Interview with Teo You Yenn February 19, 2018 10:19This is what inequality looks like (Ethos Books, 2018) entered the second print run within two weeks, and looks to be a gamechanger for discourse on public and social policy.
Interview with Madeleine Lee October 18, 2017 11:00
I see poetry in lots of places and lots of moments. Not just as work or in investment. There is poetry all around, if only people would stop to look or listen. In fact I rarely write about investments. I do that, yes, but in investment essays, quite different. If I had to answer your question directly, then the poetry is in the numbers. You need to ask yourself, what is poetry?
How do you choose your poetic subject matter? What is your thought process like when conceptualising a poetry collection?
The subject matter chooses me. I find myself a scribe, a recorder of all around me which appear with poetic beauty.
In this particular volume, I have veered away from my normal narrative, writing about things all around me – trees, birds, architecture, people, conversations, colours, trees, again. This book is rather unusual in that it is an abstract of an abstract. It is all in the mind, if you would.
As I said, the subject chooses me. I was at a (dull) conference on financial risk management when the term ‘square root of time’ popped up in the conversation. This is an accepted rule in the mathematics of risk – I won’t go into the definition here – and it struck me that in itself the term was poetry. I mean, how does one apply a mathematical function to the concept of time? And what is the concept of time? So in fact I wrote the final poem in the book first. Quite quickly and more importantly all the math and numbers had to work perfectly. And they did.
After that, with the conference still being dull, I designed an entire arc for a collection built around these statistical concepts.
The poems in this collection reflect difficult moments or moments of discomfort.
This is my 9th volume and mostly for the last 8, they have been at one level, quite equanimous. But this one is different and quite dark. It is in fact completely out of character for me to have written this way. It is also a second derivative – an abstract to the power of 2 – mathematics and pain.
What draws you to writing about them?
Injustice and unfairness bother me. Especially if one of the parties is unable to speak up or defend itself, against a bigger and stronger party. This happens everywhere to everything. For e.g. in nature, in the migration of the wildebeest, or simply between partners. So somewhere in the writing there is always a small left hook, if you would. A complain from the poet.
How did your collaboration with Cake Theatre come about?
I first collaborated with Cake Theatre in 2007, with my work y grec, co-written with Eleanor Wong. Ostensibly it was about a Greek holiday but as usual, I wrapped mine up in lots of Greek myths and history, as a device for holding my thoughts together. It was an ‘accidental’ book, in that neither of us planned it, but upon our return, Enoch from Firstfruits read our work, separately, and told us it was a book waiting to happen. Anyway, I pitched an idea to Singapore Writers Festival 2007 to turn the book into a performance and dragged in Natalie of Cake.
The second time was with 1.618, my book of poems about migration – of the wildebeest, of the egret and of the human emotion. Again, it was [a closed-door performance] at SWF, in 2012.
So this is my 3rd one. In fact, having written the work I realise that all 3 fit together, like a triptych. Indeed these 3 episodes reflect my own personal journey. I didn’t know it when writing, but I do now.
What was the process like turning poetry into theatre?
Natalie from Cake Theatre did the adaptation – I just wrote the book! But for me, as an author, I was curious to see the interpretation. Most of the time, readers read in their room and never tell you what they think. To see an interpretation ‘writ large’, as it were, is very fulfilling.
What kind of relationship do you hope the reader would have with square root of time?
See the pain. Feel the dilemmas. Touch the hurt. If we can crisscross the various parts of the brain to take the numerical concepts along with the emotional, I would have achieved something.
How do you convince a math hater of the poetic quality of mathematics?
I think you do not hate maths. You probably hated the teacher and the homework. Mathematics is very beautiful to me. It is a logic that is unto itself, as it is made up of rules derived from observations. So, in itself it is very resolved. Like music – if musical sounds are arranged in a resolved manner it becomes very, very beautiful. Math and Music are the same to me. Words, when arranged precisely and beautifully becomes poetry. Same for dance and painting. See it. Don’t hate it.
Madeleine Lee is an investment manager who also writes poetry. She has been writing poetry since she was 13. square root of time is her 9th volume of published poetry. She lives in Singapore.
square root of time is available on our webstore.
Krishna Udayasankar on the power of myths and exploring universal questions through writing March 28, 2017 10:00
by Jennifer Kwan
This March 2017, we're exploring #intersections and focusing discussion around the women writers within the region! Join us as we interview each of our three featured women writers – Noelle Q. de Jesus, Krishna Udayasankar, and Jinat Rehana Begum – and learn a bit more about how their identities and beliefs shape their writing.
The third and final author we're featuring is Krishna, author of 3. In this interview, she discusses the significance of cultural myths and their retellings, and what she hopes to write about next!
Jennifer: How important is International Women’s Day to you?
Krishna: At the risk of hitting a nerve, I confess: It’s not all that important. In fact, I get quite irritated by how it has become another consumerist holiday. And worse, how the number of insensitive clichés that are thrown around – the endless advertisements for everything from discounted slimming packages to push-up bras takes away the focus from what International Women’s Day is really about.
J: This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #BeBoldForChange. If you had to advocate one issue related to women's rights, what would it be?
K: Education. Undoubtedly. I say this because it is the one privilege I have enjoyed that has made all the difference – not just in terms of economic independence and social mobility but also in terms of self-perception, awareness and assertiveness. It is the critical factor that determines whether you are going to ask for what is yours by right, or step up to claim those rights and refuse to relinquish them.
J: Do you think female authors from the Southeast Asia region have gotten enough recognition for their works? Who is an underrated female author that we should be reading?
K: I believe that most South-East Asians who are in a position to write and publish in English are already in positions of privilege, to the point that gender creates less of a differential. Underrated female authors are more likely to be found amongst those writing in regional or vernacular languages.
J: If you had to recommend a list of books based on this month’s theme (#intersections), what would it be and why?
K: I’m going to name one all-time favourite, one recently read book, and one book that’s on my reading list: First, the all-time favourite is Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. It was one of those books that made me painfully aware of my own ignorance and worse, assumptions. The second book is Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan. I was amazed at the ease with which he was able to transport me into a world that I was unfamiliar with – not just in a cultural or geographic sense but in terms of world-views and belief-systems. Finally, a to-be-read acquisition from a lit fest I recently attended: The Adivasi Will Not Dance by Hansda Sovwendra Shekhar comprises short stories about marginalised groups in India, but without relying on tropes and stereotypes.
J: Is there anyone who you look up to or who inspires you?
K: I am inspired by instances, more than individuals, and by the examples of courage and compassion that we see around us.
J: Do you have any words of wisdom for those aspiring to be writers?
K: In general, I believe all writers should listen to, and then promptly ignore, all advice. Having said that, I’ll also add, more as a reminder to myself than for the benefit of aspiring writers:
Treat your subject/story/material with respect. The story (and this is particularly true for mytho-historical fiction) has endured in memory and myth for a long time; it has a life of its own and is bigger than you are. Respect that and engage with the story. It was here before you and your writing, and will probably stick around long after you are gone.
J: What does multi-culturalism mean to you?
K: Imagine a hall of mirrors, constructed around something that we believe is universal – a fact, a thing, a construct. Multi-culturalism lets us look at that thing reflected manifold. The trick (as with all halls of mirrors), is that the longer you look at that universal, central attraction, the more you realise that it is your own reflection you see, and you see yourself as you would not have before. It’s scary, empowering and amazing all at the same time!
J: What is your life-motto?
K: I don’t have one, really! I’m not disciplined enough!
J: You've given readers absorbing retellings about the founding myth of Singapore in 3 as well as the Mahabharata through The Aryavarta Chronicles – what's another mythic retelling that you would like to work on, and why?
K: I hope someday to work on something that interweaves different world-myths – for example a combined pantheon, or a tale where world-myths intersect. But I also find that what I write tends to be a result of a question or dilemma I experience at that point in time, and myth is just the domain I look to for answers. I also have wanted to work on the Ramayana for a long time, particularly because of the gender elements involved, but that seems to be one story I simply cannot get a grip on. Perhaps it’s time is yet to come!
J: Do you think (oral) storytelling is a gendered tradition or a tradition marked by age? (E.g. Typically, the elder of the family would be the one to share folktales) How important is it for us to continue passing down myths and folktales, and do you see yourself as doing this through your mytho-historic fiction?
K: Writers are very much products of their times; other writers and I who work with myth and folktales are merely a few amongst the great legacy of narrators and bards who have passed these tales down through time. Myth is kept alive, partly by its larger than life allure, and partly by the way it allows for reconstruction to stay relevant to current times. In that vein, as our families and social structures go through change, there possibly is an increase in writing and books as the means of transmission than the older traditions of storytelling by elders.
J: Nila, the protagonist of 3, has recurring dreams throughout the novel. Did you ever experience recurring dreams? What do dreams mean for you?
K: No, fortunately or unfortunately, I don’t have recurring dreams. I have quite vivid dreams, so I suppose it’s a good thing I don’t get into dream-loops! I view dreams as subconscious thought/emotion coming to the fore when our ego or the illusion of control that we like to hold to on to has been lulled, quite literally, into sleep.
Funny thing is, I write some of my best lines, get some of the best ideas as sort-of-dreams, when I sleep. The nightmare, however, is that I don’t always remember them when I wake up, and even when I do, it seems only a pale imitation of what actually went on in sleep!
J: Being a female author from India who now calls Singapore home, how was the process of growing up and transitioning between different societies like for you? What advice would you give to those who might be going through the same situation?
K: I’ve lived overseas since I was a child and I think this may be why I sometimes (try to) deal with universal questions – things like what is freedom, what is the role of a leader, can the greater good be excuse for individual restrictions – through my fiction. I think I’m also better attuned to observing and picking up context, which again translated into detail I use in creating fictional story-worlds.
As for advice, I’m not sure I have much to offer, really. These can be very personal journeys, so I wouldn’t be sure what to say!
J: Do you see a rise in mytho-historic fiction in Southeast Asia?
K: Yes, particularly in the face of globalisation, I do think we are both re-asserting our Asian-ness through mytho-history, as well as questioning our present society and its norms by reconstructing established narratives – be it our conceptions of good and bad or gender roles and expectations.
Krishna Udayasankar’s bestselling debut series of mytho-historical novels, The Aryavarta Chronicles (Govinda, Kaurava and Kurukshetra; Hachette 2012, 2013, 2014) have received critical acclaim. She is also the author of 3 (Ethos Books, 2015), a novel based on the myths and legends surrounding the founding of Singapore. Krishna holds an undergraduate degree in law and a PhD in strategic management. She lives in Singapore with her family, which includes three bookish canine-children, Boozo, Zana and Maya, who are sometimes to be found at her laptop, trying to make her writing better.
Jinat Rehana Begum on the accessibility of Southeast Asian lit, and her thoughts on First Fires March 23, 2017 14:39
by Jennifer Kwan
This March 2017, we're exploring #intersections and focusing discussion around women writers within the region! Join us as we interview each of our three featured women writers – Noelle Q. de Jesus, Krishna Udayasankar, and Jinat Rehana Begum – and learn a bit more about how their identities and beliefs shape their writing.
