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Singapore hot takes

Ng Yi-Sheng

"I think it’s my hunger for approbation that’s driven me to continue writing to this day."

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

Ng Yi-Sheng is a poet, playwright, fictionist, spoken word artist, researcher and LGBT+ activist. He became active in the Singaporean literary and theatre scene as a teenager in the 1990s, and has since published the poetry collections last boy, Loud Poems for a Very Obliging Audience and A Book of Hims; the non-fiction book SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century; and the fantasy and sci-fi collection Lion City. He spent 13 years organising ContraDiction, an annual queer literary evening, and has co-edited anthologies such as GASPP: a Gay Anthology of Singapore Poetry and Prose and Sanctuary: Short Fiction from Queer Asia. Recently, he has created performance lectures such as Painted Shadows: a Queer Haunting of the National Gallery, Ayer Hitam: a Black History of Singapore and Desert Blooms: the Dawn of Queer Singaporean Theatre. He is currently teaching and pursuing a PhD at Nanyang Technological University. He tweets and Instagrams at @yishkabob.

What was your early reading life like, what did you read and what books left an impact on you?
I was really fortunate to have a bookworm dad. He was weirdly stingy about a lot of things, but when he took us to bookshops, he told us we could buy anything we liked—fortunately for him, this applied mostly to $6 Puffin books in the children’s section.

I grew up on mostly British fantasy and American sci-fi: Lewis Carroll, Diana Wynne Jones, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury—I was so obsessed by the genre that for a time, every English essay I wrote in school was SFF. However, by the 80s and 90s, there was also a plethora of Singaporean English language titles to choose from, including Adrian Tan’s Teenage Textbook duology and Russell Lee’s True Singapore Ghost Stories, so I never had this impression that Singaporeans couldn’t write. My dad also had a bunch of books about Chinese heritage on his shelves. That sparked an interest in Asian myth and history, and later, world myth and history, that’s coloured my writing to this day.

How did you come to writing? Was there a pivotal moment when a lightbulb went off? Or, was it a gradual process?
My dad had a job in Hong Kong from 1986 to 88, so I attended a British international school for a while. Those three brief years were enough to leave me with a really solid grounding in the English language, which meant that when I got back to Singapore, I didn’t have to worry about grammar in my English essays—I could play around with creative storytelling. So I was one of those brats whose stories would praised by the English teacher as exemplary. I think it’s my hunger for approbation that’s driven me to continue writing to this day.

In 1994, when I was 13, I had the chance to attend a writing camp called the Creative Arts Programme. That was the moment when I learned that Singapore had a whole literary scene—back then, we were still living in the wake of a very technocratic era of government policy, when smart kids were encouraged to be engineers and doctors, and the arts and humanities were seen as fields for the less academically inclined. The camp was elitist as hell—only kids from the top schools even had a chance to apply for it—but it gave me a sense of community in the arts. Because of that, I began writing poetry, fiction and playwriting in earnest; I got invited to poetry readings where established writers were reading; I even co-edited an anthology, First Words, in 1996, when I was just 15. It’s also because of that early initiation that I’ve got a slightly deeper sense of the history of Singaporean arts and culture than many my age—I got to participate in it when I was just a kid, when there was an indie buzz about everything, when older folks were happy to reach out and mentor a teenage nobody like myself.

Tell us about your latest work. What are its themes and techniques?
If you’re talking about my latest publication, that’d be Lion City, a collection of SFF stories about Singapore— I like to use the term “magical realist” to describe them, partly because I’m a big fan of Garcia Marquez, partly because I’m trying to address social issues through fantasy.

I wrote a lot of them while I was an MA student at the University of East Anglia: as such, you can see my attempts at trying to represent the complexity of my city-state to another culture, grappling with the idea that we’re too small to matter (e.g. in “No Other City”, the island disappears and no-one notices), that we’re both multi- religious and hypercapitalist (e.g. in “A Day at Terminal Aleph”, gods of many faiths are treated like billionaire VIPs at a secret wing of Changi Airport), etc. But a lot of them are also a search for national identity through explorations of history, legend, metaphor—in fact, many of them are titled after nicknames for Singapore, e.g. “Food Paradise”, “Little Red Dot”, “Garden” and “Lion City” itself. I extended this last experiment to a short story I recently published with the SFF online magazine Clarkesworld. It’s an experimental retelling of Singapore history as if we were a distant planet, titled “Xingzhou”, an old Chinese name for Singapore that literally means “the Continent of Stars”.

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?
Ah, this is tricky to figure out, because I write in multiple genres: poetry, fiction, drama and non-fiction. I was born in 1980, which makes me somewhere in between Gen X and millennials: as such, I was able to participate in readings and anthologies headed by the “third generation” of poets including Gen Xers like Alvin Pang and Aaron Lee, while later becoming part of the spoken word scene with millennials like Pooja Nansi and Jennifer Champion. All the while, I’ve also been very much a part of the theatre scene, which has been traditionally very activist and socially conscious—the playwrights just a little older than me who inspired me were folks like Alfian Sa’at and Jean Tay. As a fictionist, however, I’m only just emerging!

I’d say the folks I share the most common ground with are Alfian Sa’at and Cyril Wong. We’re all cis gay men who started out in the poetry world while venturing into other genres like fiction and performance, collaborating with artists in other genres. Right now, at the age of 38, it feels like I’m someone that emerging writers look up to as a cool senior writer—a guy whose style and interests aren’t out of date yet, and is fairly accessible and approachable and active in their circles. But older writers probably still see me as an upstart kid. That’s a pretty good middle ground to occupy, if you ask me.

And, finally, can you explain your future literary plans? Is there anything specific readers should know about?
Right now, I’m exploring the genre of lecture performance quite a bit, especially in the realm of exploring forgotten histories. I’m prepping for a third staging of Ayer Hitam: A Black History of Singapore on 17 November—it was my attempt to chart the presence and influence of the African diaspora in Singapore, in collaboration with director Irfan Kasban and performer Sharon Frese. I’m also writing and performing in Desert Blooms: The Dawn of Queer Singapore Theatre 1985-1995, which is a work of verbatim theatre composed of interviews and documentation of our earliest LGBT plays.

But I’m also working on a PhD thesis at Nanyang Technological University: a novel tentatively titled A Gate of Dragon’s Teeth, set in 14th century Singapore. Doing loads of historical research on that—keeping track of it on my Instagram, in fact: @yishkabob, if you’re curious.

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