"We are all invariably defined by physical places that we occupy": Heartland Book Launch
Livestream of Heartland Launch
The book launch of Heartland was livestreamed on the Ethos Books Facebook page on 25 September 2021. You can watch the livestream above and access the full transcript of the programme on this page. Portions of the transcript have been edited for clarity.
About Heartland (new edition)
An iconic work, Heartland explores the paradox of rootedness and rootlessness in fast-changing Singapore. Set in the early 1990s, the novel follows the years of Wing Seng as he leaves school and is conscripted into full-time National Service. As Wing tries to reconcile his past with his future amid transitions through different phases of life, he finds meaning in his intense attachment to his surrounding landscape. Yet, as relationships and the years slip by, Wing is forced to question his own certainties and the wisdom of the people he values.
Set in Singapore’s heartland at the turn of the century, Heartland’s capturing of the texture of everyday life provides the backdrop essential to the bildungsroman’s exploration of identity, belonging and connection in an increasingly urbanised Singapore.
Kah Gay: A very good morning to everyone, it's a very special day. Quite the first, because I have never relaunched a book in my capacity as a publisher, so I’m very happy to do that with Daren today. Welcome, Daren.
Kah Gay: Daren strikes me as a person who is a writer’s writer, because you see his works spanning from microfiction (Velouria), to poetry (Peninsular). And today we’re talking about Heartland which was launched in 1999.
Daren: I would also like to thank Ethos Books very much for this 2021 reissue of Heartland. This book actually takes 4 forms: the original one, then Ethos took it over in 2002, and then there was an academic issue in 2007 for O-levels. This is really a work of love; I’m very grateful to the team, the effort that was put in. There is additional content, and it’s very exciting.
Daren: So KG asked me about pictures that evoke the time that Heartland was written. I wrote it in my 20s and it was set in the ‘90s -- some things exist and some don’t anymore. This was the Bugis junk replica that was referred to in the beginning of the book, and Wing who has just been conscripted makes some observations about it, and it begins this process of linking history to the present. So this is the junk as it was then.
Daren: The jet sprays that that scene (in the book) also refers to is still there.
Kah Gay: We are now looking at Fort Canning Park.
Kah Gay: Interestingly, the disappearance of buildings will also be part of our conversation. This is Clementi, in the 1990s.
Daren: This is where Audrey and Wing meet up in chapter two. It was a meeting place. This fountain also does not exist anymore.
Kah Gay: Also Clementi, an aquarium in the late 1990s, so lovely to see.
Kah Gay: For some of you who are not familiar with the story of Heartland, there’s a lot of history interspersed into that fiction. Holland Close?
Daren: This is where Wing pays respects together with his mother. This still exists, but I think there’s plans for it to be removed.
Kah Gay: And the World Trade Centre?
Kah Gay: And it would be outdoors?
Kah Gay: And also the Equatorial Hotel, no longer there?
Kah Gay: Holland Drive; as I understand, your childhood was in Queenstown?
Kah Gay: Interestingly, you also shared with us these photos.
Daren: Yeah so there is a scene where Chloe gets upset with Wing because her heels get caught in these elliptical holes in carpark slates, which is meant actually for grass to thrive. This is also where she had to visit the coffeeshop toilet, and being the posh girl that she is, was very disgusted by that.
Kah Gay: I think we’re very thankful for some personal photos from Daren.
Daren: So East coast park chalet which used to be a whole thing, I think now it’s Downtown East. There’s a scene here where Wing attends a friend’s gathering, and teens having barbecues at ECP was a common occurrence. He also has a moment where he walks towards the sea and has these thoughts. It was also the countdown to the New Year, it was New Year’s Eve.
Daren: There are references to postmen and postboxes, and the clicking sound, the way that things were inserted, again very different in the past. Now, postmen open the back and slotting has changed.
Daren: So Marina South was again very different—there’s a scene where Wing goes for the $10 steamboat buffet that we remembered with May Ling and her friends. Also very iconic at the time.
Daren: This famous dragon playground occurs in the book when Wing visits Joshua who has got kidney failure and Wing looks down from the corridor and his perspective of the dragon was not so much the head that we often think about but the skeletal coil of the body which reminded Wing of the state that Joshua was in—he was emaciated.
Kah Gay: Fortunately, they were still around then. Okay, I feel like that was a lot of photos, that I feel stimulated by a lot of memories, because we were born in the same decade.
Kah Gay: Yeah, so I’m very pleased to be able to have this chat with you, and I think what I have gained so far right, if you have not read Heartland, is that the central person is a person called Wing, and I think Heartland also drew a lot from Daren’s imaginative landscape.
Because place in any piece of writing can be very incidental; it’s like a setting that happens to be there. But I find place in Heartland more than just that. It seems to inform and shape the identity of the characters. I am very curious to hear you talk more about place and how physical space defines us, how the architecture that we see around us, how that works. And when you were writing Heartland, what was the significance of place in yourself?
