Singapore hot takes

Barrie Sherwood

"Art for art’s sake is a valid, valued enterprise here; it was not always this way."

Singapore Hot Takes is an interview series with contemporary writers from Singapore looking at issues like craft, reading, influence, community, and ethics.

Barrie Sherwood is a native of Hong Kong, growing up in rural Canada before moving on to Japan and the UK. He took a PhD at UEA and was Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at York St John for five years. Since 2013, he has been Assistant Professor in the School of Humanities at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Barrie’s publications include The Pillow Book of Lady Kasa (DC Books, 2000), Escape from Amsterdam (Granta Books, 2007) and The Angel Tiger and Other Stories (Epigram Books, 2019). His short fiction has been anthologized in Best New Singaporean Short Stories Volume 4 and Food Republic. His fiction and non-fiction has been published in the journals Stand, The Istanbul Review, Matrix, Lighthouse, QLRS, Writing in Education, Asia Literary Review and TEXT.

What was your early reading life like, what did you read and what books left an impact on you?
I’ve tried over and over to go back to my earliest reading life and all I can detect is a bit of Richard Scarry, some Arthur Ransom, and the wonderful Dr Seuss. It’s like there’s this glut of Narnia at age 10 or 11 that just blocks out most of what came before. I read The Chronicles of Narnia over and over, serenely unaware of the propagandistic elements that would later taint the experience for me. In my early teens I consumed enormous quantities of Alistair Maclean and Robert Ludlum; I don’t think I was overly damaged by it somehow.

How did you come to writing? Was there a pivotal moment when a lightbulb went off? Or, was it a gradual process?
In Grade 4, on a fairly regular basis, Mr Bockman had the class write short stories and then read them to the rest of the class. I looked forward to both aspects of this: the writing and the performance. Everything I’ve written since then has been an effort to recreate that thrill.

Tell us about your latest work. What are its themes and techniques?
Argh. Can we turn argh into a verb? I’m arghing my way into another novel. But it’s only a glum prospect when I conceive of it as a novel; once I convince myself that it is a semi-non-fictional prose piece of indeterminate length (including, if I want, artefacts, photographs and interviews) composed primarily of Tristram Shandy-ish tangents (or what Nicholson Baker called “infarcts”) from a narrative spine that has no goddamn situation, complication, rising action, climax nor denouement, then the clouds lift and everything around me is bathed in that light of fictional possibility that makes a trip to the supermarket as enthralling as going on safari.

Where does your work fit in contemporary Singaporean literature? Here, I am wondering about the work of peers that you like, and the broader ecosystem in which you write?
Wow, that’s a tough question. I don’t consider myself a Canadian writer, and though I have the passport I’m not a French writer either. I’ve lived in Singapore for seven years: is my writing Singaporean? I would hesitate to accept any of these epithets. (I love it when Flaubert writes in his Correspondences that he feels as Abyssinian or Greek as he does French!). As for the broader ecosystem? That English is Singapore’s lingua franca means I can work and write here. The Singaporean literary “scene” is richer than it ever has been, full of new voices. And my university, following very much on the heels of institutions like MIT and Columbia, is a staunch supporter of practice-led research, which allows me (when I’m not teaching) to focus solely on improving my craft. Art for art’s sake is a valid, valued enterprise here; it was not always this way.

And, finally, can you explain your future literary plans? Is there anything specific readers should know about?
My plans? My ideas about what comes next gang aft agley long before they become anything so formulated as a plan. Karen Blixen wrote a little each day with neither fear nor hope. That’s a good model for a writer, I think. (For any kind of writer – Jim Morrison lived that way too.) You’ll never fully achieve it, of course – to do so would be deny your very humanity – but there are unproductive mindsets obsessed with fear and hope, and you have to learn how to avoid them.