Imagining the Secret Queer Lives of Legendary Movie Stars

In her novel "Delayed Rays of a Star," Amanda Lee Koe reinvents Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl

Leni Riefenstahl;Marlene Dietrich;Anna May Wong
(L-R) Actresses Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong w. filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl at Berlin Ball. Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images. Courtesy of Penguin Random House.

In 1928, at a glamorous soirée in Berlin, the photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt takes a black-and-white photograph of Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl, immortalizing the three actresses before the height of their fame. This brief, shining moment, where the women’s lives intersect, is where Singaporean author Amanda Lee Koe begins her sweeping, richly imagined debut novel Delayed Rays of a Star.

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Spanning eras and geographies, from Weimar Berlin to Los Angeles Chinatown to the Bavarian Alps and modern-day Paris, through the rise of Hitler and World War II: Delayed Rays of a Star follows the three women as they move through the world in their different ways, in pursuit of art, ambition, fame, and love, while navigating thorny issues of identity, ego, and integrity in turbulent times. They all want to be, as Leni expressed in the book, “the reason for things.”

And evolving around them, sometimes intertwined with them, are a secondary cast of characters. Among them, a Chinese housemaid beginning to intuit the ways of a woman of the world, a German-Turkish-Kurdish young man struggling with his multiple identities, and a German soldier on leave from North Africa grappling with a secret love. Amanda Lee Koe brings each of them to life in deeply specific, textured detail, so that their dreams are no less bright, and their desires no less fervent. Like the three actresses, they’re feeling around, sometimes blindly, for a heightened existence.

I’d enjoyed Amanda Lee Koe’s debut short story collection, Ministry of Moral Panic, which made her the youngest person to win the Singapore Literature Prize in 2014, at the age of 27. And in a way, her debut novel also feels like a tapestry of short stories, with a dazzling rolodex of characters, including cameos by JFK, Davie Bowie, and Hitler. In her hands, even in a pithy exchange between two people, you can sense their burgeoning humanity, the multitudes they contain. 

Emily Ding: First, let’s talk about that photograph. What about it captured your imagination? What drew you so completely into this world?

Amanda Lee Koe: It was a photograph that was so unlikely, one that opened up many questions. To see pre-Hollywood makeover Marlene, early flapper-styled Anna May, and pre-Nazi propaganda Leni together, it was like a Pandora’s box.

To see pre-Hollywood makeover Marlene, early flapper-styled Anna May, and pre-Nazi propaganda Leni together, it was like a Pandora’s box.

Not just as a writer but as a person, I’m always looking for the intimate gap in history, the lateral wormhole in time. These were three women who would soon all be pioneers in their own ways; here they were at a party, being coy for a man’s camera. If you know Marlene at all, you’ll know that once she became that blonde femme fatale we all know her to be, she wouldn’t be caught dead smiling so sincerely and guilelessly for the camera. Once she had her star image in place, it was something she was very aware of performing for the camera.

Marlene meant a lot to a younger, half-formed version of me. I grew up with a gigantic poster of her on my wall, and I think in some invisible, personal way, she must have helped me to grow into the adult I wanted to be. So I guess it’s fitting that, eventually, I somehow managed to create an aesthetic universe that was capacious enough for her to exist in.

ED: What did she mean to the half-formed version of you?

ALK: As a teenager in socially conservative Singapore, I had no epoch-appropriate idols, but Marlene was someone I had chosen out of time and space because she gave no fucks, was so publicly bisexual, knew how to work a pair of pants the same way she knew how to work a dress. I never got to see any of that. I grew up with literally zero visible queer role models, to the point that I thought oh, maybe there were no gay grownups in Singapore. From the age of 13 to 16, I was in an all-girls school, and they sent me to corrective counseling when they found out I had a girlfriend. To remember that Marlene was so free and unapologetic decades ago made me feel that I could not only survive, but laugh my way through whatever I was going through.

And it wasn’t just Marlene either, it was the whole milieu I became enchanted by. At 19, I felt a great affinity for Dada, Surrealism, even tried to study German as an elective language. But after three levels, my school didn’t offer anything higher than that, so I’m still stuck at toddler-vocab probably. Eventually, as with all idols, I forgot about Marlene, or rather, she became dormant in my life with the passage of time, and I hardly thought back about her at all. When I came upon that Eisenstaedt photo of the three of them in 2014, the year I moved to New York, it was like seeing an old friend again.

ED: A central theme of your book and the thing that ties most of your characters together—including the more minor ones that revolve around the three women—is that they have dual/secret selves, and there are schisms between their inner and outer lives. This usually poses the question of authenticity, but you have the Hollywood director Josef von Sternberg, a creative and romantic partner of Marlene’s, speaking of a “lust for bothness,” and I’m struck by what you have Anna May thinking, about “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” Can you speak to this a bit more?