Place is extremely important because the book is an… I see it as an existential novel. It is about a protagonist trying to make sense of his place in space and time. I think we are all invariably defined by physical places that we occupy. Architecture, where we live, where we stay, where we grew up. We tend to be defined by that. But also chronological space where we happen to be born, which point in time..to me, there’s a randomness to the place/space that you eventually occupy. It’s the nature of human beings to seek meaning in randomness, and one of the ways I think people do it is to attach to what is familiar. I think it goes beyond nostalgia, there’s actually a comfort with familiarity and return.
Daren: Even if, say, you go to Bangkok once a year, you very quickly develop, although there’s so much to see, develop rituals associated to a place that you will go to.
Kah Gay: It’s so interesting because just now when you were showing us some photos, invariably it brings a smile to some of us when we see it. So this very subconscious kind of attachment; I find very interesting because I have not been to the swimming pool (shown in the slides), but when I see it, I have a sense of familiarity.
Daren: I think that particularly in Singapore, place has an even more important quality, over and above what I’m saying about how we find meaning by attaching special feelings to where we live, where we grow up. And that is the invariable anonymity of public housing, and that's not limited to Singapore. I think you see this in the UK in council housing.
Kah Gay: I think what I really want to follow up on is I want to look at the poems later if we can, because that’s the origin of Heartland the novel, which I think is quite amazing. And I didn’t know until recently, because of our chats, that Heartland arose from poetry, so we must look at that.
So it’s really about how we understand daily experience, how we make sense of daily experience. I wonder for you: how did life and living in Singapore shape how you did Heartland as a novel?
Kah Gay: Yes, we hear that a lot.
Daren: That actually tends to be the persona of the existential characters who are searching. Because of free will, they want to understand what their existence means and therefore people deal with it by coming up with religions, rituals, beliefs, causes even, to attribute meaning. Wing’s not interested in any of these things, so he comes across as not having that kind of direction. Now to your specific question about Singapore. As I said, my first novel was always going to be an existential one.
And I always thought that Singapore lacks a physical hinterland as well as a chronological hinterland. What do I mean by this? I think that the same person Wing growing up in... say a country that has centuries of history. Somehow, when he asks himself the question of “who am I in this place and time?”, the location of himself in that, I think it’s an easier answer to arrive at when you have a short chronological hinterland to draw from. The physical hinterland, if you drive in any direction in Singapore for forty minutes, you land in the sea.
Kah Gay: I like the sense of place and how it informs the sense of self I'm getting from what you’re saying. To me, when i read Heartland for the first time, it spoke to a very private/personal part of me - because it’s about growing out of. So it’s only just like you mentioned, why are some people thinking, ah why is this hero not doing much? Maybe we’re just used to people doing a lot, because of how times have moved on. I’m so glad you bookmarked this particular period of Singapore history when before the internet and all this communication, things were not really moving that fast.
Daren: Yeah and I mean before, we must remember that HDB was a massive relocation project. And that before that people were living in kampongs and the way people related to each other was different. HDB then put people into apartments. But what you mentioned, KG, about the advent of technology, I think it actually accentuated someone who is seeking purpose. If someone like Wing growing up in the ‘90s already had difficulty finding purpose, I imagine that now someone growing up who has all the information that they want to access—Suddenly choices are accessible, but that also makes things more difficult.
Pagers did exist, but the way that you reached out to someone was primarily through the landline. And there’s various scenes in the book where characters try to reach out to each other and they fail. The public phone we saw just now - you must have 10 cents and remember the number of the person you’re calling. You must hope that the person is in, or someone picks up the phone and you have just three minutes to speak. I remember in those days that if I had made arrangements to meet someone at the MRT station, and they were late for an hour, I would call the home and someone from their family would say “he’s left the house”. I would have no other options but to wait.
Kah Gay: Let’s delve into your poetry a bit, because I’m really curious about where the architecture of Heartland came from. Was this the manuscript that you submitted for the 1995 SLP prize?
Kah Gay: So I’m going to read a few titles—I had the pleasure of looking at the poems before this, so I'm not going to pretend 'oh it's so new to me!'—I had known but I feel that it's very relevant.
(reads from Heartland poetry collection)
Chapter 2: Di, which is the Chinese character for ‘earth’, Three-room Flat Corridor. Interchange. Kopitiam, which is coffeeshop in Hokkien. Hairdresser. Neighbourhood Dialysis Centre. Playground. Cinema. 25th Floor. Wet Market. Feeling like a housing estate. The page continues into: Benches, Community Centre, POSB, Library, Vacant Plot, Provision Shop (Indian), Provision Shop (Chinese)—mama shops come in different forms—Deadend. Swimming Pool. Kindergarten.
