestyle was a source of inspiration for the tales.
“I think moving so much was what led me to develop something that underlies everything I write: the tension between intimacy and isolation,” she says. “I’m fascinated by the ways we choose to connect with one another and the ways we choose to withdraw. We can even do both at the same time. Think about making small talk, where you’re maybe building up a relationship with another person while possibly also insulating yourself from talking about something that really matters.”
Tan says she often thinks about physical distance, geographical distance and emotional distance – and how words can overcome them all. Occasionally, her ideas are presented in a semi-autobiographical way, as in her story “Oyster” and poem “The Long Circuit.”
Published in 2018, This Is Where I Won’t Be Alone was a bestseller in Singapore.
Talent is rewarded
During her time as a grad student at UCI, Tan won the annual Friends of the M.F.A. Programs in Writing Award, presented to a graduate student at the end of his or her second year for excellence in poetry.
“I am truly grateful to have received this award,” she says. “As a young writer, it’s so encouraging to know that someone out there believes in you and supports what you’re doing.”
Tan is one of many grateful UCI students to have benefited from philanthropic support. The awards partly cover university expenses and enable recipients to engage in activities outside the classroom that enrich their college experience and increase their success after graduating. UCI offers nearly 1,000 scholarships funded by generous donors, giving students more than $4 million in academic aid.
Michelle Latiolais, director of UCI’s M.F.A. Programs in Writing, says, “Inez Tan is a very fine poet, and the award was richly deserved.”
As a lecturer, Tan has been teaching students who are new to creative writing as well as those who intend to pursue it after they graduate. She urges them to embrace the craft and to be unafraid of trying their hand in the field.
“At their best, poems aren’t just about an experience, they are an experience,” Tan says, “and understanding how a poem was built will help you acquire tools for your own writing.”
To reassure students intimidated by poetry, she uses a musical analogy: “Most of us don’t come to music with a highly technical background, but we’re not afraid to listen to it and find out what we enjoy. My hope is that they’ll discover it’s the same with poetry.”
Awarded an Academy of American Poets Prize in 2018, Tan has a collection of poems that she hopes to publish soon. Meanwhile, she continues to instruct students online in creative writing classes. Creative criting will be offered as a minor this fall.
“In my teaching and writing,” Tan says, “I always hope to share something that someone else can build on.”