What was your early reading life like, what did you read and what books left an impact on you?
My mother was very religious, so as a child, there were a lot of “secular” books I was not allowed to read – these included anything to do with ghosts. As with many things that are forbidden, these were the books I desired and inevitably sought out. I read a lot of horror, and a lot of non-fiction about cults and witches. This interest in horror has stayed with me throughout my life but has only really surfaced in my written work over the past five or six years.
As a teen, the first book I read that stayed with me long after I was done was Stephen King’s IT. I was 14-years-old and the characters lingered with me for months. It was the first book I’d read where I found myself identifying motifs, thinking about symbolism, understanding how stories can work on various levels at the same time. The next time I read a book that moved me with such force, I was 17-years-old and it was Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body. It sounds stupid to say this now, but at the time, I was like, wow…. you mean language can do that?!
How did you come to writing? Was there a pivotal moment when a lightbulb went off? Or, was it a gradual process?
Writing is something that has always been with me, but that I never really noticed. I studied painting in college, but poetry was always very present in my sketchbooks as a way of processing the visual work I was doing – a means to an end. In my final year of study, I worked with text in a few of my installations, but again, I did not really think of myself as a writer – I was just someone who used text in my visual work. Similarly, once I graduated, I did a lot of random writing jobs for commercial publications but I thought of these as jobs that were helping me get by, not necessarily jobs I wanted to do.
It was when I started putting my poems and stories on a blog in my mid-twenties– something I did I for emotional catharsis more than anything else– and found that they were actually connecting with people, that I started thinking about writing as a thing in and of itself. I turned one of my short stories into a 100-edition handmade book, and exhibited it together with my paintings at a show I was doing. All the books sold, and people said that the story gave the paintings new layers. It was then that I decided that maybe writing was something I should think more deeply about.
Tell us about your latest book. What are its themes and techniques?
Somewhere Else, Another You was scary for me to write and put out there just because it is so different from my previous work, both in terms of style and subject matter. It is a small, literary gamebook that I created while I was writer-in-residence at the National University of Singapore’s Centre for Quantum Technologies. As part of the residency, I had conversations with scientists and was supposed to develop work inspired by quantum physics.
There were two things I was very taken by while I was there. I absolutely loved listening to scientists talk about the multiverse and about probability. And I loved how much of the field seems to revolve around phenomena that is absolutely evident, and yet, cannot be fully explained.
The story I wrote is about a fallen quantum satellite, and it takes the form of a Pick Your Own Path adventure. I wanted the “autonomy” which the reader exercises while reading the story to mimic the concept of the multiverse: each time the reader picks one option over another, the narrative splits, creating a story in which all outcomes exist at the same time but cannot be experienced concurrently. Without giving too much away, the story as a whole also ended up being about inanity and futility.
Where does this book fit in contemporary Singaporean literature? Here, I am wondering about the work of peers that you like, and the broader ecosystem in which you work?
Honestly, I am not sure where this books fits in the wider ecosystem quite yet. It is really new, so I can’t really say where it has landed, or how it will be contextualized in the context of Singapore literature, say, a year from now.
In terms of my broader writing practice, I will say that I’ve always had a sort of ambivalence towards form, which makes classification hard. I’ve put out a poetry collection that included some short stories. I’ve put out a memoir that I wrote as prose but that some people label poetry. I think less about where my works sits in terms of form, genre and style, and more about the stories that surface in through the work. I feel I share space with other writers who explore queerness, loss, gender, margins. Because of this, I feel my books share space with books by Cyril Wong, Pooja Nansi, Deborah Emmanuel, Marylyn Tan, Stephanie Chan, Balli Kaur Jaswal, Amanda Chong, Jolene Tan. Our writing is all very different, but we are driven by intersecting desires.
What would you like to share with emerging writers?
As a writer, I’ve always felt like an imposter. In fact, when I got accepted into the MFA programme I’m currently in, the first thing I did was google the email address the notice of acceptance came from to check whether it was a scam to relieve me of school fees. And once I was convinced it was not a scam, I worried that it was mistake.
I guess I just want to speak to younger writers out there who experience this: don’t let the imposter voice dissuade you from making your work. I’ve since learned that these feelings are not unique, and are extra common among women and minorities. What I’ve learned to do is turn down the volume on that voice, so that it is soft enough to not undermine me, but loud enough to keep me critical of my own work.
Also: submit submit submit! And where possible, request feedback. I am a big fan of Kim Liao’s suggestion of trying to accumulate 100 rejections a year. I did that exercise in 2017 – it really confirmed for me how much getting published is about knowing what is out there, about finding your niche, about being administratively effective about persistence.
And, finally, can you explain your future literary plans? Are you working on anything specific at the moment?
I’m at the tail-end of a project called Death Wears A Dress – a collection of poems inspired by numerous female “monsters” from Asian folklore, many of whom continue to reincarnate through horror film and pop culture, haunting our apartment buildings, spilling out of our television screens, walking our highways. The female ghost plays an important role in how the supernatural is imagined and constructed in many Asian countries. She is an autonomous character who seeks justice on her own terms, but she is also a victim of violence while she is alive – her agency is only granted in death, but consequently, it is eternal.
I’m also working on a collection of memoir-essays about being a queer teen in 90s Singapore, as well as my MFA thesis.
Additionally, I am working on trying to pet more dogs and cats. Because they are magical. And because we need more magic in our lives!