‘People who are prone to sadness are more likely to pick up a pen.' There’s a haunting timbre to this line from Kiwi poet and author Lang Leav’s debut novel, Sad Girls. I ask her how much of it is self-referential as we sit across each other in a cosy corner at Borders, Mall of the Emirates, chatting over coffee, an hour before her book signing at the bookstore.
‘Yeah, absolutely,’ the soft-spoken author agrees without missing a beat, leaning in to narrate how her Cambodian parents fled the Khmer Rouge regime to a Thailand refugee camp before immigrating to Australia. ‘I was an 11 month-old baby when we settled in Australia, so I don’t remember much of my time at the refugee camp but growing up in [Cabramatta] a predominantly migrant town west of Sydney, which was a mishmash of cultures from war-torn countries meant there was this melancholy that permeated the air, a certain heaviness you could feel. It had a profound impact on my work – I write a lot about melancholy and struggle because that’s what I grew up around.
The smiling woman in front of me has been excitedly gabbing away about her panel discussion that took place the night before at the Sharjah Book Fair (which is what has brought her from down under to the UAE), upcoming projects, and the special friendship she struck up with Shaikha Boudour Bint Sultan bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, daughter of the ruler of Sharjah.
She looks anything but melancholic; except perhaps for her choice of all black attire – smart tie-neck blouse and trousers – but that could just be a clever fashion ploy by the erstwhile fashion designer who before jumping headlong into her career as a writer founded award-winning fashion label Akina (it won the Qantas Spirit of Youth Award).
Yet, it is this lingering undercurrent of melancholy hand-in-hand with a kindness and sensitivity that is evident both in her personality and books that draws readers to Lang, catapulting her debut novel Sad Girls to number three on Kinokuniya’s list of UAE best-sellers. It was number one in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines when it released in May.
Don’t chalk it up to beginner’s luck; Lang might be a first-time novelist, but she is a best-selling contemporary poet who is synonymous with the Instapoet phenomenon, a new wave of tech-savvy poets who use social media (Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter) to reach their audience, chiefly digitally wired millennials and teens. Her repertoire includes four best-selling collections of poetry – Love and Misadventures, Lullabies, Memories and The Universe of Us that have each sold over a hundred thousand copies and have generated thousands of likes on Instagram. Her contemporaries include Canadian-Indian poet Rupi Kaur (who was at the Sharjah Book Fair last year), American poet Tyler Gregson Knott and r.h Sin.
Poetry wasn’t really a large genre that publishers were putting a lot of money into but look how it’s grown! I’m just really absolutely proud to be part of that movement and if it gets kids reading again and falling in love with language and going on to read some more classic poets, I think it’s a wonderful thing.
If these name don’t ring a bell that probably says more about the last time you logged into Instagram than it does about the generation you belong to, while Generation Y’s twentysomethings form the crux of most Instapoet’s millions-strong social media fan base, older readers aren’t immune to the wistful ardour of Lang’s short, compact verses that pack an emotional punch.
I discover this first-hand during the book signing. Joan Gloria shakes with excitement after she exits the never-ending line that snaked to the back of the store with her signed books and had to take a deep breath to calm down before she begins to gushed about what Lang’s work means to her. The star-struck Joan is a 40-year-old civil engineer who bonds with 17-year-old son Joseph over the universal appeal of Lang’s poetry.
Khloe Kardashian reposted Lang’s poem Closure on Instagram around ex-husband Lamar Odom’s birthday. ‘I think it got to Wendy Williams, it was on all the major talk shows speculating whether they’re getting back together,’ she laughs. It’s probably [one of] the most famous poems in the world because of that [incident], which is actually really quite funny.’
What makes Lang’s poetry so universally appealing to celebrities and laypeople, teens and quadragenarians and people across nationalities is love.
Filipino, Emirati and Indian readers collectively swoon at the event when she reads out her love poem A Postcard from The Universe of Us.
‘Love is a universal thing. I don’t think there are very many people in the world who haven’t loved and lost to a certain extent,’ she shrugs. ‘Everyone inherently senses how important love is and that’s why poems about love really resonate’
Love is also a the driving force in her novel, which revolves around 17-year-old Audrey, whose life is turned upside down by a lie she says that leads to the death of her classmate Ana and an ill-timed romance with a boy named Rad. But contrary to the criticism that Lang panders to mass palates, love isn’t a marketing ploy for the author but a personal reality.