The second author we're featuring is Jinat, author of First Fires. Read on to find out what she feels is important for women's rights, the story behind the pop culture references in her novel, and what she wrote about as a teenager!
Jennifer: This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #BeBoldForChange. If you had to advocate one issue related to women's rights, what would it be?
Jinat: Last year AWARE called for a repeal of a law which makes attempting suicide a criminal offence in Singapore. I only discovered this a few years back while I was doing a bit of research for First Fires and I wonder how many people know that they could be arrested, jailed and fined for attempting suicide. There's all this talk of building a more compassionate society and yet we have laws that punish and traumatize the most vulnerable for expressing their pain. Teen suicides were at their highest last year so there's an urgent need to take a good hard look at this law and support AWARE as much as possible in their push for a gentler way to deal with the distressed.
I also admire the initiatives AWARE has put forward to end violence against women. It amazes me that there are people, men and women, who think some degree of violence against women is okay. There's still this latent belief that victims of violence have somehow provoked their attacker and I just can't understand this. The work AWARE is doing to promote awareness of what constitutes violence is so important, but more needs to be done to socialize men and boys so they don't see violence as a means of communicating their frustrations and exerting their authority over women.
Jen: Do you think female authors from the Southeast Asia region have gotten enough recognition for their works? Who is an underrated female author that we should be reading?
J: I'm completely stumped by this…I don’t think I've read enough to be able to list authors—male or female—from Southeast Asia just off the top of my head. I suppose we don’t get enough of these in our bookshops but also there's a problem with getting hold of good English translations. I've always been curious about Malaysian and Indonesian fiction but there aren't enough English translations out there. It's particularly important, I think, to read more Malaysian authors, just because historically, culturally and even linguistically, we have so much in common. I'm reading Dina Zaman's collection of short stories, King of the Sea, at the moment. It's such a wonderful read because there's so much there that's strangely familiar.
Jen: Do you have any words of wisdom for those aspiring to be writers?
J: Read everything, keep an open mind, and keep at it.
Jen: The story of First Fires unfolds through the different perspectives of a mother, brother, sister and daughter. The characters and relationships which inhabit the novel are incredibly believable and relatable – did you draw from your personal experiences while you were writing this? If so, how did your personal experiences inform your writing?
J: Thanks, that's really encouraging! The references to places, to food, and to pop-culture—a lot of these are drawn from personal experiences. But the rest is imaginary.
The question of how much of First Fires is personal or autobiographical comes up a lot, partly I think due to the confessional nature of its first person accounts—the four characters in the novel, Sal, Ma, Sarah and Adam, they pour their hearts out for everyone to see—I had to live with these characters for a long time, so I'm naturally very fond of them, but I couldn’t contain all of them inside me! What I discovered very quickly about writing four different first person points of view is that you can't 'take sides' by favouring one character over the other. Slipping in personal feelings and experiences into one character, that's a kind of favouritism.
Jen: There are surprising references to mountaineer Junko Tabei and the American TV show 'The Love Boat' in First Fires. Could you tell us how these references found their way into your story?
J: 'The Love Boat' and Larry Lai's 'Radio Show,' which is also mentioned, were extremely popular TV shows in the late 70s and 80s. The characters in First Fires reference pop culture quite a bit because, I think, we often have a tendency to remember a period in our lives, based on what we watched on television or heard on the radio.
But I guess there's something larger at stake with the Junko Tabei reference. Adam, who mentions her in the same breath as Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher, remembers these powerful women as his mother's, Ma's, inspirations. Ma is the only woman in First Fires who is confined to the home and who doesn’t have a career, but she's also the only female character with a clear idea of how she would like to live her life differently.
Jen: You started writing poetry when you were a teenager – could you share with us how much your writing and/or the topics you've chosen to write about has changed from then till now?
J: I wrote the kinds of poems teenagers write—about growing up, friends, relationships. I like to think I've grown up just a little and that I've started to think of the wider world a bit more.
Jen: First Fires gave us insight into the lives of an Indian Muslim family living in Singapore as well as one perspective of a Muslim woman's coming of age. Can you recommend any other books with a Muslim protagonist like (or unlike) Sal, and what you liked about that book?
J: There are a surprising number of books available to us now, written in English, of a Muslim girl's coming of age—although, to be honest, I don't see First Fires that way. I'm currently reading a fascinating memoir by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh that I think everyone should read because the book charts a young woman's attempt to find her voice through her faith while she negotiates diverse cultures and political mindsets. (You can find out more about her book, Muslim Girl, here)
Jinat Rehana Begum has taught Literature and English in primary, secondary and tertiary institutions in Singapore. She began scribbling poetry on the back of used envelopes as a teenager and started to experiment with prose when she bought her first computer. First Fires is her first novel. Inspired by Neighbourhood, a single by British indie rock band Space, her next project is a collection of stories about the residents of a high-rise apartment in Singapore.
Noelle Q. de Jesus on underrated female Asian writers and the taboo of writing about sex March 16, 2017 14:00
by Jennifer Kwan and Katrina Yeow
This March 2017, we're exploring #intersections and focusing discussion around women writers within the Asian region! Join us as we interview our three featured women writers – Noelle Q. de Jesus, Krishna Udayasankar, and Jinat Rehana Begum – to learn a bit more about how their identities and beliefs shape their writing.
First up, we managed to sit down with Noelle to get her thoughts about International Women's Day, learn how she put together her first short story collection, Blood Collected Stories, and why she thinks it's important to write about sex.
Jennifer: If you had to recommend a book based on this month’s theme, #intersections, what would it be and why?
Noelle: The two books I've read in the last couple of months coincidentally fit right into that theme. The first is Roxane Gay's debut novel An Untamed State which is about a Haitian American woman who returns to the land of her birth to visit her parents with her husband and her new baby, and she is abducted by kidnappers out to get a ransom for her from her wealthy political father. The other book is Vietnamese writer Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer which won the Pulitzer Prize for literature, about a communist double agent at the end of the Vietnam War. Both deal in intersections where the protagonist must grapple with two cultures, two countries and both characters are each points of intersection.
I am drawn to novels where characters are torn and moved by two countries they love, because that is something I know in my own life, although in my case, it's actually three countries.
J: Which Filipino author would you recommend to someone who has not had experience reading Filipino literature before?
N: When you study world history in high school, you learn that there are novels that emerge out of specific historical times that influence or give rise to movements. Charles Dickens' novel Hard Times and even Oliver Twist reflected the hardships of the Industrial Revolution. In the US, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was about slavery, and it sparked the flames of the American Civil War.
The Philippines has two novels like that too. National Hero Jose Rizal's Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. Rizal wrote these in Spanish, but there are English translations now, and I'd highly recommend those two. Reading Rizal would definitely give any non-Filipino reader a great background to Philippines' history.
J: How important is International Women's Day to you?
N: It's always good to recognise the problems and situations of women in our region and across the world, especially for women who don't have the rights which women in developed countries do. But even the women in the first world will say that they're not there yet. In a way it's like Valentine's Day: You're only going to give me flowers during Valentine's Day? On one hand it's a good reminder, good recognition, but on the other hand it also means we can forget about it on the other days. There are problems with it and there are good things about it, and you just have to take both.
I think that celebrating women and the strides that we've made is always important but at the same time we can also feel a false sense of reassurance because it's hardly perfect and so … Is it important? Yes. But it is important to look at the reasons why it's there. Why is there no International Men's Day? And I'm sure men will say that also, you know, the way some women treat men, et cetera.
As always, when you have a formal recognition and a day, it becomes a platform, and that's good. It's good to celebrate the advances but it shouldn't be an excuse to be complacent.
J: This year's theme for women's day is #beboldforchange. If you had to advocate for one issue related to women's rights, which issue is pressing or important to you?
N: Well, here's a good thing: a law was just passed in the Philippines for an extended maternity leave, 120 days. So that's something to celebrate, that is important to me as a mother. 120 days paid leave with an option to extend another 30 days without pay. That's great, and hopefully all the companies will step in line. I will always advocate for equal pay. There's no reason why men should be making more and women less, but it continues to be an issue.
J: Do you think female authors from Asia have gotten enough recognition for their works?
N: No, I don't.
J: Who do you think is an underrated female author that we should know more about and we should read?
N: You know, that's a good question because I am guilty of not knowing Southeast Asian writers too. As a writer you try to read everything that you can and personally I know many writers who are excellent, but just don’t get the eyeballs. I can't name just one, and that's precisely the reason why it's a problem. The other problem, I think, is we are all blighted with colonial mentality. We read Western writers—British, American, European. We're drawn to them because that's what we were raised on, I think.
The problem with this question is that it's not even knowing that they're underrated, it's just knowing them! So I can't say. Do the women writers in Malaysia know the women writers in the Philippines, or the women writers in Singapore? Well, I live in Singapore so I know. I know Krishna, I know Jinat, I've met them—but I can't really say that I've read them.
There's a beautiful novel that is now getting good attention—attention it deserves—by F. H. Batacan, and she wrote a crime novel of literary quality called Smaller and Smaller Circles. It's about a serial killer in the slums of Manila, and it exposes the underbelly of politics and corruption. I think it's a great book and it was first published in the Philippines in this small book … not quite 120 pages. And then Jacaranda Agency sold it to a New York crime press called Soho Press, and so they published it and persuaded her to extend the novel, and now it's—what, almost 500 pages, I think. It made it to the Independent's best books of Southeast Asia. This year.
These lists help, but I don't know how many women will actually go out and find the book based on the list. Because I don't know if women are reading, I don't know if men are reading and I think that's another problem. You know, writers are reading each other, but people tell me they don't read anymore, they don't read fiction anymore. How are writers going to continue writing if nobody reads them? There's a gap.
J: Is there anyone who you look up to, or who inspires you?
My parents are a source of inspiration, always. And not because they are fiction writers. They are actual writers. My mother was a journalist but now she runs a non-government organisation that covers the way the Philippine media covers the news. My father worked in education and government, and now, he writes political commentary. They have spent their lives trying to make the Philippines better in terms of the way it is as a democracy. My mother was part of the alternative press that criticized the Marcos government when hardly any criticism was tolerated. Both are their 70s, and they're still doing it, doing their part for the country. They're still fighting for what's right ... pointing out corruption or injustice.
They are my inspiration and their lives and their work come into play in my work as sources for ideas. I can't do what they do, but I can tell stories about what they do.
J: Do you have any words of wisdom for those aspiring to be writers?
N: Keep reading. I mean I don't know that that's really wisdom as much as common sense. Keep reading and keep writing. And you can't write if you don't read. I mean, you can write, but if you haven't read, your writing will probably be crap.
