Charmaine Chan on preserving her childhood through the power of memory — Singapore Lit Prize Feature
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 narrative—and 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 tasks—riding 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 writer—to 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 books—I 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 everyone—and 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.