‘I believe the choices we make with love really, really shape our lives,’ and Lang should know – her serendipitous online meeting with husband, fellow Instapoet and muse Michael Faudet (Dirty, Pretty Things) came when he purchased one of her artworks in 2009. The resultant friendship that blossomed into a romance, and how he guided and shaped the course of her literary career is everything that makes the plot of a Hollywood romance. She moved from Australia to New Zealand to be with him.
‘He sent me some of his work, which was quite a random thing to do – I’m not sure why he did – and I loved it so I sent him some of my writing, which I’d never really shown anyone before because I was focusing on my art. And I remember he said your writing’s really much better than your artwork.
‘Now, Mike, I and his son Ollie live in a little house by the sea with two cats and a dog named Whisky,’ she smiles. She won’t tell us where, for reasons of privacy, except that it’s near Auckland.
They sound like a modern-day Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett. They also work like the Victorian literary power couple, dedicating every book to each other and teaming up with creative collaborations.
‘He was quite instrumental with the plot and characters of Sad Girls, he made up Red’s name, and we came up together with the ending. I remember I wasn’t happy with what I had written and we discussed and came up with the alternate ending,’
Sad Girls’ wild ending has done well for the novel but this just marks the beginning of Lang’s career as a novelist and she says the novel has been a learning curve for her. ‘I think writing a novel is just one of the aspirations of so many people in the world and I had that same ambition. I was writing longer pieces of prose and moving into short stories so it did feel like a very natural progression to try my hand at writing a novel.’
Writing, Lang says ‘is something I’ve always been obsessed with ever since I was a little kid. ‘Writing and books.’ She has very vivid childhood memories of writing: ‘I remember writing my name for the first time and being so proud of it and showing my parents. It started to make sense, all the letters. I remember reading Mr. Men books as a three-year-old and I was reading and writing poetry, passing around my work in little handmade notebooks on the school grounds, probably when I was about 10 or 11. I’ve always written poetry, pretty much for as long as I can remember.’
It took her another 20 years to self-publish her first book Love & Misadventure online in 2013 where it quickly rose to the top of best-seller charts, catching the eye of New York-based literary agents Writers House and nabbing Lang a publishing deal by Andrews McMeel. At the time, Lang was forging a career as a fashion designer and artist – she still draws and creates cover art for her books and one of her handmade notebooks was presented to Tim Burton by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, but writing, she says, was always her first love.
‘I didn’t actually know if I would be able to write a novel. But I’m happy I did it. It’s definitely a million times more challenging that writing poetry because where poetry is pure, absolute pure emotion, with writing a novel you’ve got to be juggling characters, you’ve got to be juggling a plot, you have to have something that readers can follow.’
The novel was also her chance to step out of her thematic comfort zone of love and explore themes like anxiety (something she suffers from herself), and other ‘secondary themes like writing a lot of strong female characters such as Sam, the editor who founded an award-winning publication, Trinh, an award-winning journalist and Elsa Reed, a bestselling author who did things on her own terms.’
She has no qualms being touted an Instagram poet or being told that her work is over-simple and diluted even though she think social media shouldn’t define a writing genre.
‘I’m very bemused by it. I think we try to pigeonhole writers too much into a genre. I basically define myself as a writer.’
But like all things, the internet, she feels, has its own merits.
‘The great thing about social media is it’s a level playing ground, everyone has access to it and can post their work. It’s like word of mouth but on a much larger scale, which means only writing that really resonates with people will get traction. It always comes down to the merit of the work and I think good work will be seen and it will be passed on and read.
‘I remember when my first book came out it was sitting next to Edgar Allen Poe and Emily Dickinson. Poetry wasn’t really a large genre that publishers were putting a lot of money into but look how it’s grown! So I’m just really absolutely proud to be part of that movement and if it gets kids reading again, picking up a book and just falling in love with language and going on to read some more classic poets I think it’s a wonderful thing.’
The author’s focus will now be on her career as a novelist trying to emulate the poetic prose of her favourite writers Haruki Murakami, Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro; ‘Those three authors have that common denominators, even though their works are vastly different – they combine poetry and prose. A lot of their prose reads like poetry.’ She just signed a deal for her next novel that should be out in 2019. ‘It’s more of a thriller this time,’ she reveals.
But that doesn’t mean poetry will be shelved at the back of her list of priorities: ‘Oh, I’ll absolutely be writing poetry, it’s in my blood. I even have a new poetry compilation coming out in January titled Sea of Strangers.’