Tuesday 30 October 2018

Elaine Chiew Talks to Ng Yi-Sheng, author of Lion City

Photo Courtesy: Epigram Books
 Ng Yi-Sheng is a Singaporean poet, fictionist, playwright, journalist and LGBT+ activist. He has just published Lion City, his first collection of short stories, inspired by speculative fiction, Singaporean history and myth. He’s currently working on a novel as part of a Creative Writing PhD at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), and a performance lecture for the Singapore Fringe Festival, titled Ayer Hitam: A Black History of Singapore.

His books include the poetry collections last boy (winner of the Singapore Literature Prize 2008), Loud Poems for a Very Obliging Audience, and A Book of Hims; the movie novelisation Eating Air and the non-fiction work SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century. Additionally, he translated Wong Yoon Wah’s Chinese poetry collection The New Village and he has co-edited publications such as GASPP: A Gay Anthology of Singapore Poetry and Prose, Eastern Heathens: An Anthology of Subverted Asian Folklore and SingPoWriMo 2018.

He has also been active in the professional theatre since the age of 17, collaborating with companies such as TheatreWorks, W!ld Rice, Toy Factory and Musical Theatre Ltd to create plays like Hungry, 251, Georgette, The Last Temptation of Stamford Raffles and Reservoir. He is a founding member of the spoken word troupe the Party Action People and co-organised the annual queer literary reading ContraDiction for twelve years.

Photo Courtesy: Epigram Books

EC:      Welcome to AsianBooksBlog, Yi-Sheng. A real honour to have you.

First, congratulations on the publication of Lion City (Epigram Books), which will be launched at the Singapore Writers’Festival 2018. It’s a fantastic read, full of mordant humour, allegorical fabulism, political heft, and a willingness to say the unsayable.

NYS:    Thanks so much! I’m so pleased you liked it.

EC:      Praise for the book, notably Sharlene Teo, likens your stories and voice to Etgar Keret. Also Neil Gaiman. Are they influences?   

NYS:   Neil Gaiman’s been a massive influence on me: as a teenager in the 90s I read the Sandman and Books of Magic comics while they were coming out, and had my mind utterly blown by the idea of this globally (and cosmically) unified mythology and by the idea that magic’s just lurking at the edges of the contemporary urban world. Neverwhere, Marvel 1602, Smoke and Mirrors and The Graveyard Book have been great favourites too.

I’m afraid I’ve never read Etgar Keret, but I must: Lavie Tidhar also said I sounded like him.

EC:     In Lion City, the title of the first story, Singapore is analogised as a zoo, but technology interrupts, beguiles and ultimately, takes over the animal kingdom. Do you find your ponderings and views on technology increasingly creeping into your stories?

NYS:    I don’t think I’m terribly technologically invested, to be honest—I’m much more based in fantasy than in science fiction. The starting point of that story is a scenario in which the animal kingdom has already been apparently tamed and superseded by technology. What I wanted to explore in that tale was the idea that even in our hyper-regulated smart nation ™, there’s still a beating heart of wildness, alive under all that circuitry. Singapore’s lions aren’t extinct: they’re just hiding.

EC:     Your story titles, as a group, seem to draw the topography of Singapore, spelling out a place, but not a precise location, perhaps a place of the mind, e.g. the story Port is about connectivity or lack thereof, and the mythical cities in Little Red Dot are anatomical, like Ear Canal or Pore on the Skin (performing a curious homonymisation of Singapore). How deliberate was this as a thematic preoccupation when you were assembling the collection?

NYS:     The thematic titles started back in 2013, when Alvin Pang and TJ Dema made an open call for a Singapore-Botswana literary anthology. I wrote Lion City for that collection (which never came to fruit)—and you can see how, in a way, it was written for foreigners, repeating clichés about Singapore (we’re called the Lion City! We have a nice zoo!) and then subverting them.

Around that time, I was starting my MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, and the profs and students in that program (mostly from the UK, but also from Ireland, the USA, Nigeria, South Africa, the Philippines) rather liked the story. I decided it might be the beginnings of a series of similarly themed tales. Alas, I was never able to write a tale called “Disneyland with the Death Penalty”!

EC:     An aspect of several of the stories, as I said above, is “a willingness to say the unsayable”. For example, the story Suburbia. The excising of parts of the text, symbolic of censorship, was trenchantly funny (there’s a blur-randomness and paradoxically, a strict adherence to uniformity that’s symptomatic of Singaporean bureaucracy). Did you find yourself wondering whether to include more pointedly critical pieces in the collection, ironically worrying about real censorship?

