IT’S a perfect script for a chick lit story. Love happens, then the overwhelming heartbreak and loss, then the finding of oneself and finally, the possibilities of life opens up again.
It happened to Charissa Ong and since it’s a recurring theme in everybody else’s life (unless you’re made of steel or you’ve lived in solitary confinement your entire life with a volleyball named Wilson), it’s no wonder her maiden debut Midnight Monologues has resonated with Malaysian readers and been on a leading book retailer’s top-selling list last year.
They say you should write what you know. And she certainly knows all about the subject of heartbreak.
“I guess I Taylor Swifted him,” she says with a conspiratorial grin, referring, of course, to the singer-songwriter who built a whole empire by pouring her heartbreak into her songs.
She paints a pretty picture — long limbed and looking so composed seated on a sofa at the corner of the cafe when I breathlessly descend upon her like a hurricane.
I’d just been circling the block outside at least four times in search of a parking spot. She looks up and breaks into a smile. Definitely, she’s pretty. Who’d want to break up with that face, the thought flits through my mind as I acquaint myself with the 25-year-old poet.
She’s easy to like and has none of the tear-welling sentimentalism I’d expected to uncover when discussing her book in which heartbreak and sorrow weave through the pages, an undeniable leitmotif of sorts.
Then there’s that certain joie de vivre I detect in her smile and I have to ask her if she’s finally over her much-written-about heartbreak.
“Yes, it’s been over for a while. I’ve moved on now and I’ve got a boyfriend who’s amazing and supportive,” reveals Ong, with a laugh. Literary success and a new love. It’s so quintessentially chick lit-like, I’m already cheering her on from the onset.
Still, the pain was real. As with all those who’ve been through the difficult motions of picking up the pieces once the romance flies out of the window.
“I used to write him poems when we were together,” confides Ong. And when it was over, all she had was her prose. Casting excerpts of her poetry into the vast online world out there, she waited to see if anyone would notice.
“I got my dad’s old typewriter and painted it yellow,” she reminisces, adding: “I started putting up my own verses out there on Instagram and gradually it got noticed by readers who resonated with what I was saying.”
Using an unconventional recipe of poetry and social media, she slowly began to build an audience who caught on to her relatable verses of life, love lost and hope found, confiding that her very first poem was poignantly dedicated to the erstwhile guy who broke her heart.
And the attention grew. Readers began relating to Ong’s simply-written-but-layered-with-complex emotions works that tug on the heartstrings while giving people hope that they’re really not alone in their despair.
“It’s amazing how people slowly started sharing their problems with me. They didn’t know me but through my poems, they found a kindred spirit,” she says with a smile, adding: “Writing is incredibly cathartic but I soon discovered that there were a lot of people who loved my prose and weren’t afraid to share their stories with me in turn. Their courage moved me and inspired me to write more.”
As an aside, she shares that some of them even sought her out for love advice. “It’s really not my area of expertise!” she says half-protesting with a chuckle.
THE CHAPTER BEGINS
It’s interesting that Ong doesn’t actually have much writing experience prior to Midnight Monologues. “I did have a blog when I was 12. I was a comedic writer but it’s quite sad that nobody read it-lah!” she remarks with a laugh.
Still, what’s worth noting is the fact that heartbreak didn’t get Ong down for long. Instead, it served as a catapult to aim her focus at a different goal, one that was far removed from weeping over tubs of ice-cream.
She confides that with the encouragement of friends and Internet fans, she wanted to publish her work. “There’s nothing like publishing a book to make you feel really ‘legit’,” she remarks tongue-in-cheek. “I was fresh from my break-up, and I wanted to reinvent myself again. To get back on my feet and be my own person.”
It’s not that easy to publish a book, she soon discovered.
“The first person I had to convince was my mother!” she recalls with a grin. “I had to do a business presentation, complete with PowerPoint slides, to convince her.”
