"Do we adjust our own moral compass, or do we rebel?" | The Rise and Fall of an Anti-Hero: Book Launch of catskull
Recording of The Rise and Fall of an Anti-Hero: Book Launch of catskull
The book launch of catskull took place at Arena at 10 Square on 17 June, Saturday. You can watch the recording above and access the full transcript of the programme on this page. Portions of the transcript have been edited for clarity.
About catskull:Ram has been ignored and dismissed his entire life. His parents patronise him, his older brother belittles him, his class pretends he doesn’t exist, and he is certain he will fail his impending A-Levels. The only good part of his life is Kass, a fellow outsider he has known since childhood. But when the bruises on Kass from her abusive father get worse and worse, Ram decides to don a mask and frighten him into changing his ways. After his scare tactic goes fatally wrong, the mask he wore calls out to him again to clean the city's filth.
Neo-noir thriller meets coming-of-age mystery, catskull explores the violence inherent in an unforgiving city and what it does to the people who inhabit it. It complicates questions of what is right, what is lawful, and who pays the price in the quest for justice.
You can find the speaker bios at the bottom of this page. Enjoy the conversation!
Photo of speakers: Sudhir Vadaketh (left), Myle Yan Tay (right)
Arin: Alright, good evening everyone, thank you so much for joining us here today for the launch of catskull by Myle Yan Tay [Yan]. My name is Arin from the Ethos Books team and I’ll be your host for today, I am wearing a navy blue top and black jeans, and my pronouns are she/her. And first of all I would like to give a big thanks to 10 Square for hosting us today, and for providing this wonderful venue. I would also like to remind the audience members, to please wear a mask to protect our immuno-compromised friends who may be in the audience. We are also recording the session today and may be taking some photos as well, so please approach us if you would not like your photo to be uploaded onto social media. We also have notetakers who will be live transcribing the event today. After the conversation there’ll be a Q&A.
So now, I’d like to take the chance to introduce our speakers.
Yan is a writer of plays, fiction, non-fiction, comic books, and reviews, and his works have appeared in PanelxPanel, New Naratif, and The Bangalore Review, and he is an Associate Artist with Checkpoint Theatre.
Our moderator for today is Sudhir Vadaketh, and his work is focused on amplifying the voices of people marginalised by dominant power structures. He is the author of Floating on a Malayan Breeze and he is the co-founder of Jom, a Singaporean weekly.
Please give a round of applause for our speakers.
Sudhir: Hi, what I’m thought I’d do is dive straight into the book, and maybe in the last 15-20 mins we might talk a bit more about process, Yan’s literary journey, and things like that. So Yan, please tell us what the book is about.
Yan: catskull is about a disgruntled Singaporean teen who decides to try and fight crime in Singapore, but it all goes wrong. That’s how I describe it to people. A lot of things happen along the way, a lot of things go wrong, and things keep getting worse.
Sudhir: Do you want to talk a bit about the sorts of tensions and environmental pressures that this anti-hero—I mean, I call him an anti-hero, I don’t know whether you do—faces growing up in Singapore?
Yan: Yeah I would say that he was an antihero as well. He’s trying to fight for justice, but he’s also trying to fight for justice within a Singaporean context, and it is different than it would look like in an American context. And at the same time, the pressures that he’s undergoing are different from other stories. Two impending things in Ram’s life are his GCSE A-Levels and his enlistment into National Service. So these two milestones of his life that we consider to be part of every healthy Singaporean male’s life journey, feel to him more like Damocles’ sword than opportunities that he’s excited for. He’s told he’s supposed to be excited for these things, and he’s not.
Sudhir: Yeah, I agree. I want to talk about form next. You describe the book as 300 microchapters, and I’ll talk about form a bit by talking about my own entry to the book, and my experience reading it. You start off with these little short chapters, and it’s not just that the chapters are short, but there's a beautiful sparseness to the writing as well, which you find with a lot of great fiction.
Yan sketches outlines of Ram’s character, of Ram’s relationships with other people, of Kassandra, who’s Ram’s... sort of love interest, in a way? [Or rather] Friend, good friend. You have these sketches of Kassandra’s relationship with her dad, in particular. And there’s a lot of opportunity for the reader to fill in the gaps, right? That’s one of the things I really enjoyed.
And then you come to chapter 14, which is the catskull chapter, and I won’t say any more about the catskull chapter, except that I call it the catskull chapter. I was reading it on my computer, and I was like “damn, suddenly chapter 14 is like damn long, man, after all these microchapters. And it’s a lot more vivid; there’s a lot more saturation with aspects of Ram’s life and what Ram is doing at that very moment in this chapter.