NYS: Short answer: no. I wasn’t really worried about real censorship, because my friends and I have experienced it before, and we’ve survived.

In Singapore, all plays and literary readings are officially supposed to be screened by IMDA before they’re performed. They don’t impose this regulation on everyone, but I’m a bit of an activist, so I’ve had a number of run-ins with censors: I’ve had lines clipped out of plays, a short stories banned from a literary reading… Once, a book I co-edited, GASPP:a Gay Anthology of Singapore Poetry and Prose, disappeared from bookstores for months while it was being investigated. It’s infuriating, but it hasn’t ended my career yet.

I have been wary of defamation lawsuits, however. You’ll notice that real-life figures like Lee Kuan Yew and Halimah Yaacob appear briefly in my short story Garden, but I haven’t portrayed them in an insulting way—I think it’s interesting enough to imagine them as vulnerable and human.

Ultimately, if I want to name and shame a powerful figure, I think it might be better to do it in an opinion piece than in fiction. I don’t mind being strident in politics, but I do think it’s ungraceful to be heavy-handed in literature.

EC:     In No Man Is, you explore Singapore’s folklore and history of colonialism, but you also don’t let us forget its geographical complex as an island. Ultimately, the boy character dreams and then becomes an island. What is it about being an island that infiltrates or fuels (depending on your filter) the (or your) artistic imagination so? 

NYS: Wow, that’s a tough question. For me, there’s that odd balance between the idea of individual grandeur—James Minchin wrote a biography of Lee Kuan Yew titled No Man Is an Island—with the colonial fantasy of a tropical paradise.

But here I'm drawing on local myths as well. Singapore has several stories about humans and animals becoming islands: it was two sisters who were transformed into Sisters' Islands; a turtle that became Kusu Island. The idea that a person might genuinely become an island is thus fairly intuitive for us. When the story appeared in LONTAR #5, they did a lovely illustration of this on their cover. https://lontarjournal.com/issues/issue-5/

Photo Courtesy: Epigram Books

EC:     In Food Paradise, okay, the poor man who was a bowl of laksa in his past life was hilarious. Is there a tongue-in-cheek criticism here of the Singapore stereotype as a soulless city? How did this story first come to you?

NYS:     This is an interesting one: In 2015, I was a participant in Post-Museum’s CultureHackSG, a workshop on art, food and history held at the NUS Baba House. We sat through talks on colonial cookbooks and foraging for wild herbs, and then we were challenged to create an artistic response to all this food-related trivia. I’ve always loved laksa—a very Peranakan food—so I decided to write this story, relating it as if it were something that actually happened to me. I use my real boyfriend as a character in the story. (He’s not too thrilled about that!)

Photo courtesy: Author

When I first read the work, I was performing non-performance: I was trying to copy the way I actually stammer and improvise everyday speech. So it’s really less of a criticism of Singapore than an exercise in seeing how much I can use an autobiographical voice in a fantasy story.

EC:       You mentioned your M.A. in creative writing at University of East Anglia, and that the title story, Lion City, was written there. What were those years like for you?

NYS:    I was there from mid-2013 to mid-2014. It’s just a one-year program, and it’s actually affordable: I paid for the school fees with my own savings, and other writers like Dave Chua, Stephanie Ye and JY Yang got NAC scholarships to attend.

I’d say it was a pretty great experience. The program selects its students not just based on quality, but also on how well we’ll form a literary community together, so we were all being super-supportive of each other’s writing, learning from each other as we workshopped our work. I also took courses on crime writing and historical fiction, which I’m trying to work into future novels!

One of the best aspects of the course, however, was realizing that us Singaporean writers were in no way inferior to Brits and Americans. The downside is that the cold winters made me depressed (too little sunlight) and chubby (too much cheap chocolate).

EC:     Your bio shows us all the different formats and hats you wear – poetry to theatre to editing to essay to novel. With such a wide-ranging multi-disciplinary body of work, which format do you find most challenging, and which do you find you harbour a special fondness for?

NYS:     Right now I’m working on a couple of novels, and those are really challenging because you’ve gotta have discipline and faith in them over a period of years. That being said, plays are also a pain, because after you write them, no-one may want to stage them, and even if you do find a director, s/he’ll make you do rewrite after rewrite. I’ve honestly never felt I mastered playwriting.

