The One With The Footnotes

Painting of a drop of water on blades of grass

Art by Jolene Tan


Dear Reader,

Author Zadie Smith has remarked that readers and writers may place different weight on content (what) and form (how); the reader may see a book as “the one in which John kills Jane”, while its author “privately” regards it as “the one with the semicolons”.

For me, both what and how are inseparably linked in my picture of my new novel, After the Inquiry. It is a book about civil servants looking into a violent incident involving police officers. It is a book about seeing and unseeing, documenting and erasing, hard evidence and slippery… well, ox dung. It is also “the one with the footnotes”.

When I began work, some aspects of the what seemed potentially daunting. I am neither police officer nor civil servant, though in my time as policy campaigner I have hovered on the edges of Singaporean bureaucracy and law enforcement. This is close enough to catch the whiff of certain themes, but is it close enough to dramatise these realms?

The difficulties with the police are more obvious: theirs is a world of codes and habits clearly distinct from civilian life, and clouded by operational secrecy. Besides desk research, preparation involved several hours of interviews with former officers—friends of friends—who generously humoured this self-evident noob with her naïve questions. I won’t pretend this granted me any deep expertise, but it was something to hang the look and feel of scenes on.

You’d expect the civil service to be safer ground: an office job is an office job, after all, and readers probably don’t pick nits over the minutiae of job titles or reporting protocol. Still, I make no claims to photorealism. I will say only that I believe I have captured some likeness of spirit, from my own peculiar angle. As a human rights activist, when I have brushed up against public servants and office-holders, my presence has principally been an awkward and irritating one, cornering them for attention to matters they would probably rather ignore, amplifying points of view they would not otherwise choose to hear. So my perspective is naturally a gadfly’s-eye view.

A line of women speaking at a conference

Me (fourth from left) as a gadfly at the United Nations, in a whole row of women's rights activists from Singapore. 

Fiction also talks to other fiction. I was aware of writing in the shadow of Sir Humphrey Appleby of 1980s British sitcom Yes Minister, a civil servant who uses polish and learning to bamboozle those around him, often in defence of the institutional power of the civil service itself. I’m also a fan of Armando Iannucci’s comedy The Thick Of It, based on the updated thesis that the UK is no longer governed by either democratic representatives or even career technocrats, but unaccountable spin doctors fixated on public messaging. There are echoes of the dynamics of both these series in Singapore’s landscape, and though After the Inquiry is more whodunnit than comedy, you can detect trace amounts of their satirical flavours.
Ultimately, though, my characters are just that—individual characters, whose most intense oddities can belong only to them alone. I hope readers will find something resonant in their journeys, and in the enduring questions I have sought to address: about the exercise of power, how it reproduces itself, and how it fends off challenges from idealists of various stripes. If I am wrong about details in parts, I beg your indulgence; this is ultimately a story, after all, unashamedly made-up, not a factual account. Not fake news, so much as deliberate falsehood.
I hope you enjoy reading!
Jolene Tan

(From March 6, 2021)