Up till that point, because of the sparseness of the writing and the microchapters, I felt like it was very much a dialogue with the author, right? Because of Ram describing in such vivid detail what’s happening in this chapter, I then also felt, you know, that I as the reader was having a dialogue with Ram, and understanding more about his thought processes, about what was going on, which was really nice. Yan is now going to read a little bit [from the book].
Yan: Okay, great I’m gonna be wary about what I say, I’m not gonna try to ruin too much. For a sense of what Sudhir is talking about, about the microchapters, this is chapter 7, of section 1.
“When he would visit on weekends, Uncle Arun would take me and Logan down to the playground. I was too small to do much of anything, other than hobble around and fall. Logan would climb all over, up and down the blue slide, across that fading red castle, and Uncle Arun would chase him.
We called him Uncle, but in the way it always is, he was not a real uncle, not in the sense of blood. He was my father’s best friend in school, the two of them often mistaken for siblings, my father the responsible elder and Uncle Arun the reckless baby brother.
When Uncle Arun lost his job, he would take us down to the playground any time we liked. But the trips felt emptier, Logan tugging on Uncle Arun’s sleeve, Uncle Arun saying he was too tired to play, taking swigs from a little bottle in his back pocket.
They always say I am just like him. But I don’t know who he was.”
Yan: So that’s chapter 7, and I’m also gonna read chapter 9, which is another small chapter.
“Kass was named after a prophet. Kassandra. A Trojan princess who saw the future. Her premonitions warned her of bad times to come but no one listened.
I never understood why her parents gave her such a cursed name. I would rather be stupid and heard, than wise and ignored.
Her younger brother is named Paris, a skinny, black-haired boy, with the same dark eyes as Kass. He’s five years younger than her, stuttering into puberty. Occasionally he joins us at KFC if Kass has to get him from school. He likes to try sparring with me while she waits for the bus, and sometimes hits too hard.
During the June holidays, when Kass has to take care of Paris, she brings him to my house in the day, when my parents are at work. The two of us will play rocket wars in Halo while she barely watches. Lately, he’s been trying to get me to play Minecraft with him on Kass’ laptop. But it strikes me as too kiddy.
Paris is probably going to be taller than me, he’s already one head shorter than me with five years of growing to go. Kass’ father is a giant, a former sportsman who used to play shot-put nationally. Kass was in track and field for a few years, and clearly shared her father’s gift. She was on-track to play in the SEA Games, but broke her wrist two months before try-outs started.
Now Paris is her father’s last hope. He carves out time of his busy schedule to take Paris to three weekly training sessions. I would ask Kass what her father’s job is, but I know better than to bring him up.
My parents named me after Rama, from the Ramayana. A great hero, they told me. I have never read it. My brother is Lakshman, Rama’s brother in the Ramayana. But he goes by Logan now.”
Sudhir: Thanks, Yan. As you go further down the book, you realise that the chapters are structured with a lot of modern forms of communication as well: social media posts, DMs, instant messaging, newspaper articles. Again, this gives you a sense of Ram’s mind as he’s moving through this whirlwind of information that all of us, in a way, have to live through today, for better or worse. So I wondered how you thought about form in terms of different modes of communication, for Ram.
Yan: One of my objectives with this book was to drag the reader, sort of kicking and screaming, into the psyche of this character, and the microchapters is part of that. It’s part of the fragmented way he views the world, the ways that memories slip in and slip out. Things he would like to forget, or things he doesn’t mean to hold on, keep drifting back in, and another part of that is what Sudhir is talking about. Within the book sometimes there’s a newspaper article or blog post, or, in one section, there’s screenshots of Tinder, and later text messages, missed calls, and things like that, and those are part of the texture of that specific time period, because the book isn’t set now, it’s set in like 2013.
If it was set now, then I will have to figure out how to put TikTok onto a page. Maybe roll it out? I don’t know. But I wanted to get into that very specific headspace, of that sort of burgeoning understanding of what the internet is, and not really knowing what it could be; it’s this sort of connected thing, it affects your life, but it’s not the ever-present thing it is for us now, right? I guess he does have [mobile] data, but you know.
Sudhir: I love this staccato nature sometimes of the narrative, because that resonates a lot with the way we absorb information as well. I wanted to ask a simple question: why write this? What were your motivations, and something you said last week (when we had a drink, and when we met for the first time in person) was, it’s not just about individuals, but there’s a system critique that you’re trying to make through the book, and how systems might fail us, everywhere in the world. Obviously this is set in Singapore, so it’s a systemic critique of things in Singapore, if you could just talk a bit more about that?
