An Arts Education and Breaking the Mould: Alumna Yeoh Jo-Ann Wins the Epigram Books Fiction Prize

[Yeoh Jo-Ann is an English Literature alumna who won the Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2018.]

For most of us, completing a degree in 2-3 years might be a hard-won battle in itself. But for Yeoh Jo-Ann, those three years were condensed into one fast-paced, rigorous sprint to the finish line. Having been a major in Architecture, Jo-Ann found that her love for English Literature, which was then her minor subject, won the day. With thoughts of trying her hand at teaching, Jo-Ann transferred to FASS in her 4th year and completed the remainder of her English Literature major in time for graduation!

Yet, despite what might seem to be an impossible feat (overloading 6 modules!), Jo-Ann found joy in the English Literature syllabus. From European literature to science fiction, the young author thoroughly enjoyed her experience, exposing herself to literature she would never have chosen to read on her own and being taken her out of her comfort zone. With the syllabus’ wide-ranging content and immense depth, Jo-Ann inevitably became a more critical and discerning reader, a skill she would take with her throughout her career.

This was just the beginning of her journey in the Arts, which did not come without doubts of a more pragmatic nature. Jo-Ann graduated in the midst of the Asian Financial Crisis. Having been flung out of the frying pan of her studies into the fire of the corporate world, the author nonetheless held fast to her faith in an Arts education:

“Any degree that teaches you about culture . . . if it will encourage you to be curious about your world, environment, other people, let you question your own biases and upbringing, encourage you to think logically about issues, is useful.”

While the Arts honed her reading and writing abilities, they also developed in her a curiosity for the world and improved her communication skills. Jo-Ann perceives communications to be a foundational need in any industry. These skills, along with her discipline and willingness to put in long hours, have allowed her to go far in her current field of digital marketing. Jo-Ann observes that digital marketing is an immensely volatile field and that her training in the Arts has equipped her not only to cope with but also thrive amidst the field’s myriad uncertainties.

For Jo-Ann, an Arts education is also about breaking the mould and following one’s passion:

“With an Arts degree, everyone is already defying convention. The nice thing is that you’re there because you want to be there. Keep that going. Continue to be curious. Even enrolling is standing up for what you want.”

When asked what her message to younger generation might be, Jo-Ann advocates a world where anyone can do what they want even if it’s against the Singaporean mould. With enough passion, drive and curiosity, the future might even see writers of local literature reaching the global stage. Indeed, alongside her successful corporate career, Jo-Ann has also always nurtured a private interest in writing fiction. Continuing to pursue this interest, Jo-Ann went on to win the Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2018.

Jo-Ann’s award-winning manuscript is titled “Impractical Uses of Cake” and it follows the journey of a 35-year-old teacher who happens to meet a woman from his past to learn that she is voluntarily homeless. Thus begins a novel that reflects on a side of Singapore that is rarely seen and that should cause the reader to pause and reflect. With this work, Jo-Ann continues to walk the unchartered path and follow her passion and curiosity.