Many people believe--and I am guilty of this as well—that they are writers. But think about this, if you're not writing, you're really not a writer. You need to put in time ideally daily, at least weekly, even if you're not writing you're thinking of ideas or you're jotting notes or you're doing something or you're writing in your journal, or you're writing in a blog. It doesn't matter.
Ask yourself whether you want to write or is it just the writing life you want, or the idea of being a writer. And recognise too that the writing life that you want is not real. Everybody who is interviewed in a magazine or for a blog or for a radio show ... it makes you picture a kind of false "writing life" where you get awards and do interviews, but that's not real. That's not the real writing life. People make it look like that and I'm making it look like that now—but it's not my life. I am a mom, a wife, a freelance copywriter and editor. I managed to be fortunate enough to publish a book of my short stories, I am fighting time to write another one and a novel, and I tell you, it's a daily fight.
The daily question that I ask: Am I a writer or not? And many days I'm not. A lot more days than I care to admit, I'm not a writer. So my question: are you really sure that you want to be a writer? Because sometimes you just want to be a reader. Hey sometimes, you just want to watch TV, right? I know I do. It's the easiest thing … and you look, no one is reading anyway? Right?
It's a sad reality, but at the same time if there's a story inside you and there are stories inside of me, you have to get them out somehow. And that's why I write, because I had to get these stories out somehow and I'm now collecting more my heart and brain, more stories, that I know even if I don't get them out this week, these next two weeks because I’m working here, I will get them out somehow. It may be slow, but that's the hope, that is the reason for writing another day.
J: This really ties into Blood Collected Stories, because it is a collection of stories you had written from 1989 to 2015.
N: Yeah, I'm actually embarrassed about that. That duration.
N: In a way, I can't believe the book has pieces I wrote in college, at the beginning of my writing career. Yes, there is work that was written after that and all the way up to 2015 right before I had to submit it, I was still adding. 25.
The last thing I wrote for the book was the story 'In the End'. It's about a boy whose grandfather dies and then his girlfriend comes during the wake, and he finds out that his grandfather was a womanizer and his father was a womanizer. Basically he realises that his father and he have something in common. That was the last and latest one. And everything is scattered throughout a horrifying amount of time from 1989 to 2015. It's embarrassing! 'Klein' was written in 1991, 'Blood' was written in 1989. 'The Day Before The Day Before Yesterday' was written in 1988.
J: Do you see all the stories in Blood Collected Stories as having a common theme or are they standalone narratives?
Many of the stories share a coming of age factor … either because it is a young person coming to an epiphany, or generally they are young protagonists. There are characters who find themselves in a particular situation where they have a fixed belief and that belief is turned upside down.
A lot of people I knew were publishing books and I would feel envy and self-loathing. I'd chastise myself and say, why don't I have a book yet? I was embarrassed that every time I published something, I would submit a bio that said, "Noelle Q de Jesus is working on a collection of short stories" and it was like more than a decade.
Then I looked through all the things I'd written and published, and I found it—I had a book, in terms of the volume. What I did then was that I took out some things that I felt were mature in topic and I put in the earlier stories: stories with young protagonists and sort of put together the collection, but I did know that it was going to be 'Blood' as the title story, and that was sort of the theme. Because blood comes into country, it comes into culture and race, it comes into family, and it's a lot of family and domestic kinds of situations.
J: There are so many characters in Blood, do you have a particular character that you like?
N: They're sad aren't they? (Laughs) Yeah, they're sad. My favourite character is Therese, in the opening story 'A Small Consolation', because what she does takes courage. She just realises something and it's sad, but she does it. She walks out of her marriage. And I know if I were ever in that situation I wouldn't be able to do it that easily, but I admire her for it. And of course, I will always have a soft spot for that little girl in 'Blood' who is trying to fix her family.
J: Another theme that we found in your book is sex, which is still a taboo topic in Asia…
N: I love it. I mean, it always comes into play. In the beginning I sought it, writing about sex, but now ... it just happens. I have sex on the brain. It's because sex conveys a lot about people and about their situation. I think so anyway. Yes, people can say, it's just sex, it doesn't mean anything, I disagree. It can mean little, but it always means something. It always has implications.
J: Your characters express their sexuality boldly in your writing. Was there anything that inspired you to write about these characters and their relationships?
N: Yes. Because nobody talks about sex. They're talking about it more now than when I was a kid, but they still don't talk about it, and I feel like sex says a lot, a lot about people's lives. If you look at a marriage and they're not having sex, that’s a lie. And if they're having sex, it says okay there's still something there.
Basically, it's what you lie about, what you talk about, what you don't talk about. And those three always usually have to do with sex: what you lie about, what you tell the truth about, what you never talk about. And that for Asians especially, where even sex education stops with the egg and the sperm, and nobody goes into the mechanics of it or into the philosophy of it.
I actually think Singapore is better because you don't have the Catholic issue. I mean, there are Catholics and Christians here, but you don't have it like the Philippines has it. It's so deeply ingrained, that guilt. It is crazy, you have this double standard and you have perceptions. Every woman is either a virgin or a slut. Every guy has a Madonna Whore complex. There's that kind of façade for like an entire country, and then you have the squeamishness of the topic.
So, these are the stories I'm most interested in: the stories about sex that weren't told to me by older women. It satisfies the gossip in me.
Besides, sex says a lot about people. The way your parents had sex will influence the way you and your spouse have sex. I think it's primal and undiscussed, and it's interesting. That's why the show Sex And The City was such a hit, but there is a saturation point, no one wants to watch Masters of Sex ... except me. In general in Asia, I think people don't talk about it enough, they don't explain it, they don't try to relate it with what's going on in their lives and I think it has a lot to do with what's going on.
J: Is there a question, about your writing or your book, that you wish someone would ask you? If yes, do share with us both the question and your answer!
N: The usual question is whether my fiction is autobiographical or whether this or that character is me or whether this or that event really happened. The answer is yes and no. There are pieces of my real life embedded in all my fiction, some big, some small, but the stories, what happens — that's all invented. Or rather, that all comes from the new characters that come alive on the page. They tell me their story, and it's often far different from anything in my life or in what has happened to people I know.
Noelle Q. de Jesus was born in the US, grew up in Manila, and spent most of her adult life as a writer, wife and mother in Singapore. Her first book of short fiction, Blood Collected Stories, was published by Ethos Books Singapore in 2015 and it won the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book Award for the Short Story. At the moment, she is working simultaneously on a second collection of short fiction and her first novel.
Interview with Jacintha Yap (Designer of Phedra) March 14, 2016 20:00
Meeting new people can be icky. Formalities, awkward gestures, maintaining a good impression ... Yet meeting Jacintha Yap was like meeting an old friend—we were having intimate conversations about work, life, and aspirations by the end of the night. Only 23 this year, but Jacintha's experiences and thoughts speak more than her age suggests. Currently a project manager by day and designer by night, we probe her to tell us more about her world of design and on her work for Phedra.
What does “good design” mean to you?
Good design, just like good looks, is probably subjective. For me, I am drawn to conceptual underpinnings. So, I would find myself more likely to acknowledge conceptually driven design as “good”.
What are your sources of inspiration?
I guess inspiration can come from many different places at many different times but the one constant place where I'd sought my inspiration from time and time again is the people in my life (you know who you are).
Tell us what goes through your mind as you work.
I work with a ticking clock in my head, a kind of blessing and a curse. It’s like a perpetual sense of urgency – my head is always buzzing.
Are there design principles you follow?
A large part of design work is conversational to me. It is an ongoing conversation.
On book design: What makes it different from designing for other objects?
Designing a book feels quite special to me as it comes from a personal place. I grew up with books and they hold a lot of sentimental value to me.
Describe your encounter with Euginia’s poetry.
Euginia's poems are precise and bear an unwavering quality. There’s a certain sharpness to it – like a needle.
In designing the cover for Phedra, what is the experience you wish for readers?
I didn’t want the design and content to be battling for attention. Euginia’s poems have to take precedence. As such, it was important to consider what to disclose and what to reveal. Subtlety was key.
With Phedra, I introduced the embossed title text on the cover in order to bring about a kind of tactility that I hope was not too overt, but rather gentle.
What was distinctive about this cover design?
The paper stock that was used for the cover came from discontinued series. We used the remaining stock that was left, so Phedra’s cover paper is truly one of a kind.
With Phedra, I was very specific about the shade of grey I wanted proposing, so it was quite a process to pick the “right” shade of grey. Now, I get why there’s “fifty shades of grey”.
Last thoughts on Phedra?
I think the best time to read Phedra is before you go to sleep (preferably at night), so that it lingers.
Phedra is available for purchase on our webstore (free shipping!), Kinokuniya and Booktique.
Interview with Leonora Liow May 03, 2015 22:26
Reading through her manuscript from the early stages of our editing process,
Leonora struck us as a skilful storyteller precise about finding the exact right word for a particular context.
Thus, whenever we introduce Moth Stories to students and teachers at schools, we compare her treatment of her short stories to how a gardener tends to their bonsai with care.
It is because of such attention paid to her craft that we cannot help but feel empathy even for a passing side character with dialogue of no more than two sentences.
A few months after the launch, we speak to Leonora again to find out more about her and how she writes her stories.
Moth Stories is your debut collection. Describe it in one word.
We understand that you like to have your stories sit for a while and “macerate, like wine”. How did you choose which ones to publish when you were piecing together Moth Stories?
At the risk of sounding pedantic, I should say, it was, “ …laid down, like wine.”
I let my stories go after I cannot see how I could further improve on each, short of a major fracturing and recasting of plot or character.
This collection, Moth, might be said to have the common theme of being at the mercy of life’s vagaries, like the creature of the title story, even the ones who think they have all the answers to life: Elizabeth the super-successful mother; Clara the living saint, Li Hwa of Majulah Singapura, so full of good yet short-sighted intentions.
Yet there is also the volition they possess: (a) are they aware of this quality in themselves? (b) do they have the insight to see where it lies? (c ) finally, even if they do see it, do they have the courage to pursue it, even if it means a good hard look at themselves and jettisoning the values that have dictated all their choices and compelled them to a certain fate?
How different would your book be if you had published it earlier?
What do you mean by “earlier”: when I was in my mid-twenties? Thirties? Forties?
If you mean by this then I would say you are addressing them to a different person, not the one who came out with this collection.
If by earlier you mean had I sent them out, say, as and when they were ready, collecting each one after the other in turn, never looking back on the last in the manner of a runner who does not retrace his steps, this would be most uncharacteristic of me, and entirely speculative.
By nature and instinct I am unable to put the last fullstop on the first draft and pronounce it “done.” Ernest Hemingway’s famous saying, “The first draft of anything is [expletive]”, rings very true. Perhaps not entirely an expletive, for it often contains the essence of what one means to say, but that is far from saying it is the perfection that one instinctively seeks in creation.
Some of your stories are that of people whose backgrounds many are not familiar with, such as migrant workers. How do you research for these?
For stories I am not familiar with, for example, the foreign worker, I go and speak with people who know more than me.
