Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Daryl Qilin Yam
By Yeow Kai Chai
If there's a quality which permeates Daryl Qilin Yam's writings, it's a longing for the ineffable mysteries of life, to capture suspense, or suspension – existential wonder rather than earthbound fatalism.
This restlessness can sometimes be misconstrued as rootlessness, but Yam is, really, onto something. His first novel, Kappa Quartet (Epigram Books, 2016), longlisted for the inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize, is set between Singapore and Japan, and is about the encounter between Kevin, "a young man without a soul," and Mr Five, an enigmatic kappa, one of the "river demons of Japanese folklore."
It was chosen by The Business Times as one of the best novels of 2016, and praised by a reviewer in this journal as "[breaking] new ground in Singaporean writing… a shimmering and poignant novel, an immensely sympathetic and humane exploration of our existential condition."
Shortlisted for the 2021 Epigram Books Fiction Prize, his second novel, Lovelier, Lonelier (Epigram Books, 2021), is pivoted on the congregation of four friends in Kyoto during the passing of Comet Hyakutake in 1996. A novella, Shantih Shantih Shantih (Math Paper Press, 2021), weaves through a dozen lonely individuals in Singapore who witness a freakish snowfall lasting exactly four minutes and 26 seconds.
Such cosmic happenstances infuse his fiction in cinematic ways — which comes as little surprise to find out that Shantih has been optioned for the screen by film production company Fiction Shore.
As arts organiser and producer, Yam is a pivotal member of the literary scene. Besides his IT prowess in designing gorgeous websites for fellow writers, he is a co-founder and the first Station Control of the literary charity Sing Lit Station, where he is presently on its board of directors.
He holds a BA (Hons) in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Warwick, and is presently a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University pursuing an MA in English with a specialisation in creative writing, with his thesis being a collection of short stories.
In the second half of 2022, he will be a writer-in-residence at the Virtual Writers and Translators Programme, organised by the National Centre for Writing (formerly Writers' Centre Norwich) in the UK. Supported by the National Arts Council, he will be working on the said short story collection.
The next book on my list is Jeremy Tiang's translation of Liu Xinwu's The Wedding Party.
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play or poem, what would you be and why?
All I want is a Belize in my life to say to me: "Thank you Daryl, you did fine."
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
4. Name one living writer and one dead writer you most identify with, and tell us why.
Robert Creeley has this bit in 'I Know A Man' where he writes: "John, I/sd, which was not his/name, the darkness sur-/rounds us, what/can we do against/it, or else, shall we &/why not, buy a goddamn big car."
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
I requested to take time off from work, right after the 2017 Singapore Writers Festival had concluded, because I really needed a mental health day to myself. Till now it remains the one and only time I ever asked for such a thing, and it was nice. I mostly sat around and refused to look at my inbox.
The writing began at around 5pm I think, just as it started to rain.
6. What qualities do you most admire in a writer?
7. What is one trait you most deplore in writing or writers?
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I...
10. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy or an action thriller to watch, which would you go for?
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
12. Write a short-short story in three sentences that include the following three items: Hotel New World, kintsugi, ponding.
Soph glanced at the accompanying label; she then quickly looked over her shoulder, before furtively typing the words hotel new world into the search engine of her browser, unsure if she was more ashamed of her youth or her ignorance.
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
15. If you have a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
16. In your novels, Kappa Quartet and Lovelier, Lonelier, and novella Shantih Shantih Shantih, you display a gift for threading after-effects of events across temporal and geographical zones. You zero in more on the interiority of characters, and not so much on events' resolution. Are there narrative stereotypes or pitfalls you are avoiding or subverting? And can you give us a sneak peek into the collection of short stories you're currently working on for your MA in English?
Perhaps the narrative expectation I'm actively running away from is the idea that a series of events ought to have a conclusion — whatever this means — when the only conclusion I can identify in life is a rather literal one, that being death. I'm more sensitive therefore to the figurative deaths I befall upon my characters, and what it means for them to cross that immense threshold, towards whatever new chapter that awaits them in their lives. As a writer of fiction, I have to decide whether or not that particular threshold also represents the outermost limit of the story I'm trying to tell.
On the other hand, I'd also like to make the argument that my books are often marked by endings — a profuse number of them, in fact. Life ends and ends and ends and ends and ends. I wake from one dream only to fall into another, and another, and another.
It's an approach and an attitude that's been reinforced, I think, with this short story collection I'm now working on. The stories are very interconnected (of course), in ways I'm still experimenting and figuring things out on, but it's also rather gay in subject matter and even autobiographical in parts. It's a collection that brings together stories new and old, several of them already published by QLRS years ago actually — which means yes, the hipsters Caleb, Soph, Angie and Shakti all show up, happy to have their hijinks on full display. Needless to say I'm very enamoured with this collection.
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?