Charmaine Chan on preserving her childhood through the power of memory — Singapore Lit Prize Feature July 24, 2018 11:30

This July 2018, in light of the biennial Singapore Literature Prize (SLP), we’ll be featuring our writers who’ve had their works shortlisted for the SLP 2018! Ethos is proud to have five titles on the shortlist this year—Phedra, 17A Keong Saik Road, Bitter Punch, The Magic Circle and Giving Ground—and beyond the SLP, we’re most interested to find out what went into the creative process behind these books.

This week, we are delighted to hear from Charmaine Chan, author of The Magic Circle. Find out which songs best represent her book and how The Magic Circle contributes to her work as a writer.

 Listen to Charmaine read an excerpt from The Magic Circle!


"There are her showers. She can do the bulk of it herself, but all of you take turns to help her with the dressing and undressing, and keeping the site of the bile bag dry. She enjoys this daily ritual, can still revel in the sensual pleasures of water flowing down her skin, having her hair blown soft and silky dry.

As a survival mechanism, you have become severely practical in your dealings with the illness, focusing tightly on the tasks at hand, not thinking about the bigger picture.

Yet heartbreak hovers near, always looking for a chink in the armour, a crack in the surface. And nowhere are you more vulnerable than when helping her with her daily bath.

“Don’t think, don’t look, don’t feel…” You tell yourself fiercely, staring determinedly at the bubbles swirling down the drain. “Just rinse now. Then turn off the taps. There’s the towel. Now, dry her right leg, then the left. Where’s her clean underwear?”

Don’t look at her gaunt, skeletal body. Don’t look at her shrivelled flesh. Most especially don’t look at the jutting bones of her pelvis. Don’t think about the past or how ravishing she used to be. Don’t think about the future, a future that won’t include her.

These are your finest moments in the exercise of self-control—steadying your trembling hands, stilling your sobbing intakes of breath, hiding how you really feel from your sister because you know the one thing that will break her is your grief." The Magic Circle


Tell us more about this excerpt! Why is it your favourite and what is its significance? Do you remember how you felt when you wrote it?

It’s one of only four passages in the book that is written in the second person narrativeand those are the bits of the book I love the most. Writing in second person narrative is challenging but I really wanted to do it because of the compelling sense of immediacy it creates and the sheer power it has to pull readers into my world as it was then. I like this particular passage because it gives the reader an insight into what it's like to journey with someone who has cancer and the razor's edge that caregivers tread every day battling their emotions while performing mundane but essential tasksriding what I call the terror-tedium see-saw.

Your childhood has been written with great detail and attention in The Magic Circle! Did these memories come to you easily as you were writing your book?

I had some help from my own journals. I have been journaling since I was six years old and reading the stuff that I wrote then made me laugh out loud. But I have to say that (as I have said in the book) that my own memory has been my biggest asset. I only had to close my eyes and cast my mind back, in search of a specific memory, before everything started flooding back. I believe I have a good “filing and retrieving” system in my brain! Also, my penchant for talking about childhood memories with my family throughout my life has helped “seal” them and preserve the details, so to speak.

What do you think readers have found most unexpected after reading your story?

I think it was the fact that they would connect to the material so emotionally and so strongly. Some of them have never lost anyone to cancer, some of them don’t have sisters but all of them knew what it was like to experience loss and heartbreak and I think that was the chord that resonates strongest, a chord that resounds on a human level. They talked to me about crying in one breath and laughing in the next and shared their own stories of pain and sorrow. The way the book has allowed me to connect with people on such a level has been its greatest gift to me.

If your book were a song(s), which song(s) would represent it best and why?

I wrote about music in The Magic Circle, about songs Elaine introduced to me, songs we both loved. We have indie music tastes and one of the bands we listened to quite a lot was an English alternative group called The Sundays. They had this album called Static and Silence which we adored. She used to say “Summertime” always made her think of me but for me, “Monochrome” is one that makes me think of her and our bond. The opening lines are like poetry, and so fitting for us, as we used to creep down to our sitting room in the dark when we were children just for fun. “It's 4 in the morning, July in '69; me and my sister, we crept down like shadows. They're bringing the moon right down to our sitting room, static and silence and a monochrome vision.”

Lastly, how does The Magic Circle contribute to your ongoing body of work as a writer?

As a journalist who has written for magazines and newspapers, as well as a published poet, I think The Magic Circle rounds up my body of work beautifully. As my debut full-length non-fiction work, it has enabled me to do something differently as a writerto create and fully flesh out my own voice, as opposed to having to write in other voices as is required in a professional journalist. As such, there is a truly exhilarating sense of ownership.