Yan: Yeah, I said earlier that Ram is trying to enact a very specific kind of Singaporean justice, and when we think of superheroes fighting crime, typically we think of Spiderman stopping a mugging in New York. But muggings are not necessarily the type of crime we experience in Singapore, and one of the biggest things I was trying to explore with this book was the difference between legal wrongs and moral wrongs.
Because we know there’s all sorts of cases where a verdict may come out from the courts and we feel one way, but the court felt another way. And then the question is, what do we do next? What’s the next phase, how do we approach that? Do we adjust our own moral compass, or do we rebel? And Ram takes that to the ultimate extreme; he tries to make justice happen on things that he thinks are being left undone, unfinished.
Sudhir: I wanted to move on from that to some of your inspirations for the book—and we spoke about the sorts of crime that happens in Singapore, and the pressures and simmering tensions that we have, and how they manifest themselves in behaviours. I’ll just describe this incident very briefly for the audience. I had read it very briefly but I forgot about it, and it’s a story from 2014, about a bunch of teens who beat up some migrant workers for fun. Almost like their own little fight club type thing, it sounded like. In 2014, Daryl Lim Jun Liang (gonna name him), 19, and three friends, met in Yishun, and decided to look for foreign workers to assault. Had to be Yishun right? Just kidding.
They picked on four smaller foreign workers. They targeted [them] in the sense of their [victims'] build, and everything right, it was premeditated. They picked on smaller foreign workers who were deemed less likely to fight back. (At) 6AM, they spotted a 48 year old Chinese national walking around Yishun Avenue 6, and they attacked him. There was Daryl Lim, who was 19, there was an 18 year old and there were two 15 year olds as well, so Daryl led this little gang. They punched this 48 year old guy multiple times in the face and the mouth before fleeing. They also beat up some other people, but the Straits Times report didn’t have details of the other people they beat up, it just has this one.
Prosecution urged the court to send him to a reformative training centre, where his stint would be between 18 and 30 months, and the defense—I mean, and this is classic Singapore lah—the defense said not to send him to this reformative work centre because it will affect his future work prospects. He’s got a good record, he’s got great grades in school, and the same old story lah, as if straight As should sort of exonerate you.
The judge said that it was important to note between reformative training and community centre, saying that they didn’t want to give him an “indelible” criminal record. At the end of the day, for beating up these four workers, Daryl Lim got ten days of detention. He could have been jailed for up to two years and given a $5,000 fine. So, anyway, that’s the story, and I was interested when we met last week to hear about the different incidents that affected you and influenced you in terms of wanting to write this story.
Yan: The book is split up into eight parts, and most of those parts are defined by a single major crime that Ram tries to right, and one of them is this crime, but I’m not using the same thing. I alter it, do it a little differently – there’s an instance of domestic worker abuse, migrant worker abuse, sexual assault in a school, gang fight, and those are some of the different things that Ram tries to fight. But this specific one was a nexus of a lot of the themes that I’m trying to unpack with this book, about crime, xenophobia, the people who don’t really get justice, and also, a big part of it is male aggression, male violence, male adolescent violence in particular.
So even though Ram is made angry by this story, his response is similar to what the boys do right, he continues this path of violence, and that’s one of those things I’m trying to untrace with this book, it’s where does violence get us? I’m not really providing an alternative within this book at least. This book is about the downward spiral of where that takes a teenage boy, if his only response to anger is to hit something.
Sudhir: Was that always your conception of the book, the downward spiral? Or did it evolve, did you have different thoughts about where to take Ram’s journey?
Yan: Initially the book was going to be a short story. So for anyone who has read the book, or if you’re going to read the book, I thought it ended at the end of part two. And then it didn’t. I kept going, and I was like, wow, this is much bigger than I thought. Once I went past that point, I realised very quickly that this was not going to go well. It was just going to keep circling down, and pretty early on I actually knew, before I knew what the last five cases were, what the ending was.
Sudhir: Wow, I see. Do you want to read a bit, maybe?
Yan: Sure, yeah. One of the reasons I went with the microchapters, is that it allows me to stitch things between. Rather than just having one continuous scene of things literally happening, it allows me to throw something else in the mix, and so this scene I’m about to read is actually in the middle of a fight scene, and Ram is trying to hold off these two boys who are attacking migrant workers, and then this is the scene that happens in between.
“My father’s parents were migrants. They came from India, he’s told me the province or the region, but I forget. I only know they were Tamil.
