Singapore Hot Takes is an interview series with contemporary writers from Singapore looking at issues like craft, reading, influence, community, and ethics.Jason Erik Lundberg was born in New York, grew up in North Carolina, and has lived in Singapore since 2007. He is the author and anthologist of over twenty books, including Diary of One Who Disappeared: A Novella, Most Excellent and Lamentable: Selected Stories, the Bo Bo and Cha Cha picture book series, and the biennial Best New Singaporean Short Stories anthology series. His first novel, A Fickle and Restless Weapon, will appear in June 2020.
What was your early reading life like, what did you read and what books left an impact on you?
Like most writers, I was a ravenous reader as a kid. I remember clearly my mother bringing me and my sister to the public library quite often, and nearly every time I exited with an armload of new books. I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure series and the Hardy Boys mysteries, among others. When I got a bit older, I picked up a copy of Prelude to Foundation by Isaac Asimov, and it kindled a lifelong love for science fiction and fantasy (which I documented in my 2013 chapbook, Embracing the Strange).
In my final year of high school, we read 1984 by George Orwell, and it blew something open in my brain. I was too young (or too uninformed) to understand most of the political arguments Orwell was making, but the love affair between Winston and Julia that is crushed utterly by the Party made a huge emotional impact. I had been assigned many “message” books throughout high school (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Scarlet Letter, etc.), but this was the first time I had been thoroughly rocked by a work of fiction and, despite the incredibly depressing subject matter, 1984 has remained my favourite book ever since.
How did you come to writing? Was there a pivotal moment when a light bulb went off? Or, was it a gradual process?
I always enjoyed making up stories from a young age; the earliest tale I can remember creating was called “The Pulsar NX is Missing!”, which was about ninjas stealing my mother’s car. It was always something fun to do, and I had enough of a facility with language that my writing was often coherent and descriptive.
But it was in 9th grade when I thought that this might be something to pursue. My English teacher assigned Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” but with the ending chopped off, so that we had to write it ourselves. I came up with the idea that a young boy wins the lottery, but instead of being stoned to death (like in the original story), he gains the power of invisibility and uses it to become a superhero. My teacher wrote some very glowing remarks about how imaginative it was, and she suggested that I might think about being a writer; as you can tell, I took her comments very much to heart.
Tell us about your latest work. What are its themes and techniques?
My latest work is a “greatest hits” fiction collection, called Most Excellent and Lamentable: Selected Stories, released by Epigram Books in October 2019. It draws largely from my three previous collections, and also includes an uncollected story as well as a novelette I wrote especially for the book.
As for themes, I’ll turn to my good friend Dean Francis Alfar, who contributed the book’s introduction: “In Lundberg’s narratives, endings are transformations, a change from one state to another: from ignorance to knowledge, from pain to understanding, from confusion to bliss. […] It is love that happens afterwards. Love continues. Identity continues. Remembrance continues. The story continues for it never truly ends, with each ending offering a new beginning, or a continuation, after profound changes. It is this insight, this narrative truth, that creates impact—that hope is never truly lost, and what is now is only for now.”
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?
If I may be so bold, I believe that my work has been a catalyst (though certainly not the only one) for the current explosion of speculative fiction within Singapore. My first collection Red Dot Irreal, my anthology Fish Eats Lion and my literary journal LONTAR were all put together with the express purpose of showing Singaporeans that it is okay to write non-realist fiction, and that there is a market for it. This act of indirectly giving permission opened the floodgates, especially for younger writers, and we are now seeing a renaissance of imaginative writing. And my current work continues this activity of wedging those gates wide open for many years to come.
The broader ecosystem is more applicable to my day job, as the fiction editor at Epigram Books. Many of the books I’ve acquired and edited, both through the Epigram Books Fiction Prize and our regular submissions process, are indicative of the plurality of voices that I want to continue to see in Singaporean literature (in terms of both race and gender), as well as the openness to both realist and speculative fiction.
And, finally, can you explain your future literary plans? Is there anything specific readers should know about?
My first novel (and 25th book), A Fickle and Restless Weapon, will be published in June 2020, and I am particularly excited that it is finally seeing the light of day. It takes place 25 years before my novella, Diary of One Who Disappeared, and answers many questions brought up in that earlier work. It’s a polyphonic narrative, seen through the eyes of three protagonists, and examines life in a surveillance state (which is more and more apposite for many of us around the world), as well as what happens when an act of terror ruptures all the illusions of control.
But before that, I will be a featured author at the Singapore Writers Festival and George Town Literary Festival, both happening in November of this year. I’ll be participating in a number of panel discussions and book launches, and it’ll be a great way to connect with readers and fellow book lovers. So much of being a writer is extraordinarily lonely, so I always relish these festivals to reacquaint myself with the wider community, and draw inspiration and energy that will later fuel my art.