Author Erni Salleh considers “pressure” and “emotional distress” as the top two factors that drive some of her best work. “I cannot write if I’m on holiday,” the Singaporean writer says, straight-faced. “My husband, James, often jokes that my version of ‘relaxing’ after a whole day of juggling chores and work is to open my laptop and write!” 

And even though 2020 has been a time of pandemic outbreak and personal setback for her, the 32-year-old has successfully released her first novel. The Java Enigma was shortlisted for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize and published earlier this year. 

“Releasing a book during Covid-19 has been a double-edged sword – bad because we can’t have a physical launch or have traditional book signing sessions,” Erni, who has a Master’s in Southeast Asian Studies from the National University of Singapore, admits. “But on the other hand, doing Zoom book club sessions or other virtual literary programmes meant that I could reach a wider audience!”

Penning the novel had been a form of catharsis for Erni. It was inspired by the passing of her father, who used to be part of a salvage crew. “I couldn’t make it back in time for his funeral,” she says, solemn. “We were close, so writing this book gave me some sort of closure.”

The novel is dotted with cultural trinkets and detailed finds, and revolves around a librarian who happens to have missed her father’s funeral. She later inherits a safe deposit box from her late father, and it takes her on a trip around the world . 

“Before Epigram began their Fiction Prize in 2015, I had always been dismayed at the lack of Malay women in Singapore writing English fiction; stories I could relate to,” Erni says, on being a finalist in the competition. “When Nuraliah Norasid won in 2016, I was inspired. At our award ceremony, she was saying how proud she was that both myself and Kathrina Mohd Daud were finalists – so there are now two more new female Malay voices in the region!”

But the virus outbreak hit a little harder on the personal front for Erni. Her husband is British and the Circuit Breaker measures had resulted in the couple being separated from one another. “James was supposed to move here in June, but our plans are sort of on hold,” she sighs. “All thanks to Covid-19.”

So she did what she does best – write. “While Covid-19 didn’t affect the way I wrote, it made me write a lot more. I was writing so much due to the ongoing strain of being separated from my husband. I’ve not seen him for the past nine months….so I kept writing,” she says. “And I’ve even managed to complete a new manuscript!”

Being on lockdown has also given her a chance to explore a more authentic voice with her writing. “My writing has taken on a more unstructured flow. It’s being guided by my emotions and the way I respond to crises around me,” she shares. “The ‘authentic’ voice has really helped lend weight to the characters.”