He says his grandmother was from a lower caste than my grandfather, which sullied their marriage in the family’s eyes. So they came to Singapore, or Malaysia then, to have a new start.
My grandfather, a beneficiary of the British education system, spoke fluent English and went from English teacher to discipline master to the principal of a neighbourhood primary school. My grandmother cooked, and raised three kids, my father the youngest child.
My mother’s parents met in Malaysia, though they were both originally from Jaffna. They met entirely through coincidence, both their families shopping at the same markets, unbeknownst to them that they all came from the same place. It was only after they began courtship that they realised his father and her mother were from the same town. My mother says Jaffna is a city. But I’ve seen the pictures hanging in my grandparents’ homes and it hardly looks like a city.
When asked, I say I’m a third-generation Singaporean. I don’t know why the Chinese students in my class are never asked how long their families have been in Singapore.
Kass, unlike me, is a mixture of different races. It takes five minutes just to list the percentages and races on her mother’s side. Sometimes when people ask, she just says she’s one of those Eurasians. Her father is simple, a Dutch-Chinese mix. Kass has never met her father’s parents.
She says her grandfather was a Dutch sailor and her mother a Chinese-Malaysian woman. She doesn’t know what they look like.”
Yan reading a passage from catskull
And then it goes back to the fight. Sudhir was talking just now about the fragments of the micro-chapters, and my intention with that is that it ends up leaving a lot of space in between. On the page, there’s a lot of literal white space, because the chapter’s gonna end five lines into the page, and the reader is left to think about what’s going on in between those sections, and it allows me to skip time, skip around, and part of it, honestly, is that it’s just more fun for me to do it. As a writer, it gives me options to bounce around and suit my own whims rather than feel locked into this specific moment. But then there’s specific moments like when they discover the cat’s skull, that I had to be like, okay this has to sit for a while, this part matters, this is a key memory.
Sudhir: I really liked that breaking up, actually, because you somehow get into the mind of the person a bit more with that. Although yeah, there’s tons of white space in the book, that’s why it cost a lot of money. Just kidding. Many trees burnt for your white space.
Yan: I mean, there’s one chapter that is just white space. When Ethos was doing the editing, they were like “hey so, was this on purpose?”
Sudhir: Going back to these different incidents in Singapore that influenced you, one thing we talked about last week which was quite interesting is you feeling that truth is stranger than fiction, and you’re in this little bit of a race against time, sometimes, with some of your work. Even at Checkpoint [Theatre], there was something you were working on that involved protests and placards, and then a week later or something, Jolovan was [protesting] with his smiley face [placard]. Could you talk a bit about your process as a writer, when reality catches up with your creativity, and how that affects you?
Yan: You know one of the realities of working creatively in Singapore is that sometimes, something’s gonna come up that really happens, and that’s gonna affect the thing you’re doing. There’s the incident with the play, where I wrote a play about protest art, and then an activist was arrested for protesting two weeks after, and then I was like well okay, I guess that’s kinda done. I think it really depends also on tone, because some people are like "oh, then it’s even more important", but my play was a comedy, it was supposed to be funny, and suddenly it’s not funny anymore, and then I was like okay, never mind.
I mentioned there was an instance of domestic worker abuse within the book, and [for] that one I did quite a lot of research into some of the worst incidents in Singapore, and this is one of those [where] truth is stranger than fiction. I actually had to look at those, and then dial it back by a couple notches. Because if I presented those as they were, as they really happened, you would read it and be like, there’s no way another human being can do that to someone. And I think that’s just a very peculiar Singaporean thing, isn’t it?
Sudhir: And that’s stuff that happened in Singapore?
Yan: Yeah, it’s just one of those, and I don’t really know what to do about it. I don’t know how you’re supposed to handle that, other than make sure the thing you write comes out as quickly as possible, like move to writing a blog instead of writing books, but it just seems like it’s the reality of writing in Singapore. I’m sure you experience this to some extent at Jom as well right. If you’re reporting on a story, do you have to wait for it to finish developing? How does it work?
Sudhir: I mostly do non-fiction right, and I think it’s different. It really depends on the story you’re working on. For example, if you’re writing something about conflicts of interest, and ministers renting properties from SLA, right, at what point do you actually tell the story? I think with longform journalism, which is what we do, not daily news reporting, there’s actually a lot more leeway to take your time. I don’t think anybody’s really pressuring us to put something out quickly.
