Friday 3 April 2020

Polymath Desmond Kon talks about his near-death experience, religion and philosophy & writing in The Good Day I Died


Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé is a Singapore writer. He is the author of an epistolary novel, a quasi-memoir, two lyric essay monographs, four hybrid works, and nine poetry collections. A former journalist, he has edited more than twenty books and co-produced three audio books. Trained in book publishing at Stanford University, Desmond studied sociology and mass communication at the National University of Singapore, and later received his world religions masters from Harvard University and creative writing masters from the University of Notre Dame. Among other accolades, Desmond is the recipient of the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award, Independent Publisher Book Award, National Indie Excellence Book Award, Poetry World Cup, Singapore Literature Prize, two Beverly Hills International Book Awards, and three Living Now Book Awards. He helms Squircle Line Press as its founding editor. 

He can be found at:

Book Synopsis:

In 2007, Desmond Kon died, and came back to life. This is better understood as a near-death experience (NDE). Fresh from studying world religions at Harvard, Desmond’s NDE shared remarkable consistency with other documented NDE accounts, such as encountering otherworldly beings, altered time-space realms, and the classic tunnel of light. Post-NDE symptoms included paranormal sightings. How did Desmond make meaning of his NDE given his academic background in world religions? He even took a class on angelology—how then did he perceive the angelic beings he encountered? Framed as a quasi-memoir, The Good Day I Died is constructed as a self-administered interview, allowing the account its moments of deep intimation. Moving beyond the current literature’s attempts at legitimizing the NDE, The Good Day I Died weaves in excerpts of Desmond’s literary oeuvre, which help shed light on the indelible impact of his NDE. This book represents Desmond’s most confessional writing yet, relating the story of his death, and his transformed life after his return.

EC: Welcome to Asian Books Blog, Desmond. Congratulations on the recent publication of your quasi-memoir, The Good Day I Died (Penguin Random House SEA, 2019). Reading TGDID had the forcefield of an emotional tsunami for me, so many resonant moments and this feeling of the reader as a buzzing receptacle for incredible ideas.

What led you to write this book, since you mentioned that you have avoided writing about your near-death experience (NDE) for more than a decade? 

DKZM:  In my research, a quaint statistic surfaced—that NDE witnesses tend to only accept the reality of what they went through seven years or more after the event. I was astonished to stumble upon this nugget of information, because it was so exonerating, because that’s pretty much how long it took for me to get my arms around my own NDE. Ideas of death and the afterlife have appeared in my previous books, largely because of the indelible impact the NDE left on me, even if only in the subconscious. My subconscious kept going back to the old trauma, and expressing it through my earlier poetry and fiction. These excerpts from my literary oeuvre are variously referenced within this quasi-memoir, as a kind of literary testimony—this remarkably spans many years, now that I look back on the numerous iterations—of my passage into death and the hereafter. 

With deep irony, I also consistently write into my work the Barthesian conception of “death of the author”, which probably offers the ultimate veil or mask for the actuality of the NDE. I think a part of me was terrified of how loony and ludicrous I would sound, how irrational or unhinged the claim of having died would come across. The evasion and slipperiness and irony and game of poststructuralism provided a safe space in which I could “confess” my ideas about the NDE episode, without much fear of any censure or roasting reprisal.

EC: The structure of the book is unique: a series of interrogative questions about your NDE to which you respond, interleaving it with your body of work in poetry and fiction that bear traces of your NDE. How did you come upon this structure?

DKZM: In toying with ways to structure this book, I realised the standard NDE memoir would have been conventional, safe, but also predictable. From journalistic experience, I knew a Q&A format would create such immediate access for the reader, the way one speed-reads such interviews, no matter how lengthy, effortlessly—one could scan the table of contents, and home in on a particular aspect of the NDE which interests them. 

Also, there was something completely bizarre about being my own interviewer and therapist, minister and healer. I ended up deciding, why ever not? I would be my own punishing, unapologetic, unforgiving interviewer, almost cruelly so. I did realise it would take a leap of faith for the reader to trust the author and the story, and that trust would rely on a fine layering of each kind of narrative, how they stack against one another, complicate and enhance and augment one another.

EC: At one point, you refer to the NDE as trauma. Towards the latter part of the book, you also said this (which to me signalled a poignant ‘arrival’): “It’s a beautiful space to be in, a kind of settling into, as if you’ve finally allowed yourself to relax into the big chair you’re sitting in.” What was the journey that led to this terminus?

DKZM: The psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross has a theory regarding the five stages of grief, which has become quite well-known. She writes: “The five stagesdenial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptanceare a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief.” 

