Interviews

Theophilus Kwek on the influence of living in the UK on his writing — Singapore Lit Prize Feature July 31, 2018 10:00

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.

In our final SLP feature with Theophilus Kwek, author of Giving Ground, we hear from him about the first time he cried in Oxford and how Calvino's Invisible Cities influenced his collection. 

 Listen to Theophilus' reading of his poem, The Weaver.


~

The Weaver

In late May we find the weaver’s nest
fist-sized, and lifted up to heaven
from our hardwood floor by the laundry wires.
We watch from a room. How each day’s increase
adds to that growing world some sense
of time, like a loom’s unknown design,
choice threads, a parent’s full recompense
found and fostered in an evening’s fire.

Within a month the chicks are hatched,
turn clamorous, feed with long beaks.
We become used to their house of thatch,
loud voices, the way she comes in flying low
as if suspended, or treading air
heavy with gift: a mantis clasped in prayer
and twine, a morning’s hard hunting.
Nothing prepares us for the mystery.

How creatures love, and like us, try
to bind the ones they love. I think again
of that first January’s encircling cold,
the boy with the hat his mother made,
dark wool wound tight, a woven thing.
The night he leaves without it from The Crown
it is a full hour before he names his loss,
walks adrift along the city’s fault,

sits, comes undone. Three days
till he buys another, which weighs different
though the fabric is the same. Later he learns
it is a matter of technique, doubling
the lines for consistency, the cinch of yarn,
but believes there must be something to do
with the weeks each takes for completion,
those sprigs in the string, time’s ingredient.

~

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

This poem is perhaps the most personal in this volume, and is significant to me because it tells of the first time I cried in Oxforda city that would come to hold, and still occupies, an important place in my emotional geography. The incident described in the poem, where I lost a woollen hat my mother had knitted for me, happened just after I returned to Oxford from my first winter break. It was January and below freezing, and I'd worn the hat out for dinner only to leave without it from the warm pub. This was in 2014, and four years later I still remember the heartbreak of realising my loss.

The poem itself, though, is based on a conversation with my parents a few months later, when they sent me pictures (over WhatsApp) of a weaver bird that had built its bower on the balcony of our HDB flat. This took place just before my birthdaythe first one I was spending abroadand as I thought about the parallels between the bird's painstaking work and my own mother's, this poem fell into place. It’s still one of the favourite poems I’ve ever written.

The poems in Giving Ground are framed in settings all over the world! Have you been to all these beautiful places that you write about?

Yes! One of my favourite books in the world is Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, set in the court of the great Kublai Khan where Marco Polo is recounting his journey to the emperor. In Calvino's telling, Polo describes one fantastic city after another, but at the end of his monologue Kublai Khan says that he has glimpsed, through all of these descriptions, none other than Polo's native Venice.

Working on the poems in this volume, I wanted to create a poetic (and Singaporean) equivalent to Invisible Cities: a book that would capture both the wonder of a nineteen-year-old exploring these marvelous places for the first time, but also a sense of how I saw all these places through the lens of homethrough eyes accustomed to the streets and perspectives of a city I love. This is why the book itself is structured as a journey, with the poems starting and ending in contemporary Singapore, and journeys to different places, and times, in the middle.

You’ve lived in the UK for a while. Do you think the experience living there has influenced the way or what you write?

The four years I spent in the UK were utterly transformative, and having experienced them, there’s no way I would write the same book today. Giving Ground was put together in 2015 (my second year at Oxford) and published in early 2016. The book is very much a product of my travels, but also the energy and idealism with which I embarked on them, eager to ‘see the world’. Since thenthanks to what I’ve studied, and causes I've been part ofmy concerns have changed a lot, and today I think I'm less likely to write in descriptive terms about my own adventuring, than in critical (or at least more reflective) terms about the histories, inequalities, and anxieties that I encounter.

During this time, I’ve also ventured into translation, criticism, and creative non-fiction: different genres which have broadened my writerly toolbox with more ways to say what I want to say to different audiences. So I now write in a range of forms and platforms, and have learned to be comfortable switching between them!

What was the hardest thing about writing this collection and why?

While writing these poems, I was immensely privileged to have not only the resources to explore (thanks to a generous scholarship, and affordable travel options), but also a flexible university timetable, which made it easy for me to impose discipline on my writing schedule. I would set aside a morning every other week (usually Thursday), settle myself in my favourite café with a view of Turl Street, and not leave till I had a decent draft of a poem. Since graduating, it’s been much harder to maintain that pace.

I suppose the most difficult thing about this collection was the long waitthrough the final stages of editing, sequencing, and production. I tend to be fairly impatient, but learned through the process of putting this book together to trust the wisdom of my editors and publishers, and to let the poems continue growing as a set, even after each individual piece is finished. Without that wait, the shape of the book would not have fallen into place, and neither would I have Alvin's gorgeous cover!

If you had to recommend an ideal location to read Giving Ground, where would it be?