So do we write the story about SLA and what we could be doing with colonial properties, or do we take a step back, wait, and think about the larger issue, which is conflicts of interest? We’re planning a piece on conflicts of interest across the whole system, which, for the genre that we are in, is actually the more interesting story. We could focus on the narrow “Two ministers at Ridout Road” [angle], but you know.
Events catch up with us sometimes. But when you zoom out and focus on these underlying bigger issues, there's always an opportunity to write about it again. Sorry, probably a longer answer than you wanted.
Yan: You’re apologising for answering the question I asked you, yeah.
Sudhir: I know, but it’s your book launch, man!
Yan: I’m sorry! Haha.
Sudhir: You should share the story about the guy with the axe because that has resonance with catskull.
Yan: I’m not sure if people remember this, but I think this was 2021. A disturbed young man brought an axe to a secondary school and murdered one of the other students. And I sent that draft of catskull to Ethos like two weeks before. I don’t even really know what to say about that. Part of me was like, should I not do this anymore? Do I have to change the book to accommodate for that reality? In the end, I didn’t.
Sudhir: You were in Singapore at that time?
Yan: I was in Singapore. And part of me was like, oh man, by the time this book comes out, are people gonna be like, "oh, he saw that story and then he wrote a whole book about it. He saw this tragic real event and then wrote a whole book about it”. But it’s still here, haha.
We were talking about this and part of the question it raises is whether there is some real life resonance to the book? Whether the themes to it are potent and grounded in our reality, and that’s the way I try to think about it.
Sudhir: I’m gonna move on to cultural sensitivity, because I think that’s a good segue. When you describe things like this, in somewhat, well I wouldn’t necessarily say “gory” but you certainly seem to unearth some of these tensions that lie within a lot of people, and if a young reader sees how that manifests in somebody else—what are your worries with a young person picking up this book, resonating with Ram?
Yan: I just hope they get to the ending. Once you get to the ending, it’s kind of hard. I’ve been thinking about this, about the artist in relation to their audience, and how responsible the artist is to an audience being able to make their own decisions, being able to make up their own minds. I feel like if we walk down this path, it can end up a little infantilising.
If I’m writing a book that’s constantly signposting and I’m like “by the way, don’t do that,” that makes for less potent work – the effects of being told to do something versus thinking about a thing and coming to your own conclusion on it are very different. At the start of the book starts with a content warning that Ethos and I worked together to create.
Sudhir: I think your friends who’ve read it had kinda differing views on the content warning, right? I was a bit surprised when I saw it, I was like, “why do we need a content warning? It’s a book, chill out”.
Not to diminish the impact and power of some of the actions and violence that happens in the book, but I kind of feel like I should know what I’m getting into if I pick up a book and I know roughly what the book is about, so why do I need a content warning? That was my sense of it. And then we moved on to talk about—and I think this is a contemporary conversation, not just in fiction, but across a lot of genres, [in] journalism as well.
What kind of language do you use? What kind of signposting do you have for readers before they enter—if it’s a story about Ukraine, or about rape victims, or whatever it might be? How many signals and warnings do you need to give somebody has changed over time. The interesting tension point was this idea that we’re always going to somehow offend somebody, and how do we write the story we want while diminishing the impact on as many people as possible?
Yan: Yeah, and that comes back to intention, like what is your intention with it? There’s a lot of moments of violence within the book, some shocking violence, but I was coming back to like, what is my intention here? If my intention is purely to upset the reader, it’s got nothing to do with the text, and it’s got nothing to do with the character, then that’s not what I’m trying to do, right? I think we were talking about—with what we know about PTSD and trauma and triggers and things like that, it’s okay if they’re gonna be “spoiled”, because that’s the complaint people give within prose about content warnings, “oh, it’s spoiling what’s gonna happen.” But then what it does instead is it raises this challenge of, if you know something of that like is going to happen, the how is more important than the what.
The most interesting books and movies and art in general, it’s more interesting to think about how they’re doing it, rather than what literally happens. If we want to know what literally happens, we can just go to Wikipedia and read the summary.
Sudhir: The content warning might tell you the what, but the challenge, then, is to make sure the how is really interesting for the reader, right?
Yan: Yeah, interesting and not harmful. It is possible to write something with intent to harm.
Sudhir: Should we then talk a little bit about, I mean, not your direct inspirations for this book, but your broader cultural touchpoints and influences?
