Have you always had a powerful imagination?
Yes, to the point that I was told in school that my imagination was too wild. It baffled me. You either had an imagination or you didn’t, how wild could it be? In fact, I would’ve thought, the wilder the better.
What do you think brought this about?
I’m not conscious or aware of any influences on my imagination. I just remember having it, for the longest time.
What shape do your thoughts and ideas take?
I’d never thought about that until you asked! But now that you ask, I definitely think visually. What follows is a process of putting those visuals into words.
How was your experience of writing your memoir ‘Praying To The Goddess Of Mercy’ different from writing ‘Rain Tree’, which is a work of fiction?
Hugely different. The memoir required memory; imagination breathed life into the memory. For the details, I had to imagine what the context might have been and fill in the gaps. ‘Rain Tree’ on the other hand relied entirely on my imagination. Unlike with ‘Rain Tree’, I had a duty to tell the truth in my memoir.
But the historical context would demand a certain commitment to facts, wouldn’t it?
Absolutely. I went to the library a lot while writing ‘Rain Tree’. I visited museums, which – at that time – had special exhibits about Singapore in the 60’s. My research helped me piece together a picture of what life might have looked like back then, the political situation. Being in these physical spaces gave me a textural context, but the cold hard facts were the results of my research. The rest was imagined and based on what I sparsely remember as a young child growing up in the 60’s, on my experiences of having an Ah-Ma, on the stories passed down to me by my mother and grandmother, on the things I’d read. Put together, these pieces formed the fabric of my inspiration, but to weave a story out of it all required imagination.
For ‘Rain Tree’, which came first – the world or the story?
The story came first in that I wanted to tell the story of a migrant worker in Singapore today. This was a few years ago when I was so tired of the anti foreigner sentiment, particularly against migrant workers. My response would always be some variant of “we were all migrants here at some point, don’t you remember?” I wanted to tell their story, so I decided to feature my Indonesian helper. But in doing so, I felt the story was missing something, it didn’t click. I opened my mind to setting the story in the past, and the 60’s – just before independence – was such an exciting period for Singapore. So many of us know so little about that time. A lot of what we learn in school is post ‘65 – it’s the chest-thumping ra-ra exercise we go through. What gets obscured is the history preceding independence. That was reason enough. The rest just fell into place.
Do you think your readers feel that sense of connect with the relationships and circumstances in the story that were quite particular to that time?
There will always be people who don’t like the book. They might label the characters caricatures or stereotypes, which was never something I set out to do. The relationships between the Chinese and Indian characters just organically happened, in the same way that friendships happen. I asked a few friends if they thought it was a credible relationship, and they did. You just know early on who is going to be your friend.
Would you say society is more segregated today than it was?
A lot of younger people aren’t able to understand the close relationship that my Indian protagonist shares with the Chinese characters. This wasn’t the case with my generation. Today, it isn’t unusual to find teens who don’t have a single friend outside their ethnic group. These relationships are possible, though. The problem is that we have difficulty engaging with these issues in a productive way. With social media, it’s easier for us to bring up topics that people don’t want to talk about, but often these voices get silenced by hostility. We should continue to try though. I do so through my stories.
Do you believe there’s an absence of historical curiosity here in Singapore?
By and large, I don’t think the average Singaporean is curious, full stop. If curiosity is not innate, then your own history is just another of the topics that you gloss over. Unless you’re taught, you won’t know. I ran a survey a few weeks ago, in which 22 of 27 people – a large majority, all Singaporean – had forgotten that our first independence was actually 16 September 1963, when we merged with Malaya to become Malaysia. I don’t know if that’s due to a lack of curiosity about history, or whether history is being taken for granted. I think another part of this is a certain comfort with the narrative we’ve been fed that’s focused almost solely on the nation’s development post 1965. When you ignore history long enough, there’s the danger of it being erased.
But there’s your book.
It’s a story I wanted to tell because no one’s telling it. I love ‘State of Emergency’ and ‘It Never Rains On National Day’ (both by Jeremy Tiang), because they’re stories that belong to us. If we don’t tell our own stories, who will? I love ‘Sugarbread’ (by Balli Kaur Jaswal), which tells the story of a Sikh family in Singapore. In addition to being a fan of her style, I especially applaud this book because it’s a story that Singapore badly needed. For most of us here, the Sikhs are so invisible, we hardly know anything about them and they’re often stereotyped. Hers was a long overdue, rich, Singapore story that just so happened to be about a Sikh family. I, too, wanted to tell a Singaporean story with a Singaporean voice for Singaporean readers.
Given that a lot of the “Singapore stories” you speak of exist in other languages, would you say that the next step for growing the literary scene here would be to support responsible translation?
A lot of nuanced Malay and Tamil stories are written by the community, so yes, good translation would in fact make them more accessible. That said, it’s a chicken and egg situation. Translation is a business, and people only want to invest in translation if there is a market for these stories. But only if stories are more accessible will people read them.
How do you think travel has changed you?
I was more interested in people because of my travels. Until I travelled, I took a lot of things for granted – my neighbourhood, the people I knew and interacted with, Singapore itself. When I travelled, I was exposed to so many types of people. I also became more aware of the racism that is endemic to me here. My curiosity led me to question, probe, and absorb different ways of living and being. In that way, I’d say travel opened my mind, which made me more open as a person.
In contrast, would you say that being a writer requires that you grow a thick skin?
You write to have your stories read. Invariably, you’ll get rejected by agents, publishers, readers. There’s always going to be criticism. So it isn’t as much about having a thick skin as much as it is about acknowledging that not everyone is going to like your writing.
What is your relationship with your reader?
In my twenties, I read a book by Mary Wesley – a good and easy read. The story was set in rural England, the characters so well developed. Within the two or three years that followed, I’d read all of her books! At that time, I’d told myself that if I ever were to write a book, I would use the elements that made her books so enjoyable to me – a simple story, clear language, no big words or convoluted plots. It’s just a yarn, the story. I think of myself more as a storyteller than a writer. My stories are invitations. I want my reader to come into this world and find something in the pages that they wouldn’t find anywhere else.
What motivates you to tell these stories?
There’s amazing work out there by Singaporean writers, and to that landscape I have Singapore stories to add. After I finished my memoir, I caught something of a writing bug and saw the vastness of what could be done. In every corner are stories, waiting to be told. Whether people want to read them or not – I don’t know, but I know I have to keep writing them.
Rain Tree is available on all major ebook stores! Download your copy here.