A fairly nondescript place, where you can lose yourself easily. During those years of travel, I was heavily influenced by books like Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways, Julian Hoffman's The Small Heart of Things, and fragments of Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which I've only recently re-read in full. These and countless other books of landscape and nature writing reminded me to tune in to the natural and human histories of the places I encountered, and if possible, to lose myself in them. I hope Giving Ground takes you on a journey too, even if you never leave your seat. Every time we lose ourselves, I think we come back with more.

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

I actually have a book-length manuscript of poems sitting in my computer, full of poems that are quite different from those in Giving Groundthese are a lot more playful with form, more contemporary in tone and much more urgent in their concerns, politically and otherwise. I'll have to sit myself down soon and work on sequencing and editing them! But yes, I also have dreams of another book, perhaps a cross-genre one bringing together some of my writing about National Service… or yet another, an edited cross-border anthology on migrant labour… These are just ideas at the moment, but the more ideas one has, one can usually be confident that at least some of them will come through!

Giving Ground 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


Euginia Tan on writing about the female body and identity — Singapore Lit Prize feature July 03, 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.

First up, we have Euginia Tan, author of Phedra. Read on to find out how she was inspired by a stain on the MRT and why she loves writing as a form of creative expression!

 

Hear Euginia read her favourite poem from Phedra.

 

~

A Stain on the Floor

Her red plastic bag
Dripped juice like a grapefruit.
Brown sauces—pig’s intestines?
Peter pan stews—ageless, aromatic,
Patient peanuts boiled soft as cud
Leaving residual engine oil grease ,
A contraband birthmark
On speckled mrt grounds.
Move-in martins and stand-up staceys
Pirouetting over its corduroy shoeshine varnish
While I’m slumped against the cold pole
Remembering my grandma’s cooking.

 ~

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

I love food – food that you know has gone through a process of preparation like hawker centre food, home cooked food and food that lovers cook for one another.

This excerpt made me think of a time I saw a brown stain on the floor in the MRT and I started to remember this particular dish my grandmother knew how to make – just right! It could never be replicated after that. You just can’t with some things.

Contrasting that with the still fresh MRT campaign at that time when people were encouraged to “move in” and “give up their seats” made me really wistful about certain moments that you just cannot be instructed on how or when or why… They just do, and if it stems from a loving place, they continue to touch you within.

How did you get the idea to write your book based on your own interpretation of the Greek mythology?

Phedra was conceived during my mentorship with Grace Chia-Krakovic (the 2013 Mentor Access Program organized by NAC) and having her feedback and insight was extremely helpful. Well it was also never fully reliant on the angle of Greek mythology, but rather just how the ordinary coincided with a lot of myth and folklore that we usually think of as lofty notions but are closer to us than we think. I explained during my book launch that the title was heavily inspired by a young girl I had taught art to, whose name was Phedra. Later it helped that in my casual reading, I found the figure of Phaedra who was a silent, overlooked persona that I could relate with, and the misspelling of real life Phedra versus mythology Phaedra was also something I grappled with and knew the significance of (people confusing my name for Eugenia versus Euginia with an I.)

I was hell bent on naming this collection Phedra despite the many initial objections I faced with the lovely Kah Gay. I’m glad he accommodated this quite instinctive request from me in the end and here we are… I honestly never expected this nomination ever. 

Your writing in Phedra, as with your previous two poetry collections, focus largely on the female body and identity. Was it a conscious decision to write on this subject or has it always been a part of you and your writing?

It has always been a part of me perhaps not just in writing, but the way I choose to express myself. The body I have is the one I have the most control over – I have pushed it to several limits and I’m always experimenting or reflecting about movement in general. I would likely have chosen dance as a creative expression had I not fallen in love with writing first because I admire a certain effortless fluidity and grace the body has when you pick the right precision for it. I try to embody that same rhythm in my writing. That being said, we do project our feelings about ourselves or the world around us onto our bodies. So I enjoy observing body temperament a lot, not just a physical measurement of it but the way people inhabit their skins.

What was the hardest thing about writing this collection and why?

I faced two deaths in the span of both editing and publishing this collection, that of both my maternal and paternal grandmothers in the span of a few months. The way they died and the grieving process was vastly different. I ended up putting a lot of moments like those in the collection even though not all the poems were not directly related to their demise.

It’s hard to devote your work to family, because the idea of it is so different here compared to Western dynamics. That was probably the most difficult thing completing this collection. Strangely, after Phedra, the next collection I am writing is focused on my grandfathers. There was never a conscious plan to do these things, but again, here we are. 

If this book was dramatised for the stage, what do you think would be most fascinating to see?

I would love to see the many different iterations of nature I’ve included in Phedra come to life: Like the mythic notion of it being unconquerable and wise versus a more current take on it being something vulnerable that needs to be preserved.  We don’t see enough of nature as a main rooting component on stage as opposed to people’s reactions to nature.

Lastly, how does Phedra contribute to your ongoing body of work?

I write about death quite a bit, whether or not the work gets published, it’s a topic I think about often. It doesn’t perturb nor enlighten me… It just makes me think of things that are much larger than me, like the sea, or the innocence of a child. Death helps remind me to toss the ego, root my mind and try as best as I can to contribute with my strengths (in the short time I have).

Phedra 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


price