I should say though that these inquiries would pertain to the circumstances of the “outer” life: with this life coexists the “inner life” of emotions and reactions. It is this life, which is the writer’s concern, which is expressed in a universal language. Suffering, joy, hope, despair, are the universal language of the human condition.
Out of all the characters you have given life to, who do you think is the most relatable?
When you say “relatable” the word as I understand, can be applied in 2 senses:
(i) relatable for a reader – for example, ‘can I empathise with this character, or that other’; (ii) relatable for the writer – ‘which protagonist/ character did the author empathise with/relate to most?’
As this question is directed to me I presume you mean (ii),“relatable” from the point of view of myself as author.
As a writer it is difficult for me to write a story of any protagonist(s) I was unable to relate to. Any factitiousess of empathy/ comprehension would have resulted in a certain one-dimensionality, a “hollow,” where there should have been the essence of a character, that unity of strengths and weaknesses. This lack or inadequacy, for me, would have smouldered through the sentences like the fumes from a burning stove.
No good story can come out of factitious writing; and I believe a writer must write above all for himself. If it does not ring true for himself, he has no right to inflict it on anyone else.
That being the case I should have to say it is impossible for me to pinpoint which of the characters were, for me, the most ‘relatable”. I could not have written “Rich Man Country” without feeling about the plight of the unfortunate construction worker, who remains nameless, consistent with his state of anonymity. Similarly the great-grandfather would not have gotten far in his story had his needs and perceptions been alien to me.
So to have to choose one protagonist over another would be akin to asking a mother to pick the child that most expressed herself.
As for the other sense of the word, (i) above, relatable from the viewpoint of the reader, that is a question I am not qualified to answer. Each reader comes from a different place. So, for example, a brisk-minded no-nonsense reader would have found Clara extremely irritating; another reader would have felt the flaw more in the father, in “Tell Me”, than in the son; yet another, informed differently, would have said, the wife was the cause of the problem . A woman who comes from a perfectly happy & healthy married life, and arrived there from a childhood of unsullied innocence, would have been appalled at “Falling Water.”
One would notice your word choice for stories can be rather particular. Do you have a favourite word in the entire English language?
If I did, I would be extremely worried. It would mean I don’t have enough vocabulary.
If you were caught in a fire and you had space in your hands for just one more book, what would it be and why?
The Bible, King James version: its beauty, majesty, perfection and spirituality.
Moth is available for purchase at Kinokuniya, BooksActually, Booktique and our online store.
Interview with Lydia Kwa April 10, 2015 22:36
From its minimal, ostensible cover to the delicate slipknots that adorn as section breaks within the pages, the simple yet symbolic aesthetic is an extension of the layers one unravels as one burrows deeper into Pulse and its characters. An empowering tale of reconciliation replete with vivid scenes of a bygone Singapore, author Lydia Kwa crafts the past as an ambivalent letter that protagonist Natalie Chia has to perceive and peruse.
We speak to Lydia—who is also a clinical psychologist working and living in Vancouver—about Pulse.
Pulse was first published in Canada by Key Porter Books. What made you decide to publish this new and revised version with Ethos Books?
Since much of the book is set in Singapore, it seemed a fitting new start for it. Pulsewas published in Canada the year before Key Porter Books had to close, and didn’t really have much of a chance to get out there.
This novel deals with heavy themes of trauma and healing, of possessiveness and displacement. How did you research for complex characters like acupuncturist Natalie Chia and policeman Selim?
Although Pulse is a work of fiction, I draw on my own experiences for some of Natalie’s character, having lived in Singapore until 1980, when I left for Toronto to study. In the ensuing years, I’ve returned to Singapore many times. Sights and sounds of the city, growing up in Joo Chiat, scenes at the beach in front of Marine Parade housing estate in the early 2000s—these are all things I have had direct experience of. The details about acupuncture, and Kinbaku rope practice, for example, I gathered from materials I read. I have direct experience receiving acupuncture, but not the bondage! I am also familiar with psychological manifestations of trauma, since I work with many people in my private practice as a psychologist, so I draw on my experience, but I never use any client’s actual history in my writing.
One would notice that at the start of every chapter, the Chinese character 脈 appears. What does this refer to and why this motif?
That is the character for the word “pulse”. I seem to recall that it was the suggestion of the Key Porter editor, and I agreed, that it would be lovely to echo the title of the book that way.
How much of real life bleeds into the characters or narratives you create?
Bleeding, oh no, not blood! :D
Of course, some of my own experiences have been transformed, borrowed, and altered. An author writing fiction has to be good at lying in order to create alternative narratives. That said, there is definitely truth in fiction, if not fact.
A line from your novel reads, “So. To be closed is to be vulnerable. Openness and vulnerability, these aren’t the same thing after all.” Do you agree with that? (Just asking!)
Thank you for asking. I do believe in that. It’s a central idea in Pulse. I wished to circle around that notion, by building narratives to explore those differences between vulnerability and openness. Many of us, when we are hurt or traumatized, become weakened psychologically and subsequently, begin to hide aspects of our experiences. Not only from others, but also from ourselves. These acts of vulnerability are done unconsciously most of the time. We then might associate “openness” with being vulnerable to attack, particularly in relation to others who might have power over us. But to pull away, to be silenced, to disconnect from what is true, is also to re-enact and embody that victim position yet again. I am not advocating being open when the situation calls for a more careful and self-protective strategy, but I am positing that a willingness to be open with oneself, is also going to possibly lead to greater psychological strength and integrity. The truth—if we are willing to hear it from ourselves—could set us free.
Many creative references are used throughout the story, such as a lyric from Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs”. If Pulse had a soundtrack, what would it be?
Love the question! Haven’t been asked this before!
The soundtrack would be quite a diverse mix since the book has quite a range of musical references. There would be British punk rock from the 1970s—David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs”, Bauhaus’s “Bela Lugosi Is Dead” and Roxy Music’s “Love is the Drug”. A short clip from the hymn “Jesus Loves Me.” Then there would the Bee Gees’ tune, “Run To Me; the song “Aquarius”; a recording of “Desiderata”. Some Chinese ballads, most definitely, such as 忘不了, 等著你回來, 得不到你的愛情, 我有一段情。
Pulse would make a great movie!
Lastly—are you afraid of needles?
I love a good acupuncture treatment!
Pulse is available for purchase at Kinokuniya, BooksActually, Booktique and our online store.
Interview with Russ Soh March 12, 2015 17:05
The essential Singaporean stories have an element of specificity, of particular names thrown into prose and poetry to create an immediate sense of native comfort. In this collection of stories set within East Coast Park and the East Coast Parkway, we see scenes all too familiar for us, but Russ Soh is a keen observer of details of everyday life that we miss all too often.
We talk to Russ Soh to find out more.
In what ways is Tales From the ECP different from your previous book, Not The Same Family?
Family is an examination of complex and often difficult relationships involving Singaporean families. ECP celebrates the park and its vicinity while capturing unique stories of individuals: east siders and park visitors.
Which story in Tales From The ECP do you feel most satisfied with, having written it?
Every one. I wouldn’t have included any story in the collection if I hadn’t felt that way about it.
What were some challenges that you faced when you wrote Tales From The ECP?
Identifying and naming the flora and fauna, and the birds and fishes in the park, which are not my forte. Describing the physical motions – such as those of the old man preparing to take a swim or the young boy trying to save the fish – in ways that the readers can actually picture them.
What do you hope to draw readers’ attention to in reading your stories?
The allure and charm of the ECP and its surroundings. The unique individual stories – of east-siders and park visitors – which might otherwise be lost and buried under the seeming mundaneness of daily life.
If you can spend a slow afternoon with any writer at your favourite café , who would it be and what would you ask him or her? (Where is your favourite café?)
Ernest Hemingway. I’ll ask him how I can further shorten my stories without adversely affecting the story-telling. Carvers and Co, 43 East Coast Road.
Finally, can you describe Tales From The ECP using an acronym?
Sure – TFTE!
Tales from the ECP launches tomorrow from 7PM onwards at The Pod, National Library Building. Details here.
Interview with Yong Shu Hoong January 22, 2015 11:13
A precise concoction of death and cinema, The Viewing Party offers a crisp, clinical voice that shines in every one of these 100-word prose poems and micro fiction. We are invited to this party to witness everyday observations that are crafted and weaved into scenes—some of them as breathtaking as our favourite stills from favourite movies combined.
We talk to Yong Shu Hoong, the Singapore Literature Prize co-winner (along with Math Paper Press’ Sonnets from the Singlish by Joshua Ip) about writing these poems.
How is The Viewing Party different from your previous poetry collections?
The Viewing Party is different in several ways. First of all, it is my first book not edited and published by my long-time collaborator, Enoch Ng, of Firstfruits Publications, which had over the years released my previous four collections of poetry.
At 127 pages, The Viewing Party is also the most ambitious book in terms of its length. This might be consciously, or subconsciously, spurred by a friend’s comment about my last book, From within the Marrow (2010), being quite thin (at 54 pages), but I think the new book also became quite thick because of my idea of wanting to present different facets of my life as a writer. I wanted to have different sections conveying the contrasting types of writing I have been doing or am venturing into – from short fiction and micro-fiction, to poetry in various forms.
Which brings me to the next point: This is the first time that a short story has appeared in my book.
The Viewing Party is obviously a structured work, although the content varies in form. What are the six sections, or scene selections, supposed to convey experientially to the reader?
Originally, I had wanted to collaborate with another writer, Phan Ming Yen, to do an entire book of 100 100-word micro-fiction. It would have been literally a 50-50 collaboration, in that I’d contribute 50 pieces, and he would match my contribution. I’d even thought of a working title, The Storytellers Bazaar.
It wasn’t so much a decision to cut my collaborator off because he was lagging behind in his output of the texts (since I was churning out more of these pieces than he did). But at some point, we came to realise the difference in styles and themes between our writings, and we had to reassess whether a coherent narrative could emerge from the interplay of ideas. I actually don’t remember how I had “officially” broken off the “relationship” – and whether I had approached the task tactfully or even tenderly, or I’d carried it out with cruel decisiveness. But once the partnership was off, I could surge ahead. I remember the pieces came very quickly – some more like prose poems than micro-fiction – either from reworking past works, or from penning new texts that got first airing on Facebook (as status updates) to test readers’ responses.
Eventually, I did complete around 50 100-word pieces – which was ironically what I had intended to achieve under the original plan. I later picked 40 of the best pieces for my new book.
As evidence that our friendship wasn’t harmed in any way, Ming Yen remained a collaborator in his role of an unofficial editor, giving advice on how my book could be shaped and sequenced. My original idea was to include a Culture Vulture column I’d written for The Straits Times, and a film review of the Canadian film Incendies (2010), to represent the non-fiction aspect of my writing, but eventually, Ming Yen and I felt that the non-fiction pieces didn’t quite fit in.