The Magic Circle was such a lovely foray into the world of writing booksI enjoyed the experience so much that I am thinking of my second book already. Some ideas on the back burner... All to do with the same genre. But who knows? I may just surprise everyoneand myself!with poetry or a fictional work.

The Magic Circle is available on our webstore, and in all good bookstores.

P.S. For the first time and in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Singapore Book Council, the public is invited to attend the SLP awards ceremony. Come meet your favourite authors! Free registration here

Charmaine Leung on how writing helped her re-connect with her past — Singapore Lit Prize feature July 10, 2018 11:30 1 Comment

This July 2018, in light of the biennial Singapore Literature Prize (SLP), we’ll be featuring our writers who’ve had their works shortlisted for the SLP 2018! Ethos is proud to have five titles on the shortlist this year—Phedra, 17A Keong Saik Road, Bitter Punch, The Magic Circle and Giving Ground—and beyond the SLP, we’re most interested to find out what went into the creative process behind these books.

Next on our list, we're thrilled to have Charmaine Leung, author of 17A Keong Saik Road. Find out about her love for Marmite as a beverage and why she wants to continue writing about the stories of Ma Je.

Hear Charmaine read her favourite excerpt from 17A Keong Saik Road.


"The cause of sadness in my life was always my unhealed memories of the past. It is in learning to forgive and accept my past—my identity as a madame’s daughter, the lack of normality in my life, my inadequacies—that I could unfetter its hold on me, and begin to see what a unique and blessed life I have had. I had the opportunity to witness what most could not see, and experience what most could not imagine. Utopia was really in how I chose to perceive life, it did not exist in a tangible form. Even if my so-called utopia had been achieved, the fulfilment would be fleeting, because I would always dream up another paradise to go after. It would be a never-ending pursuit of something I probably already possessed, but did not appreciate. The utopia that I craved had always been in my own hands—something I could enjoy if I had chosen to seize it. The essence was not in how much fuller life could be, but in how I embraced the life that I already had." —17A Keong Saik Road


Tell us more about this excerpt! Why is it your favourite and what is its significance? Do you remember how you felt when you wrote it?

This is one of my favourite excerpts from the book because it is essentially a reflection of my own journey of growth. It’s a reminder to myself that we are only limited by the capacity of our own minds. It is through acknowledging and coming to terms with the shackles that we place on ourselves that we can set ourselves free to explore life—I remember feeling enlightened and liberated as I penned those words.

Have you always known that you would write your memoir or was there a particular moment that made you go, “Yes, I need to write this book!”?

I’ve always wanted to keep a record of the stories that took place in the family—a collection of interesting incidents for us to be aware that we had such unique encounters. But I did not particularly think I was going to write a memoir, or even publish it. It was when I shared some of these stories with my best friend that she encouraged me to write a book.

There are very intimate and vivid details of your childhood and the Keong Saik area in 17A Keong Saik Road! Did these recollections come to you easily as you were writing your book?

I started journaling since I was a teenager. As I was preparing to write 17A Keong Saik Road, I read through all the journals that I had accumulated. That helped me to re-connect with a lot of the past as well as my feelings. I also had several conversations with Je Je and the Yim Hong character in the book and these provided more details as well as context for the book.

What do you think readers have found most exciting or unexpected after reading your story?

I think what surprised many is that these stories happened in very recent history. Some of the stories happened as recent as thirty to forty years ago, and yet now, we see a totally different Keong Saik Road and Singapore.

If your book were to be paired with any beverage, what would it be?

Haha, I would say Marmite. Unlike most people who consider Marmite an additive to food, it’s first and foremost, a beverage to me. In a way, like the blackish colour of Marmite, most may first see the dark side to the stories in the book, but if you give it a chance and savour the Marmite drink, you’ll discover that it’s yummy and has lots of vitamin B too! Similarly, I hope the book will help to surface many of the untold stories and lesser known tales of old Singapore that our generation of today may not otherwise be exposed to.

Lastly, any plans for a new book and if so, what would it be about?

I hope to keep writing, and perhaps work on the stories of the Ma Je that I’d the privilege of encountering and growing up with in my life. There’s not a lot of English writing on this group of immigrants who came to Singapore in the 1930s. Besides having a grandmother who was a Ma Je, the resilience and toughness of this group of women have always fascinated me and I’d like to explore a bit deeper their lives and motivations.

17A Keong Saik Road is available on our webstore, and in all good bookstores.

P.S. For the first time and in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Singapore Book Council, the public is invited to attend the SLP awards ceremony. Come meet your favourite authors! Free registration here

Interview with Teo You Yenn February 19, 2018 10:19

This 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 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 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