Since I live and write out of Singapore, it features in a major way on this blog and in my writing. I’ve been posting writing advice and interviews from creative writing and publishing experts, and today, one of the luminaries of the current Singapore literary scene, Felix Cheong, has agreed to a chat here at Daily (w)rite. I get to ask him a bunch of questions about creative writing, his work, Singapore, and how all these three mesh together. Feel free to add questions of your own after you’ve read his interview.
1. You write both poetry and prose. Do they feed into each other, and if so, how?
There’s a creative – and necessary – tension at work when I’m writing fiction. The story sometimes rushes ahead, the characters taking the narrative into this situation and that. But the language has to catch up – the attention to detail, the ability to crunch descriptions crisply and precisely. So the poet gets to work, forcing the story to slow down, take a breath, pay attention. But too much of this fiddling with language can stop the manuscript from moving forward. Which is why the poet has to be killed before the story can live. But it can be a struggle – I’ve abandoned my first novel because after three chapters, the poet refuses to die a quiet death and I keep revising the language!
2. What do you enjoy most about teaching creative writing?
I enjoy the interaction with students, giving them triggers to find their own creativity. I enjoy hearing them read their on-the-spot written pieces, which sometimes surprise me with their spark and spunk. And most of all, I enjoy hanging around creative people!
3. What qualities would you look for in your ideal student?
Well, someone who is observant, who is alive to the world around him, who opens his senses and is open to inspiration in his day-to-day life. Someone who reads, loves reading and will possibly die without reading. Someone who has the imaginative capacity to dream and be able to put down in words that dream. Someone who has something to get off his chest, driven by that human need to tell stories. Someone who is willing to work hard, to see a work through to its eventual form.
4. Could you tell us something about your favourite authors, and why do you like them?
At different junctures, I have different favourite authors. It’s as though they came at the right time to teach me what I needed to learn to become a writer. For instance, in my undergrad years, as I was struggling to find my poetic voice, it was TS Eliot, Dylan Thomas and Lee Tzu Pheng. Later, it was Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, John Steinbeck, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Haruki Murakami, Milan Kundera etc. Too numerous to count!
5. Which of your works should a reader unfamiliar with your work start with?
For my poetry, start with Sudden in Youth: New and Selected Poems, which puts together the best-of in a slim volume. They are arranged thematically – from love poems to poems about my struggle with faith – and juxtapose my early poems with some of my later ones. For my fiction, check out Vanishing Point, inspired by real-life cases of missing people, and Singapore Siu Dai: The SG Conversation in a Cup, which satirises life in Singapore – from our obsession with Hello Kitty toys to the national pastime of queuing – in fun, bite-size stories.
6. Tell us something about your works in progress.
I’m currently putting the finishing touches to Singapore Siu Dai 2: The SG Conversation Upsize!, which is due to be launched in November. For some reason, these short satirical pieces have come out in a torrent over the past six months, triggered, no doubt, by Singapore politics. The stories are edgier and bolder than the first book, often taking the mickey out of politicians and their policies. For instance, their peculiar fondness to dress themselves up in a defamation suit.
7. As a literary activist, what is your opinion of the current literary scene in Singapore?
The literary scene is really exciting now and I sometimes feel the pressure to catch up with them! More new writers are being published; they are energetic and they have something to say, though some of them could do with more finesse and internalisation of craftsmanship. What is lacking, though, is the growth of a discerning readership. Not enough people are buying Singaporean writers’ books.
8. For someone new to Singaporean literature, what books — prose or poetry– would you recommend?
You can’t go far wrong with a few “best-of” anthologies. Value for money for a buffet sampling of voices!
i. No Other City: the Ethos Anthology of Urban Poetry (Ethos 2000): A swirling cauldron of emerging and established poets, stirred vigorously around the theme of Singapore’s urban landscape.
ii. Best of Singapore Erotica (Monsoon 2006): Even in squeaky-clean Singapore, there is nothing like the erotic to open the proverbial can of worms. Best read with your loved one already asleep.
iii. Reflecting on the Merlion: An Anthology of Poems (NAC 2009) Love it or photograph it, the Merlion has become iconic of the island state – and a conversation starter between poets about its significance in Singapore history and culture.
iv. Here and Beyond: 12 Stories (Ethos 2014): The latest anthology of made-in-Singapore short stories, edited by award-winning writer Cyril Wong. This will be in the ‘O’ level Literature text come 2016.
Felix Cheong is the author of nine books, including four volumes of poetry and a collection of short stories, Vanishing Point, which was long-listed for the prestigious Frank O’Connor Award. His latest book is a collection of satirical flash fiction, Singapore Siu Dai.
Conferred the Young Artist of the Year for Literature in 2000 by the National Arts Council, he was named by Readers Digest as the 29th Most Trusted Singaporean in 2010. Cheong has been invited to read at writer’s festivals all over the world: Edinburgh, West Cork, Austin, Sydney, Brisbane, Christchurch and Hong Kong. He holds a Masters in creative writing from the University of Queensland, and is currently an adjunct lecturer with Murdoch University, University of Newcastle, Temasek Polytechnic and LASALLE College of the Arts.
Have you read literature from Singapore or from Asia ? Are you familiar with Felix’s work? If you have questions for Felix on creative writing, Singapore, or creative writing in Singapore, leave them in the comments below!