Slowly, the book took its form. Taking centrestage is ‘The Great Dying’, a short story I’d written for the Balik Kampung anthology (Math Paper Press, 2012), edited by Verena Tay. With the story at the core of the book, the other sections fan out from there. “Dragonflies”, a poem in nine parts about the passing of my grandfather, was not used in From within the Marrow but found a fit within The Viewing Party as its opening section. This is followed by “The Viewing Party, Part 1”, which consists of 20 of the 100-word pieces. Next up is another section that was left out of From within the Marrow: “The Cutting Room”, made up of texts excerpted from a manuscript I produced in 2007 as part of a project to transform Singapore films into novels. In my case, the film was Royston Tan’s 4:30 (2005). “The Viewing Party, Part 2”, consisting another 20 100-word pieces, is the section that follows “The Great Dying”. And to round up the book, there’s a final section of poems called “Searching to Get Lost”. In a way, The Viewing Party allows me to do some spring cleaning, clearing out stuff which was left out of previous collections but has somehow found a new home here, in a strangely apt way.
In the contents page, I use the header “Scene Selection” in place of “Contents” to further instil the book’s film-related theme. I hope the six sections do provide a way of reading the different pieces presented in a way in which ideas flow from one place to another, and meld together as a whole.
I’ve said during launches and reading events that The Viewing Party is about death and cinema, which may seem like a rather crude way of summing up the book. But what is the viewing party? To me, I recall reading about the listening party in a magazine, which speaks of how a new CD is launched with a party where every track is played out for the audience without the musicians in the house. Likewise, we can have a viewing party involving a favourite drama or sitcom on TV, or the broadcast of a sports event. As a film critic, I’d attended many viewing parties, except that they are not usually called parties but media screenings or gala premieres. But I like how the word “viewing party” can also encompass a voyeuristic element. When you use the term in a similar way as “third party”, the viewing party could refer to the observers watching events unfolding – which is pretty much what I do, as a poet, keeping an eye on things happening around me, sniffing out the next subject to write about.
Somehow the poems about death fit within the company of poems about cinemas, films, and life as a film critic. In death, during funeral wakes, the dead are put up on display. But if you believe in the afterlife, then the question is: are we watching the dead, or are we the living being watched by the spirits? So it’s not out of context to have a short story “The Great Dying” that is told from the perspective of a dead young woman, who has transformed into a wandering ghost witnessing her own funeral. Ghost stories, after all, is a popular film genre too.
How does the “cinematic” figure in your work?
When we say “cinematic”, sometimes we’re referring to a kind of narrative quality of a piece of writing that allows us to envision a story as a film. In that sense, “The Great Dying” is cinematic – I suppose, if I were to take on the role of a director to adapt it into the medium of film, I’d use a roving camera to gain a first-hand perspective of the protagonist as she flits from place to place, with a voice-over to communicate her thoughts to the audience.
For this book, a lot of the poems touch on the world of films, so it is cinematic in the sense of drawing inspiration from the cinema. But “cinematic” can also be about the atmosphere of film – whether it’s the brash blockbuster laden with special effects or the subtler art-house film. Since it’s poetry we’re talking about, I’d like to compare my writing to the latter. If one can say that certain art-house films are poetic, then perhaps the feelings evoked by that film genre wouldn’t be so different from the feelings evoked by well-crafted poetry collections.
What is personally your favourite poem in the book and why?
It’s hard to pick a favourite poem, since every one of them is my own creation. But when push comes to shove, I’ll pick “Dragonflies”, particularly parts 2, 3 and 6. One reason is that this poem has been with me long enough, so I feel that I know it more intimately. It is a more intimate poem too, since it touches on the passing of my grandfather.
Some people, after hearing me read the poem, had come up to me to say how the poem had moved them on some personal level. One had commented specifically about part 6, and how she loves the way it ends: “Still I regret I couldn’t wring out more woe / As if there should be only one prescribed response / for a filial grandson: A raging sadness enough / to rattle the petals off the wreaths. Not ambling / after the departing cortege on steady feet.” It’s an ending that I myself am quite proud of.
There is oftentimes a detached, sometimes even a scientific voice in your poems. How does this detachment allow you to speak about certain topics, like death, differently?
When you mention “scientific”, I’m wondering if it’s an allusion to the fact that I had graduated from the National University of Singapore with a Computer Science degree. It could well be true that a scientific voice might have sometimes crept into my lines – though if I really ponder about it, I would be hard-pressed to define what that “scientific voice” is exactly. Clean? Clinical? Or it could be in the sense of logic that links one idea with another, and another, as the first line of a poem meanders its way towards the end.
On the other hand, that sense of detachment could reflect who I am as a person, rather than my education background. Stoicism as an emotional preference. Not wanting to rant and rave in a melodramatic manner.
Death is not an easy thing to write about. When my grandmother passed away, I had to wait for a period before being able to write about the event in a series of poems published in my first book, Isaac (1997). When my grandfather passed away, the poems came out quite quickly – it could just be the fact that, this time around, I didn’t have to deal with the trauma of witnessing the first death in the family.
But there’s no right or wrong way to write about death. My chosen way was a more detached rendering, instead of letting my poems holler with a “raging sadness”. It’s the same, I guess, in the way films portray deaths – either with lots of wailing and weeping, or a more restrained kind of grief. For me, I’d pick the quieter death-scene that speaks far louder.
The Viewing Party is available for purchase at BooksActually, Booktique, Books Kinokuniya, and here.
Interview with Felix Cheong January 14, 2015 12:48
The covers of these books are as local as it gets. Strip away the glitz that is reflected into Singapore River from the metallic thorns of Esplanade, and the polished glass of Marina Bay Sands, dig deeper, and what you’ll see is… us, writing our own stories, while drowning in all-familiar cups of tea (served in cheap, ceramic mugs that have stood the test of time)—siu dai, of course.
Felix Cheong, well known for his poetry packaged in elusive, brooding colours, is the man behind these lively, witty Singaporean conversations. In the 50th year of our nation’s independence, it is only apt that we find out more on the Singapore Siu Daiseries.
How did you decide to enter the realm of satire & humorous fiction?
You have to blame Facebook and the haze. They were responsible for this foray into discomfort territory!
It was June last year and, thanks to friendly fire from a neighbour, Singapore was shrouded in its worst haze since 1997. Everyone and his dog saw the disparity between the official PSI reading and what we experienced with our own eyes (and nose).
Instead of posting a rant on Facebook, I wrote a flash fiction story, a noir tale about a clueless detective, NEA-L, and a femme fatale, Vivian (after the Environment Minister). Something clicked into place and before long, I was polluting Facebook with these story posts, day after day, often written on the bus ride to work and taking on themes as varied as Singaporeans’ obsession with Hello Kitty and our genetically-codified kiasu-ism. From the number of likes, I could tell which story worked and which didn’t. Soon enough, I had enough stories for two books!
And so an accidental satirist was born.
You joke about some pretty serious things. Is there a “serious” message or belief behind the Siu Dai series?
Any satirist worth his salt knows laughter is the best way to lessen the pain of having salt rubbed into your wounds. After the laughter dies, you suddenly realise just how much the sting hurts.
That’s what I wanted to achieve with the Siu Dai series. To get readers to wake up to who we are as a people, why are we the way we are and who do we want to become. The title alludes to this, with siu dai meaning “less sugar” in coffeeshop talk. The stories thus portray Singapore that is not coated with the artificial “Look, honey” sweetness of the Singapore Tourism Board. And the subtitle, too, opens up the SG Conversation (to which I was not invited!) that is not run and endorsed by the government.
What are some new areas that you touch in Siu Dai 2?
Some of the Siu Dai 2 stories poke fun at our politicians (gently, ever so gently, because their skin is fair and thin and they bruise easily). Others take a long, hard look at our national hang-ups with elitism and exams (you can’t dissociate one from the other) and how we (mis)treat migrant workers.
What was your favourite part about creating this book?
The strangest (and by extension, my favourite!) part was how these characters assume a life of their own, sometimes from just a silly name. For instance, Latte Teh, the wannabe politician in “The Lim Kopi Round”, sprang into life, fully formed as a nerd with a propensity to twisting language to his service, once I came out with his name.
The other part of the process I enjoyed was revisiting the KS Tan family and putting them again in situations where their kiasu-ism could reach its finest hour.
What were some difficulties faced?
The main difficulty was two-fold: because the stories were often inspired by topical issues, I had to fully realise the stories as stories in their own right, without hoping that readers could recall the issues. For instance, “Affair Thee Well”, which spoofs the government banning the Ashley Madison website, has to stand on its own as a funny story. If readers get the allusion, that’s fine but if they don’t, it should still hold its own.
The other difficulty was being able to suggest political follies without landing myself at the wrong end of a defamation suit. The jabs had to be clear and pointed but, at the same time, vague enough not to pinpoint anyone.
Is there a personal favourite of yours in Siu Dai 2?
All the stories are my favourites. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have let them out into the world!
Interview with Zakaria Zainal and Prabhu Silvam January 06, 2015 22:36
It is frequently hard to navigate through the waterfall of updates from media—alternative and otherwise—whenever news breaks, let alone during our first major outbreak of violence in four decades. Multiple accounts of one story flood our feeds, and one can only imagine what the truth really is.
In Riot Recollections, Zakaria Zainal and Prabhu Silvam go against the current and hit the ground when the wounds are still fresh, collecting the voices of witnesses that have been present in the midst of the frenzied mob.
We speak to the authors to find out more behind these recollections.
Riot Recollections is a project that has been around for a while, did you always intend for there to be a book?
Z: This project was done within a week after the riot. It was spontaneous and basically an excuse for us to walk the ground and talk to people close to what happened.
I imagined it as independent narratives on the ground, or history from below – instead of narratives dictated from the state or the media. In a way, we were hopeful for it to be a book but were not sure if any publisher was willing to take it up.
How did you two decide to start this project?
Z: When the riot happened, I was affected in a deep way because all of us have taken for granted this country’s security for granted. In addition, there was also a simmering of grievances from the migrant workers that I feel all of us Singaporeans could have done better as well as to appreciate the work that they do.
It was funny how I had not spoken to Prabhu a long time prior until we were just emailing each other about a previous writing assignment. Then I suddenly realised that hey, Prabhu’s language and writing ability was very valuable in making this project happen. And so we did, discovering all the little streets and lanes that make up Little India.
P: For me, it was about trust. I’ve worked with Zak before and I’ve always appreciated the poignant human approach he takes when approaching any subject matter. As a writer, documenting the human condition has always been my greatest muse. So even as 2 different artists from varying fields, we were both on the same frequency from Day One. So when Zak approached me with the idea of documenting alternative narratives of the riot, it wasn’t difficult to say yes.
What are some memorable moments while you were collecting stories?
Z: I think the best moments were the stories themselves, as they revealed a variety of emotions and moments that made us reflect on who were are as people living in Singapore. Each story revealed a layer of our understanding of the riot and Little India as a space of diverse people.
