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Singapore hot takes

Daryl Yam

"I came to write because no other thing came to me quite as easily or willingly or honestly."

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

Daryl Qilin Yam is a writer of prose and poetry, born and based in Singapore. He is also an arts organiser and producer, and sits on the board of directors at the literary charity Sing Lit Station. His first novel, Kappa Quartet (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2016), was longlisted for the inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize, and has been released in Singapore and the U.K. It was selected by The Business Times as one of the best novels of 2016, and was described by QLRS as “[breaking] new ground in Singaporean writing… a shimmering and poignant novel, an immensely sympathetic and humane exploration of our existential condition.” Yam is presently working on his second novel with support from the National Arts Council.

What was your early reading life like, what did you read and what books left an impact on you?

Looking back, I think my childhood can be divided into two phases: one in which I was happy, and one in which I was not. And because I was a child of the 90s, I went into my teenagehood suckered into believing that magic was real, and that magic was attractive and powerful and ever-present in our lives. It was really a matter of seeing. And so my reading habits bent heavily towards fantasy or the speculative: I went from Enid Blyton novels to devotedly following a few fantasy series a time, including Harry PotterArtemis FowlHis Dark Materials and Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus sequence. Does manga count? In my mid-to-late teens I devoured everything I could get my hands on by Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, Michael Cunningham, David Mitchell. But I do think that the most important book I ever read in that time was Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha.

How did you come to writing? Was there a pivotal moment when a lightbulb went off? Or, was it a gradual process?

I came to write because no other thing came to me quite as easily or willingly or honestly. I didn’t have great patience for any other art form as a child, and I had terrible hand-eye coordination in a boys’ school that privileged it. Thankfully, I had teachers who recognised that writing stories was the only real thing that I had going for me.

My first novel came to me in the shower. I’d say that’s where and when the lightbulb went off: a single moment resulting in a single idea that then unfurls, uncontrollably, into the shape of an entire book. But nothing ever happens by chance or by happenstance, I think. Experience lays the groundwork for one’s readiness, and before that shower took place I already knew I was going to write my first novel. I was just waiting for an idea.

Tell us about your latest work. What are its themes and techniques?

My first novel, Kappa Quartet, was released in late 2016. It was about loneliness, and about a multitude of lonelinesses. It was an aesthetic attempt to render this loneliness into a universal, all-encompassing, pervasive, altogether weird experience. It featured eight different but interconnected stories that starts with an encounter between a Singaporean and a kappa in an izakaya in Kichijoji. Naturally, everything else that follows adopts a similar speculative vein.

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?

I don’t quite know how to answer your question. There are authors in the scene who are allowed to do whatever they want and be immediately embraced into the canon; there are authors who can’t do the former and will forever squander in obscurity. Everyone in between flails about because the only publishers who will take on the bulk of our work are local, independent ones, and the few readers we have in Singapore would rather read the work of writers from other countries.

We are all misfits.

Take the work of Stephanie Ye, for example, who has only released one chapbook of four short stories (The Billion Shop) so far — a collection so great, so fine, and so undemanding of fame and obsession and all that jazz that it defies everything about what we think it means to be a living writer in Singapore today.

And finally, can you explain your future literary plans? Is there anything specific readers should know about?

My second novel is presently still a work-in-progress. It’s twice as long as the first one, which is really daunting for me, and so I am still working through the sentences, of which there are so many… It’s about a group of four friends, two of which are Singaporeans who end up married to one another. It’s about the development of their lives and the bonds they share across three decades, starting from the 90s. I like to think it is many ways more relatable and yet weirder than my first novel.

In the meantime, do be patient with me. It’s all I ever ask, really.

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