With the NDE, what I found myself losing was myself, quite literally. I physically died to myself; the path of healing and recovery towards acceptance has ensued only with many subsequent dyings to the self, in all those metaphorical and spiritually gainful ways we hear of. What does one do when the Other one has to deal with is, staggeringly, one’s own self? How does one separate one’s being from itself, enough to begin looking at and speaking about/to/with this dislocated Other, now occasionally removed and remote?

I speak of a terminus, of an acceptance like a “settling into”; yet, it’s but an irenic moment suddenly captured in utterance. It’s an unruffled calm, a very welcome peace, that you’re awakened to in that precise moment. These moments—the keen awareness of them—are terribly precious. It’s not a steady state. Honestly, I think it might take a lifetime, and an entire life’s work, to explore and interrogate what my life has and might become after my NDE. This requires an ease with inhabiting such a liminality, something one can get used to when one has learnt to live with it, like an old door or a clumsy habit.

Desmond, happily seated with his parents. Photo Credit: Karen Kon

EC: What are some of the toughest questions you’ve gotten asked about your NDE?

DKZM: The cause of my death. It’s not something I’m ready to talk about. I do state this reservation in the book, and explain my position. It’s invariably one of the most obvious and pressing questions people are wont to ask. 

What remains curious is what kind of assumption might underpin a particular question. For instance, there was a question that tried to pry apart my understanding of what it meant to come back to life, to have returned from death. Did I understand it as reincarnation, or being raised from the dead? Y’know, the Lazarus syndrome—a case of resuscitation, or resurrection (“anastasis” by another name)? Was it akin to what the mystics experienced when they spoke of ascension or visions? Was it astral projection, the travel of one’s consciousness? Was it some residual brain activity sparking images, even in death?

EC: The book buzzes with philosophical, religious, cultural, post-structuralist and semiotic theories, as well as neurobiological underpinnings of consciousness, but also strives to reach an ineffable spirituality. About prayer, you said: “I pray…at any moment when the prayer seizes me”. This spirituality, although Christian, is also inflected with your knowledge and studies of world religion, and many of the values you wrote about appear zen. What I especially appreciated is the quote from Christian Wiman, who candidly admits to ‘spiritual anxiety’. How do all these elements square up within you? Given the inevitable conflicts, binaries and cacophonies, what clear understandings emerge for you? 

DKZM: My previous instinct would have been to provide an intellectual answer to your very important question. I would have enjoyed stacking and layering various theological insights, like loose leaves of a pamphlet, sometimes adding, sometimes subtracting, sometimes counterpointing, as if to percolate some fine irony, sometimes never laying claim to any definitive statement. Yet, nowadays, I’m less intrigued by what language can do or cannot do in essaying what my personal spirituality might look like. Perhaps, it’s because any utterance might seem too defining, and I, alas, end up anxious and somewhat despairing of any misreading or misinterpretation (that this remains ironic, for someone so enamoured of poststructuralism, is not lost on me). 

That said, if you were to ask me, am I God-fearing? With every nerve and sinew and bone in my body. Am I God-loving? Absolutely, completely and utterly, and yet never seemingly enough. I wish, beyond anything else, that I could love God with pure abandon, beyond even every impossibility. I’ve had moments of clarity—sublime and still, like a millpondand these have been such peace-giving moments. They are simply luminous, truly blessed occasions. These moments have often been actual miracles, sometimes so small and intimate as to seem ephemeral and fleeting, sometimes so stark, as to become momentous and indelible. They remind me of how loved I am by God, the sheer immensity of that love. And I am awash with deep gratitude; I am brought to tears, brought to my knees. 

Interestingly, this has happened a great deal since the book’s publication last year. I feel, more so than ever, moved to speak of all these edifying spiritual moments. Do I know why I’m on this path? No. Do I know what’s in store? No. Do I know why my own spiritual journey has taken this strange route of pivots and turns? No. All I have is my quiet submission, and faithfulness. That much of a certainty is something I’m humbled to admit to. Interestingly, I was wrestling with how best to answer your difficult question. I know how even some of my closest friends will find this answer completely uncharacteristic of me, and downright bewildering. 

Many people think I’m too free-spirited an artist, to care for anything theological or spiritual. Yet, there is this other side of me that completely commits to a curious measure of devotion, reverence and piety. Call it an attribute or habit, but this aspect of my personality even astonishes me, intrigues me. This might scare off some people, I’m sure of it—oh well. Interestingly, this answer came after a moment of prayerful contemplation. It was the same way with the writing of my book, I remember. I was praying throughout the writing of my book. Truth be told, the book is just one litanic series of epiphanies, I’ve come to realise just now. 