P: The fact that people were willing to open up their hearts and minds to two complete strangers with pen and camera in tow will always be a special memory for me. Listening to their stories, struggles and hopes was remarkable as it was emotional. It’s amazing what people share when there’s someone willing to listen.
What were some difficulties faced while working on the project?
Z: It was difficult to find people who were present and were willing to speak, as the weeks progressed. It also took quite a bit of time and convincing for some – and we were highly fortunate when they shared with us their stories.
What are your personal thoughts and feelings about the riot in little India?
Z: It was a really unfortunate event but I feel that this should not stop us from reaching out and understanding the lives of migrant workers finding a livelihood in this country and sharing our spaces with them.
What is the one thing that you truly wish was done better during or after the riot?
Z: I was really keen to interview and photograph the Home Team and the exact location they were stationed during that night. What were their hopes and fears? What went through their minds in the face of danger? That being said, as independents, we had little clout to convince the relevant authorities to support us in such an endeavour. Perhaps in the future.
Riot Recollections is available for purchase at all good bookstores, and here.
Interview with Lee Jiaying December 15, 2014 14:42
The cover artwork of Red Pulse II is such a pick-me-up. Bright and punchy, it seems to pulsate with activity. Flat design in dual-tones, it’s neat, yet also intricate in a playful way. So much is going on in seemingly so little. We catch up with the artist—Lee Jiaying—behind this eye catching artwork and pick her brains regarding her work, as well as its relationship to the content.
How do you configure the content & themes of Red Pulse II into your artwork?
The editors and I had agreed upon three expectations for Red Pulse II’s aesthetic: it had to be youthful and energetic, subtly Singaporean, and intimate. It’s difficult to generalise poetry – especially a collection that peers into the diverse and varied worlds of 22 different poets – but I do hope that these qualities fairly represent the poetry inRed Pulse II. The vivid colours, the interplay of cultural and urban iconography, the chaotic composition, all point to the energy and individuality just pulsing within the collection.
For me, Red Pulse II addresses many post-colonial literary motivations felt by Singaporeans today: is Singlish English? Does an original Singaporean identity exist? Can and should local poetry escape or embrace our political histories?
As a nod to underlying post-colonialist attitudes, I decided to parody the covers of ornate British storybooks of old. In place of stock English motifs are ornaments from diverse cultures – including a Malay Batik flower and a Chinese cloud motif – wildly remixed with urban iconography of street lamps and concrete buildings. What remains is very eclectic and weirdly Singaporean. Like the poems, each visual element resists categorisation, protruding wildly into space.
Is there something peculiar to the artwork that we might miss on first glance?
There’s a little Singapore-shaped cloud at the top of the cover; it also marks the different sections in the collection. I like to think that it’s the Singaporean equivalent of the American Dream. Is it an uplifting symbol of progress? Or an idealistic, poofy pipe dream? I leave that up to you.
I’ve also paid tribute to the writing process. Right below the giant Roman numeral, forgotten drafts of badly-conceived poems have drifted into a miserable pile. Writing is extremely, nauseatingly difficult – let’s not forget the poems that didn’t escape the delete button. On the other hand, let’s celebrate the poems that do escape unscathed, that fly like paper planes into the air!
What were some difficulties faced when coming up with the cover design?
I think it’s critical that a book cover represents a book’s content. I know that seems like an obvious requirement, but I feel that many covers produced today are literal interpretations of book titles, rather than considered representations of a book’s content. Perhaps some designers don’t always have the time to read the books they design for. Or maybe they think it’s better to not let their opinion of the book’s content colour their design. In any case, I still think it’s very helpful to have a good read before designing.
Because the poems in Red Pulse II cover a wide array of themes, from family to belonging to cultural identity, it’s quite a feat to represent all poems in a way that seems fair. Drawing imagery from specific poems meant featuring those poems as being more important than others. Ultimately, I decided to highlight only universal motifs that were able to communicate multiple themes, rather than feature specific images from poems. This kept the design flexible, allowing it to remain relevant should the collection change in the future.
In one word, describe your artwork!
Eclectic, I think!
What do you hope people will ultimately see or feel when they first see your artwork?
I’m hoping they feel intrigued. I’ve always wanted this cover to feel somewhat enigmatic. I think the visual elements are peculiar enough that a potential reader may feel curious enough to pick it up, maybe even browse through it for clues. In any case, the cover only represents a sliver of the imagery inside it. I’d love for people to pick it up and read it for its poetry – this stuff is gold!
Red Pulse II is available for purchase at BooksActually, Booktique, Books Kinokuniya, MPH, and here.
Interview with Namiko Takahashi December 05, 2014 11:17
The Naupaka Kahakai, meaning Naupaka by the sea, is emblematic of the legend of Naupaka, where two devoted lovers are torn apart, never to be reunited again. While the Naupaka Kahakai represents one of the lovers, the other is represented by the Naupaka flower in the mountains. The Naupaka Kahakai can be found along the coastlines and also on the cover of Aaron Lee’s Coastlands.
This artwork, already now heavy with meaning, was created by the multi-disciplinary artist Namiko Takahashi. We speak to her about the process and the ways in which she wove the themes of the book into the artwork.
How do the themes or the content in Coastlands present themselves in your artwork?
The first thing that we wanted to convey were the ideas of separation and longing explored in Aaron’s work, especially the poem “Folk Tale 1” inspired by the Hawaiian legend of the Naupaka flower. The associated ideas of nostalgia and displacement were also represented in the nautucal themes, palette colour and line work.
What did you want to communicate in your artwork?
I wanted the artwork to resonate and amplify the title “Coastlands”, with all its aspects of journeying, exploration and discovery.
Describe the book cover design in one word!
What was the process like when creating the artwork?
The immediacy of the linocut print process lent itself to spontaneity of expression. I did several versions with different colour palettes and talked them over with Aaron.
How does your relationship with Aaron affect your work?
The themes in his poetry inspire me because first and foremost, we share a life. Also, they are universal ideas that I also grapple with as an artist. I love to hear him read his poems, they do interact in a special way with my own modes of expression. We find it extremely fulfilling to understand and support each other’s work.
Coastlands is available for purchase at BooksActually, Booktique, Books Kinokuniya, MPH, and here.
Interview with Leonard Ng November 24, 2014 13:01
The cover of Changes and Chances is a difficult one to miss; it boasts a daring play of defined monochromatic lines that work to illustrate a cattle egret by the sea, and not much else. Strong and silent, it is a subtle contrast to Leonard Ng’s charming presence, and a suitable introduction to what lies inside for readers.
Ng’s latest collection of poetry is a collection of sequences that celebrate love, sorrow, time, nature, and humanity. It breaks and mends hearts at every turn, and often, one is left parched, wanting for more and drawn to the sea of emotions it exhibits. Breathing seems even more so crucial, and yet all the more natural.
We talk to the writer to find out more.
Your work frequently revolves around birds; they appear on both covers of This Mortal World and Changes and Chances, as well as in many of your poems. Tell us more about this.
I like birds. They’re fun to watch, and I can now identify some three dozen or so local species at a glance. (That’s not actually much—Singapore has a LOT of wild birds!) I don’t go birdwatching, though, not with binoculars and other paraphernalia. Rather, I try to pay attention to my immediate environment and let the birds surprise me when they’re there.
Symbolically, birds represent for me a spiritual connection to the non-human world, to the earth and its forces.
What is your favourite poem out of Changes and Chances?
“Blessed Be”. My first long poem, and a challenge to compose. I know what the whole thing means intellectually, but the effect I was striving for was that of classical music—an orchestral piece in multiple movements built up from motifs, images, allusions to take the reader on a complex emotional journey. Mahler’s symphonies were a big influence, as was the Song of Songs (which I rendered into English as a musical libretto some years ago).
What emotions would you like to invoke in your readers after reading Changes and Chances?
That depends which poems they’re reading. But I would like my readers to find themselves breathing a little deeper.
How is your writing process like?
Poetry is the result of deep emotional and intellectual engagement with yourself and with your environment. Watching and listening. The key mental state is reverie—a focused receptive awareness partway between vigilance and meditation. Then you can be truly attentive to both what is outside you (external stimuli) and what is within (subconscious promptings). It makes space for inspiration to enter. This is how I do everything, from conceptualizing sequences to polishing lines.
What are your favourite places to write in?
Any streets, rooms, apartments without people in them (machines and animals are fine). I am a highly aural poet and often compose by reciting aloud, so I need enough privacy and quiet to literally hear myself think.
You are given the chance to ask a question to any writer, dead or live. Who would it be, and what is the question?
I generally don’t ask questions—I learn by watching, listening, doing. But I would gladly spend time in the presence of my forebears—Sappho and Homer, Tao Yuanming, Jia Dao, Wang Anshi, Yeats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Issa, Basho, Buson, Garcia Lorca, Neruda, Ted Hughes, Yehuda Amichai.
Changes and Chances is available for purchase at BooksActually, Booktique, Books Kinokuniya, MPH, and here.
Interview with Aaron Lee November 20, 2014 17:18
In the beginning of Coastlands we read about a man who journeys to the mountains after being entranced by its view. While journeying he falls into meditative contemplation about his life and its many tragedies, all seemingly rooted to the loss of his mother. He returns with the mountains’ “brilliant and ruthless beauty” in him. We can’t help but wonder—he had spent the time meditating on the saddest things, and yet he came away with beauty?
Reading Coastlands can often feel like journeying into those gutted mountains. Themes of separation, longing, and journeying feature strongly throughout the book. Figures of myths and legends—like Prometheus, Radin Mas Ayu, and Samson’s Delilah—are brought down to earth and stand before us, human and hurting. There is both the cosmic and the earthly in Aaron Lee’s poetry. Life slows down. Every joy and terror is contemplated and one can understand why even the saddest things can be beautiful once we’ve journeyed within ourselves.
We speak to Aaron Lee about Coastlands and his art of writing.
How does it feel like to be back writing poetry after a hiatus?
Reading, thinking, reflecting and writing has been part of my life for many years. Sometimes weeks and months go by without my having written a poem, but I am always trying to make sense of life through self-expression. Sometimes it bothers me, sometimes I let it go. But the putting together of this book Coastlands that charts my recent journey as a pilgrim poet, has been exciting and wonderful. I realised that I can be content to let words catch up with life, not the other way around. I am after all, not in charge of writing my life.
In what ways has your writing changed?
Good question. After I put this collection together, I did ask myself the same question. In terms of “voice”, I don’t think it has changed too much. My writing voice continues to be personal and lyrical.
Perhaps my instinct has been honed further, through reading good poetry written by both Singapore and international poets. I am more content with what I leave unsaid. Perhaps I trust my readers more!
How different would this collection be if you had written it earlier?
Coastlands could not have been written even a year earlier than 2014. It was only in the last three to four years that I was introduced to Hawaii (via my wife Namiko, who was on a journey of her own, to become a student of Hawaiian arts and culture). Through many visits and meeting some wonderful Hawaiians, the idea of this unique place as a “spiritual home” grew on me.
