Thursday 27 July 2023

Eternal Summer of the Homeland: Agnes Chew talks about writing a story collection and being the Asia Winner of the CSSP

Courtesy of Author
Book Synopsis

The stories in Agnes Chew’s first fiction collection illuminate the complexity of choice when duty and desire collide, and what a person is willing to sacrifice. A daughter grapples with an unexpected discovery in the aftermath of her mother’s death. A husband struggles to understand his wife’s reaction to her pregnancy. An adolescent and a domestic worker exchange secrets whose weight they find they cannot bear. And in a corner of Changi Airport, a nondescript office cubicle, a patch of open forest, others strive to find meaning and home.

Courtesy of Author

Author Bio:

Agnes Chew is the author of Eternal Summer of My Homeland (2023) and The Desire For Elsewhere (2016). Her work has appeared in GrantaNecessary Fiction and Litbreak Magazine, among others, and her story, ‘Oceans Away from my Homeland’, won the 2023 Commonwealth Short Story Prize (Asia Region). She holds a Master’s degree in international development from LSE; her prize-winning dissertation, which examines inequality and societal well-being in Singapore, was featured in Singapore Policy Journal. Born and raised in Singapore, she is currently based in Germany. 





EC: Agnes, welcome to Asian Books Blog, and congratulations on being the Asia Winner for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize as well as the publication of Eternal Summer of My Homeland. Let’s start with this: what draws you to the short story? 


AC: Thank you so much, Elaine, for your kind words and for this opportunity! I actually started out writing creative nonfiction, and when I ventured into the realm of fiction writing, the short story form felt like a natural (and conceivable) choice. The more short stories I wrote, the more I found myself drawn to the form. I appreciate its requisite focus on purity and intensity—the way it compels you to distil meaning within a compact space. It’s also a thrill to be able to write a short story within a feverish span of hours or days, especially when I compare it to the far longer process of writing a novel, which I’m now working on.


EC: How long did this collection take to write and put together? 


AC: I began writing the stories in this collection in 2020, and the entire writing and revision process took about three years.



EC: I’m intrigued by the long expanse of time covered in quite several of the stories, where decades pass, or an entire childhood and growing up years elapse, challenging the contemporary notion of the short story as a window into time, usually condensed into intense, vivid moments. How do you navigate the tension between short and long expanses of time in your short stories to keep readers mired in the conflicts of your protagonists? 


AC: To be honest, it’s not something I actively thought about when I started writing these stories. At the beginning, I was simply following my characters on their journeys, trusting that they would lead me to each story’s natural ending, oftentimes not knowing how much time would elapse as the narratives unfolded. And so it all happened rather organically. In hindsight, I suppose my being guided by the preoccupations faced by my protagonists meant that my stories closely traced the development of my characters’ interior worlds and conflicts. In this way, time serves as an underlying yet essential engine that carries the stories forward in what I hope to be the most resonant ways.



EC: I was struck by the stories dealing with physical ailments: the girl with scoliosis; the boy sacrificing his suono soloist performance at the Esplanade because of dental braces; the hidden cancer suffered by a wonton mee seller for decades. As well, your Commonwealth Short Story Prize-winning story also deals with illness. To what extent do physical ailments ‘displace’ us from a mode of being and cause us to mourn futures not to be?


AC: I believe illness holds the capacity to spark profound spiritual change. Many of us go about our everyday lives, as though we had eternity within our grasp, and then one day, we experience an acute pain in the abdomen, or find a lump in a breast—and everything seems at once changed. If the diagnosis proves severe, our realities are cleaved into two: before and after the discovery of the illness; what was once possible can no longer remain so. In the face of this sudden circumscription of possibilities, we cannot help but mourn all the dreams yet to be fulfilled. The list of countries we haven’t yet travelled to becomes unbearably long. The once close friends we have lost touch with emerge painfully in our minds. The struggle to remember the feeling of raindrops on our skin induces within us ache and fear in equal measure. Not only does illness force us out of our quotidian existence to confront the consequences of the choices we’ve hitherto made, it also allows us to see anew the possibilities life affords.



EC: Simultaneously, I was struck by the stories of nostalgia and homesickness, the stories of displacement, those signalling arrivals and departures, specifically that which featured Changi Airport as a terminal for the homeless. This crossing of nostalgia with an awareness of time is fascinating. To you, does nostalgia for our homes left behind also make us mourn possible futures not to be?


AC: To me, nostalgia entails some form of suffering; we ache for that which we can no longer return to, for that which no longer exists the way it used to. And I think this knowledge heightens our awareness of the present moment and the power of our present choices to affect our possible futures. In the story “Home”, the protagonist who finds herself spending her days at Changi Airport looks back on the home and life she has left behind; while she feels a certain regret for the decisions she has made (or not made), she becomes aware of her autonomy of choice, however restricted it may be, and the possibilities of forging a path forward that her future self could live with.



EC: All the food references made me very hungry and homesick for our part of the world, as does the familiar references to the heartland, liberally weaved into your stories, from the Paya Lebar MRT to the red plates used to serve food in hawker stalls to fish soup noodles. I’m curious how you see the relationship among memory, writing, and displacement since you wrote these stories in Germany while sowing what Cyril Wong, in his praise of the collection, has termed ‘the keenly drawn’ ‘familiar tropes of our island city life’? 


AC: Eternal Summer of My Homeland is a book that emerged out of my yearning for home. I started writing it shortly after I relocated from Singapore to Germany in 2020, during the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, when I was unable to travel back despite my father being hospitalised. I found that writing stories about the people and food and places I longed for, but had extremely limited access to at that time, was deeply cathartic and helped greatly in assuaging my feelings of displacement.



EC: Tell us about your story that won the Commonwealth Story Prize. What was the inspiration for it, and how has winning it impacted your writing? 


AC: “Oceans Away from My Homeland” is about a Singaporean living in Germany, for whom a health scare is one of the multiple changes she is trying to confront in her life. As a Singaporean who has been living in Germany for over three years, I wanted to explore through my story the cultural complexities of living away from one’s home country, and how that experience can shape one’s notions of identity and belonging, especially from a female perspective. In particular, it was a visit to a German clinic that sparked the genesis of the story.


Writing is often a solitary journey; you spend long stretches of time alone, in your head, with your characters, not knowing how others would react to your work. And so the win feels like a massive validation. While I’m immensely grateful for its affirmation of my work, I don’t think it has impacted my writing per se.



EC: Now that you are based in Germany, has there been a personal evolution in terms of how place seeds itself into your stories? 


AC: Definitely. My first book is a collection of travel essays set all over the world, and it was only after I moved to Europe that I found myself truly able to write about Singapore. Without that time and distance away, I don’t think Eternal Summer of My Homeland would have come into being.

EC: Thank you for your words, and for coming on board AsianBooksBlog. 


** Eternal Summer of My Homeland is available at Epigram Bookshop and local bookstores in Southeast Asia at local prices, including Books Kinokuniya.