Yan: That goes back to the how. The obvious influences of the book is like, vigilante stuff, superhero stuff, the crime-busting genre. But structurally the thing the book maps the closest onto is gangster movies. Like Scarface, Goodfellas, Godfather, all of which actually go exactly the same way. The plot is pretty similar. It’s then about the how, right? There was this specific moment when I was watching Goodfellas, by Martin Scorcese, for a class or something, and there’s this moment when Hank Hill, the protagonist, is having this manic episode, and he’s convinced helicopters are following him, and the copious amount of cocaine he has in his trunk.
And Scorsese does all these things with the camera, the editing, and the acting, to communicate that. And one of my objectives with this book was, okay, what would that look like on the page? How can I recreate that same feeling of mania at that same point in his journey in a book form, rather than the film? So it was an inspiration plot-wise, but it also was stylistically exciting, to see what things I could bring in.
Sudhir: With the pacing as well. When you say “recreate that”, pacing is a big part of it, I’m guessing?
Yan: Yeah, I wanted to make a book that you want to go to the next page on. And that’s microchapters, but that’s also tension, that’s foreshadowing, that’s many things that exist within the page, and a lot of that I pulled from gangster films. Another large influence for this book is Taxi Driver, which is about a New York taxi driver, disturbed in his own way, who spirals out of control. And this one, we didn’t talk about this, but there’s this another movie called Dheepan, which, I forget the name of the director, but it’s—
Sudhir: Jacques Audiard.
Yan: Ah, thanks man. That movie is a riff on Taxi Driver, but instead of a taxi driver, it’s a soldier from the Sri Lankan civil war who moves to France, and is put onto this sort of refugee compound, but the plot of the movie is almost identical. Transplanting was also really exciting for me, when I watched it, and subconsciously affected [me], like, what can I bring to Singapore? What is uniquely Singapore?
Yan: Yeah, but in the worst ways?
Sudhir: No, but that’s great, that’s quite a broad possible spectrum. What’s Taxi Driver, like late 70s, early 80s Scorsese?
Yan: Yeah, it’s his first film.
Sudhir: … to 2015.
Yan: Yeah. Dheepan was 2015.
Sudhir: Dheepan …that’s the first time I’d heard of the film. We’re at 8.15 which is nearly the time we’re supposed to take questions so okay, so I think the first two we can take together.
Question 1: The legal and moral crimes in the book seem to be based on real happenings. Were there moments in the story when you had to overstep the limits of reality?
Question 2: You mentioned truth is larger than fiction. That is deep. Were there any truths that you discovered through writing catskull?
Sudhir: Or you can take them separately.
Yan: I’ll tackle the first one first. The major twist on reality within the book is that Ram is bad. All of the real cases that it’s based off of went unresolved. They stopped where the headline does, they stopped where the article does. And my experiment was, I’m gonna insert this guy who’s gonna try and correct it. The correcting isn’t real, and that—for better or for worse. The other question was, what truths did I discover in writing this book? That’s a tough one.
Sudhir: I don’t know what the questioner meant, but truths about yourself, truths about Singapore, could be truths about many things right?
Yan: I’m stumped, I learnt a lot of things about myself as an artist and creatively about what I need to [do to] complete a project like this, or to start a project like this, but truths about Singapore?
Sudhir: Or about the male Singaporean condition, aggression? Did you... while exploring that through Ram?
Yan: Okay yeah, despite the way the hair may look on the cover, it’s not me, hahaha…
It’s not autobiography, I didn’t do any of these things, I would never do any of these things but I did discover how frustrated I was when I was Ram’s age. That was a major discovery for me. For me he was a total creation, and then at some point I realised, oh man, I was really mad, all the time. And I just was able to reflect on the things that made me angry in that moment and how many of those things were connected to one other, right?
One of the sequences in the book is, every other chapter is a present crime that Ram is fighting, and in between that is instances of Ram remembering his first time seeing a public caning and that was a connection that I didn’t make at all. That came in a later draft of the book, because I was like, this part is missing something and I can’t quite tell what it is, and then suddenly it clicked. It brought me back to my first time seeing a public caning and the way those things just blurred together.
Sudhir: The memories you have of childhood, right? The first time I saw a public caning [was] in secondary school, Sec Two. I only remembered it so much later, the significance of it.
Yan: Yeah. That kind of thing just sits in the back of your head and maybe it’s because you can’t really deal with the enormity of it happening in the moment, and so you just push it to the back and it just recedes and comes back at some point.
Question 3: Did you ever have to take breaks while writing catskull?
Yan: No, I had to do the opposite. Because the book is about circling in, I would have to write it in long stretches, especially when I was coming up with it. When I was editing it I would take breaks and behave like a normal human being, but I found that the book worked best if I was writing in like a four-hour spurt into the night, because that’s where I needed to go. Would not make for a great night of sleep, which would then help with the writing the next day.