There are a lot of place poems in Coastlands. What was your favourite place to write about?
Looking back, I do see my first poetry collection as being essentially about my childhood in Malaysia, and my second book as being about my adopted city Singapore.Coastlands contains about my understanding of who I am because of these places. And it also contains some poems about or inspired by Hawaii, a special place that has become very dear to both Namiko and I.
What were some difficulties faced while writing this collection?
I did have a dilemma whether to include several very deeply personal poems about personal loss and failure. But I eventually decided to put some of them in the book—my journey would not have been properly characterised without them.
How does your relationship with Namiko affect your work?
Namiko is my soulmate and the most inspiring person I know. She is a painter and dancer, not a writer. But I rely on her artistic sensibilities without reservation. Having said that, I generally do not show her drafts of my poems, only what I consider to be final versions. And she leads the way for me in terms of diligence and trusting the process.
Coastlands is available for purchase at BooksActually, Booktique, Books Kinokuniya, MPH, and here.
Interview with Eric Tinsay Valles November 14, 2014 12:44
Poetry exists for many reasons: many write for catharsis, some explore poetry as an aesthetic, and others write to provoke a response. Here at Ethos, we agree that the best kind of poetry—no matter its initial intention—leaves many thinking, breaks (or makes) their hearts, and (not as often) causes discomfort.
Eric Tinsay Valles is the man behind After the Fall: Dirges among Ruins. This collection of poetry attempts to remember blood that has been spilled in the history of the universe, either from violence of war or traumatic events of everyday occurrence. The voices in these poems are coherent in times of conflict, and are a true testament to the human experience.
Describe your latest collection, After the Fall: Dirges among Ruins, in one word.
Cathartic, because, it’s all about trauma, really, because people find it difficult to come to terms with personal crises, violence in war, and so this is an attempt to give voice to some of these people.
How does poetry help you communicate these things in a way that other writing forms cannot?
Poetry is an intense art form, and sometimes people remember verses longer than they would lines from stories or novels. I guess verses get etched on people’s memories longer.
How did the idea of writing After the Fall come about?
I started with trying to write about cities, but then there have been a lot of poets writing about cities, so I changed that. I wanted to write about 9/11, but there were other writers who had poetry collections about that incident, so I tried to broaden the scope, in a way. So now the collection covers violence, wartime from way back in history and it’s also a meditation on violence and traumatic events.
How is After the Fall different from your previous collection?
In a way it’s not totally different, because the first collection, A World in Transit, is about migration, and trauma, you can say, is essential to the migrant experience. It happens to everybody: even expats go through some form of trauma when they shift in culture, when they negotiate spaces. But this one is probably harder to write because it covers more acts of violence and there’s a possibility that some people might get turned off by some of the things that are in the second collection. There’s a possibility.
What are some of your favorite poems in the collection?
There are several. “Restoring a Mural in Changi Prison” is one, and… the seed for that was during a writers’ retreat at the Changi Museum. We were there for the entire day, and we went through different exhibits. I was just moved by the murals there, and they were completed after the painter actually underwent some psychiatric therapy. He was invited to come back to Singapore thrice but he refused, because it was like reliving all those harrowing experiences. But he managed to come back.
And, others. This is about trauma, right? There are a couple of poems towards the end about my reasons for leaving Taipei, where I lived for six years, prior to Singapore. I was a journalist there, and it was harrowing trying to learn a new language. It’s a totally different culture from the Filipino one, and there was an entirely new language that I needed to get familiar with, and the people are quite into themselves, and not as open to outsiders as other cultures. I mentioned there (in “Stinky Tofu” and “Last Newspaper Assignment”) in the course of my work, somebody threatened to sue me. I was a business reporter there and I actually put out a company secret on the business page. That was problematic for a lot of people because the company manager was relocated and I couldn’t contact him and other people. There were some other managers who were convincing me to spill the beans on the one who revealed the secret.
The problem with language was always there; I was attending press conferences and my mandarin is really not quite good, so I had to rely on the little mandarin that I understood, and then my friends who translated the main points of the conferences back to English for me. So there’s me being an alien, and then I came here to do graduate studies.
If you are caught in a fire and you have space in your hands for one book, what would it be and why?
I would grab Flannery O'Connor’s Collected Works (The Library of America), because a lot of the things I appreciate and believe about poetry, hope and the craft of writing are found there.
After the Fall: Dirges Among Ruins is available for purchase at BooksActually, Booktique, Books Kinokuniya, MPH, and here.
Interview with Pan Huiting November 10, 2014 23:12
The term “Pulau NTU” is not an alien one for many young Singaporean students. Nanyang Technological University earned that moniker from its removed, inaccessible location in the South-West – so much so that it might as well be an island (pulau) in itself.
Kepulauan – the malay word for archipelago – is an anthology of poems by students from NTU, and we speak with the artist behind the artwork, Pan Huiting. A cacophony of dark, glacial colours, the cover is all sorts of deafening and is a true representation of work that is found within its pages: prolific, streams after streams of well-crafted verses.
How does your painting complement or echo the themes in Kepulauan?
I like the celebration of uniqueness as well as togetherness expressed in Kepulauan, so I thought about the significance that islands have for me and these were the islands dreamed up for us by artists – Watteau’s Cythera, Shakespeare’s Tempest, Robinson Crusoe… the list goes on. In all these stories, shipwrecks are common because we have to journey out of our everyday in order for unique experiences – the fodder of art and literature – to happen to us. Sure, these are Anglosaxon references but Singapore is part of the larger archipelago of the world and storms and shipwrecks feature richly in Singapore’s history as well. All of us know the story of Sang Nila Utama from childhood. In the visual arts, the frame serves a similar isolating function. Island, isolate, insular… their common etymologies should give us a clue. This consciousness is embedded in the language that we use. I knew that the central image would be a ship tossed in a storm. As a nod towards the literary, I incorporated printer’s ornaments under the island in the painting. Originally used as spacers in typesetting, here they serve to set the island apart. I think this delineates – another word that treads the line between word and image – what we’ve been discussing about islands and frames very well.
What is the painting meant to evoke when viewed?
Movement. Storm-tossed. I want viewers to find themselves on Lilliput.
What were some difficulties faced while you were painting the artwork?
Time probably? There’s a deadline… and it doesn’t help that oils dry slowly.
Did the knowledge that this would be a book cover affect the way you painted?
Yes (laughs). Even before I started painting Adeleena had already advised, “Not too dark!” I tried to keep her request in mind as I painted the waters lightning lit. But you need darks in order for the lights to stand out. If the whole painting is light, then it is no longer light at all.
What is your favourite aspect of your painting?
It’s hard to say… everything works in tandem… I like it that people find it ambiguous. Someone told me that he sees the scales of dragon’s back. Another told me that it looks like a closeup of an open flower. It’s meant to be topsy turvy… I painted birds and fishes in the same realm. It’s like air is water and the birds are swimming and the fishes are flying. In landscape painting the ground is usually dark and the sky light. I reversed it for this painting.
Kepulauan is available for purchase at BooksActually, Booktique, Books Kinokuniya, MPH, and here.
Interview With Tyla Lim November 07, 2014 11:37
After the Fall: Dirges Among Ruins has a pretty, pastel palette on its cover that is intriguing for many. Why vases? Or are they tombstones? And why do the flowers pop against the dusty sky?
We speak to Tyla Lim, the lady behind the cover of Eric Tinsay Valles’ latest collection of poetry, for answers.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am a freelance graphic designer; I just graduated from the Glasgow School of Art three months back, so I’m just trying to see if I can continue freelancing, and I’m also trying to find my way around the scene as well.
What are some nondescript details in your artwork?
There’s a visual connection between the vase and the tombstone. It’s meant to be in the same shape to draw the connection.
What dominant mood do you wish the artwork to convey?
I wanted it to be a little solemn, but with a bit of hope too, so there’s a sense of trying to find hope in the midst of all that, because that was what I think he (Eric) was trying to get at too.
And the poppies represent hope?
Yes. Bright colours.
What are some details you’re most proud of?
I think I was just happy to be able to convey that. Initially I was very stuck. I wanted to make the vase the tombstone, and it didn’t work. When it got resolved, I was very glad.
What were some of the difficulties faced, besides the vase?
I was concerned as to whether I was communicating it right, whether he would want this to represent his work. It’s a bit pressurising, because it’s only one cover and there are so many things I could do with it.
How would you look at your artwork if you weren’t the artist?
This is a tough question! I might pick it up because half of it is one color and the other half is another, so it draws the eye to the centre—maybe curiosity as to why poppies too.
After the Fall: Dirges Among Ruins is available for purchase at BooksActually, Booktique, Books Kinokuniya, MPH, and here.
Interview With Patricia Maria de Souza November 05, 2014 14:31
We met the writer of Saga Seeds, Patricia Maria de Souza in her humble abode in the corner of Teachers’ Estate. Just 10 minutes away from our office in Thomson, the houses sit on streets aptly named after scholars and polymaths. In Patricia’s home itself, the atmosphere is all kinds of serene and nurturing; the shelves are embellished with paraphernalia of Patricia’s travels, and we peruse them as we are served warm pomegranate tea. Outside, the rain caresses the residents’ gardens.
It’s hard not to feel at ease. With a writing environment like hers, it’s no surprise thatSaga Seeds is what it is: gentle, simple and most of all, earnest.
What are some of your strange writing habits?
Well, I will write on whatever material I have with me, if I don’t have paper. I write at odd times—whenever an idea strikes me. Sometimes I may be in a bus, or whenever I’m just walking along and I have to stop for a while when I see something interesting or something that strikes me. A very long time ago I attended a writing workshop and the one thing that struck me most is that you have to put down your writing ideas because ideas come and they go very fast. If you don’t put them down, they’re gone.
Where do you normally draw inspiration from?
First thing would be nature, then things that happen on a daily basis. Like in the poem I wrote, “Simple Folk”, I observed a lot. I know that sometimes it’s not easy doing a very mundane job—take a hawker, or a vegetable seller; day in and day out she would have to lay out all of her goods but she’ll do it with a smile. I think people generally, they form the bulk of the poems that I write.
If you could describe your latest collection of poetry in just one word, what would it be?
In Saga Seeds your work involves a whole lot of particularity and familiar places. Is there a reason why?
Well, in “Teachers’ Estate”, because I live here. In certain places I’ve visited, I found something striking. Or maybe something that really evoked in me a response to nature, like watching a sunrise or sunset… a lot of it is my interest in these natural things and natural beauty.
What is your favorite poem out of Saga Seeds?
There are a lot! So difficult to choose (laughs). There are different types of poems; some are poems of people, places, things I’ve read in the newspaper and I’ve made a poem out of it. It’s quite hard to say which one is a particular one that I like, but maybe the one that I remember as being something very beautiful is “Paradise Discovered”. It was a very good experience for me and my husband and my children. It is such a beautiful view. Every time I look at the poem I can remember it.