ALK: A commitment to duplicity, or multiplicity, is a form of authenticity too. Anyone who’s a whole human being, who’s being honest about their humanness, will be able to locate this sort of breach between their inner and outer selves. It could be a small rift or a large one. By way of a simple example, people are often surprised to learn that I’m an introvert, because I am not at all shy; in fact, I am quite bold. But this constant tussle—any tussle between two seeming opposites—this lack of holistic consistency, is what’s specific and truthful about being human, is what leaves room for fictional characters to evolve in a way that isn’t programmatic.

“Living truthfully under imaginary circumstances” is actually something I picked up in an acting class. The only time I got stuck in the writing of this novel, I took an eight-week seminar at an actors’ studio in Manhattan focusing on Meisner, Strasberg and Hagen to try to understand that process more for my characters who were professional actresses.

ED: Something else I’m thinking about after reading your book is how a more interconnected world lets us try out new identities: We’re permitted to be different people in different places, or, even if we don’t end up somewhere else, to think about ourselves as someone from a different place. This sort of internal freedom seems especially true for Bébé, the Chinese immigrant housemaid—I love Bébé as a character, by the way!

ALK: Everyone loves Bébé! Have you seen the Hou Hsiao Hsien film Millennium Mambo? With Bébé, I was partially trying to capture the innate innocence of Shuqi’s character in Millennium Mambo, who has been through a lot, but has such purity in her reaction to seeing snow for the first time.

ED: Yes, but along with that purity, there is a delicious sort of creeping knowingness too? I especially liked the part where, when she’s questioned by a French immigration officer, Bébé repeats a story a blacklisted Chinese publisher had told her about young Chinese peasant women reading Madame Bovary underground and took it as her own. What I liked about it, I think, was that it suddenly hinted at depths and complexities you might not have associated immediately with her, and also, I think it’s a testament to the power of ideas—how one, seemingly innocuous little thing revealed to you can change how you think about the world, how you think about yourself and your place in it.

I grew up with literally zero visible queer role models, to the point that I thought oh, maybe there were no gay grownups in Singapore.

ALK: That’s one of my favorite bits of the book as well. I had a friend, a Chinese political scientist, who was a boy during the Cultural Revolution, and he told me many things that gave me deep insights into China’s modern history. I think the tendency is for a lot of Anglophone writers to approach the traumatic parts of Chinese history with a Western liberal lens, and I was interested in trying to show something else. This episode, with Bébé using Madame Bovary and the Tiananmen crackdown essentially to commit asylum fraud for personal rather than political reasons, was a wink at acknowledging the existence thereof, but also reversing the latent cultural superiority inherent in the ways “third-world” migrants and refugees tend to get written and thought about, as if they can only suffer, as if they can’t scheme and dream just like everyone else, too. The part where the French lawyer tears up and says: “I can’t imagine they read Madame Bovary in China” still cracks me up. And the best thing is that this was historically factual, too. Bourgeois European novels in translation, which had been banned by the Communist party, were all the rage amongst literate Chinese youth. I just nudged the historicity a little further.

ED: We were talking about the freedom of trying out new identities. Do you think a person has any obligations to their “origins”?

ALK: I think the question about obligations and origins is one that needs to be reconsidered in our globalized, wired age: What are origins, in the first place? So often this gets conflated as place of birth, or color of skin, but what does that really mean today? For example, I might be racially read as Chinese, but what does that even mean in my middle-class, Anglophone context, where my first language is English, and I grew up reading Virginia Woolf?

The assumptions that we might make are natural, but they’re also limited by a failure of imagination. Most readers might be likely to assume that I identify most with Bébé or Anna May in the novel, because I’m Asian and female. But what if, in fact, the character I personally most identify with might actually be Josef [von Sternberg]? The bit where he goes off on a tangent about code-switching depending on whether he’s in Europe or America was a bit of a hehehe for me.

The idea of personal reinvention, liminal identities, and its linkage to the ever-changing metropolis, is of great importance to me. Particularly perhaps because I grew up in Singapore, which is less than two thirds the size of New York City (the city, not the state!) but is its own country. This is like growing up in a big city that is also a small town. Infrastructurally and economically we are a big city; socially and emotionally we are pretty much a small town. In a small town, it’s harder to evolve, to try on new behaviors and identities that might be more intrinsically in line with who you know or want or have gradually or suddenly discovered yourself to be, because you’re hemmed in by the cultural context, the class bracket, the social norms you were born into, and expected to perform within.

ED: It sounds like you had discovered for yourself an eclectic range of influences, a whole different other world, to fill in the gaps of what you were feeling while growing up in Singapore. 

ALK: I was someone who really did not fit into the Singaporean education system, and I had a lot of free time because I hardly ever did any homework. I only did my homework if I had a crush on the teacher! Because nothing felt like a good fit, I had to learn to build my own private universe from scratch to feel like it was worth my while to wake up, go to bed, on repeat. Autodidactism is fantastic because it is so bespoke. 

I didn’t ever feel like I belonged in contemporary Singapore. I needed very deeply to believe that I was not wrong, I was only in the wrong time and place.