Still, her dream of getting published almost got derailed as most publishers were skewed towards education and not keen on publishing books on the genre she was writing on.
“There were a lot of doubts raised. They told me nobody reads this kind of genre in this country and that people wouldn’t buy my books,” she remarks with a visible cringe before adding indignantly: “They were wrong! Malaysians do read!”
She was also told that with no prior writing experience, it wouldn’t make any sense to publish a book. “Well that didn’t stop me,” she says with a smile.
Finally, it was another publisher friend who suggested that she open up her own company and self-publish instead.
In January last year, Penwings Publication was created and in July, Ong finally got herself "legit" as she laughingly put it, when Midnight Monologues was launched in a major bookstore here.
“It took me two years to manifest this dream. It was hard work but worth it,” she says, pride evident in her voice.
She’s a juxtaposition of self-doubt (“I only wanted to print 200 copies initially — that was how afraid I was but my printer convinced me to print 1,000 copies!”) and bravado — she tells me she did a target market survey to substantiate her belief that poetry would be sellable.
When pressed about the details of her research, she tells me simply: “I just looked at how many books by Lang Leav were getting sold.”
She’s of course referring to the international best-selling poet and artist whose body of work inspired her to start writing.
Ong adds: “Well, we belong to the same genre and I want the same people to buy my book as well. People have told me that I need a writing degree to publish a book. I disagree. You don’t need a degree. You just need to be passionate.”
And being passionate has paid off. Midnight Monologues was recently named Finalist in the 2017 International Book Awards for best cover (which Ong designed) and poetry category.
International Book Awards sponsored by the American Book Festival is a platform for authors and publishers to launch their careers, open global markets and compete with talented authors and publishers throughout the world.
Suffice to say, the ambitious 25-year-old has plenty of exciting plans up her sleeves. Eyes dancing, she shares: “We’ll be looking at the Philippines market to distribute my book soon. And Penwings Publishing will be publishing a book by a Singaporean author sometime next month.”
She goes on to say that she wants to provide a platform for aspiring writers in the Asian region to showcase their work: “We have great talents here. All we need is the opportunity to show the rest of the world what we’re capable of.”
Big plans, bigger dreams and what started out as a heart-wrenching loss has been transformed into a business plan (“Very Taylor Swift, I know!” she says with a laugh).
Her achievements are remarkable for a 25-year-old with no writing or publishing experience whatsoever.
“I’m ambitious, that’s all” she says self-effacingly. A huge advocate of constant learning for growth, Ong confides that she makes it a point to learn something new every year.
Gleefully, she shares: “I took up pole dancing last year and this year, I’m learning how to play the erhu (a Chinese traditional two-stringed bowed musical instrument).”
She has learnt to take rejection in her stride and channel it to something bigger than just an emotional road bump. Her prose talks about being lost, being found and the hope that comes after.
“It’s really been about documenting my journey, and of course I also have included a selection of short stories from different genres that I challenged myself to write,” Ong says with a smile.
And it all comes together in an enchanting little book that’s aptly named after her habit of talking to herself in her solitude at night.
However, the enchantment lies not just in her penning prose that’s relatable to anyone who’s been through the travails of relationships and love.
It’s her easy laughter and surprisingly sensible revelations, belying someone who’s undergone the bitter vale of heartbreak and has emerged out of it stronger, and dare I say it, happier.
Who wouldn’t want to cheer that? It’s chick lit, after all.
Follow Charissa on her Instagram @ cotypoems
Midnight Monologues, Poems and Short Stories
Author Charissa Ong T.Y.
Publisher Penwings Publishing
Pages 123 pages
Midnight Monologues is Charissa Ong’s first published compendium of poetry and short stories. Categorised into four parts: Lost, Found, Hope and Short Stories, it has an underlying theme of love lost, found and hope that comes after. The author’s ability to write simple prose that resonates within the hearts and minds of her readers has won her a following from all over the country and around the world. The book retails at RM39.50 and is available at MPH.