Poetry is honestly my greatest love: it allows for the most flexibility of expression and can often be written and shared quickly. But recently I’ve been venturing into a new form of writing: the lecture performance. I do a queer tour of the National Gallery called Painted Shadows, available on request, and from 17-20 January.  I’m staging Ayer Hitam: A Black History of Singapore for the Singapore Fringe Festival. Tickets here: https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/cm1sff2019i

EC:     Both sound really interesting. 

Do different forms cross-pollinate for you and how do they affect or interact with the material/content you are writing about?

NYS:    They do, but in subtle ways. Playwriting definitely informs the way I write my dialogue, especially in an all-dialogue piece like Hub. Poetry is honestly a little counter-productive: I want every last syllable of my prose to be beautiful and balanced, which is why I write so damn slowly.

EC:       Let’s come round to discussing that loaded, although now-very-in–vogue-again ‘I’ word – Identity and identity politics. The most recent 377a controversy highlights the danger and lack of sexual freedom facing LGBT+s in Singapore. To me, your story Little Emperor utilises China as the metaphor of the classic repressive regime, and it’s interesting because the Chinese language is full of coded references for being gay. Would you say that the cloak-and-dagger approach (and here, I am referring to satirical metaphors, veiled critique, as embodied in the line in Little Emperor in referring to Singapore, “This is a country where a man can be free”) to fiction gets your political message across?  

NYS:     Little Emperor really just began as a way of describing what it’s like to grow older as a gay man, as well as some of my conflicted feelings about the rise of 21st century China. Honestly, not everything in the book is a metaphor for something else. But I love the fact that you’re reading so much into my work—I want my stories to be meaningful in multiple ways to multiple people.

If we want to talk about LGBT rights and political metaphors, then maybe we should talk about my gay fairy tale The Crocodile Prince. That definitely began as a political metaphor, with the Sultana as an analog for Lee Kuan Yew. But as it progressed, it became much more a story about love, both romantic and familial. Stories don’t always stand for things in the real world—they can have a reality unto themselves.

Photo Courtesy: Author
EC:     I also want to touch upon the subject of the body. A couple of the stories very effectively draw the body as a metaphor for identity. Skin for example, in the story Little Red Dot has different reverberations when you’re talking ethnic identity versus gay identity.  I find myself for example wrestling with these different reverberations in fiction as a Chinese minority in the U.K., as a woman, and then again as a Chinese woman.  Do you feel the same way?

NYS: That’s a huge topic. I am honestly interested in identity politics, having built up a name for myself as a gay writer, and having studied in the west where my Asianness was othered. Working with activist friends, I’ve also had to interrogate my own privileges as an able-bodied cisgender Chinese male. There’s a complicated politics to representation in writing: what ethical codes should I follow when I enter the body of a character who’s different from me: an Indian gay teenager in Little Emperor, a middle aged working class Malay woman in A Day at Terminal Aleph? Is this an act of empathy or appropriation?

However, the identity I’m grappling with the most in my writing is one of nationality. I was born and bred in Singapore—PSLE, O-Levels, A-Levels, National Service—but I spent my first three years of primary school (1986 to 1988) at a British international school in Hong Kong, something that left me ever so slightly out of step with national culture. So a lot of Lion City involves me trying to figure out how to encapsulate the notion of Singapore with all its diversity of ethnicities and histories. You’ll get a sense of that struggle in stories like Hub and Garden, in which dozens of artefacts and characters from different cultures and eras are compressed into a single tale.

EC:     A lot of the stories draw upon ancient Malay legends, the mythologies of pre-colonial Singapore, such as the legend of Hang Nadim, where it’s reported that Tanjong Pagar and Redhill got their names, or Sang Nila Utama, the Merlion and RadenMas Ayu. I love that sense of excavation of Singapore as an ancient land, predating all the politics and rhetoric of nation-building swiveling around colonialism as referent. Do you feel there’s a danger of cultural amnesia?

NYS:     I’m currently doing research for a novel about precolonial Singapore, and I’d say yes, there’s definitely a sense of amnesia about that era—it’s easier for the average Singaporean to name the six wives of Henry VIII than the five Kings of Singapura! There were efforts to recover this history in the 1960s, when Malay filmmakers were making movies about that period, like Singapura Dilanggar Todak, Badang and Dang Anom. But once we became independent, cut off from our Malay hinterland, we ended up losing a connection with our Malay past.

