Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Gwee Li Sui
By Yeow Kai Chai
Tell him he's one of Singapore's modern-day Renaissance men, and Gwee Li Sui would probably baulk at that label, squint, then laugh maniacally.
His cheeky demeanour belies his expertise across multiple fields. A literary critic, a poet, and a graphic artist, he wrote Singapore's first full-length comic-book novel, Myth of the Stone, in 1993 and published a volume of humorous verse, Who Wants to Buy a Book of Poems?, in 1998. As an editor, he has helmed Sharing Borders: Studies in Contemporary Singaporean-Malaysian Literature II (2009), Telltale: Eleven Stories (2010), and Man/Born/Free: Writings on the Human Spirit from Singapore (2011).
In the last few years, the former academic at the National University of Singapore has also emerged as a staunchly independent voice on a wide range of cultural topics, ranging from Christianity to social criticism. Very active on the World Wide Web, he is a riveting presence with his Facebook posts as well as a string of pithy and entertaining tweets @gweezilla and writings at gweek.wordpress.com.
In person too, he draws a following. Besides moderating panels and conducting interviews, he has come into his own as a comically charismatic speaker in the Singapore Writers Festival debate series since its debut in 2009.
The year 2013 will see the publication of a special 20th-anniversary edition of Myth of the Stone as well as a long-awaited new volume of verse.
1. What are you reading right now?
Comics. Can I say that? Specifically, Grant Morrison's New X-Men Omnibus, which is over 1,100 pages long and costs me three months' personal book budget and six years of hesitation to get. I'm now about 50 pages in – because reading comics is tough work! Only a plebeian would read one like a fashion magazine. At the moment, when I take a break from Morrison's masterpiece, I'm re-reading the inimitable Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Incal – another brilliant comic – and it has the perfect artist: Mœbius! I know, I should really return to "real books". You get your own life.
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play, or poem, who would you be, and why?
I think it's great to be LKY in The Singapore Story. That may be a memoir, but the title says something else. Moreover, it reads like a novel, is very dramatic, and has the length and sweep of an epic poem. LKY makes a wonderful literary hero: he struggles against many odds, makes difficult decisions but has few regrets, holds a single vision calibrated by realism, always stays humble, and gets a happy ending. He is easily the secret crush of Singaporean writers – maybe even Alfian Sa'at's, although you'll never drag it out of him! If I can't be LKY, Curious George is also nice. George is inquisitive, mischievous, restless, and – people often forget this – good. That's what we are told from the start: "He was a good little monkey and always very curious." I don't think we understand the idea of a good monkey these days, and that's a loss. We want to know and have things in a possessive way, and so we get unnerved or worked up quickly. We lose the innocence of finding ourselves a guest in this world. So here are two author-types that ought to be in Harold Bloom's kabbalah of genius: LKY and Hans and Margret Rey.
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
That I have any idea how others conceive of me.
4. Name one living author and one dead author you identify with most, and tell us why.
Why, that would be me – for the living author, that is! I identify with myself most. I spend a lot of my time with myself, which is not something you can say often about people nowadays. I know the bulk of my faults and weaknesses although I am less sure about my strengths since I have often misjudged those. Confucius no longer had delusions at 40 and knew Heaven's mandate at 50: I'm keeping to his schedule. As for what I don't know about me yet, I am certain that I can identify with it once I learn what it is. The dead author has to be Jorge Luis Borges since I know how it felt to live life like it was a library. You make all kinds of friends who don't exist even when they keep talking back to you. And then you start meeting the friends of these friends… Borges seems to have problems with himself as much as I do with myself. He says: "I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me." Borges and Borges are like Borges and me, and me and me.
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
Do I! Ninety per cent of the time I give to writing is spent having an insufferable writer's block. I don't think anyone can be a writer without having it; it is likelier that one is so busy doing other things that one doesn't realise that that's a writer's block. In fact, most people spend all their lives with it: it is why they never get down to writing. Here's what I do when I feel my day slipping away because of a block. I make a cup of tea, get on Facebook, read a book or a comic, watch a DVD, then go to bed – not necessarily in that order. You let the guilt build.
6. What qualities do you admire most in a writer?
I admire detachment from a sense of personal talent or achievement. I don't think a lot of writers can deal with the realisation of how good they are, whether it comes from within or is told to them by others. They suddenly turn into a caricature or, worse, mockery of that beautiful person you see in their works. I therefore like a writer with a little less self-awareness just so that I can believe in his or her humanity.