I’m sure that I projected a lot of my own baseless fantasies onto Weimar Berlin, but as a teenager growing up in a repressive culture where there’s so little push back from the populace, the mirage of the famed sexual freedom and decadent amorality of Weimar Berlin was like a mirage of an oasis in the desert for me. Didn’t matter if it was real or not, I just needed it to go on.

Because I didn’t ever feel like I belonged in contemporary Singapore, because in my formative years people were always telling me I was wrong, or abnormal, or that I had to change, I think that to stay alive on the inside, I needed very deeply to believe that I was not wrong, I was only in the wrong time and place. That there would have been a space and time in which I would have felt at home. In which I would have been right, for once.

ED: Though much of your novel is set in previous decades, it also feels very current at the same time, and resounds, I think, with our present anxieties about gender and race and representation, and moral responsibility. Was this something you set out to explore with your novel?

ALK: The funny thing is that when I first started on this novel, people thought it was an obscure, historical anomaly that would appeal only to a niche audience. That was pre #MeToo, pre-Trump, pre-Crazy Rich Asians, pre mainstreaming of female empowerment (of course I believe in actual, intersectional female empowerment, but also a lot of the real issue around gender equality is now being used as a marketing sideshow), pre-Lucy Liu getting her very well-deserved star on the walk of fame. But when it came out that my manuscript got sold before I graduated, then the same people who’d written me off as an experimental nutcase writing myself into a niche started saying I was a trendy writer with commercial appeal. Neither of these contexts and characterizations have anything to do with me and why I write, so they didn’t affect the vision I had for the work.

Race, gender, and representation are issues that I think all good artists today deal with, in one way or another, some more personally than others, some more covertly than others, but I do think that there are traces of the anxieties of every generation that occur congenitally within our collective work. The challenge, I think, is to not have a didactic approach, and to not overthink the relation—if it’s there in you, it will appear on its own in the work; and if it isn’t in you, it’ll never be there, or it’ll smell phony if you force it. 

ED: You’ve spoken about your dilemma of choosing a voice performer with an appropriate accent for your audiobook, and how you settled for a “midatlantic” sound. How did you create the right tone for the novel in order to inhabit all the different characters and eras and milieus, but that could still feel specific to each character? Like when Bébé described one man’s ass cleft as “the color of unhulled beansprouts”!

What are origins, in the first place? So often this gets conflated as place of birth, or color of skin, but what does that really mean today?

ALK: I might have a certain disadvantage that’s also a happy advantage, which is that although I’m a native English speaker (we were schooled in English in Singapore, Mandarin is a second language) from a former British colony, the syntax and idioms I grew up with have absolutely nothing to do with English, or even Germanic or Romance languages. My syntax and idioms come instead from a messy broth of Singlish (Singaporean English), Mandarin, Chinese dialects, and assorted Southeast Asian polyglossia (I can speak market Malay). And I love it, I love every last weird noun and sound of how that has turned out for me. Love isn’t a word I’d use lightly.

What I realized was that I didn’t want to lose the spirit of the polyglossia I am used to, even though obviously I was writing in English, and also that the tone shouldn’t have to be a slave to an era or character or milieu, because then I would be locked into just one thing, and I wouldn’t be able to be ambidexterous or polyamorous enough to tell the story—the stories—I wanted to tell. I just had to find a tone that reflected the newness of my physical millennial shell and the mental octogenarian oldness that lives inside.

ED: On your Instagram account, you sometimes make up stories about imaginary characters—basically yourself in different guises (this caption made me laugh, because I feel like I must know an aunty like that)—that are often funny and moving. What’s the impulse behind that?

ALK: Hahaha I can’t believe someone would notice that and think to ask this question! Now that I’m looking through my feed, it’s true, those characters do crop up more regularly than I thought. To be honest, I have no idea what drives that impulse, it’s so throwaway for me, I’m just having fun, being frivolous, but if I had to guess, perhaps a strong sense of play, and wanting to be many things at once?

Play is super important to me. So much of writing is being able to play well on the page. When I was nine, as the oldest sister to two malleable toddlers, I used to dress them up as wuxia characters, and we would go on adventures together… Monkey God, Dongfang Bubai, the Eight Immortals… I was always the lead character, not just because I was the bossy eldest child, but also because these adventures actually had contiguous plots from day to day, and the lead character is the one who shapes the action. There’s huge craft and technique to good playing. 

And, it’s something we all knew how to do once! I think it’s a huge shame that playing and imagining were driven out of most of us with conventional modes of learning, just because it can’t be quantified and tested as useful. I hated the rote education I received and rebelled against it in the smallest and stupidest of ways—too many ear piercings, spelling my name backwards, arguing for Mercutio as the most interesting character in Romeo and Juliet when we were supposed to write an essay on oxymorons—because I needed to show myself that I was still alive in this fucking bog. And then what? Finally you get out of school, where they tried to beat all the play out of you, then you start hearing the sort of language the corporate marketplace is using, that co-opts playing and now places a premium on it: “Sandboxing,” “thinking out of the box,” whatever. I spit on their graves.

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