EC: I had many, many shivers as I read your book: shivers of recognition, shivers over pure beauty of language, shivers of deep knowledge realisation (when I needed to put the book down). Just as one example, your relationship to truth. You said: “I feel nonfiction has the onerous task of reflecting truth, truth being such a complex idea. Truth is a mere construction, in my view of things, as subject to the beauties and vagaries of language.” How has this realisation sculpted your approach towards so-called truth in fiction or truth in poetry? 

DKZM:  Our attending to and understanding of such truths is surely mediated and coloured by our own perception, the structures of language not withstanding. The truth that resides in genres like fiction and poetry seems sometimes truer to me, in transcending simple literalism, to embrace the literary imagination in both the generative and interpretive process. The truth of fiction and poetry is boldly confident in the instruments of their creation, in how language is essentially a kooky system of equally quirky significations, very much built on arbitrary relationships, no less. That’s Saussure speaking. I was also persuaded to just answer this question with one word, “simulacrum”. To pull in Baudrillard’s own clever aphorism: “We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.”

In one of my classes, I introduce Sappho, the famous Greek poet from circa 600BC. I only have a painting of her in my presentation; there is no slide providing biographical detail. For a poet as distinguished as Sappho—she was named the “Tenth Muse”—we know surprisingly little about her. I like to use Sappho as an example of how the truth of our life story can transform and evolve, even beyond our lifetime. That language and narrative will continue to denature and modulate, even distort, with time. Indeed, language, in underscoring the realities of the lived world, seems to have a life of its own. That’s a very postmodern condition. Here’s something from Baudrillard again: “Postmodernity is said to be a culture of fragmentary sensations, eclectic nostalgia, disposable simulacra, and promiscuous superficiality, in which the traditionally valued qualities of depth, coherence, meaning, originality, and authenticity are evacuated or dissolved amid the random swirl of empty signals.”

EC: You mention this idea of ‘travel as pilgrimage’, rather than to satisfy a wanderlust. Elsewhere in the book, you described  ‘intentionality’ as a way to inhabit a moment and the world, a dasein I have recently also come to graspwhat I call ‘attentiveness’. There’s this sentence in the book whose very simplicity made me gasp: “It’s as if life serves up each moment with perfect precision, like the right music, only when we decide to give life our full attention.” 

Tell us more about this practice and ‘intentionality’.

DKZM:  I talk about my time in Jerusalem within my quasi-memoir, so let me return to that beautiful and sacred place. I failed to mention so many wonderful sites. I didn’t mention the beautiful moment I stepped into the Cenacle, the “upper room” as indicated in both Markan and Lucan gospels, where the Last Supper happened. It was strangely ironic, poignantly so, how empty the room was, that no meal was being shared, no warm familiarity of friends, of brethren partaking of bread and wine. Three individuals did eventually arrive; and informally, they shared holy communion. I noticed myself looking in, a witness to the ritual, as if from the periphery, from the outside. I recall wishing I had brought my own focaccia or pumpernickel, like a bit of leavened bread, and some sacramental wine. What a confession that would have been; how different my confession now has become.

Another awe-inspiring site is the Pool of Bethesda. I almost missed it entirely, had I not entered Lion’s Gate, and stumbled upon The Church of the Flagellation in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. The Church of Saint Anne is also there. What’s amazing is the site was only discovered by archaeologists as late as the 19th century, with excavations right into the 1960s. It’s a beautiful valley of a structure, and the healing pools are right there. Only recounted in the Johannine gospel, the Pool of Bethesda is known as the site where Jesus performed the miracle of healing a paralytic. The man simply picked up his mat, and started walking.

The late uncovering of the Pool of Bethesda makes for an interesting study of how literal understandings of a text may wane over time with historical loss, only to be recovered with archaeological retrieval of evidence, of the archival. It seems poignant to note that, almost three quarters of a century ago, Thomas Aquinas already wrote of the primacy of the literal sense in scriptural interpretation. In addition to the literal (historical) sense, Thomas’ fourfold categorisation of exegesis includes: the allegorical sense (typological), the moral sense (tropological), and the anagogical sense (mystical). A deep engagement with any scriptural text thus necessitates more than one’s literacy, rather the involvement of one’s moral and spiritual faculties. One has to experience scripture, in order to truly understand it, to see it for what it is, to experience its gravitas and wisdom. 

For me, a life of intentionality is practiced through a life wrapped around prayer, instead of the other way around. By living in the moment, and being present to it.

EC: Thank you for sharing with us your insights and warm-hearted candour, Desmond. It’s an honour to have you on Asian Books Blog.

NB: The Good Day I Died may be purchased online and locally in Singapore at the following outlets: