Thursday, September 9, 2010

Interview with Suchen Christine Lim

"Free speech" and "the city-state of Singapore" are not phrases that fit together well, despite cautious moves over the last few years to liberalise Singaporean society and widen the space for expression and participation. July 2010, for example, saw an international furore over the case of veteran British journalist Alan Shadrake, who is facing two years in jail for writing a book that criticises Singapore's shameful use of the death penalty.*

Amnesty International says of Shadrake's case: "If Singapore aspires to be a global media city, it needs to respect global human rights standards for freedom of expression."

Well, quite - but it's not clear whether that's going to happen any time soon. What a breath of fresh air, then, to stumble across the work of Suchen Christine Lim, the distinguished Singaporean writer who won the inaugural Singapore Literature Prize in 1992 with her third novel, A Fistful of Colours.

Born in 1948 in Malaysia, she came to Singapore at the age of 14 and worked as a teacher before taking up writing full time. Her latest book, The Lies That Build a Marriage, is a collection of short stories that focus on "the unsung, unsaid and uncelebrated in Singapore" - brave and skillful narratives about ordinary people facing difficult issues that are normally strictly taboo. Related with tender-hearted understatement, they are proof that freedom of expression in the Lion City is in less dire shape than one might have feared.

MdL: The Lies That Build a Marriage deals with such subjects as homosexuality, cross-dressing, adultery and prostitution, all in a Singaporean context. They have been rightly praised for their skill at delving beneath the island's coded decorum to describe ordinary Singaporeans attempting to chisel away at the social prejudices that surround them. The book gives people a voice, in other words, and a chance to tell their story. Was that your intention?

SCL: Some people think that my short stories focus only on things that happen in the margins of society, but of course these things are normal behaviour. It just shows what the perception of "normal" is here! We hide things so well! But yes, giving ordinary people a voice has fuelled my writing from the start - to try and "write wrongs", to write the voices that we don't hear.

It began with my first novel, Rice Bowl, published in 1984, which focused on student unrest in the Sixties and Seventies. In those days, Singapore was a hard piece of rock without a heart. Economic survival and a utilitarian philosophy ruled the day. Nobody took seriously, still less thought of writing about, how a bunch of students had questioned the national idea of progress. So the book took people by surprise.

By contrast, my short stories come at a time when we are much more confident about who we are - although there's still a part of Singaporean culture that says: "We don't want to rock the boat." You know, we all want to appear very straight and moral. It was only our grandfathers who had mistresses!

You've had an extraordinary response to some of the stories when you've read them in public: standing ovations, teary eyes, and people seeking you out to thank you for validating their experience.

Yes, that kind of response is always very moving. I think what audiences are responding to is not necessarily my craft but because they are hungry for stories which speak the unsaid and unsung, which reflect their reality.

The titular character of your story Christmas Memories of a Chinese Stepfather says: "English has no word for my kind of frustration." Certainly, the stories are sprinkled with a dizzying array of languages, from Malay to Cantonese, Singlish and Peranakan patois.

Yes, I wanted to paint a portrait of local life in all its multi-cultural intricacies. My own grandparents, for instance, came from Tangshan, China, and settled in Malaysia. When we moved to Singapore, I attended a Catholic convent - but my mum was a practising Buddhist and my grandparents were staunch Taoists. And I have relatives who are Muslim! But that's pretty normal in Singapore.

You also confront conservative beliefs in A Fistful of Colours. Here, the three female protagonists all choose alternative lifestyles for themselves, despite having to conquer many challenges to do so. These are women who feel themselves to be outsiders, who view the world at a slant and through the prism of their own troubles. Are they versions of you?

Could be! [laughs] Because I think when you write, it's part of yourself and various other selves cobbled together. But I leave that to the psychiatrists and psychologists to figure out.

One character decides to allow her husband to have a concubine, a storyline which lets you bring to life key aspects of Singapore's early history.

The idea to do that came to me in a seminar. Somebody made the comment that Singapore has no fiction because it has no history. I thought, what a brash statement - and I found myself leaping up to my feet and declaring, in front of the whole audience, that one day there would be a novel about Singapore history. And then I struggled to write that book, seeing how I could work in the full 80 years of Singapore's past.

I wanted to create a fourth protagonist who was the history of Singapore, and for this to be a "her", not a "he". I wasn't caught up in any kind of feminist debate about this, I just saw Singapore as a woman like my grandmother who, by the way, had bound feet, like the character in my book. Part of the story is based on my grandmother, and her relationship with my grandfather's second wife. The two of them, as they grew older, became very close, and this second wife was the only one entrusted with the duty of washing my grandmother's feet.