7. What is one trait you deplore most in writing or writers?
Smarminess – you'll know it when you encounter it. It leaps out of writers when they try to make you form a certain impression of them or respect them in a way you can't bring yourself to, given who you are. In writing, it appears in flicks of skill and wit that say that one can always stitch life together in words, like a sentence. What disappears is the struggle with impossibility. It becomes irrelevant, trivial, even something to avoid. Writing is all about dropping words like one drops names. Urgh.
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
Perhaps I should share a line from a favourite writer rather than an advice – since you can never know when a writer is helping or damaging you? Here's the line: "Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K. for, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested one fine morning." I'm not sure why it crept into my head. God, let it not be Freudian wish-fulfilment.
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I…
…too don't know why it has to be 17 questions.
10. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy, or an action thriller to watch, which will you go for, and why?
Oh, it's never about the genre for me but the dialogue. I like a good dialogue. If a movie has too much silence, I'll feel like I am wasting my hard-spent money. (Why do people say "hard-earned" when it's spending that they find harder?) Don't get me wrong: I love silence, even more than food. Silence is my private time, my space for holding meaning. But, if I want that, I won't go and watch a movie, which should be about imbibing another world of meaning. Silence in movies has to speak. If the silence is, well, silent, in the vacant sense, my subconscious wills me to make the best of my time and catch up on sleep. By the way, one can never sleep enough. And, these days, movie noise is on the same level as bad silence. It points to a terrible lack of artful dialogue. It is like putting on a show and dance when the presentation slides go missing.
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
My favourite word and my least favourite word are happily the same! It's "but." I like to say it; I just don't like to hear it.
12. Write a rhyming couplet that includes the following three items: mirror, troll, comic.
Said the questioner to the questionee, who thought: "But I'm not feeling philanthropic."
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
A pen – because, with it, I can write and draw on anything! There's always one in my pocket. The only time I'm without a pen is when I'm taking a shower. I even take it with me to bed! Here's a bonus trivia since I am so dangerously forthcoming. You know how disposable pens can be? I have noticed that, strangely enough, the cheaper the pen is, the less likely it is for me to lose it. I don't know why. It's like I have a monk complex.
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
I write best when I feel an irrational sense of panic, like I shouldn't not be writing. (See the end of my answer to Question 5.) It doesn't matter what time of the day it is. When it comes, I can forget the time, food, sleep, Internet. I have leapt out of bed with a fever or a sweaty back if only to put a few strokes down on paper, never mind if I can't make sense of them in the morning. Panic is the mother of creativity.
15. If you had a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
Jesus, Judas, and James Tiberius Kirk. (I'm Christian, so it's OK for me to consider the Bible great literature.) With the first two at the table, I would know that it wasn't my last supper; should that be wrong, I would need James Kirk. To get the Captain to act, I'd remind him, "I have been, and always shall be, your friend." Spock works too – and then I needn't have to wait for a second instalment to come back to life. Yes, Jesus also does resurrection, but, if I were to go down first, surely he might have to think about the next supper? So that's how I imagine it: the four of us, tense as we must be, eating satay…
16. Discuss: What's wrong and what's right with the state of education in Singapore.
Oh man, that's like pressing the button you mustn't press with me. I can rant forever about what's right. We in Singapore are so successful with education that we educate our kids' lives away. I'm not talking about childhood, time for play, legitimate deterioration before the TV, calming solitude, social interaction, what have you. I'm talking about their person, what happens when we deny kids the chance to get on by themselves, without classrooms, adult presence, and especially pocket money. Kids should have both time and poverty to ask, "What am I doing here?" Our children and adults alike lack philosophical depth. We don't think about how to locate our little absurdities within a universal scheme of absurdity. So we don't laugh as much as we grumble, relax as much as we work. We can't detach ourselves from wanting. We have educated away our innate curiosity and become cynical. Education shouldn't be a problem of life, but it is in Singapore. We keep teaching ourselves – at school and then at work – that we are "not good enough" for life. It's a problem that can be solved if we make the right shift in our socio-political vision for Singapore… But let me leave these technicalities for another time and not hyperventilate into my earlier Kafka quote here.
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?
QLRS Vol. 12 No. 3 Jul 2013
Not sure what you mean. Do you want to know what I would write on my tombstone before I died or after I died? If before, I might have: "FREE FROM WRITING AT LAST!" If after, "SOMETHING'S WRONG."