What do you hope your readers will feel after reading Saga Seeds?
Depending on the reader, I would say for the older folk if they read, probably they’ll remember the experiences they’ve had when they were young. For the younger reader, perhaps they’ll look at the things that we—the older generation—have experienced and maybe think about what their experiences are and compare them to what their parents have. Also there are poems which I would like them to reflect on, and perhaps evoke a response.
We’ve read that you’ve written a lot of things. Do you find it difficult to transform from one mode of writing to another—from stories, to travel writing, to poetry?
I actually started from children’s stories, and then I went on to this workshop in New Delhi for writers and there I was told “All of you should go back and write a travel article, because a writer cannot live on books.” You have to have a day job. Then I thought, well, why not? I was very happy that the first time I wrote, it came out to about 1000 words, and the editor at that time just took it in its entirety, which is what they don’t do now; it has to be about 500 words. From there I still wrote stories for children, because I was teaching at a primary school at that time, but I had moved on to secondary school. Moving on also meant that I also had to change. I still like writing stories for little ones, and poems also, but I enjoy the challenge of writing for older kids as well as for adults. The travel articles were because we went for trips and it was a way of remembering what we went through and getting to know more about the places we went to, because I would have to do more research for that particular place.
Saga Seeds is available for purchase at BooksActually, Booktique, Books Kinokuniya, MPH, and here.
Interview with Phillip McConnell and Genevieve Wong November 03, 2014 23:57
For spending so much time with our English Literature teachers desperately trying to figure out how to face unseen prose and poetry, we certainly don’t know all that much about them beyond the classroom walls. Surely, someone who nurtures an ability to read between the lines would be great at expressing them too.
Sound of Mind: a teacher-writers anthology of poems and prompts—launched yesterday at Singapore Writers Festival—features poetry from the very red pen that marks our examination scripts. The anthology also includes poems from familiar, published writers like Ann Ang, Ken Mizusawa, Heng Siok Tian, David Leo (Shakespeare Can Wait) , Oliver Seet, Christine Chia (Separation: A History) and Eric Tinsay Valles (After The Fall).
We speak with the editors of Sound of Mind: Phillip McConnell and Genevieve Wong, both from the English Language Institute of Singapore (ELIS) to find out more about the process of sieving through such strong voices.
What was the main drive for publishing of Sound of Mind?
Phillip: I’d already read some outstanding work by writers who are also teachers—they are represented in Sound of Mind. I wanted to provide an opportunity to demonstrate what teachers of English with a passion for language can achieve, given the chance, and I hope this anthology encourages more teachers to put pen to paper. I also feel that if you teach writing you really should try to write yourself—who’d take driving lessons from someone who had only ever studied driving but never got behind the wheel?
Genevieve: Having a publication of the work that we had started during ELIS’s Teacher-Writers’ Network sessions was probably a natural progression for the group, but the speed and ease of the whole process of actually publishing the book was the result of a shared vision between ELIS, Ethos Books and the brave bold group that is the Teacher-Writers’ Network to showcase teachers’ writing on a wider platform. When teachers willingly give up precious hours of their Saturday afternoons to write, you somehow feel that you want to do something for them in return. Teachers who are passionate about both writing and teaching, and who treat both crafts with equal respect—I think that was the main drive for the book.
Did you have students in mind when editing the book? How did it affect editing?
P: Not really—I thought we’d have to be realistic about content that might be controversial, but it didn’t arise. It was a question of the quality of the writing, not the subject matter.
G: I think we did bear in mind the need to make the book accessible to students in terms of presentation, but we also did not want to compromise on the quality of the book as a literary work. I think a book of this nature needs to be able to stand on its own to have any value in the classroom. I wanted a book that fellow teachers and those outside the teaching fraternity would enjoy. (Ethos was a great help in terms of designing a text layout and cover that would be non-threatening, I must say!)
How did you come up with the prompts?
P: I didn’t! Kah Gay created the themes for grouping the poems so maybe he could explain? The suggestions for use in the intro for teachers are just the product of my experience of what gets students interested in the classroom.
G: Yes, we are really thankful that Kah Gay suggested the themes and the prompts. That he used to be an educator and was (and is) so involved in the Teacher-Writers’ Network has been a huge boon for us. The prompts can definitely be used very easily in any classroom regardless of the level of the students.
Note from Kah Gay: Very much inspired by the group’s aspiration to write alongside their students, I suggested to Phil and Genevieve that we group the poems according to creative prompts. They were amazingly receptive as always. I then proceeded to print out each poem, laying them out on the worktable in the foyer of our Ethos Books office. It then became an exercise in clustering the poems according to their approach towards their subject matter. Very pleasurable!
What were some difficulties faced while editing the book?
P: There were a large number of poems competing for limited space. Every teacher writer deserved to be represented, so we had to put a cap on the number for each writer. Some tough decisions had to be made, but we hope to publish more online so they can reach a wider audience.
G: I guess the first difficulty was not knowing what to do with so many poems; how to organise them, etc. I would have loved to include more people and more poems—perhaps in an online form or (cross fingers) Volume 2?
What do you hope your readers will achieve from reading the book?
P: I’d prefer to say what I hope they might gain—first and most important, some pleasure in the way the language is used with such variety and effects. Similarly, the ideas and points of view are very original. I’ve been here for nearly 25 years and I feel that Singapore is enjoying an explosion of literary talent. If teachers and students who read the anthology feel stimulated to write or to read more Singaporean writing, that would be something to celebrate.
G: One: that Singapore teachers are a talented, passionate bunch. Two: that we can, and should contribute to local literature. Three: that there is value in writing, and in reading good writing, because like good teaching, good writing moves and inspires you.
Sound of Mind is available for purchase at BooksActually, Booktique, Books Kinokuniya, MPH, and here.
Interview with Anthony Koh (Owner of Booktique) October 29, 2014 15:59
With the multiple closures of bookstores over the past decade, times are trying for book lovers and bookstore owners alike. It’s not easy to be haunted by memories of the smooth polished wooden accents of Page One’s shelves, or the starry carpet that covered the floor in the children’s section of Borders, when it still was everyone’s favourite nook at Wheelock. They were a quiet shelter for many readers, before indie bookstores started dotting our map.
Sure, our libraries do exist, but often, one is washed over with torrential waves of nostalgia, a sense of loss and a never-ending need to find a new home of fresh new books for perusal. For many, reading involves physicality. Spines of books wait to be broken into. The scent of fresh ink wafts at every page turned, and there is nothing quite like the texture of paper in between your fingers, but bookstores are no longer ships anchored in our docks; many flee away from high rental prices.
We speak to Anthony Koh, whose brainchild is Booktique Where Writers Shop, a popup store along the everyday flurry of humans in Citylink Mall. From the very start, Anthony seems to be quite the risk taker. The idea of a traveling bookstore came about partly because Anthony quit his job seven years ago for a complete career change—from a corporate profession to taking shifts in the airport selling pots of Tiger Balm, all in the name of allowing time for freelance writing.
Nine months later, his new career took flight, and today, part of what he does involves facilitating workshops for aspiring writers.
“I find that the next natural thing for me to do is to set up a bookshop for the writing community,” explains Anthony. The bookstore materialised last year as tiny book fairs, going to places that could spare a few square metres for Anthony’s humble collection of carefully curated books.
The process of cherry-picking books for sale is no easy task either. Anthony goes through multiple synopses and book reviews from readers—“from the readers, not the critics,” he emphasises—before deciding on anything. It also seems that Anthony loves putting the spotlight on underdogs; he has a distinct section in his store for self-published authors, amongst many titles not known to the general public. “When they’re not popular, it doesn’t mean that they’re no good. They just didn’t have the chance to meet the right people.”
He chooses books which he thinks hold values that would matter to readers, as well as ones catered to a niche audience (How Gardens Inspire Writers), and stays far from bestsellers, critically acclaimed or otherwise. “You won’t see 50 Shades of Grey,” he reassures, and in place we spot a well-crafted, explicitly illustrated popup Kama Sutraguide, much to the glee of many teenagers from neighbouring schools.
Over time, the collection grew, and it just made more sense for Booktique to have a temporary space for a slightly longer period of time. Its first store was at The Cathay, and today it opens its doors right in the heart of City Hall. Most books are carefully wrapped and propped up on clean wooden crates and shelves. The aesthetics of the store is easy on the eyes, and the purity is occasionally interspersed with lamps of autumnal tones and cut out wooden trees. Everything beckons at the very hearts of bibliophiles.
“When they walk in, it’s basically a discovery… It’s the beauty of the bookstore to introduce new books to people, instead of what the media tells you to read,” says Anthony.
But is opening a bookstore at such a technologically advanced time too much of a gamble? How does one fight all the convenience that is the book reader and pdf copies of books readily available online? For Anthony, it was never all that much about business. Like the founder of Toms shoes, his idea was simple; if he doesn’t sell the books, he’s going to give them away to friends, or keep them anyway.
“Customers usually like to ask me: ‘people are closing bookstores, you are opening?!’ The common question is about fear. Of course I have my fears, but I have my purpose too,” says Anthony, “so when I have a stronger purpose, the fear is lessened.”
And maybe, just maybe, our fears are lessened too—it helps when the curator worships the same things you do. After all, we finally have another immediate source of books to feed our hunger for books, and this ship seems like it’s going to be parked in our docks for some time.
Our books are available at Booktique: 1 Raffles Link, #B1-17A, CityLink Mall.
Interview with Danielle Lim October 21, 2014 16:29
We can’t ever be living in the minds of our favorite writers, but we try as much as we can to get closer. Earlier last week we stole Danielle Lim, the author of The Sound of Sch, from her busy schedule in an attempt to do just so.
What is your favorite book?
… How do I choose a favorite book? Can I say by author rather than book? Can? Okay. I like Sebastian Barry, because his prose is just beautiful.
What are some of your strange writing habits?
Is getting up at 5 AM strange? The thoughts tend to come early in the morning, so, somehow I would wake up and there’ll be a lot of things in my mind. I can’t sleep, so I might as well get up to write. There’s something very special about that 5 to 7 AM, where everyone is asleep. You know that there’s this silence and yet the dawn is coming? I don’t do that all the time, only when I’m writing.
What word would you use to describe The Sound of Sch?
One word? How I would like to see it is: Beauty. Not in terms of myself, but the life of my uncle and mother.
If you could pick one literary character whom you think is the most like you, who would it be and why?
Maybe… if I go back to the past, when I was doing literature at A Levels I was very touched by the books of Thomas Hardy. I was studying The Mayor of Casterbridge. I remember that it had a very deep impact on me. The mayor… he had very deep emotions. In that aspect, that’s someone that left a mark on me.
If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
Hemingway. I think his writing is superb… about very, very difficult things in a way that people can relate to and understand. It’s not difficult language, but they’re very powerful insights into human emotions and behavior.
The Sound of Sch is available for purchase at BooksActually, Booktique, Books Kinokuniya, MPH, and here