What was it like starting out as a writer in a very conservative cultural environment?

It wasn't easy. But I have to take my hat off to writers like Lee Tzu Pheng and Edwin Thumboo, poets who were publishing in English at a time when it was even more difficult: one, because of the political climate; two, because back then people in Singapore were so focused on the economy, on getting ahead, on filling the rice bowl. You were faced with attitude like: "So what's all this airy-fairy, arty-farty stuff like writing, eh? You've no business to write!" I was told to my face: "Sorry, Suchen, we don't read Singapore writers. We'd rather read Jane Austen and George Eliot." Proudly it would be declared to you, the Singaporean writer, that the reading public was only interested in the classics or Nobel prizewinners.

And that's changing?

Yes, because we have a confidence now that wasn't there before. There used to be what people called a "cultural cringe" - a lack of confidence in all things Singaporean, coming mainly from people who had been educated in English. That's when I started to consider myself very fortunate to have had uneducated, dialect-speaking grandparents, both great sources of stories, and of cultural confidence too.

So you were always conscious that your outlook as a writer was somehow different from the norm?

I was always conscious, starting out, that I was different, at least from Singapore writers here who are Chinese. I do not write like people in China. I am very clear about that. And so you will see me describing myself as of Chinese ethnicity, but situated in South-east Asia.

Is there a specifically South-east Asian approach to writing fiction?

I think there is a tradition in the West - I might be wrong - that if you are an artist or writer with talent, you can get away with almost any kind of destructive behaviour. As long as you have the talent to write and are considered good, or brilliant, or splendid in some way. Here in South-east Asia that's always balanced with a kind of responsibility to community and to family. I wouldn't call it self-censorship, as such, but we are always thinking about harmony, knowing that life is actually chaos. Life is chaos.

So I see myself as coming from a tradition that tries to use writing, like the Taoists, to create balance and harmony. If the subject is not balance and harmony, if the work needs to be about chaos, then at least it should lead to some understanding of that chaos. I mean, you know there is good and evil, yes? Yin and yang. So let's deal with it, as honestly as we can, without destroying somebody in order to achieve artistic success.

You were in your 30s, mid-way through a successful career in teaching, when writing "found" you. What had held you back from trying to publish anything before that point?

Well, I suppose it was partly to do with the fact that my family were traders. I grew up thinking I would sell congee [chicken porridge] - there wasn't any sort of encouragement, especially for girls, to pursue a literary career. Becoming a teacher, which I went on to do, was already considered different enough.

What's the most difficult aspect of writing for you?

It's writing that first draft. Incubating a novel and having to sustain it - it's like gardening every day, and waiting for something to grow. Sometimes when you watch the plant, the plant does not grow. And then you've got to turn away and wait - and when you come back it has grown an inch. In a way, you are kind of playing with your mind a hide-and-seek game. (I'm sorry about all the gardening metaphors - you can probably tell that I'm a keen balcony gardener!). So the difficult part is the cultivation of an idea - learning to wait fruitfully, learning to wait productively.

Holding your nerve...

Yes. Because I think all artists are insecure, in a way. The production of a book is the culmination of a journey dealing with insecurity, and learning how to handle it creatively. At time we may even feel depressed, but that's one way of coping. Of course, it took me many years to figure this out. Even up to the time when A Fistful of Colours won a major prize, I still never described myself as a writer. I always just said "I am writing" - using the verb, not the noun. I still felt almost like a fraud.

What's next for you?

I'm writing a novel, but I can't talk about it yet. But I'll always be writing. I can't stop. And I would very much like to believe that writing is an art form in which the older you get, the better you get. One of my mentors is Francisco Sionil Jose, the acclaimed Filipino writer. He's 85, and he has just published a new novel. I remember him saying to me: "Suchen, don't be in a hurry; just write. And go on writing." I've never forgotten that.

* Alan Shadrake's book, Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore's Justice in the Dock, angered the authorities by suggesting that the government "succumbs to political and economic pressures" in meting out the death penalty. The writer, who is 75, is also being investigated for criminal defamation by Singapore authorities.

Melissa de Villiers

Editor's Note: Neil Sonnekus's review of three extreme movies is not up to scratch and I've told him to take another, less biased look at Lars von Trier's Antichrist. Naturally he despises me but assures me that he'll re-view it and, well, re-review it by Wednesday latest.

Then, on Friday he'll be reviewing the highest-selling Kiwi film ever, the charming Boy, in a more positive frame of mind, and books editor Melissa de Villiers will be telling us about a very cool literary festival in Bali.

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