Sudhir: I’m gonna pause you here, because this is interesting from a craft perspective. What you said is that you work on different genres at different times of the day, which I found quite interesting, because my practice and craft are very different. You said you prefer to do non-fiction at night, am I right?
Yan: Yeah, that’s right. If I'm trying to write something that's heavy, or somewhere where I’m going to need to sort of trick myself into going to a place that I wouldn’t want to go to in the middle of the day, I have to do that at night. Because there are sort of subconscious barriers we have for ourselves to not make our day terrible. If I woke up and started writing catskull at the start of my day, I’d just be so grumpy for the rest of the day, I’d be a nightmare. And so [you have] these little strategies as a writer, especially when you’re working across different projects. There’s some projects where it’s super easy for me to wake up and just go straight to writing it down, and there’s some things that I have to go through my whole day, be spent, and then squeeze out a little bit more.
Sudhir: So you might be working on different projects, different genres as well, and each one has a particular time of the day for you.
Question 4: Was there anything you couldn’t fit into this book that you wish you could’ve spoken about or want to explore in another project?
Yan: That’s a great question. So an old draft of this book was called The Mangroves Hide the Bodies, and instead of the catskull being a big part of it, it was anchored in a core memory of Ram going to a mangrove forest in Indonesia, on holiday, and being really scared by all the shadows he saw. But I realised that that that didn’t really line up with the book so much. This book was more about urban Singapore city, whereas [for] that story, the themes that were coming out with the mangroves, was about urban development. It was about the construction, the building, nature versus the city, things like that, and I do have another project that I’m gonna bring that into.
That was an exciting – at first I was really resistant to taking it out, and then I just had this moment, I was like, it’s gotta go. It’s not doing anything for this book.
Sudhir: How far were you into the book when you made that call?
Yan: I’d finished it. That was a very, very early draft, very different draft. It was maybe like half this length. And there were mangroves. And it’s still half of that.
Sudhir: Was that connected to any real incident or story?
Yan: No, I like to acknowledge that I have fixations, and those fixations come up in the work. So at that moment I was really fascinated by the visual of the mangrove, and then we had to just put it away.
Sudhir: Yeah. I mean, catskull is not a bad second.
Yan: Yeah, that’s how I like to think of it, as second place.
Question 5: Do you have plans for a sequel? (I have not yet read this book.)
Yan: No, I don’t have plans for a sequel. I think a lot about endings; I think endings really shape how a text sticks in your brain. And I needed this one to end where it does and I won’t go back to it.
Question 6: You work across a lot of creative genres (fiction, graphic novel, plays). How do you know what form a story should take or manifest in? How do you decide?
Yan: That’s got a lot to do with the other discussion we were having about how, rather than what. Because you can tell a story across a bunch of mediums, but the question is, what does that media bring to the how of how you’re telling it, right? Some things just make sense as a play, and you have the tools of the play, like the monologue, or characters that actors can play multiple roles, and those create this element of how, how is this story being told? And that’s kind of the central thing I go back to, is how is this being told and how does this specific media enhance the themes of this book, or this story?
Sudhir: Is it very clear, like Brown Boys Don’t Tell Jokes was going to be staged, and catskull—or “mangrove”—was going to be a book?
Yan: Brown Boys Don’t Tell Jokes, which was a play I wrote that was staged by Checkpoint Theatre earlier this year, had to be a play, because it’s about the spirit of friendship, and that live camaraderie that comes between five friends. That being read on the page is super different, because you’re not seeing these five guys in a room together. catskull, if I were to tell the story in a different media, I would have to completely redo it, because I would want to think about the how.
So for example, there’s a lot of obvious comic book references within the book, and if I were to make it a comic book, I would have to think very differently about how the story is told, because you can't really do first-person in a comic book without nauseating the reader, because it’s all through his eyes [at] every panel. Nobody really does that because it’s just not an interesting story. And then suddenly, if it’s a comic book, suddenly we’re looking from the outside in, we’re looking at Ram, whereas in the book, we’re looking through Ram, and so that changes everything. What would it mean to be looking at Ram rather than through him?
Audience: Thank you. First of all, congratulations on the book launch, of course. You’ve tapped into some stories about Ram the protagonist and his journeys, through your stories, or through influences. These days we are seeing a lot of weird stories in Singapore and they tend to happen among younger generation or a lot in the adolescent age. And what I’ve been seeing every day is that there is a lack of connection between children growing up and actual parenting, or actual physical appearance or presence among them.
