Sharon Ismail is an actress, host, lecturer, and children’s book author. Her passion revolves around words in all forms: spoken or written, and it has unfolded in the projects that she has undertaken.
Tell us more about who Sharon Ismail is.
A work-in-progress. I’m still figuring this one out. I have a feeling I can only answer this properly at the end of my journey. Check my Instagram status then, OK?
Lecturer, actress, host, writer – you’re a woman of many talents. What inspired you to do so many things?
Perhaps the phrase “itchy backside” describes it better. That’s a phrase in Singapore that tries to explain why a person can’t seem to keep still. I’m terrible when I’m bored, so I need to find something that intrigues me, do something that satisfies my curiosity. I’m happiest when I’m busy. Otherwise, everyone around me suffers. So I do it to save the sanity of the people I love.
Take my first book, “What Sallamah Didn’t Know”. In 2007, I was under “house arrest”, big from pregnancy with my first daughter, and was told to drop everything and rest, in case I gave birth too early. As expected, I got bored and whined to my doctor. I suspect she was trying to get me to stop bothering her, so she said something like “go write a book”. Anyway, I started writing what I thought would turn into a family scrapbook, the story of my mother’s adoption. This was my idea of a gift to my unborn daughter and nephew, and to my mother, who was expecting her first grandchildren.
A good friend read it and told me about a grant for first-time writers and illustrators. I applied for it, thinking that if I got it, then it was a sign that someone believed I could write! Then another good friend told me he had always wanted to illustrate a book. So half embarrassed, I let him read my manuscript. A month later, he showed me a sketch which blew me away. It was a scene of a family giving away their baby to another family. It was perfect. He got it exactly right. Another sign. And that’s how Khairudin Saharom, the person who was my co-anchor on a “live” Sunday morning show on television from 2001 to 2004, became my illustrator.
I took on lecturing at polytechnic and university level because I had wanted to work with teenagers and adults. Incidentally, some years later, after the Ministry of Education adopted “What Sallamah Didn’t Know” as a Primary 6 English text, a few of my ex-students from Ngee Ann Polytechnic became teachers after graduation and told me they used my book in their classrooms!
So Steve Jobs was right. There is such a thing as “connecting the dots”, and that we can only do it backwards. Connecting the dots backwards now, it’s pretty neat how it all turned out.
Tell about work-life balance and being a mom. Any advice for any moms and mom(s)-to-be that are struggling with work-life balance?
Surrender. If there’s one lesson a control freak like me had to learn about this whole journey into parenthood, it’s to let go. Do my best and then… let go. The baby is going to poop and sneeze any time he/she needs to, so have a sense of humour about it all and just enjoy the ride. They grow up really quickly, believe me.
I don’t know if true balance exists. Some days, everything falls into place nicely amid the chaos, and other days, it all goes awry even with the best of plans. I also learned that mummy-guilt is universal and it can make us or break us. I learned to use it to keep me on my toes because motherhood is the one job we don’t resign, retire or get retrenched from. I use it to remind myself to keep my priorities right – my one constant full-time job is being a Mama. Everything else will get my attention, just not always first. And if I have time to feel guilty, then I have time to do my work. Wallowing in guilt is a waste of time. Just do my best and move on. That’s all I can do.
Your book “What Sallamah didn’t know” talks about inter-racial adoptions, racial and cultural difference. Why is this topic important to you? What inspired you to write about it?
My mother Sallamah is biologically Chinese, born into a Teochew family in Singapore, in the 1950s. She was given away as a baby because her family was poor and she was a girl. At the time, Chinese baby girls were not as treasured by their families as baby boys. She was lucky that a Malay family took her in and raised her like their own, adopting three more children after her.
Stories like hers were common in that era. There are many such Chinese-looking “Malay” women in Singapore my mother’s age today. They may look Chinese, but culturally, they are Malay. And their stories are not well-known, and certainly not documented in Singapore’s children’s books. I wanted to give these women a voice, to show their grandchildren who Granny was, where she came from.
And most importantly, what makes family? Biology or the commitment to care for someone? (You know my answer to that). Sallamah had other siblings who were adopted from other families. “The Ghost with Dirty Feet”, the sequel to “What Sallamah Didn’t Know”, tells the story from Ali’s perspective as the youngest child in the family.
Can you give me a preview of “The Ghost with Dirty Feet”? Is it very different from the first book?
“The Ghost with Dirty Feet” picks up after Sallamah’s story ended, and follows Ali’s journey. He was the youngest and final child adopted by the family.
So when the family fell on hard times, Ali was naturally worried. After all, that was how he ended up in this family, with his adoptive parents and siblings. But Ali was a little boy with a plan. His aim – to win three months’ supply of rice for his family by catching The King who lived in the kampong’s rivers. He thought if he could pull his weight in the family, then he would be safe. Ali’s story is about finding his place in a family who had “chosen” their children from other families. And that whatever happens, families stick together.
Tell us a journey or story in your life that was a turning point for you.
It was the day I found out I was half-Chinese at age 13. I remember my mother dropping the bomb so unexpectedly at a wet market, with no prior conversation, just “Oh, by the way, you’re half Chinese.” That explained a lot of things in my childhood; how strangers always asked if my mother is Chinese because she looked Chinese, why I sometimes think in Chinese, how my mother instinctively knew how to make fu chok (a beancurd skin dessert) and orh nee (a yam paste dessert) without learning. It was strange. Yet on the outside, nothing looked different. But I felt different.
Favourite quote that you live by.
If you can’t do it brave, do it scared. But do it anyway.
What’s one motto you want your children to live by?
Set your intention right, work hard, and trust that the dots will connect, somehow.
We are inspired by Sharon’s inclination to give voices to stories that need to be heard, and are proud to have her as Fieldtesters, a group of inspiring friends that regularly test MATTER products in their workplace and trails to help us improve durability and design. Sharon is wearing The Lounge Lunghi + Mountain Spirit, Size 1, and The All Day Jumpsuit + Kirana, Size 1.
“The Ghost with Dirty Feet” is on sale from January 2017 at My Imagination Kingdom at OneKM Mall and at A Closetful of Book’s online store: www.closetfulofbooks.com/products/the-ghost-with-dirty-feet. If you’re interested in getting autographed copies by Sharon Ismail, you can send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.