Singapore Hot Takes is an interview series with contemporary writers from Singapore looking at issues like craft, reading, influence, community, and ethics.Warran Kalasegaran is an author whose debut novel, Lieutenant Kurosawa’s Errand Boy, was shortlisted for the 2018 Singapore Book Awards Best Fiction Title and longlisted for the 2016 Epigram Books Fiction Prize. It was described in a review by The Historical Novel Society as “Remarkable historical fiction!” Warran wrote the novel while studying for a Master of Public Policy at the University of Tokyo from 2014 to 2016. He is currently a Foreign Service Officer at the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is also working on his second novel.
What was your early reading life like, what did you read and what books left an impact on you?
My mum took my younger sisters and me to the libraries regularly, and we would gather piles of books and read on the floor. Then we would pick eight to borrow home. I remember being very happy when the library increased our limit from four to eight. We also went to the Borders on Orchard Road where we would read new books and return them to the shelves, and maybe pick one to buy, which is partly why I guess Borders closed.
I read the usual culprits growing up. I remember Enid Blyton, Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl, and children’s versions of epics like the Mahabharata. I had a serious fling with medieval fantasy and other ancient history-based dramas, like the Lord of the Rings, Wheel of Time, and Christian Jacq’s Egyptian stories. We’ve broken up since.
For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway was a turning point for me. Until then, the “serious” books I read for literature class like Great Expectations were heavy and boring and put me off all of them. Hemingway constructed a good plot and intriguing characters in For Whom The Bell Tolls and wrote simply and sharply. He taught me that good writing can be interesting and clean, and also gave me the confidence to read “difficult” books and trust my judgment of them. So I began giving other classroom-type books a go and appreciated them more. Some, like Dickens and Joyce, I still don’t like. But I’ve discovered some other great writers I enjoy. I devoured Hemingway, although I also realised he was not the greatest person.
How did you come to writing? Was there a pivotal moment when a lightbulb went off? Or, was it a gradual process?
I’ve been writing since I was a kid, and my writing plots followed my reading. In Primary School, I wrote a short book about a family because I had been reading Enid Blyton. In Secondary School, I wrote my first novel, a medieval fantasy series about a guy searching for a sword. I even planned a ten-book series around it. Now, I enjoy reading about other countries and historic periods. I’ve similarly begun trying to represent myself, people like me, and the places I live in through my writing. In sum, I’ve been a template nerd since I was born.
I enjoy writing. It’s a bit like going to a gym – I drag myself to my laptop, but once I start, I relish it. At the root of it is a desire to express ideas and stories through the written word as well as possible. When I admire other people’s work, I also want to build on them.
Tell us about your latest work. What are its themes and techniques?
Lieutenant Kurosawa’s Errand Boy is about a Singaporean Tamil boy who is forced to work for the Japanese military during the Occupation of the 1940s. They name him Nanban, and you see the Occupation and his interactions with Lieutenant Kurosawa through his eyes. In trying to represent how Singaporeans lived and saw the world then, the book delved into themes of identity and the impact of power structures on human relations. But my technique was to think about what the boy was going through, and write it as truthfully as I could. This was difficult enough to attempt, and the rest were by-products.
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?
When I checked the library, my book is found in the “Adults Singapore” section. What this means is that Singapore literature is still too small and at the same time too diffused a body of work to have substantively sizeable niches yet. There are a wide variety of writers, each representing their own perspectives on different story arcs and issues, be it race, gender, age, class, or peculiar interests. I try to tell stories of Singapore through the eyes of the small Tamil community in English, and put Tamil heroes and heroines at the front of these stories.
And, finally, can you explain your future literary plans? Is there anything specific readers should know about?
I’m currently working on a second novel. I try not to talk about it because it takes away from the writing. My experience with my first novel also showed that the story will change drastically while writing, and I don’t want to publish it and have one of your readers demanding the book I just described instead.
I also do literary talks and other events, most recently a book club discussion at the Singapore National Library last September. I enjoy meeting readers, hearing their take on my novel, and answering their questions. I am always deeply appreciative when my novel touched someone and provoked questions in them, and happy to hear views. I will be moving to Malaysia in December and hope to meet the literary community there too. If your readers would like to keep up with my work, they can follow me on Instagram and Twitter. I also have a website: warrankalasegaran.com.