And you talk about the content warning; maybe people have to find out for themselves what all this means. Do you feel that this lack of guidance is actually contributing towards these things that are happening? I know it’s not a real question towards the book, but I was wondering if these are aspects that you’ve thought about, you know, detachment from a lack of guidance that is influencing these actions or these stories in such a way?
Yan: Thank you for the question. If we think about (and that is part of the book also, it’s this generational divide), Ram’s parents, [they] are not unkind parents. They actually try to connect with him, but they don’t know how to. Because the future they are now living is very different from the future Ram sees for himself. And that does connect to what we understand about the youth today.
We talk about climate change, right. At my age, I started learning about that as a teenager, but now they’re learning about it even younger, and they’re understanding even more how finite, perhaps, their time is. Or this society is. And so these old questions of like “Okay, I’m gonna get my house, I’m gonna have my kids”, are no longer anchoring principles that younger kids may have because they don’t know what’s gonna be there in 40 years. They don’t know if we’re gonna be up to our necks in water or whatever. That does affect your daily experience of the world, how you feel about your future, and that’s part of the book, right? How do you see your future? And do you see a future? And what do you do if you don’t?
Audience: Can you talk a bit about the editorial process in your book, if it contributed to the final shape of the book and how?
Yan: Thank you, it definitely did. Ethos has a bunch of wonderful editors, and one thing I really appreciated about working with them is this kind of conversation we would have about things; we had conversations where, for some things they were like, “Oh, I don’t know about this,” and I’d be like, “I really want that,” and then we’d talk about it, and then from there I would be able to make a more informed decision next.
One of those things was violence. In particular, there was one specific incident within the book, in an old draft of the book, where the team said “Okay, actually, everyone who read it in this team [thinks that] once that happens, we can no longer sympathise with Ram at all, it is so difficult for us to connect with him”. And I was like, “Ah, but it’s gotta be like that!” and I sat and thought about it, and based on that conversation with them, I realised, actually it doesn’t. I know I still wanted it to happen, but how I presented it to the reader changed dramatically. And that’s a huge shift, because the events in the book are exactly the same, but how it’s delivered are very different.
Sudhir: Can you describe, or is it difficult to describe in short what was the “problematic” aspects of it?
Yan: Yeah, so Kristian-Marc over here who’s my great friend read a draft of the book. When I brought up this incident, he shook his head. Because he remembered reading it, and being like, “damn”. Haha. The biggest thing about it was that it was vivid detail, it almost zoomed out from Ram and it was just an intense scene of violence in great detail.
Sudhir: Including Ram?
Yan: Ram is there, he enacted the violence. I realised that actually, he can still do it, but how he views it is told, he doesn’t. In truth, it’s more important for him, almost more interesting and more dynamic, if he rejects the memory. If he doesn’t even know it happens (and that’s how it’s delivered in the book currently), you don’t actually know what happens, because it’s a skipping point. Yeah.
Audience: Hi, sorry, I’m just surprised, you mentioned this thing about watching caning and the impact, and I’m speaking as somebody who’s lived a long time in Singapore. I have watched somebody literally be totally unable to stomach it, I don’t think I can stand it either. It’s very interesting for me to be in a room where other people seem to understand that, and I mean, even now when I talk, I … [sighs], you know, but it happened so long ago, it’s exactly it.
I get what you say, that sometimes you probably don’t understand what it feels like, but it happened and I saw what happened, and there was somebody who literally could not take it, and it took us several months to actually cope with the fact of being present, not being from a place—actually let’s say several generations of a family that have already gone past that know this is not the way and then suddenly to be like “this is modern Singapore. Get used to it and we know the right way!”. I haven’t read the book yet, there’s so much in it that you’ve said today that just bums me out. I really have nothing to say about it, because we are living this again and again, and I can’t imagine how terrible it is for you. Really. Thank you for the book. And thank you Ethos.
Yan: Thank you so much.
Sudhir: Thank you for sharing. Okay, with that, big round of applause for the panel.
Yan signing books
About the Speakers:
Yan (he/him) is a writer, director, and actor. His works have appeared in PanelxPanel, New Naratif, and The Bangalore Review. He is an Associate Artist with Checkpoint Theatre.
Sudhir Vadaketh’s work is focused on amplifying the voices of people marginalised by dominant power structures. His areas of concern are inequality, corporate and political hegemonies, and social hierarchies. He is the author of Floating on a Malayan Breeze and co-author of Hard Choices. He’s co-founder of Jom, a Singaporean weekly.