‘I am particularly fixated on the ramifications of guilt’: In Conversation with Jinny Koh December 26, 2018 15:41

Author Jinny Koh holding a copy of her debut novel, The Gods Will Hear Us Eventually

Every time a new book is published, the author is invited to have a conversation with us. I’m pleased to present a bunch of questions that I've posed to Jinny Koh, author of The Gods Will Hear Us Eventually. —Justin Chia

JUSTIN

In your debut novel, a mother turns to increasingly desperate and destructive means to find her daughter after she goes missing. I wonder if we could talk more about when you started thinking about The Gods Will Hear Us Eventually?

JINNY

I started thinking about writing a book when I was doing my MFA in 2012. One of the earliest questions I had was: What happens when a child tells a lie that leads to devastating consequences for a family? I am very interested in examining the human condition, and am particularly fixated on the ramifications of guilt. Back then, I knew I wanted to write a story that delved into the complexities of family dynamics and parental love. From there I plotted out The Gods and that was how the story was born.

JUSTIN

While reading the novel, I realised that I do not usually read books that deal with the realm of parenthood, probably because of my own neurosis with the idea of having to be a parent—how can we ever know if we’re doing the right thing? At the same time, I’ve always had this idea that the concerns of parenthood, particularly motherhood, isn’t often addressed in literature. Did you find this to be true, or did you find sources of thematic inspiration to build on?

JINNY

Hmm, actually quite the contrary! I have read a number of books that deal with dysfunctional families—and quite a few of them revolve around parenting. Maybe it’s got to do with our different reading diets! Some books I’ve read are: A Long Day’s Journey into Night (very flawed parents), My Sister's Keeper (flawed mother), The Lovely Bones (grieving father), To Kill a Mockingbird (heroic father), The Kite Runner (absent father), A Thousand Splendid Suns & The Space Between Us—to name a few! What I like about these books is how complex and flawed these parental figures are. Like you said, how do we know we are even doing this whole “parenting thing” right? The truth is, we’ll never know. We may think we are doing something right, but we are not, and vice versa. And doing “right” also may not produce the best results. Perhaps it’s more important to do our best. But that isn’t my focus either. Instead, what I like to study is often the “why” more than the “what”—the motivations and circumstances that drive us/parents—and that was the main thing that drove me to write The Gods.

JUSTIN

You mentioned at the launch that there isn't a true antagonist in the story, and whether or not a reader relates to Su Lai depends on their personal orientation and experiences. Even though she is aware that there are charlatans around who prey on emotionally vulnerable people, she still placed inordinate faith in a medium because of her state of anguish at losing her daughter. You also referenced Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers” in your epigraph, where the hope that Emily talks about is commonly interpreted as a positive virtue to cultivate. It made me think about how the immediate emotion of loss isn’t despair but hope, that we can still somehow recover what has been lost or taken from us. But in The Gods, you also showed that hope can have a dark side; how it can lead to delusional thinking as a way of denying reality.

JINNY

Yes, I really like what you said, and you summed it up perfectly. We all need hope in our lives. That’s how we can push forward in the worst crises. But sometimes the desperation that comes with hope can be so focused, so persistent, that we unwittingly become a destructive force ourselves. I'm curious: who do you think is the antagonist in the story?

JUSTIN

I actually think Ah Gui, the medium, behaved the most antagonistically towards our main characters in the novel, but even then I would consider him to be more of a predatory opportunist than a conventional antagonist. I also think having the focalizer alternate between Su Lai and Anna complicates the story in an interesting way. It makes it more difficult for the reader to completely demonise or dismiss either character. Could you share with us the experience of crafting the novel from these two vastly differing perspectives?

JINNY

When I first started writing the novel, I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of a child—Anna. However, three chapters into it, I realised that there was just so much about Su Lai I needed to tell. Her thoughts, her feelings, her back story… that was when I decided I needed to include her perspective too. I toyed with the idea of writing the entire book with multiple 3rd person points-of-view, but I eventually decided to just focus on Anna and Su Lai, in part because theirs were the stories I most wanted to tell. I also thought it would be interesting to develop their characters vis-a-vis each other in line with the plot and the breakdown of the family. It was also interesting—and challenging—for me to alternate the story between a young child and a grown woman, and to have them see and respond to the same crisis from two different levels of maturity. I think the duality really adds to the richness of the narrative, and I hope readers feel the same way!

JUSTIN

Writing a novel can be such a hard and lonely process and I’m sure that you had to rummage within yourself when you were writing The Gods. Do you see a part of yourself in Su Lai?

JINNY

Definitely. When I look at my novel, I feel like I'm Lord Voldemort and each character is my horcrux, haha! In that sense, I see a bit of myself in Su Lai, Anna and Kim Meng, and to a lesser extent Angie and Nai Nai. I could definitely relate to Su Lai's anxieties and fears about losing her child, but I also saw a lot of myself in Anna's struggle with her guilt and her desperation to reconcile with her mother. I have a good relationship with my own mom, but like all relationships, none is perfect. I drew from my own experiences as well as observations about other people and the way they handle anxiety, disappointment and guilt and applied them into a different context in my book.

JUSTIN

My favourite character in the novel is Fishy even though my colleague argues that Fishy does not count as a character. Can you weigh in on that? I think I feel a special affection for Fishy because of the scene with Anna and Nai Nai at the nursing home. Fishy actually reminds me of Paro, an artificially intelligent robot that provides comfort to people gripped by dementia. It looks like a baby harp seal and is basically the cutest robot ever. 

JINNY

Haha, I know Paro! I actually wrote about it in a newspaper article when it first came to Singapore. It's really interesting that you were drawn to Fishy. Fishy was completely inspired from a stuffed toy I used to have when I was a child, except mine was a Hippo (which made its cameo at the end of the book) and I was really attached to it. I remembered role-playing with it a lot, and even though it was inanimate, I thought of my Hippo as my friend. So I was really happy to give Anna something I had in my childhood, and as the story unfolded, Fishy became important in many scenes as a physical and emotional source of comfort to Anna. So I definitely think you can consider it a character, especially if it moved you in any particular way. Why were you drawn to it?

JUSTIN

Absolutely. I was drawn to him for exactly the same reasons you mentioned. That’s why I thought it was incredibly symbolic and moving when she gave Fishy to Nai Nai. I also had a rabbit plushie when I was a child—we weren’t allowed to have actual animals—and I really remember role-playing with him a lot too so that resonance was immediate for me. Anyway, I’m nominating Fishy for MVP.

Now that your first novel is done—congratulations, once again—what’s next for you?

JINNY

Thanks! I'm working on my second book, which is a collection of short stories based in Singapore. I'm halfway through the collection, and it's taking shape. Many of my characters deal with feelings of disconnect, isolation, loneliness and helplessness, and the traumas of ordinary, everyday life. Some of the stories in this collection have already been published in journals such as QLRS, Pembroke Magazine and Carolina Quarterly. I hope to get more of them out next year.

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