Chapter 4: Ming, ‘fate’ or ‘life’ in Chinese. 6pm. Motorcycles. Yu, which is Chinese for ‘rain’. Night, which is a lovely poem, very short but lovely.
Daren: I am Wing, to a certain extent—I was really trying to find meaning, not successful at that time, but I had an intense emotional attachment to my landscape—all these scenes are descriptions of these very things. They didn’t have necessarily a higher purpose other than to take a micro look at these distinctive phenomena in a heartland. And to string it together into something coherent, and hence it starts with Morning on Hillock, Evening on Hillock. For those of you who have read Heartland the novel, practically everything in here is represented as a setting for the characters.
Kah Gay: I just wanted to express a response to that, because it’s very moving to feel your connection to the place. In the end I felt more for Wing’s feeling for the place than Wing the character. So maybe that's how you can enjoy the novel without enjoying the character.
Daren: That is a very good point. Heartland often gets conflated with what’s called the HDB-Core art happening around that time. Some of my friends had contemporaneously created work that had the heartland as a setting. So I think of friends like Eric Khoo, of Jasmine (Ng) who created Eating Air, Dave (Khoo), Gone Case, Alfian (Sa’at), Corridor.
Kah Gay: I would like to get you to maybe read a poem, if you have one.
Kah Gay: Oh, if you asked me to pick, it’s either Morning at Hillock or Night.
Kah Gay: Thank you so much. I really like when you just describe things as they are, there’s a certain power to it—you don’t even have to embellish it; of course hackneyed is quite a cheem word, but it’s a very down-to-earth representation of it. I can even imagine boxes with people living inside.
Kah Gay: I think we will definitely release the link to NORA (National Online Repository of the Arts), which is where your poems are freely available. That is a very nice compendium to the novel, and I think will really make the reading experience even more enjoyable. I feel that place is really the star of the novel. We’ve had some chats before this. And I like the phrase you used, “architecture of the heart” and “architecture of the externalities.” But we do have a few interesting questions here, and I think we can move to the Q&A.
Daren: Interesting. I think at its core, it would still be an antihero trying to find his purpose—technology is probably going to make it harder for him to find his purpose. The challenges will be different, but I still think that I would want Wing to ultimately find his purpose in the physical environment in which he lives. I would also retain the references to the historical chapters—just a quick note on that there are hard cuts in the novel that go back to the history of Singapore, starting from Sang Nila Utama.
Kah Gay: Which also used to be the site of the first law court. Maybe we can also take a look at the next question, “You mention Heartland as an existential novel quite often; how do you think writers or works in recent years have tackled this theme in this climate?”
Daren: I think that there was a specific period during which existential novels were original in the same way that I’m referring to HDB-core as not being something contrived. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Goh Poh Seng wrote “If We Dream Too Long” within the same period of time that Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre were writing.
Kah Gay: So I guess the label would be located in that period of time, but maybe the preoccupations would still be extended, but they would need to find a new metaphor or new category. How about any recommendations?
Kah Gay: We will take one last question: “Despite the current connectivity of society today, fragmented relationships are still very much pervasive today, Why do you think this is so?”
Daren: My starting point is that I think that human beings and relationships are first and foremost predisposed to fragmentation. We live life in fragments and there is a fragility to wholeness. How often is it that something is complete and whole; it probably is for a short time after which fragmentation happens—yes, I think fragmentation does happen now. I think it’s because it is so much easier.
Relationships can be formed so much more quickly. You add someone on social media, you get their number and you Whatsapp. It used to be so difficult to get people’s number in the past—you’d have to jump through hoops to get the number. These days it’s “what’s your Facebook”, “add me on Whatsapp”. Because the establishment of relationships is so simple, the breaking of it is also easy. So if someone does not like another person, they ghost that person, and that is gone.
Kah Gay: I like the nuancing of fragmentation then and now. I think it’s a very realist perception of how wholeness is fragile, but at the same time I do feel that after reading Heartland I value that memory, I value that connection. So in spite of the difficulty, Wing, I hope for his brighter future, which is off the pages; we do not know what’s going on with Wing now 25 years on. It has been a wonderful day hearing from you, Daren, thank you so much. And to the readers, you have asked very unique questions; and to my team and the Arts House and our guests, thank you so much.
About the Author:Daren Shiau was born in 1971, and is a Singaporean writer and editor. Heartland received the Singapore Literature Prize Commendation Award in 1998, and in 2007 was adapted into an English literature school text on the Singapore-Cambridge GCE ‘O’-Level syllabus. The novel was also made into a telemovie in 2015. A recipient of the Young Artist Award (Literature), Shiau’s other works include acclaimed poetry collection, Peninsular: Archipelagos and Other Islands (2000) and a microfiction collection, Velouria (2007). He currently serves as Co-Chair of the Singapore Writers Festival’s advisory panel.
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