However, I’d argue that period of amnesia might be coming to a close. The government, academia, artists, museum workers, independent heritage activists—loads of people are coming together to mine our history. That’s why the “Bicentennial” next year is going to look at the past beyond 1819. That’s why we’ve got an online art gallery of hunky Sang Nila Utamas: https://mothership.sg/2018/01/sang-nila-utama-muscular-ripped/

EC:    That’s very funny – hunky Sang Nila’s. I wouldn’t mind seeing that.

NYS:    Mind you, we’re experiencing heritage loss in other ways: we’re rapidly losing old architecture, old professions, old languages. I tried to reclaim some of my own mother tongue, Hokkien, in Food Paradise. I still can’t speak it fluently.

EC:     I can’t speak it at all.

I want to bring attention to the crowning achievement of a story you’ve crafted in Garden, at once Story as a game of snakes and ladders and also a romp through Singapore in Time, each designated segment, a given year in history.

Given this delightful tapestry of time, place, and array of historical figures as diverse as Sir Stamford Raffles and Pangeran Adipati Agung, how long did it take to write?

 NYS:     The story didn’t take that long, actually! I wrote it in two weeks as part of a workshop at NTU, where I’m currently doing my PhD. I was inspired by the work of one of my fellow coursemates, Arin Alycia Fong, who had a similarly nonlinear spec fic short story about Singapore/Malaysian history.

I had my own childhood nostalgia about Choose Your Own Adventure novels, so I decided to try writing a story in that format. I’d also wanted to play with the cliché of Singapore as a “garden city”, but focussing less on the idea of a manicured garden than on the Malay concept of the garden as a liminal space where anything can happen.

Finding historical characters for each era of the past wasn’t very hard: there were obvious candidates like Stamford Raffles and Lee Kuan Yew, and others I used because they fit the time period, such as the Peri from the story of Sultan Mahmud in Tuhfat al-Nafis (seriously, very little else was happening in Singapore around the year 1700, so I needed to import that character from Johor).

For scenes set in the future, I initially wanted to invent new characters, set in scenarios that fit my own predictions for Singapore—who’s going to colonise us next? But I’d spent so long at the National Library researching Singaporean speculative fiction that I decided it would be much more efficient to borrow characters from scif fi stories by local writers: Han May, Kevin Martens Wong, Shelly Bryant. They’re from our national literary archive: part of our heritage too.

Yes, it creates a very disjointed timeline: why is Singapore on the brink of apocalypse in 2057 and 2099, but recovered by 2135? But real Singapore history is arguably just as disjointed—consider that from 1945 to 1965, we went through four different regimes, Japanese, British, Malaysian and Singaporean. Stranger than fiction, no?

EC:     What worries you about Singapore?

NYS:    As a gay man, I worry that all our apparent social progress towards LGBT+ acceptance is illusory. If a religiously fundamentalist leader takes power, he’d just need to start enforcing some laws and a regime of hate-fuelled persecution could begin. I don’t think it’s impossible: there’s been a worldwide swing towards electing dictatorial strongmen, from Modi to Duterte to Trump -- and now, Bolsonaro in Brazil.

There’s also climate change. I’m really scared of that. As soon as the average temperature in Singapore goes beyond 38°C, this island will be uninhabitable—because of the humidity, our sweat won’t even be able to evaporate.

EC:     You will surely be very active during Singapore Writers’ Festival. Where or how might someone little red dot you?

NYS: …Is that a euphemism?

EC:   Surely.

NYS: If we’re talking about my appearances at SWF, they’re listed here: https://www.singaporewritersfestival.com/nacswf/nacswf/author-speaker/Ng-Yi-Sheng.html

I’d particularly like to promote my book launch and my lecture:

Book Launch for Lion City
3 Nov, Sat 1:30 PM - 2:30 PM
The Arts House (TAH), Gallery ll

Raffles Restitution: Artistic Responses to Singapore’s 1819 Colonisation
6 Nov, Tue 4:00 PM - 5:00 PM
The Arts House (TAH), Blue Room

I’m pretty good at getting back to people on Facebook Messenger, but Twitter and Instagram would work too: I’m @yishkabob.

EC:  On that note, we end here. Thank you, Yi-Sheng for joining us and we wish you every success with your brilliant, imaginative book, Lion City.

NYS: You’re welcome!!!

Details: Lion City will be available for sale at the Singapore Writers' Festival. It is also available in different formats at all local bookstores and as an ebook.